- Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil:A Reply to Critics
My goal in "Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil" was to stimulate discussion about karma and rebirth as a solution to the problem of innocent suffering in the world. As such, I welcome the chance to hear from critics such as Chadha and Trakakis and am happy to attempt a response.1 In their critique, they attempt to portray me as ignorant of the many precise subtleties and refinements of the karmic philosophy, and thus incapable of judging it. However, as I stated in my original article, my purpose is not to present a historically based synthesis of the karma-rebirth doctrine, but rather to attempt, using the most charitable interpretation possible and not being rigidly bound to doctrinal traditions or texts, an active reconstruction of the best case for a systematic theodicy based on karma, in order to see whether it can successfully explain the origin of evil. But I would also suggest that there is often a certain advantage in having a detached perspective on a subject, since one who is too closely involved in the subject matter may fail to attain objectivity about it, and be prone to dogmatic acceptance of doctrines even when they defy common sense. But let the reader decide: I will briefly present my reactions to their criticism of my six principal objections to karma and rebirth.
The Memory Problem
It is, I argued, a basic principle of justice that one should in general be apprised of what one is being punished for and why; indeed, this knowledge would seem essential [End Page 556] to the process of moral education. But the karmic system does not provide us this knowledge. The critics' responses are disappointing.
First, they distort the objection into an "unreasonable demand for precise correlations between bad acts in the past and consequent sufferings in the future." In fact, the problem is not merely the lack of precise correlations, but of any correlation at all. I am unaware of a single verified historical example of anyone having a memory of one's deeds in a past life presented as explanation for present suffering. Anyway, why is demand for a precise correlation unreasonable? Isn't that exactly what we demand when parents punish children, or when society punishes criminals?
Their second reply is simply the dogmatic insistence that one should simply have faith: karma tells us that our present sufferings are correlated with past deeds, and that's the end of the discussion. It should suffice that one knows one is being punished for an unspecified wrong committed at an unspecified past time and place, because that is what karma says. This, of course, is simply to ignore the objection and to refuse to countenance the possibility that karma might not be an ideal explanation of human suffering.
The Proportionality Problem
The widely-accepted proportionality principle holds that the punishment should be proportional to the crime. But it seems implausible that people have committed such horrendous crimes in past lives to deserve the kinds of horrible suffering that is all too common in human life. Thus, karma seems to violate the proportionality principle.
In response, first, they try to evade the question by a misdirection, quibbling about theism versus an impersonal cosmic mechanism. But justice requires proportionality no matter whether there is a personal God or an impersonal mechanism behind human suffering.
Next, they acknowledge the Proportionality rule, but insist that it follows that it is in fact satisfied by karma. People who suffer terribly really must have been horribly sadistic, brutal, and Nazi-like in past lives. But this is just my point: such a claim is highly dubious. Even a superficial knowledge of history and of human nature makes it simply implausible that so many people could have been so evil.2 Again, it seems a case where an a priori conviction that karma is true can lead one into a distorted conception of reality.
The Infinite Regress Problem
There is no doubt that belief in radical free will would manage to avoid a regress in explaining the origin of evil. However, this is no better...