24 April 2019

My Political Compass

As with other recent writing this is an idea that is going to be a long read drawn out over several essays. In this essay, to start with, I want to talk about political vocabulary and how impoverished it has become, about how we can no longer describe the politics of our time with the vocabulary of another.

One of the central themes of my writing for some years now has been to emphasise the social and prosocial nature of humanity:  we live in groups and are adapted to and oriented towards our group in positive ways. I think I probably owe this to Lynn Margulis as much as anyone. It was reading her books that made me think about evolution in terms of symbiosis, cooperation, and communities. This was augmented by the work of Robin Dunbar on human social groups, by Jane Goodall's book In the Shadow of Man on the chimps at Gombe Stream National Park, and most recently by Frans de Waal's work on emotions and social behaviour in primates. What all of these scientists have in common is that they highlight the social and prosocial aspects of social primates. They also see humans as part of a continuum of social mammals. 

I'm explicitly a fan of the Enlightenment, but I think the Enlightenment has also left us with a toxic legacy. We could sum this up in a single idea that human individuals are selfish. By this we mean that humans primarily, overriding, pursue their individual interests without reference to family or community. This idea emerges from multiple sources, but generally speaking it has been the mainstream view since the time of Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832), Adam Smith  (1723-1790), and the next generation of British intellectuals such as John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873). We also have to keep in mind the role of religious narratives which depict humanity as "fallen". People are no good. 

The idea of a flawed and innately bad humanity has been part of the European psyche for at least 1500 years. However, scientists who study humans tell us is that this characterisation is not even wrong. It is orthogonal to reality. Humans are certainly capable of acting selfishly and people who do seem to wield a disproportionate amount of power in the world, but what science shows is that we are fundamentally generous, empathic, and prosocial. There is a simple fact to keep in mind. We are social mammals. Like other social animals we evolved to live in small communities tied together by strong ties of mutual obligation forged from empathy and reciprocity. 

The other toxic legacy is that men are rational. Although this idea has now expanded to include women, it's apparent that it has not yet been fully internalised as women are routinely discriminated against. People with dark skin also were (and sometimes still are) thought of as being incapable of rationality. This idea of rationality is tied, in Liberalism, to the exercise of moral judgement and to notions of free will. And again this view is orthogonal to reality. The Enlightenment thinkers completely misunderstood reason, reasoning, and rationality. They misunderstood decision making. They misunderstood the idea of free will. 

I absolutely reject these exclusions. The exclusion of classes of people from the right to liberty is the most obvious flaw of Liberalism, because in itself it is irrational. It's quite obvious that with equal opportunities most differences that are related to gender or skin tone disappear. Liberties ought to be universal, not dependent on luck or hereditary privilege.

I wish to question, to examine, to ultimately reject and replace the whole current basis for how the children of the Enlightenment understand themselves. Crazy? Probably. Underqualified? Certainly. No one cares what I think? On the whole, sure. So why bother?

I can think and write and not much else. Sometimes things seem so clear and also so important that I cannot help but sit down at my computer, push through the pain, and write it all down. I'm not famous or influential and never will be. But I look at what public intellectuals who have the attention of the worlds are writing and, on one hand, I'm frustrated by the poor standards of their thinking and on the other I just feel that most of the time they are wrong. I think I can do better, so I have to try.

I will start with talking about the political language of the day. So many of the terms we use have become pejorative in the mouths of those who hold opposing views: liberal, conservative, left, right, socialist, neoliberal, and so on. I just sort of realised one day that I understood some of what was going on but that I could understand most of the words being used. There was a serious disconnect. For example I was struck early on in my political awakening by the fact there is nothing very liberal about Neoliberalism. But this reflected a poor understanding of Liberalism. Neoliberalism is in fact Neoclassical Liberalism. It is liberal through and through. And so this series of essays is me trying to sort out what I think in terms that make better sense than what I read in the newspapers or hear in public discourse.

I didn't really start paying close attention to politics until I moved to the UK and discovered the far-right Conservative party had taken power and with that they had a good deal of control over my life and used it in a punitive way. 

Finding my Political Compass. 

Political Compass is a very significant resource for understanding ourselves and how our worldviews work. If you have not done their test and got your result, then I highly recommend that you stop reading now and do so. It will help.

The folks at PC became dissatisfied with the traditional division of politics into left and right. It seemed to lack nuance. The traditional right was conservative and patrician (centralising and controlling) while the traditional left was progressive and paternalistic (centralising and controlling). But this leaves out many coherent alternative political positions and ignores the obvious similarities between the traditions.

For example, anarchism has long been a political philosophy which espouses voluntarily, decentralised, collectivism. The best the traditional left/right divide can do is say that this is far left but the most communist states in reality are highly controlling if not actually totalitarian. We can't accurately say that anarchism, socialism, and communism are all varieties of the same type of political philosophy. But the groups we call left-wing don't have much in common; and if some of the left are concerned with liberty and some with control then "left" seems to have lost any meaning. 

On the other end of the scale the mainstream political parties of most countries espouse free markets but increasingly surveil their citizens and curtail civil liberties. The UK has the highest rate of installation of CCTV cameras in the world. If you commit a crime anywhere, chances are you are on Candid Camera. But libertarians, especially the extreme kinds that we find in the finance industry, are also of the right. Meanwhile NeoNazi groups are called far right. But the Nazis combined a certain amount of privatisation with a centralised state, which really makes them economic centrists. I don't mean to be insensitive, but the Nazis also nationalised the wealth of certain citizens. Which is what we think of as a hard left economic policy. What do NeoNazis and Alan Greenspan have in common? 

You will see out there on the internet the argument that National Socialism is a form of socialism. But this is only true to the extent that the Democratic Republic of North Korea is democratic. By "socialism", Hitler meant that the individual should subjugate themselves to the state. This was an idea he got from German Idealist philosophers. And if they would not subjugate themselves, then the state would happily do violence to them. But then all states use violence in some form. 

