Showing posts with label Morality. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Morality. Show all posts

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. 


27 January 2017

Doctrine & Reason III: Madhyamaka Karma

4.4 Multiple Versions of Karma

In a recent online discussion with members of the Triratna Buddhist Order I discovered that we have no common narrative when it comes to karma. A majority believe in karma of some kind, but very often the kind of karma an Order member believes in is mutually contradictory with the kind that another Order member believes in. "Actions have consequences" is a relatively common way of expressing karma, but as we have seen (Part II), it is inadequate. The traditional idea of karma leading to rebirth is supernatural by its very nature, but encouragingly, a sizeable minority are reluctant to commit to any supernatural version of "actions have consequences". There is certainly no explanation to be found for karma in nature.

In a sense, the Order reflects the confused history of karma in Buddhism. Different versions emerged from time to time, presumably in response to perceived needs, and many of them were incompatible with others. More or less the only common features are the word karma and the notion that willed actions are somehow significant.

I've critiqued some of the main versions of karma, especially in an essay called The Logic of Karma (16 Jan 2015). So, for the purposes of this argument, I will focus on my critique of the Madhyamaka version of karma, particularly as set out in Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. I don't think I've given a detailed critique of this version before and it turns out to be the one most resistant to reasoned argument and is thus the view most in need of effective refutation.

5. Madhyamaka

5.1 Nāgārjuna the Nihilist

The most difficult version of karma to argue against is the one that begins with Nāgārjuna and comes down to us via various groups that have assimilated elements of his metaphysics (including those various schools that claim the label madhyamaka). It took me many years of  losing arguments with pseudo-intellectual mādhyamikas to work out what is wrong with Nāgārjuna's explanation of karma. As Nāgārjuna says, near the end of his chapter on karma:
karma cen nāsti kartā ca kutaḥ syāt karmajaṃ phalaṃ |
asaty atha phale bhoktā kuta evan bhaṣyati 
|| MMK 17.30 ||
If action and agent don't exist, how would an action produce a consequence?
And if the consequence does not exist, who would suffer it? 
Ultimately, for Nāgārjuna, there is no action (karma) and no agent (kartṛ), thus there is no consequence (phala), no one who experiences it (bhoktṛ), and thus no rebirth, either. At best, they are like an imaginary city in the sky, like a mirage, or a dream (MMK 17.33). So Nāgārjuna rejects the idea of actions having consequences.

I've read a number of explanations of Nāgārjuna's approach to karma and they all baulk at accepting his dismissal of karma and restate the mainstream Buddhist assertion that actions have real consequences. For example, Kalupahana concluded:
"The most significant assertion here is that the rejection of permanence and annihilation and the acceptance of emptiness and saṃsāra (or the life-process) do not imply the rejection of the relationship between action (karma) and the consequence." (1986: 55)
But, clearly, Nāgārjuna does reject the relationship between action and consequence and, what's more, he rejects the more fundamental notions of action, consequence, and relationship per se. To Nāgārjuna, these concepts are not part of paramārthasatya or ultimate truth. How should we read a statement like Kalupahana's which is echoed in other academic work? It seems that Nāgārjuna's rejection of karma and rebirth does not sit well with anyone who identifies with more mainstream Buddhist ideas. To say that agent, action, patient, and consequence are all just illusions is a form of nihilism.

My sense of Nāgārjuna is that he is trapped by his own articles of faith. In maintaining that nothing persists in the face of plentiful evidence to the contrary, he is left with no choice but to obfuscate and distract us from his dilemma. Ironically, we know this because we still have his actual words. They, at least, have persisted for some eighteen centuries. Mādhyamikās (those who follow madhyamaka ideology) are apt to point out that this is not what commentators have understood him to be saying. However, when the text is clear and the commentary contradicts it, we have little choice but to reject the commentary as driven by motivations unrelated to those of the author.

Nāgārjuna's view is a pernicious one, because it destroys the basis of morality. If actions do not have consequences at all, let alone appropriate and timely consequences, the observation of which allows us to modify our behaviour in the future to obtain different results, then morality is simply not possible. If there is no definite relationship between action and consequences, then there could only be chaos. The view appears to be based on a fundamental confusion.

5.2 Arguing Against Madhyamaka

However, this is also a view that is extremely resistant to rational argument, because part of the madhyamaka ideology, at least in its modern versions, is that rational argument has no place in the Buddhist system. Only personal experience counts towards knowledge and experience, by definition not susceptible to logic. Here we see medieval Buddhist folly meshing with Victorian Romantic folly to produce a persistent delusion. Mādhyamikas further stretch the credibility of a critic through the structure of their rhetoric. In the typical conversation about karma, the mādhyamika asserts their view (some variation on MMK 17.30) as though it were ultimate truth (pāramārtha-satya). If one disagrees on any grounds, they assign those grounds to relative truth, which is simply an illusion and can be safely ignored. Thus, any argument against the asserted view is defeated solely on the grounds that to dissent against the ultimate truth is always wrong. One cannot argue with ultimate truth. The use of reason to undermine the assertion of ultimate truth is dismissed or even mocked, because the ultimate truth allows no role whatever for reason. Having declined to recognise the validity of any objection, the mādhyamika will often emphatically restate their view and then refuse any further discussion.

