The notion of karma comes with lots of new-age baggage, but it is an old and very conservative idea. It is the Sanskrit word for “deed” or “action,” and the law of karma says that for every action, there is an equal and morally commensurate reaction. Kindness, honesty and hard work will (eventually) bring good fortune; cruelty, deceit and laziness will (eventually) bring suffering. No divine intervention is required; it’s just a law of the universe, like gravity.
Karma is not an exclusively Hindu idea. It combines the universal human desire that moral accounts should be balanced with a belief that, somehow or other, they will be balanced. In 1932, the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget found that by the age of 6, children begin to believe that bad things that happen to them are punishments for bad things they have done.
…The rank-and-file tea partiers think that liberals turned America upside down in the 1960s and 1970s, and they want to reverse many of those changes. They are patriotic and religious, and they want to see those values woven into their children’s education. Above all, they want to live in a country in which hard work and personal responsibility pay off and laziness, cheating and irresponsibility bring people to ruin. Give them liberty, sure, but more than that: Give them karma.
“It combines the universal human desire that moral accounts should be balanced with a belief that, somehow or other, they will be balanced.” Or, in other words, this is wishful thinking and mythology, plain and simple, and as such, will never be disproven by anything so petty as literally countless examples of people for whom life was never anything remotely fair. Apologies to the honorable MLK Jr., but “justice” is a human concept, not a natural law, the universe itself is amoral, and there is no arc bending toward anything. As I’ve said before, the only way the concept of “karma” can be useful is when it’s made pretty much synonymous with cause and effect. But that, of course, makes it true to the point of banality. Actions lead to reactions? You don’t say! What New Agers and teabaggers alike can’t seem to grasp is that there’s no way it can be made to fit with our notions of permanent individual identity and agency. When you start by assuming that there is a distinct difference, karmically speaking, between actions that you do, on the one hand, and actions that the rest of the world does to you, on the other, well, how can I put this? You’ve already fucked up. No matter what sort of tortured metaphysical contortions you go through, you’re never going to get this to make sense. You’re going to spend your life standing around with your hand outstretched, a stupid look on your face, waiting for exact change from a cashier that doesn’t exist.
Your actions become part of the flow. They have an effect, however grand or slight, on other people and events, all of which are busy making their own contributions to the whole. What “comes back around” to you may have absolutely nothing to do with your individual action. I would say that there are too many links in the chain to even begin to trace the precise effects of any particular action of yours, but even the metaphorical image of a chain is far too simplistic to accurately convey the enormousness of the process, and my imagination is too impoverished to even think a better one up. You, as an individual, may find yourself like a twig in a raging current, caught up in forces too large for you to control or understand, ones that have nothing to do with your personal morality. War. Economic strife. Environmental disaster. Cause and effect is not limited to relationships between individual people. And the consequences, as anyone with a rudimentary grasp of history can see, take no heed of individuals as they unfold.
I can only stare in amazement at the blithe way in which people, coming from a limited and ignorant perspective, feel confident enough to pass judgment on whether another person’s triumphs and setbacks are properly balanced. What system of weights and measurements can you even begin to utilize when comparing two totally different actions or events? Who’s to say whether a personal tragedy in someone’s life is in direct proportion to whatever pain and suffering they’ve caused others? Where in the world do people find the nerve to assert that one equals the other?
I find it much more realistic to adopt a perspective akin to Greek tragedy. The gods (or our institutions) are doing their thing, and we just have to do our best to avoid becoming casualties of their indifference and recklessness. In that David Simon interview I linked to several posts ago, he drew a distinction between two different concepts of fate in the history of drama:
This seems to play into what you mentioned earlier, that you were writing Greek tragedy, which certainly had comedic elements.
Yes. Before finishing the first season I’d reread most of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, those three guys. I’d read some of it in college, but I hadn’t read it systematically. That stuff is incredibly relevant today. As drama, the actual plays are a little bit stilted, but the message within the plays and the dramatic impulses are profound for our time. We don’t really realize it. I don’t think we sense the power in there because we’re really more in the Shakespearean construct of—
Yes, the individualism kind of thing.
The individual and the interior struggle for self. Macbeth and Hamlet and Lear and Othello…
…It seems to me that people want to be sort of special, unique snowflakes, and the Shakespearean thing addresses that more.
Right! Let’s celebrate me and the wonder that is me. It’s not about society… Now, the thing that has been exalted and the thing that American entertainment is consumed with is the individual being bigger than the institution.
And Alain de Botton explained some of the psychological underpinnings of a belief that life (or society) is inherently fair:
You suggest that the rise of meritocracy has trained us to see the rich as deserving of their fortunes rather than as sinful or corrupt. But, speaking for myself, in the wake of Enron and Martha Stewart, and given the state of modern government, I definitely consider more rich people than ever to be cheaters. I kind of always have.
That’s interesting. It’s not a typically American perspective. Americans usually tend to have this idea that we’re moving toward some system of fair competition where there won’t be any more Enrons, and the school system will make everything equal. Personally, I think the whole idea of meritocracy is bananas. I mean, the idea that you can create a society where you arrange people in descending order in relation to their merit as human beings, and give them money in relation to that system is completely illogical. Because there are so many factors that go into people’s personalities. The modern worldview is that you can look at someone’s resumé and make a judgment about how noble and worthwhile they are. Something’s wrong with that: there are just too many other factors at play. I have a lot of sympathy for the old Christian view that the only person who can tell the worth of another human being is God, and He can only do that on the day of judgment. I think we need to be humble in judging other people, and in judging our own value. There’s an arrogance that comes over people who think the system is just. The more just you think the system is, the crueler you’re likely to be, because if you generally believe that those at the top deserve their success, you have to believe that those at the bottom deserve their failure. That’s when you start talking about people as “losers,” and saying things like, “Winners make their own luck.” So there’s a very nasty side to this otherwise very nice-sounding idea that we should make society fairer. Success is never totally deserved just as failure is never totally deserved.