So PC decided that we need at least two axes. On the horizontal axis we have economic policy. On the left is the highly centralised, planned economy. On the right the laissez-faire economy with small government and free trade. On the vertical axis we have social policies. At the bottom is the atomised society in which the individual makes all their own decisions and at the top the authoritarian society in which the state makes all our decisions for us. It looks like this diagram from the PC website:

I'm not entirely in agreement with the labels here, so let me outline how I would label the diagram. But first let me define some terms:
  • authoritarianism is a form of government in which the executive has very strong powers, though there is still a constitution and an elected parliament. Civil liberties are often curtailed. An example would be the USA in Donald Trump's presidency. 
  • dictatorship in which the executive rules directly. There may be a parliament but it has few powers. Civil liberties are usually suppressed. 
  • Absolutism which involves a hereditary ruler with unlimited power. An example being North Korea under Kim Jong-un. 

I'll go around the diagram giving examples of representative ideas and those who held or promoted them.

At top-left we have Stalin, a left-wing authoritarian. Soviet Russia was a highly centralised state, state ownership of more or less everything, and a centrally planned economy, that denied civil liberties and terrorised its own citizens. Stalin did not have unlimited powers, but neither the deputies nor the army could stop him doing what he wanted. North Korea is really off the chart here because it is beyond authoritarian and into absolutist territory.

At top centre are the Nazis. Under Hitler some state industries were privatised (right-wing), he professed a desire that Germany be self-sufficient (left-wing) and tariffs were imposed on imports (left-wing). He also created a centralised state (left-wing). So despite the popular narratives about the Nazi's, they were economic centrists, preferring a mix of policies from the left and right. Where Hitler was extreme was in authoritarianism. He saw "socialism" as people serving the needs of the state. And of course he turned Germany into a war machine. Hitler was a centrist-authoritarian. I don't mean to be histrionic, but this is also where we would place the current US President, although I think the USA is moderately less authoritarian as the legislative and judicial branches of government (not to mention his own staffers) are acting to curtail Trump's attempts to exercise absolute power (as the Founding Fathers hoped they would).

And at the top-right are right-wing authoritarians, who advocate a decentralised state or free market economy where no one tells business to stop polluting and causing climate change that will kill millions, but millions of people are put in jail for smoking a little weed. Control of the economy was more or less abandoned by the government except for attempts to control the money supply (monetarism). Thatcher and Reagan are the classic examples. Sometimes also called NeoConservatism, although since Thatcher undertook a massive program of reform she's not really a conservative by the conventional definition. Under these regimes, public assets were sold off in the UK; most public enterprises were privatised, except for some parts of education and the National Health System (which continues to be so wildly popular that no politician can afford to be openly against it); and labour unions were prevented from being effective by isolating them from each other and placing on actions they could take. The classic right-wing strategy is divide and conquer.

On the far-right centre we have the current UK government which wants free markets for business, allows same-sex marriage, but locks people up for using drugs, and sees introducing choices for consumers as an ideal. A choice of schools and health care, for example, is the justification for the creeping privatisation of education and health (which even Thatcher did not consider). Some civil liberties have been extended, such as same-sex marriage and civil partnerships. but generally liberty has been curtailed. For example, police have new and extensive stop and search powers as well as some very extensive powers under terrorism laws.  

At the bottom left is what most people associate with libertarianism, i.e. the right-wing libertarians. In this view, the government cannot make economic policy, this is left to the markets; nor can they impose on citizens civil liberties. If we have government at all then it is limited to roles such as organising the defence forces. This is a theoretical position really only held by a few extremist economists such as Milton Friedman, some survivalists, and homegrown white-supremacist terrorists such as the mongrel Australian who shot and killed 50 people in Christchurch, New Zealand. Bitcoin and other so-called crypto-currencies are a manifestation of this ideology and mainly used for buying goods and services via the dark web that are illegal. This corner is very difficult to distinguish from anarchism.

I will return to the link between libertarianism and white supremacists in the future.

The bottom centre is a mixed state that I cannot think of a real world example of. It would be a situation in which the govern leaves decisions to individuals but pursues some centralised functions. The trouble is that centralisation of functions tends to mean that the government dictates access to those functions and thus moves north of libertarianism. In practice 

The bottom left hand corner is where I would place anarchism as a socio-political theory: left-wing libertarians or Libertarian socialists. Voluntary collectivism, all decisions made by individuals or at least at a local level. By the way, we think of anarchy as "chaos" because early European Anarchists decided that assassinating heads of state would be a good way to demonstrate their rejection of the politics of the day. One of them managed, more or less by accident, to shoot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and set off World War I. 

And finally at the far-left middle is communism in which government is imposed, but it is collectivist and workers own the means of production. This is close to what Marx envisaged, but again I don't think there are examples of this in practice, at least not on a state scale.

Politics in Real Life

In real life there are few political parties or governments that are at the extremes, though some individual politicians stake out more marginal positions. I want to illustrate this with examples from the UK and USA. The diagrams below represent how Political Compass understood the political positions at recent elections. The first shows UK political parties at the time of the 2017 election. 

In the UK the Conservative Party (Tories) are on the far-right (~8.5/10). Within the Tories are some very far right MPs who advocate neoclassical liberalism: free market economy but with corporations having the rights of individuals.

UKIP a party formed on the premise of dragging the UK out of Europe and often characterised as right-wing, is to the left of the Conservative Party (~7.5/10). The German Alternative für Deutschland party is often characterised as far-right, but in fact, in another diagram, we see that like the Nazi's who inspre them, the AfD are economically center-right. Their extremism is in their Nationalism and Xenophobia, which is not covered by this diagram at all. These are nothing to do with the political right. If you look at definitions of fascism, then Mao's China, supposedly on the far-left, easily qualifies. 

Because we don't distinguish between right-wing economics (free markets, small government, etc) from nationalism or authoritarianism we cannot have a sensible discussion about the politics of our day. 

Between ca 1997-2010 the UK Labour party, an avowedly socialist party, took an dramatic lurch to the right economically and tried to combine both liberal economics (free markets and low taxation) and liberal social policies (government helping hands).

The result of Neoliberalism and the deregulation of the finance industry, which no one really talks about, was the largest accumulation of private sector debt in history. Private debt soared to 500% of GDP. Then the subprime mortgage scam hit the fan and all that debt suddenly started defaulting leaving the banks with cashflow problems and facing bankruptcy. Govt stepped in an spent £1.5 trillion (= 100% of GDP) nationalising three banks so that the whole finance sector did not collapse. Something similar happened all over the world, even where countries had very low government debt before 2007, like Spain, suddenly had to borrow vast amounts. Then, high government debt was blamed for the problem in a bizarre a post hoc fallacy. What happened was that we turned finance into a free market with no controls or oversight and it rapidly descended into criminal activity on a vast scale. Some investigations are still pending because prosecutors don't have the resources.