The view itself is irrational, but the defence that any dissent can only be a manifestation of ignorance is potent. It allows the believer to summarily reject any argument without ever having to consider it. One cannot win an argument with a mādhyamika on their terms, so one must shift the terms and one way to do this is to undermine the foundations; i.e., to point out Nāgārjuna's fundamental errors and argue that the framework itself is flawed.

5.3 The Two Truths

The two truths doctrine is completely absent from the early Buddhist suttas. This suggests that the problem which the two truths were supposed to solve did not exist earlier. I see this problem emerging from the confusion of experience and reality. This happened partly because Buddhists took a description of experience and tried to use it to describe reality. At the same time, they singled out certain rarefied meditative experiences and thought of them as reality.

The early texts are fairly clear that the domain of application of Buddhist practice is experience. There is no word that conveys anything like our word "reality", no discussion of the nature of existence, the nature of objects. The focus is on the nature of experience. As Bodhi has said:
“The world with which the Buddha’s teaching is principally concerned is ‘the world of experience,’ and even the objective world is of interest only to the extent that it serves as that necessary external condition for experience.” (Bodhi 2000: 394, n.182
This is highlighted in the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12:15), a text which Nāgārjuna appears to cite, but completely misunderstand. The importance of this text is emphasised by Kalupahana when he suggests that MMK is a commentary on KS. What KS says is that existence (astitā) and non-existence (nāstitā) do not apply to the world of experience (loka). This means that the usual way of looking at objects doesn't apply to experience. When we have an experience, nothing comes into being; when the experience stops, nothing goes out of being. The ontology of experience, especially in Iron Age Ganges Valley, is difficult to pin down, in a way that the ontology of objects is not.

Experience is what it is, fleeting, insubstantial, and unsatisfactory. This was important at the time because Buddhists were in an argument with Brahmins about the possibility of experiencing absolute being (brahman/ātman). The Buddhist argument was that, since absolute being is unchanging, ever-changing experience could not allow access to it. We could not perceive something unchanging, because experience is always changing. So, even if an object was existent in this absolute sense, our experience of it would constantly change.

The classical texts say nothing much about the world of objects, except that they do acknowledge that some objects (particularly our bodies) persist through time. So the world of experience and the world of objects have a different ontology for early Buddhists (to the extent that they have any awareness of ontology). It is only experience that is governed by pratītyasamutpāda. Also, there seem to be no Pāḷi texts that seek to explain karma in terms of dependent arising, but by the early medieval period when Nāgārjuna was writing this distinction had been lost. By then, everything was understood to be governed in the same way. The description of mental events arising in the meditative mind was taken to be a universal principle. And this means that nothing whatever in the world might persist even for a second. And this in a world where objects do persist for years, decades, centuries, and millennia (the universe is currently thought to be 13.7 billion years old and will continue expanding indefinitely).

So Nāgārjuna's task was to explain away the ubiquitous evidence of persistence in favour of a reality in which nothing persists, based on an Iron Age theory of how experience works. He had to allow for persistence, because all the evidence of our senses tells us that external objects persist, while not allowing for persistence because dependent arising applied universally ruled it out.

By this time the Brahmanical arguments about absolute being seem to be a distant memory to Buddhists, which is puzzling because Brahmanical influence is seen everywhere in the development of Buddhism. The problem of absolute being is still present, but it is seen as a mistake that everyone makes with respect to their own experience. Some Buddhist groups were struggling to explain the connection between karma and phala. A Sanskrit term exists for this problem, i.e., karma-phala-saṃbandha, where saṃbandha means "connection".

Since it was completely implausible to assert that the world did not exist (or that existence did not apply to the world), Nāgārjuna was forced to accept that the world does exist. But he argued that this existence is saṃvṛti, a word meaning 'concealing, covering up, keeping secret'. Saṃvṛti-satya is often translated as "relative truth", but a Sanskrit speaker would be alive to the connotation of "concealing reality". In defiance of early Buddhists' reactions against absolute being, Nāgārjuna contrasted the world with an absolute reality: paramārtha-satya, translated as "ultimate reality", or "ultimate truth".

Both saṃvṛtisatya and paramārthasatya are not true. They are mistaken views that come about when we try to shoehorn dependent arising into everything. This is not to say that the experience of emptiness (śūnyatā) is not profound and transformative, only that it is an experience. It changes the way we perceive the world, which is an epistemological change. Ontology is unaffected by meditation.

5.4 The Confusion of Experience and Reality

Nāgārjuna's method is thus the theory tail wagging the evidence dog. And this methodology is one of the reasons his followers are locked into irrational positions. Evidence is made to fit the theory, not the other way around. And since this requires deprecating reason, rational arguments find no purchase. Compare this to the Pāḷi texts were rational arguments are part and parcel of Buddhism, alongside myth, legend, and inner monologues.

