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  • Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil:An Interjection in the Debate between Whitley Kaufman and Monima Chadha and Nick Trakakis
  • Arvind Sharma

The recent debate in the pages of Philosophy East and West has acquired a sharp focus with the following comment by Whitley Kaufman toward the end of his response to Monima Chadha and Nick Trakakis:

Let me summarize my main concern about the karma/rebirth system this way. The great attraction of the karma system is its reassurance that we are completely in control of our own fate, that whatever happens to us is a predictable consequence of our own choices. While it means we are prisoners of our past, it also means that the future is entirely within our control. No doubt, this feature of karma is a source of its great appeal. But this promise comes at a great price. It entails that there is no such thing as innocent suffering, that everyone gets just what he deserves. But then there can be no moral obligation to help others in distress, to protect, to rescue, perform acts of charity, or even to feel compassion for a sufferer. Most other theodices begin with the acceptance that there is such a thing as innocent suffering, that as humans we do not have godlike control of our destiny, but are fragile, vulnerable beings, often in need of help from others. The implication is a deep moral obligation to help those in need, to feel compassion and pity for those in pain. In contrast, karma elevates the "blame the victim" idea into a systematic principle. The question at stake is which account is more plausible, the idea that everyone is getting just what he deserves, and so we should not interfere with the cosmic punitive scheme, or the idea that there is genuine, undeserved suffering in the world, and that it is thus our duty to help reduce the misery and pain in the world?1

The statement that "karma elevates the 'blame the victim' idea to a systematic principle" seems to capture the central logic of the passage and therefore raises the question: does the doctrine of karma and rebirth, as presented within the Indic religious tradition, countenance such a view?

I think one needs to be clear about the issue to begin with, namely whether the doctrine of karma and rebirth can be interpreted callously by those who might wish to do so, or whether it is a callous doctrine, in the sense depicted in the passage, by and of itself. An example might help clarify the point. A patient may have contracted lung cancer as a result of being a chronic smoker. Medical science avers this to be the case. Then does it make medical science a callous science? From the standpoint of medical science it is a question of fact and not value. Chronic smoking causes cancer, so the statement that a patient is now suffering from lung cancer as a result [End Page 572] of being a chronic smoker is a statement of fact, which does not make medical science a callous science. If, however, the doctor were to say to the patient after she has been so diagnosed, "You brought this cancer on yourself by chronic smoking. You are to blame for it. Therefore I am not going to treat you"—then the doctor would be exhibiting a callous streak and would have let down his profession. The doctor has converted the fact into a negative value by blaming the victim. Normally, however, doctors convert it into a positive value—in the sense that while holding the victim responsible for her condition, they do what they can to treat it and are solicitous rather than callous in their approach to the patient.

It is important to bear in mind that the doctrine of karma and rebirth, as understood within the Indic tradition, encompasses both these dimensions of fact and value.

Just as the doctor accepts the individual responsibility of the smoker as a fact but proceeds to help him in terms of his value system, similarly the doctrine of karma and rebirth accepts the individual responsibility of the sufferer as a fact but...