When I get more into the history of liberalism in future essays, we will see that this modern breakdown caused by so-called "free markets" was entirely predictable. We have been here before. 

Note that the Green Party are only 3.5 left - we'd have to say center-left moderate-libertarian. And that mainly because they want to impose environmental controls on business to stop them polluting the air, water, and land with toxic and carcinogenic compounds that kill and maim hundreds of thousands of people each year. Tens of thousands die from air pollution in the UK alone. If 10 people die from a new party drug there are outraged editorials across the press. Cities with illegal and dangerous levels of air pollution seem killing 90-100 people every day seem to be fine.

Now look at the USA at the time of the 2016 election. 

Corruption allegations notwithstanding there are some striking things here. Firstly, Hillary Clinton is clearly to the right of Donald Trump. That's right, Clinton was more right-wing than Trump. Clinton is, like most presidents in recent times, a Neoliberal. Trump was moderately right wing, but since the election he has lurched violently to the left by introducing protectionism: a classic hard left policy. This is why we place him with Hitler - he's another centre-right authoritarian.

In terms of this discussion the other thing that distinguishes the two candidates is that Trump is significantly more authoritarian than Clinton. Trump wanted government to have more say over people's lives and to take decisions away from them.

But the criticism that you hear of Clinton was that she was a leftist or "a liberal". Ironically she is only a liberal in the economic sense of being in favour of free markets. Socially she is still an authoritarian. I sometimes see people saying that the left have a lot to answer for in the USA. But there have never been any leftists in the White House in modern times. Bill Clinton campaigned center-right, but then adopted Alan Greenspan as his Secretary of the Treasury. Greenspan was famously a direct disciples of the dangerous extremist Ayn Rand who advocated self-interest above all. She made Adam Smith look like a bleeding heart liberal.

Of course Bernie Sanders does describe himself as a socialist, which you would think puts him on the left of the midline. But as PC say:
"It remains a mystery to us why Sanders chose to describe himself — incorrectly — as a socialist, and in America of all countries. His position is that of a mainstream social democrat... In this most paradox-packed electoral circus, some of Trump’s professed economic positions are actually closer to Bernie’s than to Hillary’s." 
And in the end, Sanders endorsed Clinton the most right-wing candidate on the ballet. The US Green Party is a left of centre moderately libertarian group. The Greens are more libertarian than either the Republicans or the Democrats. As with the UK their "leftness" is mainly because want to stop degradation of the environment. Pollution can be seen to restrict an individual's constitutional right to life, for example, since it kills people. So it could well be seen as a libertarian issue. But Americans vote for the polluters and howl if anyone tries to stop them polluting. 

Buddhist Politics?

We sometimes see trendy academics and intellectuals touting something they call "Buddhist Economics". To me this is completely bogus. Firstly, when you read these tracts they contain almost no economic thinking and what economic thinking they do manage all seems to happen on the micro-level. It's all about consuming less and thinking small. It's not about macroeconomics. They have nothing to say about fiscal or monetary policy. They don't have a position on whether to aim for full employment or low inflation. They do not advocate a particular role for central banks or have a theory of money creation. In short they know almost nothing about political economics and have no contribution to make to the subject.

There is an element of gaslighting about this focus on consumerism. Oil companies especially have tried to promote this idea that climate change is caused by consumerism and that it's up to individuals to change their habits. It draws attention away from the real culprits in climate change. The world currently burns 93 million barrels of oil per day and that figure goes up day by day. But 80% of greenhouse gases from from industry and government. And anyway they have arranged it so that the alternatives are much more expensive and then driven down wages so that we cannot afford to change. 

This focus on the individual is characteristic of liberalism. Socialists seek collectivist solutions to social ills. I want to tackle this at some point, but it's a huge subject. Here I just want to make a few remarks about what Buddhism or Buddhists might contribute to this discussion. 

I have noted many times now that when we look at nominally Buddhist countries they mostly seem to have abhorrent forms of government. They lean towards dictatorship and militarism. They have nothing to teach anyone about  democracy for example. There are two social models that pervade Buddhist ideologies: the guru/chela relationship which is a master/servant situation. This can hardly be appropriate in the modern world. Indeed I don't know anyone who takes this seriously on a personal level let alone as a guide to politics. 

And then there is the monastic Sangha. In practice the Sangha ought to work on consensus, with everyone having a say, but acknowledgement of a hierarchy of experience. This seems like an admirable aim. But in practice these Buddhist religious organisations are deeply hierarchical, oppressive towards women and minorities, exclusive and elitist, and a burden on the people. Monks are parasites nine times out of ten. That figure drops amongst "Western" monks. Still they are, on the whole deeply conservative religieux who promote surveillance on the thoughts and emotions as the way to promote good society. I deal with this more in the next essay.

So I don't see that Buddhism in its traditional forms has much to offer. Where Buddhists make individual contributions that break this mould, what they talk about, as long since observed by David Chapman, is the post-war social democratic consensus with some Green politics thrown in (Buddhists are Bernie Sanders - about the same age as well). Buddhists don't have a political position of their own. That said I have seen Buddhist advocate all kinds of political  positions from left to right and a top to bottom. As with most things there isn't a coherent Buddhist politics because Buddhism is not a coherent worldview: it is a highly pluralistic set of worldviews which are frequently mutually exclusive. 


I should note that I agree that consumerism is a bad thing. But it can't be solved individuals, at least not alone. There is a vast system dedicated to creating and sustaining consumerism and to deal with it we have to change that system. 

In order to change the system we have to first understand the worldview behind it. We have to understand and at least to some extent to empathise with that worldview. We at least have to understand why it appeals to so many people when it is so obviously harmful to them. This is also my approach to understanding religion and the persistence of supernatural beliefs.

In fact this apparently paradox of adopting beliefs that seem broadly harmful leads us into the heart of the matter. We are expected to be rational in the classical sense, but we are not. No one is. That view of humanity, which has stood for millennia, is fundamentally wrong and yet it is a cornerstone of our worldview. Trying to understand how we actually make decisions and choices is very helpful in trying to rebuild the cathedral of self-knowledge on the species level. This has been a major theme in my writing over the last ten years. 