Nāgārjuna's worldview was one in which all domains are governed by dependent arising. He appears to see no alternative to this, despite being familiar with and valuing the Kaccānagotta Sutta. But this creates many problems for him, precisely because the persistence of the world and objects in the world is self-evident. Even something as simple as perceiving movement or change become problematic for Nāgārjuna. And, frankly, his task is not made any easier by composing his answers in metered verse.

The central problem with karma is what I have been calling action at a temporal distance, but which Indian commentators called karmaphalasaṃbandha. Karma requires consequences to manifest long after the condition for them have ceased. And this is forbidden by the formula of dependent arising.

Knowledge that we get by reasoning about experience is useful (i.e., an accurate and precise guide to interacting with the world), as long as we are actually reasoning rather than relying on a bias. Accurate and precise ontology requires careful comparing of notes and critical questioning of which assumptions in our worldview are valid. We have to switch to using abduction and eliminate all the impossible premises.  We did not begin to get this right until after 1543 when Nicolaus Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). The critical comparing of notes about experience is what enables us to understand the world. Unless we make a strict distinction between experience and reality, and have a very critical eye out for bias, we are apt to come to erroneous conclusions.

Nāgārjuna's fundamental mistake was to mix up epistemology and ontology, which is to say that he mistook experience, especially meditative experience, for reality; and the nature of experience for the nature of reality. Meditators I know continue to make this same fundamental error. Buddhists are constantly talking about the "nature of reality", but nothing about how we go about seeking insight could possibly tell us about reality.

It is entirely possible that we might gain insights into the workings of our minds, seen from the inside; that we might gain insight into the nature of experience. And this kind of knowledge is certainly very useful for avoiding misery. And even though reality is an over-arching super-set, which incorporates the mind and experience, as I have tried to show in my previous essays on reality, it is layered, and descriptions that work on one scale of mass, length, energy or complexity, may not work on another scale. So a perfect description of experience may still be a faulty description of other kinds of phenomena. In fact, the classical texts were wrong about the persistence of mental states - these do persist for short periods of time beyond the stimulating sensory contact, else we could not perceive the passage of time or any kind of change. Language and music both depend on this extension in time.

Nāgārjuna's description of reality is copied from a description of experience. Unsurprisingly, he comes to false conclusions about reality. He takes it as axiomatic that nothing persists. Indeed, he says that if anything were to persists that would contradict dependent arising (MMK 17.6). Note again that the classical Pāḷi texts don't have this problem, because they do not take dependent arising as a description of the world, only of experience (i.e., they take it to be an epistemology, not an ontology). In order to accommodate these obviously false conclusions, he has to bifurcate the truth into two domains, apparent and ultimate, because, for example, it is self-evident that our bodies and identities do persist over time. Nāgārjuna accommodates this by saying that it is true, but only relatively true (saṃvṛti-satya); i.e., true only in the sense that we perceive it to be true. In the ultimate view it is not true. Again this mixes up ontology and epistemology.

5.5 Compatibility with Reason

Ironically for modern Western mādhyamikas, our own intellectual tradition, from Heraclitus onwards, tells us that all existence is impermanent. At no point do we assume that if something exists, it is permanent and unchanging, except in the case of God. And since God no longer features in mainstream Western thought, even he is not a problem. For the Western tradition, persistence is not a problem per se because, unlike Buddhists, we do not associate all being with absolute being. We are not forced into the position of explaining away persistence as an illusion, because temporality is built into our notions of the world. We say quite explicitly that we live in a temporal world.*
* Pedants may be tempted to point out that quantum physics theorists are now suggesting that time might be an emergent property. 1. There is no consensus on this speculation. 2. Even if there were a consensus, descriptions of the quantum level are not relevant to the macro-world that was the whole world until the invention of the telescope and microscope in the early 17th Century. 

Rather than the classical position—that neither existence or non-existence apply to any experience—Nāgārjuna is forced into the bizarre assertion that both existence and non-existence apply to everything. Thus, the obviously false conclusions that his philosophy leads to are rationalised away. This is a philosophy in which obviously false conclusions have to be tolerated; the irrational is valorised, and logic is deprecated in favour of a religious ideal. Paradox becomes the sine qua non. And these conditions fit perfectly with the Romantic threads of modernism. The nihilism also fits the zeitgeist in which people feel that they don't matter and have no influence in the world, despite being bombarded with information about events in the world.

However, in our Western tradition, paradox usually suggests a deeper flaw in our understanding, which has led us to make false assumptions, or to frame the problem ineptly. Or they are curiosities. For example, "this sentence is not true" is a trivial example of a paradoxical sentence that is both grammatically and semantically well formed, but is logical impossible. All it tells us is that there is more to language than grammar and syntax. A glance at anyone's eyebrows as they speak could have told you the same.

