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.


Security

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. 


~~oOo~~