In the fourth part of a series for young people, Steven Campbell-Harris asks whether karma is real.
"Do you believe in karma?"
A friend of mine asked me this question recently. Ever the philosopher, I began by saying, "well it depends on what you mean by karma…" He impatiently barked, "yeesh, come on, just answer the question!" In this article, I’ll take on the question.
What is karma?
The concept of "karma" emerged in India thousands of years ago, and is found throughout Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain philosophy. Put simply, it is cause and effect. Every action we take has consequences for us, and these consequences depend on the kind of action we perform. If we do good, good will happen to us. If we do bad, bad things will happen to us.
Karma has taken on a life of its own in Western culture. Today we talk of "chickens coming home to roost" and misdeeds "coming back to bite you." We say, "crime doesn’t pay", "cheats never prosper", and "what goes around comes around". Even when we don’t use the word karma, we find ourselves echoing the idea. Many of us believe that no good deed goes unrewarded, no bad deed unpunished. When it appears that this is not happening, this is only because the boomerang is out of sight. It will eventually return, and we will get what we truly deserve.
While karma has specific historical and cultural roots in India, there are three ways it is commonly understood around the world today.
1. If you do good things, good things will happen to you later in life. If you do bad things, bad things will happen to you later in life.
2. If you do good things, good things will happen to you in the afterlife. If you do bad things, bad things will happen to you in the afterlife(i.e. heaven or hell).
3. If you do good things, good things will happen to you in your next life. If you do bad things, bad things will happen to you in your next life.
Karma is above all a philosophy of cosmic rebalancing. These views differ only about when this rebalancing takes place.
How does karma work?
Belief in 2 or 3 tends to be connected to other religious beliefs (i.e. reincarnation, God, heaven and hell, divine justice). Taken together, these beliefs - supported by religious texts - give an account of how karma works. I will leave it to the reader to judge whether they are convincing. For reasons of space, I am going to focus specifically on 1: a secular version of karma.
Many who believe in the idea of karma in this life don’t consider themselves religious. So, in the absence of religious faith or any appeal to the supernatural, how might karma work?
One explanation we might give I will call the causal view. According to this theory, whenever we do some action, we set a series of events in motion which eventually circles back with a good or bad consequence for us. Just like with an elaborate series of dominoes, or a Goldberg machine (look it up!), small actions can produce late effects we couldn’t foresee at the start. In the film ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, George Bailey repeatedly sacrifices his own interests to help others. While his charity and integrity go unrewarded for many years, his small acts of kindness gradually build fellow feeling and gratitude from others. At the end of the film, when he is at his most desperate, the whole community leaps to his aid, ultimately paying him back for his good deeds.
This view of karma is simple and appeals to a concept (i.e. causation) that we can understand scientifically without appealing to supernatural agency. However, it has a couple of major problems.
First, it implies we have unbounded causal influence over what happens to us. Many things happen in the world all the time. An individual’s actions are only a small part of that abundance of causes that affect what happens next: mere ripples in an endless sea. It would be extraordinary if every good or bad consequence for us could be traced back to those ripples. Instead, bad things happen to us quite often because of some external cause, another wave in that vast ocean. For example, a person might do some good and, entirely unrelated to that deed, become afflicted with a terrible illness or die in a car crash. In such cases, a defender of the causal view would need to trace those bad consequences to unseen bad deeds to explain the inconsistency. Is this possible?
A second problem with the causal view is that while it may be true that often good deeds boomerang into good consequences, this doesn’t happen universally. During the Holocaust, many of those who kept Jews hidden in their basements or attics were arrested and imprisoned. Such cases show that while doing good can sometimes benefit the doer, there are times when doing good has unintended negative consequences for us. Here karmic justice is hard to find. A defender of the causal view may bite the bullet. Bad things do happen to good people without good reason, they might say, just not most of the time. Many will baulk at this. If karma is not a universal law, it loses the best part of its punch. Does it cease to even be karma at all?
Given these problems with the causal view, a defender of karma in this life may reject explanation altogether. All we know, they say, is that there is some unseen force or law that guarantees people get what they deserve in this life.
However, this approach gives us more questions than answers. Does this force have agency, or is it just an impersonal law of the universe? Does the force have the power to control what people do? And if so, can we be truly free?
Can we do without belief in karma?
Imagine a world without any shred of karmic justice. Here crime does pay, cheats prosper, and people get away with murder. Meanwhile, acts of kindness and charity lead to personal ruin. Can you picture it? And in such a world, would people still be good?
This thought experiment shows the role karma plays in our moral thinking by highlighting what the world looks like in its absence. Belief in karma widens the responsibility of giving each person their due. If you commit a crime your karma will eventually catch up with you, even if the police don’t. Without this expectation, worldly restraints on injustice assume much greater weight. We cannot be sure that people will get what they deserve. Good deeds may ultimately go unrewarded, bad deeds unpunished.
The Woody Allen film ‘Crimes and Misdemeanours’ explores just such a scenario. In the film, Judah, a successful doctor, has an affair with a flight attendant called Dolores. When Dolores threatens to tell Judah’s wife, Judah in panic and desperation arranges for Dolores’ murder. After her death, the plot proceeds as expected. Judah is consumed with guilt and lies awake at night worrying that he will get caught.
However, over time his torment lifts. Dolores’ murder is blamed on someone else; a drifter who has been convicted for other murders. What’s more, his guilt starts to fade. By the end of the film we find him describing his complete transformation, ‘one morning he awakens, the sun is shining and his family is around him. Mysteriously the crisis has lifted… he’s not punished, in fact he prospers… His life is completely back to normal. Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.’ We end the film without Judah getting his comeuppance. He appears to live on happily ever after.
Could something like this happen in real life? And if we don’t think this is a realistic, is this just because we need to believe that Judah will ultimately suffer for what he did?
The plot of Crimes and Misdemeanours is unsettling because it attacks a basic assumption that many of us, subconsciously or consciously, share:
The good person is always better off than the bad person, not now but eventually.
If we don’t have this belief, we must accept that doing good will sometimes make us worse off. To many, this leaves us with a cold and indifferent universe bereft of moral order. Is it possible to be moral in such a place?
If you want to explore these ideas further, check these films out:
Crimes and Misdemeanours, directed by Woody Allen
Cloud Atlas directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer.
A Serious Man directed by Ethan Cohen and Joel Cohen
"A Question of…” is a new series for young adult readers brought to you by The Philosophy Foundation. Commissioning editors for the series are Emma Worley MBE and Peter Worley.
Steven Campbell-Harris is a Senior Specialist and Trainer with The Philosophy Foundation. In these roles he facilitates philosophical conversations with children of all ages, gives talks on philosophy in schools, and trains philosophy graduates in philosophical enquiry. He has published articles on philosophy and education in Philosophy Now, Teaching Times, and Innovate My School.