For all these reasons, the Mādhyamikā view of karma is not compatible with reason. It's not a rational view. Nor, I argue, is it resolved by insight, because those with insight seem to be beset by the same confirmation bias as all of us: they seek and find confirmation of their pre-existing views. Most meditators spend many years absorbing the rhetoric of Buddhism before making any significant progress in developing insight. Thus when insights arise, confirmation bias prompts us to see them as proof of our view.

My best informant on the process of having insights suggests that each insight both shatters existing views, but tends to set up an alternative view. One finally sees the truth and is prepared to settle down with it. However, if we persist in practising, the next insight shows the flaws in this new view and points to another view. One has to go through this "Aha... Oh. Aha... Oh." process many times before one stops taking the views seriously and realises that all views are just different perspectives on experience. It's not that one gains insight into reality, but that one stops mistaking one's experience for reality.

However, Buddhists tend to treat Nāgārjuna as a god -- someone who had infallible omniscience. His words, or at least the interpretations of his words by commentators, are seen as ultimate truth. I notice that some people are puzzled that I would argue against Nāgārjuna. It seems to cause cognitive dissonance, because they accept what he says as gospel. To dissent from the "ultimate truth" is almost unimaginable to many Buddhists. It is akin to blasphemy, and they often respond the way theists to do blasphemy: with hostility.

So why do modern scholars not take Nāgārjuna to task as someone who mistook experience for reality? After all, they are supposed to bring a certain objectivity to their work, aren't they? Buddhist Studies is all about accepting Buddhism on its own terms, rather than taking a critical stance. So in the 21st Century we still find scholars trying to elucidate Nāgārjuna on his own terms and he is still hailed as probably the greatest Buddhist philosopher. To me, Nāgārjuna is the greatest disaster in Buddhist philosophy because his mistake continues undetected and his influence is pervasive (it goes far beyond Madhyamaka). This is partly because the mādhyamika rhetoric is impervious to reason, but partly also because Buddhists don't use reason when thinking about their views anyway: they only seek confirmation, they do not seek falsification. Of course confirmation bias is a feature of argument production, but religious argumentation discourages doubt and scepticism.

This critique will most like not make any impact whatever on the way people see Nāgārjuna or the way his disciples see the world. The way Madhyamaka is set up employs several cult-like features that make adherents particularly hard to reach. Those who do not simply reject the argument out of hand, will condescendingly explain that I have simply misunderstood the ultimate truth. I'm with Richard Feynman however, "I'd rather have questions that cannot be answered, than answers that cannot be questioned."

This concludes the central argument of this essay. It remains to sum up and conclude.

6. Compatible With Reason?

I set out in this essay to explore the idea that the Buddhist belief in karma is compatible with reason. I argued that both karma and reason are complex subjects on which authorities disagree about almost every detail. Karma has few common features across Buddhist sects apart from the proposition that actions cause rebirth. Also, reason and our ability to employ the methods of reasoning have been widely misunderstood. Reasoning is, more often than not, subverted by cognitive biases and logical fallacies. Even so, I tried to set out a coherent account of how reason works and how we might use it to think about karma in general terms. I then critiqued a particular Buddhist view about how karma is supposed to work, by showing how the reasoning in that view is flawed.

The question I posed in Part I of this essay was, could we come up with the doctrine of karma from first principles. That is, based on experience, can we infer—using deduction, induction, and/or abduction—a doctrine in which our actions lead to rebirth; or the watered down version that our actions infallibly lead to appropriate and timely consequences.

Based on observations across many species of primate, Frans de Waal is able to deduce that we all experience empathy and understand reciprocity. From reciprocity we can induce an understanding of fairness and justice. And from this we can construct a highly plausible, bottom-up theory of morality that has broad applicability and explains a great deal. In this view, morality can be understood as a principle in which the social consequences of actions are appropriate and timely.

To get to a doctrine of karma however, we have to go beyond experience and observation, and make a number of unsupported assumptions. Firstly, we have to assume a just world. This assumption is so common that it has its own name: the just-world fallacy. Secondly, we have to assume that a supernatural afterlife exists, in defiance of the laws of nature. Thirdly, we have to assume that this afterlife is cyclic or a hybrid between cyclic and linear. Many religions have a linear eschatology, a single destination afterlife. There is no credible evidence that we cite to help us choose which is the true version of events. In fact, the way the world seems to work rules out all these possibilities. Fourthly, we have to assume that some mechanism connects our actions to our post-mortem fate.

None of these assumptions is compatible with reason, since none of these assumptions is based on inferences from evidence or experience; i.e., they were not produced by reasoning. They are assumptions that we make so that our doctrine works in the way that we wish it to. All the evidence suggests that these assumptions are simply false (an afterlife is demonstrably false). So assuming that they are true is certainly not compatible with reason. And yet, without these assumptions, there can be no karma doctrine. So karma doctrines, as a class, are not compatible with reason.

Forms of morality in which the social consequences of our social interaction are appropriate and timely are at least possible, even if our social groups seldom attain the ideal. Beyond this, reason, fails.

