20 January 2017

Doctrine & Reason II: Morality & Karma

This is part II of III | Part I | Part II | Part III |

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 others view) and it can lead to groupthink, a cognitive bias in which we all go along with a perceived consensus for fear of being social 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 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 it's 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 for defence, share food resources, and especially in social primates, 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 ends 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 it. 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.



Attwood, Jayarava. (2014). Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21, 503-535. http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/2014/06/04/changes-in-buddhist-karma

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
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