Similarly, consumerism is not an isolated phenomenon. It accompanies the continuing atomisation of society and the breakdown of communities and support mechanism. As social animals we now routinely live in isolation with just a small group of friends, but surrounded by thousands or millions or strangers to who we have no social connection and feel no social obligation. Can there be a social contract under these conditions? Without a sense of belonging a social primate suffers an unbearable pain and this is just one reason that nationalism keeps coming up. 

A small group of people, over all recorded time there are probably only a few hundred of them, have exploited humanity's weaknesses, primarily through the maxim of divide and conquer. And they have duly conquered us. The really vile trick is to make us believe that it is in our best interests to be conquered and remain subjugated. 

To this end I'm thinking a lot about Liberalism at the moment. When I'm not watching the Extinction Rebellion in London and around the world. I agree with both their aims and their methods. But they also highlight, for me at least, a deeper failure of our intelligentsia to help us understand the world and our place in it. Scientists provide useful facts but fail to adequately contextualise them and show how they affect our belief systems; while philosophers seem mainly concerned with picayune details of abstractions and trying to undermine the very idea of objectivity. 


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."


11 January 2019

Against Karma: Suffering and Justice

The central issue of Buddhism is dukkha, variously translated as suffering, dissatisfaction, misery, stress, etc. Dukkha and its antonym (sukkha) are used in subtly different ways in different contexts. For example, Sue Hamilton (2001) has shown, in one sense dukkha is synonymous with unenlightened experience. That is to say that we don't have an experience that is qualified by the presence or absence of dukkha, rather unenlightened experience itself is dukkha. The first noble truth is just this: that sense experience does not satisfy our longings (whatever they are). The second noble truth informs us that the unsatisfactory nature of experience has an origin (samudaya) and that this origin is our own craving for it (taṇha). The pursuit of experience is not the way to happiness.

On the other hand, in the context of vedanā, experience can also be parsed as sukha or dukkha, meaning here, "agreeable" and "disagreeable". Finally, sukha and dukkha can be metonyms for nibbāna and saṃsāra. As we find in Dhammapada 203:
jighacchāparamā rogā,
saṅkāraparamā dukhā;*
etaṃ ñatvā yathābhūtaṃ,
nibbānaṃ paramaṃ sukhaṃ.
Hunger is the worst disease,
Constructs are the worst misery;
Knowing this, just as it is,
Extinction is the greatest happiness.
*note that dukkhā is spelled dukhā to fit the metre of the verse.
There is a presupposition in the Buddhist discussion of suffering. It is, of course, a self-evident fact that there is suffering. This is not something special that only Buddhists have noticed. More generally the problem of evil (or the question of why there is suffering) has been discussed by humans for as long as we have been capable of abstract thought. There is suffering. And it has a cause. That cause is us, i.e., we cause our own suffering. This is not unique to Buddhism, either. The Christian myth of the Garden of Eden blames humans for their suffering; they could not follow a simple prohibition and thus their God turned against them. In that story, the only responsible adult present is Yahweh. If anyone should be punished, it's him. In our myths, humans like to blame ourselves for our own suffering. 

I know that some people are horrified by the suggestion that Buddhists are "blaming the victim". I am certainly in that camp. But what I'm getting at is that "we cause our own suffering" is a presupposition of the received Buddhist tradition. I'm not endorsing this view, I'm stating it as baldly and as simply as possible in order to get to an important point. It raises questions I will try to address in a later essay. Why did we evolve in such a way as to consistently cause ourselves misery? 

Let's soften it a little and restate the idea in a slightly more subtle way: Buddhists believe that (at least some, if not all) suffering is the natural outcome of conscious choices we make. Karma is the theory that the suffering we experience is inevitable, appropriate, and timely. The idea is that if we could anticipate the consequences we would not act. And since it is our own mental states that determine the outcome, we can introspect before any action and exercise restraint to prevent any bad consequences.

On one hand, rebirth is the main consequence of karma and we end rebirth by not doing karma. On the other hand, we keep doing actions (with rebirth as consequence) until we purify our minds of evil intent through religious exercises. As Richard Gombrich has shown (2009), Jains had the first half of this equation but indiscriminately saw all actions as contributing to rebirth. Brahmins had the second half but equated karma (and escape from rebirth) with correct performance of rituals. Buddhism combines them to make a new hybrid religion. By equating karma with intention (cetanā) and characterising it as good or evil, Buddhists counteracted the worst aspects of Jainism (extreme austerities, lack of discernment with respect to good and evil actions). And by making the individual's willed actions the focus they disrupted the priestly hegemony and expensive rituals of Brahmanism. The key feature of Buddhism, unlike other Indian religions, is that it does not treat the cessation of sense experience in religious exercises as absolute being (jīva, ātman, brahman, puriṣa, etc). However, the explanation of this new syncretic religion proved to be very difficult. The early iterations were deprecated because of inconsistencies. But none of the later iterations quite managed to be fully consistent, either. At worst, Buddhism is solipsistic sophistry; the worst being Nāgārjuna and his "nothing goes" approach.

Coming back to the focus on suffering, most Buddhists seem to go further and argue that this reaction of action and consequence is what Buddhist justice looks like. Broadly speaking, karma is what supplies the "just" in just world or the "moral" in the moral universe. In other words, the suffering that we experience is only what we would expect in a just world. It is just what happens when our previous life was ruled by greed and hatred, even though we don't have any strong connection to that life (no memories that would enable us to conceptually connect consequence to action). We have to presume that our suffering is appropriate, which leaves some of us wondering what kind of monster we were in our last life to deserve this one. 

To distil the idea down its essence: suffering is the instrument of justice

Again, this is not peculiar to Buddhism. This is the presupposition behind all just world myths. The just world is just because bad behaviour leads to suffering (eventually). In Buddhism, an evil action [miraculously] produces suffering; a good action [miraculously] produces pleasure. More specifically, an evil life is [miraculously] rewarded with rebirth in a world of suffering; a good life is [miraculously] rewarded with rebirth in a world of pleasure. A saintly or holy life is [miraculously] rewarded with the end of rebirth so as to preclude any future suffering. Somehow, the universe just delivers the right result, at the right time, to the right person, every time.