In my critique of Madhyamaka karma I tried to show that the problem of continuity (saṃbandha) remains unsolved and that it seems insoluble within the traditional Buddhist metaphysics. A completely different approach to ontology would be required because the description of mental-states arising does not work as a general description of the world. In other essays I have proposed such an approach. In my proposed ontology all existence is temporary, both substance and structure are real, and structures (such as our bodies and minds) persist over time, for a time. Morality is explained by bottom-up manifestations of empathy and reciprocity, but karma is ruled out because there is no afterlife, no supernatural, and no just-world.

karma is not
compatible with
Belief in karma fails to meet the standard set in Subhuti's essay (cited in Part I). So, the major conclusion of this long essay is that karma is not compatible with reason. By this I mean that no existing Buddhist version of the doctrine of karma is compatible with reason. I also infer that any theory of karma that involves logical fallacies (such as the just-world fallacy) or supernatural elements (such as an afterlife) cannot ever be compatible with reason. Since no logical fallacy or supernatural element is demonstrable, karma also appears to fail Subhuti's verifiability criterion.


Post Script. 29 Jan 2017. Someone wrote in to say that my understanding of Nāgārjuna's approach to karma was "obviously false", because he talks about karma in more conventional ways in other texts, such as the Ratnāvalī. But the fact that a Buddhist talks about karma in different ways in different contexts is completely consistent with the trend I first identified in 2013. In contexts that emphasise morality, Buddhists maintain a narrative that emphasises continuity between actions and consequences; for example, in the Jātakas, the personal continuity of people across lifetimes is normal; while in contexts that emphasise metaphysics this continuity is denied, and the idea of any persistence of any kind is rejected. And these two narratives co-exist. Buddhists switch between them without even noticing that they are doing so. Our metaphysics denies the possibility of morality; and yet morality is clearly very important to all Buddhists and karma is maintained in defiance of our metaphysics, without even achieving resolution. So the fact that Nāgārjuna exhibits this same kind of duplicity is not evidence that he does not deny the reality of karma in Mūlamadhyamakakārikā


Attwood, Jayarava. (2014). Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21, 503-535.

Barrett, Justin L. (2004). Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press.

Bodhi. 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: a Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Kalupahana, David J. (1986) Nāgārjuna, The Philosophy of the Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. SUNY.

Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. (2011). Why Do Humans Reason. Arguments for an Argumentative Theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 34: 57 – 111. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000968. Available from Dan Sperber's website.

Subhuti (2007) There are Limits or Buddhism with Beliefs. Privately circulated.

Subhuti & Sangharakshita (2013) Seven Papers. Triratna. See also

Yang, J. H., Barnidgeb, M. and Rojasa, H. (2017) The politics of “Unfriending”: User filtration in response to political disagreement on social media. Computers in Human Behavior 70, May 2017: 22–29

20 January 2017

Doctrine & Reason II: Morality & Karma

4. Reasoning about Morality


In this section of the essay I will extend my critique of karma by focussing on some general ideas related to reasoning and karma; and then in Part III, I will outline a more specific critique of Nāgārjuna's approach to karma.

One of the functions of Dharma study in the Triratna Buddhist Order is to help identify and quantify our existing views, or what Justin L Barrett (2004) calls non-reflective beliefs. This process is more effective if we experience cognitive dissonance. That is, when our beliefs are challenged by information that is true, but seems to contradict our worldview. Without the dissonance, we might never even know that we had a view, since many non-reflective views are transparent to introspection. Simply asking ourselves what our views are, is ineffective. Creating cognitive dissonance is a reliable method of identifying such views. Our negative reactions are a window into the unconscious, non-reflective belief system that shapes our worldview. This worldview can be quite different from our professions of belief and the doctrines that we recite as religieux. So our reactivity is an important clue to where our true beliefs lie. Which I find salutary. On the plus side, reactivity is part of the process as long as we reflect on it.

Ironically, converting to Buddhism often involves consciously taking on a whole raft of views. It can take many years to internalise these views, but one the goals of conversion is to achieve fluency in the jargon and behavioural quirks of a particular Buddhist group. Part of the goal is to develop what John Searle (1995) calls dispositions. Dispositions are generalised behavioural habits that allow us to behave in ways that are consistent with social norms, without us having to consciously follow rules all the time. As we internalise the rules, following them becomes a background capability. As Subhuti indicates (Part I), such beliefs and dispositions can be seen as constitutive of being Buddhist. The moment when one is acknowledged to have internalised the norms of the group and is accepted as a full member of the group is an important step in the religious life. In the Triratna Buddhist Order this corresponds with ordination.

When membership of the group is predicated on endorsing certain views, we can always find confirmation of such views from other members of the group. The resulting effect is called an echo-chamber (where we all reflect each other's view) and it can lead to groupthink, a cognitive bias in which we all go along with a perceived consensus for fear of being socially isolated. This is part of a broader psychological phenomenon called social proof, in which we judge the safest course of action to be doing what everyone else is doing (this may be related to the basic level of empathy, i.e., emotional contagion). On the one hand, these are behaviours we can expect to find in all social animals because they strengthen social bonds and promote security and, on the other, they are highly limiting for individuals and suppress reasoning. If our views are to be compatible with reasoning, then we cannot simply go along with what everyone else says or does, even if that means that our membership of the group is threatened.

