18 January 2019

Against Karma: Modern Buddhism

This is the concluding part of a long essay making a Buddhist case against traditional karma views. Part 1, Against Karma, set the scene by reiterating some points I've made before about karma and the just world fallacy. Part 2, Against Karma: Suffering and Justice, explored the role of suffering in the just world fallacy. In this part, I conclude with some very incomplete ideas about how we make a good society, a summary of the main points, and some concluding remarks.

In my view, no suffering is ever deserved. It might be a direct result of some evil or ignorant action, but still, I have experienced a great deal of suffering and I don't think anyone deserves it. Moreover, I don't believe that it helps people to be more moral in the first place, or the that moral debts are satisfactorily repaid by the infliction of suffering (and nor does anyone else, since criminals are always treated with prejudice). I cannot think of any circumstances in which inflicting suffering is justified. I don't see any suffering as "earned".

And I don't say this as a saint. I have harmed people in the past and probably will again. Sometimes I have set out to do harm. But I am ready to admit that I was wrong to do so. I do believe that it is immoral to harm others or, indeed, to harm any sentient being, or the environment, generally. I have made a lifelong commitment to doing better and recognise the need for constant work in this area. Part of my reason for being in a Buddhist Order is to make common cause with people who feel the same way (although this has gotten complicated lately). 

Minimising harm is the urgent task of every human on the planet. I think most of us get it, but we define our group narrowly and only apply the principle locally. We need to expand our sense of identity to take in a broader picture. But there may be limits to how far some people can go with this. Nationalism as a response to insecurity and high levels of immigration is no great surprise. It may well be that globalisation is a good thing, but the reactions we are seeing to it suggest that, at best, it has been poorly managed. The UK going through the self-mutilation of Brexit is a sign that something has gone very wrong with the post WWII European project. But I don't see any sign of soul-searching going on.

I do not believe in karma because I do not believe that suffering restores justice; all suffering is unjust and there is no just world to balance it out. We can certainly cause ourselves to suffer, but I cannot see that any greater purpose is served by this. Fairness and justice, to the extent they exist at all, are emergent properties of human social interactions.

Of course, most people still think in terms of in-groups and hierarchies of exclusion; they put a higher or lower value on the lives of others depending on how closely related that they are. This is unlikely to stop because we evolved for it. We are social, hierarchical primates, and have an intuitive sense of what works (whether it does or not). But we are also capable of transcending our biological and social conditioning. And here modern Buddhism offers us some very useful tools for pursuing a better life: mindfulness, devotion, critical thinking, scepticism, positive emotion, meditation, and community.

I emphasise modern Buddhism because in order to continue to refine Buddhism we have to change it. I would say that we have to root out the presupposition that some suffering is deserved. We have to align what we say to what we do: we are interventionists in the world with the aim of reducing suffering. So let's not espouse doctrines that say "it will all work out in the afterlife" because that is counterproductive. Our approach is far more dynamic than this: we believe that we must take urgent action, whether or not we are enlightened, to reduce harm and increase well being. That's why we have public centres and teach meditation and Buddhism (though I think we do the latter all wrong).

And, above all, we have to communicate our ideas and values to other people in ways that will motivate to move in the same direction. Not necessarily to join our community, but to help form a confederation of smaller, loosely aligned communities which aim to reduce suffering. We have more in common with Amnesty International or Greenpeace than we do with Christianity or Islam (which is partly why I am bored by comparative religion). On the other hand, the folks who go out on cold winter nights offering hot tea and sandwiches to the homeless tend to be Christians rather than Buddhists. Anyone who is acting to reduce suffering is on the side I want to be on. The Triratna movement in India is more of a social movement with religious features and there is our model - the poor and downtrodden empowered to uplift themselves through education, equality, and fraternity.

Sometimes people are determined to make others suffer or are indifferent to their suffering. And we need a moral code that explains when and how we can intervene and what kinds of steps we can take. And counter-intuitively this may include inflicting harm. A policeman who shoots dead a suicide bomber before they can set off their explosive to kill and maim many others has clearly done the right thing and we need to adopt a moral code which can handle this situation. We also need to have ways of preventing, say, a capitalist who makes excessive profit at the expense of the security and safety of workers. We must see to it that everyone is housed, clothed, and fed. Work need not grind anyone into the ground for minimum wage. Industry must not harm the air we breath, the water we drink, or the soil we grow our food in! None of this is rocket science. We mainly just need to consider empathy and reciprocity.