This is sometimes written about as though it is like a law of nature. The thing with laws of nature is that they have to be consistent with all the other laws of nature. A "law of nature" that involves supernatural forces or entities, is not a law of nature. It's a miracle. Karma is a miracle, not a law of nature. Indeed, it doesn't even fit with other Buddhist stories about the world, let alone with laws of nature. This brings us to a feature of knowledge seeking in the ancient world: analogical reasoning.

Argument from Analogy

Many of the arguments for this view that suffering is the instrument of justice take the form of analogies. A classic Buddhist analogy is that allowing yourself to be angry is like picking up a lump of burning coal to fling at your enemy. We understand this analogy. Few of us get to adulthood without a few minor burns. Burns are very painful, partly because we have special nerves for burning pain. Signals from pain nerves are turned into subjective burning sensations by our brain. So we all know and understand burning sensations. The analogy is saying that when acting from anger we create the conditions for our own future suffering in the same way that taking hold of hot coal burns us. 

With all arguments from analogy, we need to pause and consider how apt they really are. Metaphorically, anger burns. When we feel angry, we get red-faced, steamed-up, hot-tempered; we burn with rage, erupt, boil over,  scald, etc. And if this happens it can easily tip over into violence, if only into violent words. Physiologically, anger activates our evolved autonomic arousal response to a threat and helps us on the fight side of the fight-or-flight-or-freeze triangle of threat responses. Anger might just put off a threatening predator or competitor because they know they will have to fight us. Anger makes us look scary. As a precursor to violence, anger warns aggressors that they risk injury. Anger marshals our physiological resources to defend ourselves and our loved ones from danger. 

As a species, we are highly attuned to reciprocity. If someone is angry with me and threatens violence (all anger is a threat of violence) then I reciprocate with my own fight-flight-freeze response either to warn the assailant that it's not worth their while to fight me, or to better enable me to escape, or to avoid detection (depending on which path I take). And note that violence need not amount to the loss of self-control. Sometimes violence is very deliberate and directed. Whether physically or psychologically, we set out to hurt and we do it in the most direct way we can think of. 

With burns there's a feedback loop; the pain of being burned rapidly teaches us to avoid flames and hot things. We learn how to test for heat before picking up potentially hot items. The same is not true for anger because we evolved to get angry whenever we are threatened as part of our suite of survival mechanisms. Anger marshals the body's resources for life or death action. Metaphors aside, the feedback is different from experiencing burning pain. 

If I go around just being angry all the time, then people will want to fight me or avoid me. However, for this to happen I'd have to both perceive myself to be under threat and my social group not working to provide me with safety and security. So anyone who is angry all the time is already in a dysfunctional situation. The anger is not a cause of suffering; it is a symptom that results from the situation. This is not the same as being burned by a flame at all. Acting from anger is nothing like picking up a burning coal to fling at your enemy. Of course, it can rebound on us, but that very much depends on who the anger is directed at. If my group and I get angry at someone who is trying to hurt us and we work together to drive them off, then we are not harmed by that. We are protected and brought closer together.

All analogies have their limitations. This analogy which sounds OK at face value is, on closer inspection, simply false. In fact, behaviour is very much influenced by environment and social convention and is much less about individual psychology. Disruptive behaviour is like pain. It tells the community that something is wrong, that some vital need is going unmet.


In 2018 there was a spate of knife injuries in London and many people have been expressing opinions about what bad people these criminals must be. No one is asking the obvious question: why do young men in some parts of London suddenly feel insecure enough that they would start carrying a knife. Anyone carrying a weapon is much more likely to be injured or die. Just a few years ago stabbings were significantly less common. We also know that, in stark contrast to my days at university in the 1980s, that today's students are demanding that the institutions protect them by not inviting provocative speakers and not allowing challenging topics in lectures. Well-heeled university students don't resort to carrying knives, but they also feel less secure than teenagers did two generations ago. What has changed in the environment to make young people feel less secure? 

One thing is that work is much less secure than it was a generation ago. Work pays less in comparison to costs - the cost of housing has increased outrageously. Work is often on a fixed term contract or a zero hours contract (where you have to work if offered hours, but no work is guaranteed). Over my working life employers have radically reduced the quality of working life, the rewards for loyalty, and the ability of workers to make common cause to demand better treatment. Working conditions have steadily eroded as a result of Neoliberals seeing the cost of labour as an overhead that soaks up profits. And they see profits as rightfully belonging to shareholders. In the UK many people working full-time don't earn enough to live on.

The solution has been to offer state handouts rather than reforming wages. At the same time, the government is pursuing a low taxation fiscal policy; more tax money is being spent propping up high rents because the market-driven alternative would be thousands of homeless families. No one thinks this is a reason to revisit the policy of allowing foreign speculators to force up the price of homes at 5-10 times the rate of inflation or the policy that allows businesses to pay wages below a subsistence level. This can only be perceived as a threat to life by those who work for a living. It might not be an acute threat, but it is a chronic threat. Children may not be working, but they live in families affected by the insecurity of work and wages.

Add the threat of internal terrorism and external war, combined with economic threats (massive indebtedness of nations and business sectors) and yes, the average citizen feels less secure than they did. If they pay attention then they may feel less secure for other reasons also, such as climate change or pollution.

Social problems have social causes and require social remedies. The idea that an individual is responsible for everything that happens in their life is just bunk. Individualism is an idea that allows the rich and powerful to justify abdicating from their obligations to society at the same time as exploiting people and common resources for their own profit. Individualism makes the poor and oppressed much weaker and leaves them with little or no access to common resources. And it leaves the middle feeling constantly insecure about what they have. Individualism, the cult of the individual, is one of the most pernicious ideas ever entertained by humanity. We evolved to live in groups.

Why should individual suffering be highlighted? In a situation where a person's very thoughts and choices are (at least partly, but likely mainly) determined by their social environment, why should the focus of a just world theory be on individual psychology? That is not fair. Of course, every now and then some bright spark can rise above their circumstances and shine as a star. Think of Dr B. R. Ambedkar, born an untouchable outcaste but died with a PhD from the London School of Economics and having helped to write the modern Indian constitution! But look at the vast majority of his people, the Mahar caste, and they are still downtrodden, still oppressed, and still poor today. And in fact, even Ambedkar was given opportunities because of the British Army's policy of recruiting Dalits and because of a wealthy Sikh man who wanted to eradicate caste.