Few people step outside and confront intelligent criticism of their views. In the case of Buddhism, very little intelligent criticism of Buddhist doctrine exists. So, even if one does step outside, one goes from an echo-chamber to a virtual vacuum. For example, in my collection of articles on karma I have just two that make any attempt to assess the idea on its merits. If one wanted to critically evaluate karma based on published sources, one would find two kinds of literature: religious apologetics and scholarly works that take Buddhism on its own terms. To my knowledge, there is no general survey of the dozen or so competing Buddhist accounts of karma, no critical or comparative studies of these views, no sense even that Buddhists might disagree on the subject of karma. There is no attempt to reconcile karma with modernity or to acknowledge the difficulty of such a project.

As Subhuti hints above, Buddhist karma is inextricably linked to rebirth. Karma refers to a variety of doctrines which boil down to: actions cause rebirth. The quality of our actions in this life determine the quality of our rebirth, unless we are liberated. The primary goal of traditional Buddhism is to end rebirth, either for oneself or for everyone. Since both virtue (dhamma) and vice (adhamma) lead to rebirth (See Thag 304), albeit better (sugati) and worse (duggati) rebirths, the Buddhist has to transcend all willed activity that might lead to rebirth. This way of looking at the Bauddhadharma has a flavour of the Jainadharma to it, as it was the Jains who saw all activity as karmic and resolved to do no action - the acme of which was to sit in meditation until one died, probably from dehydration or starvation.

Unfortunately, beyond this bare outline, almost every detail of karma doctrine is disputed, and some modern proponents of karma theory would dispute even this much. Karma is a rubric for a wide range of views on morality, many of which are mutually exclusive. So reasoning about karma is much more difficult that it seems at first glance, because we first have to establish which karma belief is being reasoned about.

4.2 Actions have Consequences

One common view on karma mistakenly equates it to cause and effect. Karma is not a theory of cause and effect. Karma only applies to our willed actions and the vast majority of events in the universe are not caused by willed actions. Humans are just one species, on just one planet, in an observable universe of two trillion galaxies, each with about 100 billion stars. So let's not overstate our role in matters.

Based on our past interactions with people, we can deduce that certain types of behaviours have desirable consequences and others have undesirable consequences. All social animals have a disposition to being prosocial, but each group has its own aesthetic norms that we must learn and internalise. A group is the sum of the personalities of the individuals that make it up, though a social group may be a structure that has emergent properties (culture).

By the time they reach adulthood, a young social mammal has to had have enough experience to generalise about what kind of interactions are favourable and which are not, in their group. They have to have internalised these as dispositions to enable them behave within social norms most of the time without having to laboriously reference rules consciously. Social animals typically acknowledge that gaining this knowledge and experience takes time. For example, social animals are typically very tolerant of infants, but have higher expectations as group members approach sexual maturity. Most social mammals have a very low tolerance of anti-social behaviour amongst adults.

We humans don't always get this right. For example, we may behave in an antisocial manner and be treated roughly, but come to the wrong conclusion. We may not have insight into our own role in the interaction, conclude that other people are mean, and continue to act in antisocial manner. Our modern, large impersonal cities regularly produce anti-social behaviour that becomes entrenched.

That said, I think probably every one I know would consider the proposition that actions have consequences to be a self-evident statement of fact. Which suggests that it is a belief at the non-reflective level, albeit one that is accessible to introspection. For most people it is simply axiomatic in human relations. Even people who are habitually antisocial seem to understand that their actions have consequences. Often, the problem is that they do not identify with the (often large, amorphous) group that is trying to obtain their compliance, but have allegiance to a local, more personalised group. Indeed, the acceptance of actions have consequences seems to be universal amongst humans and to have analogues (at least) amongst other social animals.

Some of us take the axiom, actions have consequences, to be a summary of the doctrine of karma. But this is not what the traditional view was. Traditionally, karma is always linked to rebirth. Karma usually says that we are reborn according to the weight and kind of our deeds in life; or if liberated, we are not reborn at all. That is: karma causes rebirth. In some versions of the karma doctrine, karma may also ripen as an experience (vedanā) within a rebirth, but rebirth is still the primary manifestation of karma. Karma without rebirth is not karma. Those who leave rebirth out, are often adjusting karma to fit with a secular humanist outlook. I have some sympathy with this approach, but calling it "karma" seems to miss the point. All karma is moralistic; but not all morality is karmic.

"Actions have consequences" is about the vaguest true statement about morality that one could possibly make. It is true, but it doesn't say much. Everybody knows it and the vast majority internalise it as infants. There is nothing particularly Buddhist about it. If we are talking about karma then there is something missing (apart from rebirth). By this I mean that there is no implication that the consequences will be appropriate to the action. And this leads us naturally into considering fairness and justice.

