Continued from part 4, on how karma seems unable to bootstrap itself in the first place
If the bootstrap paradox is the right cross to a karmic worldview, there is a second problem that comes directly on its heels as the left hook to KO the whole system. It revolves around the question:
How does the karmic system sustain itself without necessitating that evil continue forever?
Imagine we accept there is some “original sin” perpetrated by Abed upon an undeserving Booker, which starts the whole karmic system going. Let’s say Abed spits in Booker’s tea (with apologies to my friend Paul Manata for my flagrant plagiarism). Karma then arranges things to have Booker spit in Abed’s tea to balance the scales. But now the karmic system seems to be skewered on the horns of a dilemma. Which of these two statements do we take as true?
- Because Booker’s vengeful spitting into Abed’s tea is karmically warranted, it is therefore morally warranted, and Booker incurs no karmic debt of his own
- Although Booker’s vengeful spitting into Abed’s tea is karmically warranted, it is not morally warranted, and Booker therefore incurs a karmic debt of his own
You can see how either of these options breaks the karmic system (it does seem so terribly fragile!)
1. Karmic warrant = moral warrant
This option carries two stiff costs for the karmic system…
Stiff cost #1
Firstly, it is extremely troubling to think that a karmically warranted action is a morally warranted one. This becomes much more obvious if we up the ante. Imagine Abed murdered Booker. Booker then is reincarnated, and murders Abed to balance the karmic scales. It just seems obviously wrong to say that Booker murdering Abed is not itself a great moral evil. Surely two great wrongs do not add up to a right.
You could say we just have to bite this bullet. The mere fact that Abed deserves to be murdered in order to balance the scales is sufficient grounds for Booker to be innocent in murdering him, and this only seems troublesome if one’s ethical views are built on the idea of justice being meted out by a legitimate moral authority such as God (or a stand-in like the judicial system). Under karma, there is no such authority; rather, the karmic system itself metes out justice. So if Booker is an “agent” of karma, then Booker’s murdering Abed is a sort of judicial execution, and is thus blameless.
But while this seems like a consistent explanation, it implies that serial rapists and murderers like Ted Bundy are (or may be) morally justified in their actions. This is simply unbelievable. I would venture to say that anyone willing to accept this premise in order to believe in karma would be deeply morally defective.
Stiff cost #2
The second cost comes in the form of a sustainability problem. Once Booker “gets back at” Abed, Abed’s karmic debt is paid. But since Booker has incurred no debt of his own during the reprisal, because it was karmically justified, the whole system grinds to a halt at the very beginning. There is no further karmic debt, so the cycle of karma stops. But that is not the world we are faced with. The world we are faced with seems to carry a great burden of karmic debt which is constantly being repaid throughout innumerable lives.
Merely postulating a larger pool of original sinners doesn’t seem to solve this problem, since they could all repay their debts in parallel: Booker could balance the scales with Abed at the same time that Candy balanced the scales with Darcy, ad infinitum. Nor does it seem to help to postulate one or more “super-sinners” who did lots of bad things to lots of people, since although that might drag things out in terms of their karmic repayments—even for thousands of years—it doesn’t explain why so many other people are suffering (let alone why the population of the system appears to be growing dramatically over time). The only obvious solution is to take a “loose” view of karma and say that the system is continually being “injected” with new, undeserved evil actions.
But this seems to highlight yet another tension. Why are people inclined to act evilly? Why are we all super-sinners? Why do we sin against every single person we meet, and repeatedly at that? Most karmic systems tell us that people are inherently good; yet if the loose view of karma is a solution here, we appear to be inherently evil.
2. Karmic warrant != moral warrant
It seems depraved to think that seemingly immoral actions can actually be justified if they happen to balance karma. But if the alternative is true—if karmically justified actions can themselves be culpable and accrue karmic debt—how does the system ever stop once it starts? Abed spits in Booker’s tea. Booker spits in Abed’s tea to balance the scales. Abed’s debt is paid, but now Booker has a debt of his own from spitting in Abed’s tea. So karma seems to somehow necessitate that Abed spit in Booker’s tea again—which wipes Booker’s slate clean, but then accrues a second debt to Abed. This process seems to be without resolution; it will continue indefinitely. But this entails that karmic debt can never be repaid, because someone will always have to act immorally to balance the scales for someone else, thus unbalancing them for themselves. And that defeats the entire point of karma.
(There is another problem in here, with respect to free will, which I’ll devote a separate post to.)
One possible solution would be to say that we don’t necessarily need Booker (or anyone) to do a bad deed to Abed to balance his previous debt. Perhaps Abed’s debt could simply be paid off by having to endure drinking really bad tea on a couple of occasions. But this solution then proves too much—because if karmic debt can be repaid in this way, why does the karmic “system” ever rely on bad deeds to balance the scales rather than some other kind of suffering? After all, evil deeds always make the overall moral system worse rather than better—but karma is specifically meant to gradually make things better, not worse. If a debt can be balanced without anyone having to sin, then that is obviously better than balancing it by having someone sin.
How loose karma makes things spiral out of control
One other possible problem is that if you take a loose view of karma, where every evil action is not necessarily indexed to some prior evil which needs to be balanced, things get geometrically worse. You evade the bootstrap paradox at the cost of making the sustainability problem spiral out of control. For instead of merely maintaining a karmic “perpetual motion machine”, you are adding “energy” in the form of more undeserved evil that requires balancing. So every time Abed decides to spit twice into Booker’s tea, instead of just once (which would balance the scales), he accrues an extra debt that then has to be repaid. Eventually that teacup would be filled with nothing but saliva. In other words, under loose karma the universe can keep getting worse…but there seems to be absolutely no way to ever make it better.
(This seems to completely gut the very idea of karma, but the silver lining is that it could at least explain why new people keep appearing in the universe—perhaps they are being created because the current number of people is insufficient to repay the ever-rising karmic debt! I jest, of course—a world which tends toward an infinite population is hardly a helpful “solution”.)
You can see how the sustainability paradox follows immediately from trying to solve the bootstrap paradox. I think karma has the ring of falsehood about it because of the way these problems snowball. Just as there is the ring of truth about philosophies where elegant solutions turn out to be consistent with prima facie unrelated questions, so there is the ring of falsehood about philosophies where solutions seem ad hoc, and cause a cascade of crumbling down the line.