Most of us do not rise above our circumstances. We are our circumstances. We have obligations to and from our group. We have responsibility to and for our group. This is not an argument for so-called "collective karma"; rather, I'm arguing that karma as a concept is inadequate to the task of thinking about morality in real life (as opposed to the fantasy world most religieux live in) precisely because human life is collective in almost every aspect.

Let's return to the central thesis of this essay by looking at how we actually pursue justice.

Suffering as an Instrument of (In)Justice

Take a look at the justice system of any nation on earth, including all the nominally Buddhist nations. What happens to people convicted of crimes? They are punished, both in the short-term and the long term.

In the short term, we inflict harm on criminals; we isolate them from friends and family, deprive them of basic freedoms and rights. In other words, we violate the basic constituents of a deontological morality. And note that prison is a punishment that fully takes into account our social nature; it isolates us from our group, forces us to live amongst strangers, pushes us down into an inferior social position. This is how you torture a social mammal.

Sometimes prisons are designed to be humiliating and degrading, while sometimes they are that way because of indifference or banal reasons like lack of resources. Britain's prisons are often overcrowded because governments have decided to imprison more people and for longer but haven't expanded the capacity of prisons to take account of this. Crowding is stressful for social primates, especially with strangers. Overcrowding leads to stress and conflict, and sometimes to violence and riots. Although by the standards of, say, Thailand, the UK prison system is pretty well off. The more we dehumanise people on the inside, the more alienated they are when they get out.

What is the theme of almost all prison-based dramas? The establishment of a society within a society with two options: the redemption of those concerned through friendship and finding ways to hold on to their humanity or suffering under a violent autocracy that may or may not be subverted.

In the longer term, we deny criminals certain types of work, the ability to travel, and we force them to confess their crime repeatedly, i.e., every time they apply for a job, rent a house, interact with the government, and so on. There is no question of making a mistake and paying for it. Once a crim, always a crim.

We behave towards criminals in ways that we would never sanction for ordinary citizens. We treat criminals as less than human. We not only judge them deserving of suffering, we actually stand in line to inflict it on them. And again this is just as true in nominally Buddhist countries as in nominally Christian countries. The savagery of "justice" in Islamic countries is equalled by officially atheist China. So religion cannot be blamed, although I think it is a factor in defining in-group/out-group dynamics. It is often worse to sin against God than it is to sin against a fellow human so that the punishment for blasphemy can be particularly savage. But it's all a matter of degree. Some prisons in the US and UK are every bit as savage as those in less economically developed countries. There have been repeated scandals about the conditions in our prisons at the moment, especially in the private sector. Private sector prisons are a special kind of hell.

The presupposition behind all of this is that suffering creates justice. Or in other words, moral debts are paid in the currency of suffering: immediate and ongoing. And yet it is all too obvious that prison doesn't provide a deterrent or restore the balance of justice. It certainly creates more suffering, but the rationale for making people suffer is bizarre and sickening when you start to think about it.

The Scandinavians lead the way in the humane treatment of criminals and have much lower recidivism rates as a result. They have a much more cohesive society but it has been forced upon them. The government actively interfered in people's lives for decades to create the conditions for the modern Scandinavia. Still, the presupposition that guilt demands punishment is so strong in most places, that "justice" is relentless and merciless at inflicting suffering.

Karma In Real Life

Because I'm a member of a religious Order, I know a lot of religious people. And I would guess that most people I know say that they believe in some form of karma (although some of them define karma in ways having nothing in common with traditional Buddhist karma doctrines). In other words, they believe in the just world fallacy that justice will be restored (usually in the afterlife).

The natural consequence of such a belief ought to be a profound relaxation about injustice. They ought to be laid back about transgressions to the point of fatalism. Jesus said to his followers that if someone was to strike them on the face, that they should turn to give the assailant another target to punch, i.e., "turn the other cheek". Buddhists have an even more extreme version: In our moral stories, the Buddha says that even if robbers were to seize you and cut you apart with a wooden saw, if you had a single negative thought you would not be his disciple. "Vengeance is mine," sayeth the Lord, and all that.

The Triratna Buddhist Order is currently having a crisis because a senior member stands accused of some gross misconduct. The process of "safeguarding" we have adopted from the surrounding British culture has meant that no details have or ever will emerge about the nature of the offence. In the past, we were accused of not dealing with transgressions honestly and in the open so we voluntarily looked at how other groups deal with them and adopted the best practice model with little modification. In this case, it ironically means suppressing all knowledge of the misconduct outside of a tiny group to hide the identity of the accuser (at their request). The deliberating panel included a retired judge (and another outsider), which is meant to reassure outsiders as to the fairness of the procedure.

So now we have the situation where a loved and valued member of our community has been suspended from the Order for an indeterminate period (he thinks it will be at least two years) because they have been accused of something grossly unethical (though apparently not illegal) by someone who will remain forever anonymous. This is apparently what justice looks like in the world of UK religious groups nowadays. The process and outcome contradict my sense of what is just and fair and has made me question my continued involvement in the Order. This has nothing to do with karma and I have pointed out that we should now make clear that as an Order we do not believe in karma. I'm not hopeful.

Despite what they say they believe, no one I know is laid back about injustice. We all want to get involved, to pre-empt karma, to take control of situations and steer them towards the outcome we think best. Most people believe that justice is only served by such active intervention. And we all believe that we are acting for the good; that our motives are above question when it comes to our well-intentioned interventions. The many different recensions of the Vinaya also take this approach. Thousands of rules of conduct were created, often for quite trivial reasons, complete with prescribed punishments including expulsion from the saṅgha

I'm not saying that interventionism is unreasonable. We do need to intervene to ensure work is fairly paid and safe. We do need to act to ameliorate climate change. What I'm saying is that this is hypocritical if at the same time one insists on professing to believe in karma or God or any other just world myth. You either believe things will turn out alright, or you get involved.

In my view, suffering is not an instrument of justice. No one deserves to suffer. Even people who, from ignorance or malice, hurt others do not deserve to suffer. Suffering does not resolve situations of tension or unhurt someone who has been hurt. Making a guilty person suffer achieves nothing. Taking satisfaction from inflicting suffering on another person is sick. So no, I don't believe in a myth which organises and enacts this on a cosmic scale. Karma is an idea. It's a human desire to be well treated by our fellow humans and to have good fortune in the world projected onto the universe. Believing in karma is no better than believing in God. However, it is understandable that ancient people would come up with an idea like this to try to explain why things go wrong in our lives: bad faith from humans and bad luck in the world.