4.2 Fairness and Justice

"Actions have consequences" is the minimum one needs to know to understand how to behave in social groups. Probably all social mammals have some grasp of this concept. But, on its own, it is hardly good enough to explain morality. Morality, according to Frans de Waal, is based on two qualities found in social animals: empathy and reciprocity. I've essayed these two qualities (See The Evolution of Morality), but here will focus on reciprocity and its implications for karma.

Social animals understand reciprocity. It is a feature of the social lifestyle that animals share what they have. At a minimum, they club together to share food resources, for defence, and especially in social primates, for access to mates. And part of reciprocity involves keeping track of sharing: who shares with us, in particular. We preferentially share with those who share with us and we don't share with those who don't share with us. As I noted in my exposition of Frans de Waal's ideas on the evolution of morality, this entails a basically generous disposition: in principle, each individual must be prepared to start off sharing, else no one would share with anyone. This disposition to generosity and sharing means than when another group member does not share we are attuned to this as a kind of threat to the group. When things are unfair we feel it.

The classic example of this is the much watched video of the capuchin monkey who, perceiving that his comrade is receiving better rewards for the same task, angrily throws his food back at the researchers and screeches at her. All of the social animals which have been tested seem to grasp basic fairness related to rewards for tasks. They all notice another individual getting too much reward. Chimps also notice an individual getting too little and are able to reason out that the one getting too little may retaliate later on.

Even for these animals, who are trained to perform actions for rewards and thus fully comprehend that actions have consequences, the consequences cannot be arbitrary. They will perform the task for a lesser reward as long as the others are getting the same reward. They expect the rewards to be fair.

For consequences to be fair they must be appropriate to the action and appear in a timely manner. These two restrictions (niyāma) are explicit in Buddhist karma doctrine, though they are not always formalised, and even then not until relatively late. In Buddhaghosa's conception of niyāma, appropriateness is symbolised by the rice seed giving rise to a rice plant and is called the germinal-restriction or bīja-niyāma. Results appearing in a timely manner are symbolised by the timely arrival of the monsoon or the season for flowering or fruiting; and this is called the seasonal-restriction or utu-niyāma. Buddhaghosa added a third restriction which was that consequences of willed actions were inescapable, which he called the action-restriction or kamma-niyāma. As I explored in my article Escaping the Inescapable (Attwood 2014), this restriction was deprecated by Mahāyānists who proposed that consequences could be avoided through religious exercises. The idea of avoiding karma through religious exercises probably came from Jainism, since it is a characteristic of their religion, but absent from early Buddhist accounts of Buddhism.

Justice involves the idea that unfair situations can be made fair by taking actions. And as morality is based on reciprocity, justice is often seen in terms of balance or debt. An antisocial action upsets the balance or creates a debt. It must be balanced out by pro-social actions, or the debt must be paid in kind. A criminal has to "pay their debt to society". Arguably, the capuchin, by displaying and flinging food, was taking action to restore fairness and was thus pursuing justice.

It is not enough for actions to have consequences; we have to add some restrictions, some niyāmas. The consequences of actions have to have be appropriate and timely for the situation to seem fair. This principle is starting to look sufficiently sophisticated to account for morality. It is certainly broad enough to encompass many definitions of fairness and justice. Some accounts of karma stress that one gets the rebirth one deserves; one's life is a logical consequence of actions in a previous life.; and so on. Where we get squeamish is when someone who is not obviously evil is struggling with some burden like congenital illness. We wonder what they can have done in a past life to deserve such a fate. Blaming the victim for their misfortune is an unfortunate aspect of the just-world fallacy.

This brings up the major problem that we have. The whole point of the idea that actions have consequences is that I suffer the consequences of my actions; and you suffer the consequences of your actions. Additionally, I may suffer from your actions and vice versa, and this must figure in any rational moral theory, but karma doctrines emphasise the way my actions lead to rebirth for me. The connection between action and consequence is specific and completely non-random. There is no question that if you suffer the consequences of my actions, that you will perceive this as unfair and unjust. The problem is that karma is restricted by dependent arising. And dependent arising, as usually interpreted, disallows any persistence of effect beyond the cessation of its condition (imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati). The best we can offer is that the person who suffers the consequences of the action arises in dependence on the agent of the action. This is a rather distant relationship compared to most moral formulas.

4.2.1 Fairness in Buddhism

In fact, this distance between action and consequence must have troubled Indian Buddhists as well. We know this because their literature is full of morality tales, in which actions in a past life have consequences for the same person in their present life. These are the jātaka stories (which occur throughout the literature as well as in a specific collections such as Jātakapāḷi and Apadāna). The typical framework is that something happens, then the Buddha tells a story of a deed done in the past, and concludes with identifying how the event in the present is affecting people now because of their behaviour in previous lives, explicitly identifying them as the same people. In jātaka stories there is a direct line from action in the previous life to consequence in this one. It seems to have escaped the sustained attention of scholars that this is a direct contradiction of dependent arising. Despite the contradiction, jātaka stories became enormously popular in Indian Buddhism. They are the main theme of stūpa decorations during the Asoka period, for example. And they are the main vehicle for teaching morality in Theravāda countries down to the present.