If we want members of our society to behave themselves and contribute then we have to make it worth their while. The fact that some members of society chose lives of crime, instead, tells us that we are not making law abiding attractive enough. If obeying the law is oppressive or leads to unequal hardship, then we should expect a lot of law breaking.

In the west we tend to be quite hard hearted about the law. There is no obvious reward for being law abiding, it's just the minimum we expect. However, we set society up so that there is inequality and some people can't get by, even if they are working. If there is reciprocity then law abiding citizens need to know that they are going to be looked after as recompense for keeping to the rules.

So let's give people incentives. For example, housing should always be cheap - speculators should not be allowed to force up the cost of housing. One household, one house: no companies, no foreign investors, just people living in houses. Of course it has to be viable, so the housing can't be free. But in the UK landlords who rent houses can afford to pay 10% of the rent to a company to manage it for them and it is still one of the most profitable investments. We could just decide, no: houses are for people to live in.

The amount of wealth in the world is easily enough to provide for the needs of every living person. Easily. We need not have poverty or hunger. All it takes is for people to change their minds about who is deserving of what.

Our views about fairness, justice, and the role of suffering are just beliefs. "Belief is an emotion about an idea" (Michael Taft). If we feel differently, then our beliefs can change. Usually, it takes a personal connection to change someone's mind. Just bombarding people with facts is not enough.

In Part 2 of this essay I made the point that work is less secure nowadays and that this creates anxiety. To illustrate how we think about things, many people feel aggrieved that the government gives out-of-work people money. They may believe that such payments are undeserved. They may cite an example of someone who typifies this undeserving person or they may just believe what the media says: that the unemployed are lazy and feckless (repeating a 600 year old lie).

Most of the unemployed people I have met in many years of being unemployed want to work; they feel anxious about not being able to provide for their family, the insecurity of handouts, and the stigma of unemployment. They are bored from having nothing to do. I think one has to connect with them on a human level. It is all too easy to demonise people based on superficial judgements. But we know what this looks like writ large because we had the 20th Century. If we don't treat people as people it makes us less human, and on a societal scale can be monstrous: e.g., the British Empire.

Of course, ideally, the state would provide meaningful work and pay high wages for shit jobs to make them more attractive. Lately, government has decided to stay out of providing work and shit jobs offer shit pay. Should the person who carts off your dirty garbage in all weather be paid 10% of the salary of the manager who sits at a desk all day pushing (clean) paper around or 1000%? Who is more essential? What about the people who teach your kids at school and university or who care for you in a hospital? Why are they paid poorly compared to chief executives? Hint: the reason that CEOs are well paid is that they get more work for lower pay from fewer people, thus maximising shareholder returns. It just so happens that the people who make employment laws are all major shareholders in companies, often because they inherited their money. 

Key points
    Where "we" is humans in general,
  1. We are social and hierarchical primates
  2. We evolved empathy and reciprocity
  3. Morality emerged from the obligations and expectations created by 1. and 2.
  4. Fairness is an appropriate response to obligations and expectations
  5. Justice is the restoration of a situation of fairness
  6. We tolerate what would otherwise be called bad behaviour in response to unfairness, because
  7. We believe "suffering creates justice".
  8. We perceive ourselves as having different obligations to and expectations of ingroup and outgroup people
  9. Our definition of ingroup can be very flexible and expansive, if we feel secure
  10. Most cultures see immorality as creating a debt and
  11. Moral debts are paid in suffering and thus
  12. Suffering is in some sense earned or deserved and restores fairness and is just
  13. But there is evident injustice and undeserved suffering, so
  14. Religions invoke the afterlife as the place where one suffers in order to restore justice.
  15. Belief is an emotion about an idea, and both can change through personal connections. 