This begs the question: what is the alternative. I will make some comments on this in the next instalment. 


04 January 2019

Against Karma

I have been revising an article on the problem of action at a temporal distance for publication and thinking again about karma. This has involved rehearsing my understanding of what karma represents and the internal conflicts that karma has caused in Buddhism. The last 2000 years have seen a constant stream of apologetics for different, mutually exclusive, traditional views on karma. There have been many attempts to reconcile karma with dependent arising, for example. More recently, attempts are being made to reconcile karma with naturalism, humanism, and other modernist worldviews. For 2000 years intellectuals have been tacitly admitting that there is something wrong with the doctrine of karma, with all of them treating it as a good idea that needs to be rescued.

In this three-part essay, I take the opposite approach. I argue that that karma is a bad idea. Karma fails to explain what it is supposed to explain. Karma cannot be reconciled with or integrated into other worldviews, except as a floating signifier for whatever morality happens to be popular. Worse, it is based on a fundamentally flawed idea about suffering. It is the latter that is the premise of this essay. I begin with an overview of karma in terms of the just world fallacy and, in the process, highlight an aspect of the central problem: the idea that suffering can be deserved. 

Karma is the Buddhist myth of a just world. The just world myth is foundational in most religions. The myth says that everyone gets what they deserve, eventually. The final caveat has to be added because any observer of human life can see that few people, if any, get what they deserve in this life. Evil flourishes. Some argue that the world is getting better (Steven Pinker) or is at least not as bad as we think (Hans Rosling). But endless economic growth is a fantasy on a finite planet and even the status quo won't be sustainable if the climate becomes steadily warmer. And everything I've seen says that it will. 

The evident unfairness of life, or at least of most lives, has forced religieux to link the myth of the just world to another ubiquitous religious myth: the afterlife. Typically, the religious will admit that life is not fair, that there are many injustices and often no obvious way to tip the scales towards justice. How does one find justice for the thousands of sexually abused children or the millions of refugees? What can we possibly do to make those ruined lives un-ruined. We may ameliorate their suffering and we may make efforts to prevent future abuse, but some wrongs cannot be made right in retrospect. So the religious argues that justice will be found in the afterlife.

My favourite image of afterlife justice is from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. I've quoted it many times so I won't dwell on it here - see the image below. The key feature is that justice is literally represented as a set of scales, with the deceased's heart on one side and a symbol of the law on the other.

I have also mentioned many times that George Lakoff has described how morality is very often framed as a bookkeeping or accounting exercise (balancing the books). More recently, using ideas from the work of primatologist Frans de Waal, I have tried to make the case for the evolution of morality from the basic competencies and exigencies of social lifestyles. Social mammals evolved to face natural selection as a group. A herd of impala allow the weakest members to be picked off by lions. A group of chimps, led by the alpha male, will band together to fight off a hungry leopard. In a fight between one leopard and one chimp, the leopard will win every time. But in the fight between one leopard and five or six determined male chimps (each three or four times as strong as an average human), the leopard stands little chance. There is still a chance that a chimp will be injured, but the male chimps share the risks amongst themselves and they share the benefits amongst the whole troop. Such efforts are coordinated by females in bonobos. The abilities needed to coordinate group actions and make the social lifestyle viable lead naturally to morality (ways of behaving) and ethics (principles for thinking about morality) in humans.

Social living attunes individuals to reciprocity. You stand with me against the leopard and I have an obligation to stand with you. You share some food with me and I am obligated to share with you. You groom me and I groom you. Literally, you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. Social living creates obligations to other group members. It usually also creates expectations of how each group member will behave and social mechanisms to reward and punish conformity and nonconformity. In both chimps and humans, this can be as crude as a beating or as subtle as a shared yawn. 

In addition, we have the capacity for empathy, if only at the level of emotional contagion: I know what other members of my group are feeling because I have the capacity to mirror external signals of disposition allowing me to model their emotions and thus to actually feel them. I know how you feel when we defeat the leopard. I know how you feel when you eat your favourite food. I know how you feel when you stub your toe. Your happiness is my happiness, your pain is my pain. And vice versa. 

So social animals are bound together by mutual awareness and concern, by mutual obligations and expectations and the mechanisms that grow up to police them. If we look at a society in terms of cybernetics, we can say that its members have evolved to be empathetic, cooperative, and generous and that each of these must be in positive feedback loops for groups (and therefore individuals) to survive. We must also evolve to be intolerant of individualism and selfishness. The present mania for individualism and selfishness is very strange and I can only conclude detrimental to our continued survival. Of course, we have to recognise outstanding contributions, but humanity only thrives when it works together.

This way of looking at the social norms that give rise to morality comes under the heading of deontology. Our obligations to the group are defined by what is required for a social animal to survive and thrive. In turn, this defines what counts as a virtue: for example, the virtuous group member puts the group first, they behave in ways that are consistent with the survival of the group as a whole. Heroes put their lives on the line for others.

Another way of looking at morality is to emphasise the consequences of actions; still, in order for this to be an accurate picture, it has to be framed in social terms. The consequences for one's group are most obviously what make an individual action a question of morality. Consequentialism cannot be defined in the abstract, but must take into account the obligations and expectations of the group, and the consequences for everyone concerned. Therefore, although virtue ethics and consequentialism are useful ways of approaching morality, deontology is what makes sense of them.

Particularism argues that there are no ethical principles and that actions each have to be assessed individually, but again this is done with respect to norms that emerge from social obligations and expectations. It can be useful to talk about morality in different ways, but if we want to understand how morality evolved and how it functions in real societies then deontology is the place to start. It is a measure of humanity's alienation from its own nature that we often place oppressive or even intolerable burdens of obligation and expectation on members: untouchability in India, foot-binding in China, genital mutilation in Africa, class in Britain, modern slavery, and so on. Social systems that are oppressive to their members weaken the long-term viability of any society because social animals always resist unfairness and injustice. 