So Buddhists maintain two distinct narratives in relation to morality, one which emphasises pragmatic morality and the other which emphasises a negative metaphysics of self.
  1. My actions have appropriate and timely consequences for me, especially rebirth.
  2. There is no "I" who can will actions.
The generally unacknowledged corollary of 2. is that without an "I" there can be no morality. Nāgārjuna does more or less acknowledge it at the end of Chp 17 of Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā, but it earns him the sobriquet of nihilist from the rest of the Buddhist world, to the extent they were aware of him (he appears to have had zero influence on Theravāda Buddhism, for example). A closer look at Nāgārjuna's answer to the problem of karma makes up the bulk of Part III.

Modern day Buddhists tend to segue between these two narratives so seamlessly that it took me 20 years to notice it happening. In talking about morality we insist actions have appropriate and timely consequences for the individual. In talking about metaphysics we assert that the self is at best an illusion, and therefore the one experiencing the consequences is not the same as the agent who performed the action, but not different. When this threatens to undermine morality, we slip back into talking about actions and consequences.

4.3 Just World Fallacy

In our social world we expect the consequences of our actions to have appropriate and timely consequences. In other words, we expect other members of our group to act predictably. Social living is predicated on us all having predictable responses to social situations. It doesn't matter so much what the norms of the group are, with some limitations; as long as most members of the group follow the rules most of the time, the group will thrive. How a group of humans live is as much a matter of aesthetics as morality and practicalities.

This expectation is rational within a social setting, but we go a step further. We infer that if social actions have appropriate and timely consequences, then the whole world ought function this way. This is the just-world fallacy. It is a fallacy because, although the world does follow rules (or least rule-like paths), it does not follow our social rules. The universe does not care about us any more than a landslide, earthquake, or volcano cares about us. Where humans are constantly modifying their behaviour in response to each other, the universe never modifies its behaviour in response to humans. The universe has no trolley problem; it would never swerve to avoid killing anyone.

A contributing factor to this fallacy may be animism, which is the most ubiquitous supernatural belief. In this view the world is full of supernatural beings, often called "spirits". In Burma they are nats; in Japan kami; in India devas, and so on. Most people, for most of human history, seem to have believed that spirits inhabited the world around them. And these spirits are commonly seen as part of the community. Special people called, shaman, had the role of mediating between physical beings and spirits. It was only natural that any expectations of our social group would extend to these non-material members as well, though they are often more capricious than humans. The extension of this expectation to nature as a whole is no stretch of the imagination.

However it came about, it is common for people to assume that the rules of social interaction apply across the board; i.e., that the world itself is, or ought to be, fair. What this means is that if we are, on the whole, good, we expect good things to happen; not only amongst our group, but generally in the world. We expect to be lucky, for example, to have good fortune, to avoid misfortune. The corollary of this is that if we experience misfortune, it may be that we have inadvertently transgressed or that someone has used magic against us.

It does not take a genius to see that the world is not fair. Consequences of actions are not always (I would say seldom) appropriate and timely. Another aspect of a pre-scientific worldview that is almost universal is belief in life-after-death. An afterlife seems plausible for any number of reasons, including out-of-body experiences, near-death experience, dreams, hallucinations, etc., that give credence to the necessary Cartesian-style mind-body dualism. Also, we have a very strong desire to continuing living, which operates on many levels. So, in this sense, anything which seems to confirm the existence of an afterlife is willingly accepted and any counterfactual information is quietly buried.

The presumed existence of life after death provides a neat solution to the problem created by consequences which are inappropriate and/or untimely. Everything is balanced out in the afterlife. This may involve literal weighing up of actions, or a ledger of good and bad deed or, in the case of karma, some mechanism which is unclear, but produces the right results (what I call a black-box function)

Having dealt with a number of generalities regarding morality, in the next part of this essay I will turn to the specific subject of Nāgārjuna's approach to karma as found in Chapter 17 of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.

Preceded by Part I | Continued by Part III


Attwood, Jayarava. (2014). Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21, 503-535.

Barrett, Justin L. (2004). Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press.

Kalupahana, David J. (1986) Nāgārjuna, The Philosophy of the Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. SUNY.

Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. (2011). Why Do Humans Reason. Arguments for an Argumentative Theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 34: 57 – 111. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000968. Available from Dan Sperber's website.

Searle, John R. (1995). The Construction of Social reality. Penguin.

Subhuti (2007) There are Limits or Buddhism with Beliefs.

Yang, J. H., Barnidgeb, M. and Rojasa, H. (2017) The politics of “Unfriending”: User filtration in response to political disagreement on social media. Computers in Human Behavior 70, May 2017: 22–29