In traditional Buddhism the idea that suffering is deserved is encapsulated in the doctrine of karma. The doctrine says that present suffering is a result of past actions (with some debate as to the extent of this). It also says that our future experience is dependent on our present mental states. Buddhism demonises emotions since these are what lead, ultimately, to suffering (except in Tantra where they turned this on its head and embrace emotions).

By contrast, I believe that no suffering is earned or deserved. Even those who cause themselves harm through being misguided or careless don't deserve to suffer, because their suffering does not make things fair. It's not fair that mistakes or ignorance cause suffering, but more suffering does not improve the situation in any way. There is no justice in the mistaken or ignorant person suffering because of their mistake or lack of knowledge. Sometimes pain will help us learn to avoid the action that caused us pain, but if the route to learning is blocked then again, that is not fair or just.

The idea of a just world is pernicious because it inevitably blames humans for everything that goes wrong, when the fact is that sometimes shit just happens and no one understands why. There is no fairness and justice apart from how we treat each other. It's nothing to do with abstract principles or the supernatural.

Further, I believe that emotions, including so called negative emotions, are natural and helpful. Anger and fear protect us. Desire gets us our basic necessities. Love bonds us to the people who help keep us alive. And so on. Demonising these is unhelpful, but so is the idolisation of them in Romanticism. Emotions are just states of physiological arousal mediated by the autonomic nervous system in response to certain types of stimuli which can be internal (e.g., hunger) or external (i.e., a predator). They are typically accompanied by a style of thinking that gives the emotion its special flavour. Arousal plus happy thoughts is joy whereas arousal plus fearful thoughts is anxiety; and so on. Still, I can't help thinking that if we allowed ourselves to experience emotions more and theorised about them less we'd be better off.

I believe that some of us are able to have a radical transformation of perception so that it is not so self-referential. But not all of us. For most people life is never going to involve that radical transformation so there is no point in selling it as a panacea to all ills or as something everyone can attain. I suspect more people could attain it than current do, but the world is not fair so most people don't have the opportunity. Also, the techniques required are still embedded in contexts which make them inaccessible to the majority - i.e., in religions that require people to take on beliefs and obligations that are unattractive to the majority.

Karma as it is taught by Buddhists is a false picture of the world that clouds the issue and makes the possibility of radical transformation considerably less accessible. Traditional Buddhism ignores the way things really are in favour of a fantasy that is fundamentally unfair and unjust. As modern Buddhists, we could do something about this by exemplifying the change we seek and by telling new stories about the way things are in 2019. Which personal liberation is desirable, modern Buddhism needs to be politically engaged and seeking change on a societal level to make life better for everyone. I'm a fan of the various Green New Deal initiatives. The idea is taking hold in the US amongst progressives, but dates back to a group convened in the UK in 2007.

Mind you, as I watch the politics of the English-speaking world descend into a morass of pettiness and stupidity, I cannot help but wonder if we have left it a little too late to pay attention to the bigger issues.

I don't doubt that traditional Buddhism, complete with monks pretending that they live in medieval India or Tibet, will continue to be a draw card. And modern Buddhism will always have a relationship with the tradition. But this modern-tradition distinction is, to some extent, false. All Buddhism practiced today is modern, it's just that some Buddhists are convinced that pretending to represent some earlier phase of Buddhism makes them more authentic. And, of course, with monks a lot of it is tied up with issues of identity and status. It might be better to use distinctions like conservative and progressive; or authoritarian and libertarian.

I suppose if pressed I would say that I am a green libertarian socialist Buddhist, not an anarchist or a communist, but in favour of mutual aid between willing participants in society and an economy which rewards industry and innovation. Also in favour of a government that puts people and the environment first ahead of profit and that redistributes wealth fairly. Some profit is fair enough, just don't forget who adds the value to the raw materials through their labour! Basically, I grew up in New Zealand in 60s and 70s and there was a lot about it that was good.

But more than this. Look at any movie in which a group of people are threatened by some external force. All humans succeed by having two advantages: individuals with great ideas, and groups of people who work together to make their ideas a reality. We need both and to reward both. Buddhism, no less than society, or all of humanity, fighting off an alien invasion! One of my favourite thinkers, René Jules Dubos, said "Think globally, act locally". I might add, "think individually, act in concert."


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