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  • Karma and the Problem of Evil:A Response to Kaufman
  • Monima Chadha and Nick Trakakis


The doctrine of karma, as elaborated in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religious traditions, offers a powerful explanatory account of the human predicament, and in particular of seemingly undeserved human suffering. Whitley R. P. Kaufman (2005) is right to point out that on some points, such as the suffering of children, the occurrence of natural disasters, and the possibility of universal salvation, the karma theory appears, initially at least, much more satisfactory than the attempts made to solve the perennial problem of evil by writers working within the mainstream theistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (p. 19).1 Kaufman, we think, is also correct to highlight the lack of critical analysis given by contemporary (analytic or Anglo American) philosophers of religion to the theory of karma, at least in comparison with the voluminous body of work produced in recent years on the theistic problem of evil (p. 16). Kaufman's recent article in this journal, therefore, is to be welcomed as a step toward redressing this imbalance in the literature, and in the process helping to remove the Western theistic bias of much contemporary philosophy of religion.

On the other hand, we think that Kaufman has unfortunately done little to further the general understanding of the doctrine of karma and the way in which this doctrine is presented as an answer to the problem of evil. Kaufman offers six objections to the karma theory, stating "Here I will present five distinct objections to the theory of rebirth, all of which raise serious obstacles to the claim that rebirth can provide a convincing solution to the Problem of Evil" (p. 19).2 We believe not only that all of these objections fail in their stated aim, but that Kaufman's way of proceeding, his methodology, helps to explain why his criticisms of the karma theory do not succeed. But before considering Kaufman's six objections in detail, we wish to say something briefly about the preliminary remarks Kaufman makes in the introductory section of his article.

First, a terminological worry. Kaufman states that he will be treating the karma theory as a 'theodicy' (pp. 16-17). As traditionally understood, a theodicy aims primarily, in the celebrated words of John Milton, to "justify the ways of God to men" ([1667] 2000, p. 3). That is to say, a theodicy aims to vindicate the justice or goodness of God in the face of the evil found in the world, and this it attempts to do by offering a reasonable explanation as to why God allows evil to abound in his creation. The construction of theodicies has therefore played a pivotal role in theistic [End Page 533] religions, but it clearly has no place within nontheistic religions. That is why Barry Whitney's comprehensive bibliography on theodicy has so few entries relating to the doctrine of karma (Whitney 1993).3 Kaufman is not unaware of this problem, but states in response that "it would be a great mistake to insist on an unnecessarily narrow formulation of the problem of evil, in particular one that assumes an ethical monotheist religion" (p. 17). However, this is to confuse the project of offering a the-odicy with the much broader project of offering a response to the problem of evil. Although a theodicy can be offered as a solution to the theistic problem of evil, it may be of little or no use in relation to other varieties of the problem of evil. It would be more appropriate, therefore, to speak of karma as an explanatory account of the existence of evil and suffering, rather than as a theodicy or a moral justification for the actions of a benevolent God.4

Second, Kaufman conceives of the doctrine of karma not only as a theodicy, but also as a 'theory' in the sense of a fully developed philosophical account of the presence of evil, or, as he puts it, "a complete, systematic theory of the origins and explanation of human suffering" (p. 18). Given such high expectations, it is no wonder that the doctrine of karma is a failure in Kaufman...


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