Fairness is when everyone reciprocates at the appropriate level. And this may involve some hierarchical adjustments. In chimps, the alpha male has a much higher level of obligation to the group. It's a tough job because one has to intervene in all the conflicts, console all the injured parties, lead the charge on all the leopards, and so on. In most cases the alpha has a coalition of supporters to whom he has more obligation. He must groom them more, without neglecting the rest of the group. He shares his mates, his food, and intervenes in their conflicts. A selfish alpha cannot and does not last long. Again, this raises many questions about the modern world. With great power or wealth comes great obligation to society and in this light, I think we can guess which class of people make the strongest arguments for individual liberty.

I've argued that social animals must tilt towards generosity. This is because reciprocity is a feedback loop. If I am generous, you will respond by giving. If I withhold, then you will withhold. Reciprocity can only work if each member of the group has a preference for giving over withholding, however slight. Frans de Waal is critical of what he calls "veneer theories of morality", i.e., those views in which morality is an overlay of civility on a fundamentally selfish personality. Not only is this not the case, but it cannot be the case. A selfish social animal is an oxymoron because of social feedback. In evolutionary terms, a species of selfish individuals would simply die out because they need each other to help them survive. Fundamentally, all social mammals are by definition generous, extinct, or rapidly becoming extinct. Social mammals have individual needs and are capable of selfishness, but they are adapted by evolution to place the needs of the group ahead of their own by some margin, however small.

In the past, I've used John Searle's ideas about background capabilities to argue that such behaviour is not simple rule following. As we grow and absorb the conventions of our group, we develop dispositions that limit our behaviour so that it falls within the norms of the group most of the time. As a group we have ways of dealing with people who stray: from gentle reminders to summary execution and everything in between. This is a very important point that I will return to.

The Quality of Justice

The idea of justice emerges naturally from the idea of fairness. Justice is the process of responding to unfairness with an attempt to restore the harmony of the group. One of Frans de Waal's most famous experiments involves researchers treating two capuchin monkeys unfairly. The monkeys instantly recognise the unfairness and respond unequivocally. When both are rewarded with cucumber they will perform a simple task indefinitely. But the first time that one gets a grape and the other is still offered cucumber, the other gets angry and flings the cucumber back at the researcher. A second ago the monkey was happy to perform the task for cucumber, now it will forgo any reward rather than accept an unfair situation.

De Waal shows a video of this during a TED talk and the audience of several hundred people erupt into spontaneous laughter when the monkey throws a tantrum over unfairness. The emotional resonance is instantaneous and universal. We all know that feeling and what's more, we are on the side of the cucumber monkey. Even though throwing things at someone is a violent act, our sympathies are with the monkey treated unfairly and we instantly know that pelting the researcher with cucumber is fair enough (and possibly good). We don't have to sit and work through the implications. We have an unequivocal emotional response to seeing unfairness. 

This is a very important insight. When there is unfairness or injustice, then a contract is broken (the idea of a social contract is associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau but in reality is very much older). It is not that reciprocity stops. What happens is that when the monkey perceives that their reward is unfair, the reciprocity principle opens the door to behaviour that in any other context would be considered unfair. For example, if the monkey were just in a bad mood and throwing food at the researcher with no obvious motivation, we would not sympathise with it. If we perceived a consistent attempt to harm the researcher then something would flip and our sympathies would be with the researcher. We know unfairness. But the important point is that we empathise with a monkey who clearly also recognises unfairness and acts in ways that are situationally appropriate. We know how that monkey feels and we tolerate its bad behaviour in this situation because the researcher started it.

In accounting terms, we frame reciprocity as a debt. Good behaviour creates a debt that has to be repaid in good behaviour; while bad behaviour creates a debt that can be repaid in bad behaviour that would not otherwise be tolerated. Paying one monkey a higher reward for the same task is unfair and as soon as we perceive this we are willing to tolerate inflicting harm on the researcher. They have earned their punishment. This "earning" of punishment and/or suffering is close to the key question I am concerned with, i.e., "How is suffering earned?"

For most of human history and in most cultures, killing a member of your social group is seen as wrong. In evolutionary terms, you weaken the group and reduce the survival chances of everyone. And in most societies, most of the time, the debt of a life had to be repaid by a life. Murderers have been routinely put to death. We cannot tolerate a group member who is willing to kill one of us. And note that by killing a murderer we further reduce our numbers and weaken ourselves, but the consensus is that this is the lesser of two evils. Murder within a group irreparably breaks the social contract. But note that killing an outgroup member, such as a slave or an enemy, does not have the same weight. In those (many) societies which kept slaves, killing one of them was never on the same level as killing a member of society. In fact, slaves were treated like livestock and reparations reflected this.

Even more striking, a soldier returning from battles with an enemy of the group is praised in proportion to the number of enemies he has killed. In trying to improve public perception of the deeply unpopular and incomprehensible Vietnam War, efficiency guru Alain Enthoven used the "body count" as a measure of how well the war was going. Despite not winning in any conventional sense such as occupying new territory, gaining access to new sources of wealth, or neutralising an enemy (China, in this case), the Americans were able to tout the number of dead Vietnamese as a measure of success. Thinking about this is nauseating, but even now we still report numbers of casualties as a measure of the "success" of war and a measure of the severity of a natural disaster or accident. 

To say that killing is immoral is to vastly over simplify things. In most human societies, placing all killing on the same level would be seen as irrational. In one case we may create a debt that can only be repaid with our own death. In another the more people we kill, the more our group owe a debt to us. Both represent justice according to the norms of most modern societies. Often the same people clamour for civilian murderers to be killed as argue that we should show more gratitude to soldiers who murder our enemies. There is no contradiction in this precisely because those people do not value all human lives equally. When it comes down to it, this is the way all social primates think.

As humans we can conceive of an ideal in which all human lives have equal value and some individuals do seem to embody this idea. But this idea has never taken hold in a more general way even, and this is important, even in nominally Buddhist societies.

So morality is always defined with respect to a group; with respect to my group. People are not equal and the fundamental split we all have is ingroup/outgroup in which very different obligations and expectations may apply. Killing might be the very worst and the very best thing one can do. It emerges from this that we consider some people to have earned their suffering.

Having set the scene, I will to return to karma in the next part and burrow deeper into the presuppositions which underpin the just world fallacy.


For a more detailed account of the evolution of morality see my trilogy on the subject,

See also

Frans de Waal's 2011 TED Talk. Do Animals Have Morals? (For much more detail see his book the The bonobo and the Atheist).