Karmic punishment is not a good thing

I’m continuing to examine Justin Whitaker‘s interpretation of Pali Buddhist ethics as Kantian moral law. I argued last time that the concept of dhamma does not serve in these texts as a universal, trans-human moral law. Here I want to take a similar look at the concept of kamma – better known in English as karma.

Justin claims that for Kant “the Moral Law is universal, concerned with all (rational) beings, and is holistic in its conception of morality as a guarantor to a just realm of ends (supported by the moral argument for belief in God).” (47) I think this interpretation of Kant is missing something in that Kant does not view the moral argument as demonstrating that there actually is a guarantee of cosmic justice, only that we must act as if there is (it is a regulative ideal). But I’ll leave that aside here because I want to focus on the comparison to Buddhism. Justin develops his comparison between karma and Kant’s moral law in response to Charles Goodman:

Goodman argues that Kant holds the premise that ‘it is bad for the wicked to be happy and good for them to suffer’ whereas Buddhists are ‘committed to the idea that genuine great compassion motivates those who have it to relieve the suffering, and promote the happiness, of the virtuous and the wicked alike’ (199). While this is an acceptable assessment of Kant, it seems to conflate the Buddhist ideal of wishing happiness for all beings (Kant may well have wished the same), with the Buddhist philosophical reality of karma. For, as Keown recognised, both karma (with rebirth) and Kant’s God as judge of deeds in the afterlife guarantee the happiness of the good and the punishment of the wicked. (Whitaker 47)

What Justin misses here, I would argue, is this: while karma does indeed reward the good and punish the wicked, this is not viewed as a good thing. Karma is simply there, like the oceans and stars – and like old age, disease and death. The Abrahamic God, inherited by Kant, is righteous, omnibenevolent. Karma is not. Karma is not something that is or should be celebrated; nobody in the Pali Canon, as far as I know, says “let us rejoice that actions bear karmic fruit” or anything similar. Quite the opposite: karma is an essential part of the problem that is suffering. That is especially true of bad karma, but even the karmic reward of a good rebirth in heaven is dangerous because heavenly pleasures lead us to further attachment and make it harder to escape suffering. So the Buddha and the arhats (liberated ones) are frequently said to be beyond puñña and pāpa (good and bad karma) – multiple times in the Sutta Nipāta, for example. That’s what we’re supposed to be aiming for – to get out of the inhumane, callous causality that is karma.

It is not only karmic punishment that is suspicious. The texts make frequent criticism of the punishment engaged in by kings, which is one of the multiple reasons they offer for a disengaged Buddhism. The Aggañña Sutta claims that having a ruler punish wrongdoers is necessary – and bad. Punishment is claimed to be pāpaka and akusala. Similarly, in the Mūgapakkha or Temīya Jātaka – one of the Ten Great Jātakas beloved throughout the Buddhist world – the buddha-to-be, a prince, observes his father punishing criminals, and thinks “Alas, because he is a king my father is doing terrible (atibhāriya) things, which will take him to hell.” So he pretends to be deaf-mute in order to avoid the awfulness that is kingship. For us to punish wrongdoers, then, is a dangerous thing, morally ambiguous at the very best. The universe’s way of punishing wrongdoers, I think, is not much better.

Why is punishment such a bad thing? For one thing, it creates more suffering – in the punisher as well as the recipient. Moreover, the idea of punishment rests on the idea of blame – which, in turn, requires a conception of selfhood and agency that Buddhist tradition takes as suspect. Kant’s practical postulates – the three major ideas he claims we must assume if we are to make sense of action and morality – include not just God and immortality but freedom, freedom of the will. But this is just what many Buddhist thinkers deny. Chapter VI of Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra includes an explicit argument against free will – and Śāntideva makes it clear that this argument is in there in order to stop us from blaming others for their actions. We have no more reason to put moral blame on them for their bad actions, than we have reason to put moral blame on our stomach acid for a stomach ache – because they have no more free will, no more agency, than the stomach acid. (For this reason I have argued that on at least one interpretation of “morality”, Śāntideva is opposed to morality.)

In this regard Justin goes terribly awry by citing one of the most problematic passages in The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, by his teacher Damien Keown: “The discipline of ethics requires only that one individual can be distinguished from another: to pursue the issue of the ultimate ontological constitution of individual natures in this context is to confuse ethics with metaphysics, and does not make for a fruitful enquiry.” (19) In response let us first remember that “ethics” and “metaphysics” are modern English terms, not classical Buddhist ones. A separation made between the two is ours, not theirs; a “confusion” between the two is one we are attributing to them.

But more importantly, Keown’s claim of unfruitfulness is asserted rather than argued. I showed in my 2015 JBE article why, with respect to Śāntideva at least, it is false: Buddhist thinkers can and do explicitly derive ethical claims from metaphysical premises, and we will misunderstand them if we ignore that fact in the way that Keown tells us to do. Indeed, I suspect it is Keown’s disregard of metaphysics that leads him eventually to proclaim, incorrectly, that “although Buddhism has normative teachings, it does not have normative ethics.” (See his article in the festschrift for Charles Prebish.) He believes that Buddhists don’t make ethical arguments, in a way that my JBE article demonstrates is false – and that is because so many of those arguments come from metaphysical premises. In this context, Śāntideva’s argument from non-agency to non-blame is a clear example.

Now Śāntideva, of course, is a Mahāyāna thinker, writing many centuries after the Pali texts that concern Justin. But Pali texts make scarcely more room for agency than Śāntideva does – because agency is an attribute of a self, that thing which it is of the highest importance for us to deny. Arguably the entire point of the Abhidhamma system is to give us a truer, more accurate way of speaking about human beings that does not require reference to the inaccurate and misleading concepts of selves and agency. Maria Heim’s work on Buddhaghosa shows us how Buddhaghosa’s work is concerned to articulate an ethical vision that excludes the idea of agency.

It seems clear to me: the aspiration and hope of the Pali suttas is not for the punishment of the wicked. That is merely a fact of life, and a troubling and problematic one. The real ideal is for nobody to be wicked in the first place. I may as well note that, while I do not share the traditional Buddhist view of karmic rebirth, I do share this view of punishment: sometimes we, or the world, must punish the wicked, but this is a terrible and regrettable thing. An ideal and just world is not one in which Osama bin Laden receives comeuppance for his wrongdoing, but one in which he and his fellows cease to do wrong. One could argue that Kant’s kingdom of ends is similar, though that bears some tension with Justin’s claim above that for Kant it is good that the wicked suffer. But whatever Kant would think of a Buddhist ideal situation, we do not live in it, but in a dark world full of suffering – including both the suffering caused by wrongdoing and the suffering caused by punishment, each of which is a bad thing. I think Justin is right that Kant’s view is very different – but so much the worse for Kant.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

One thought on “Karmic punishment is not a good thing

  1. Please refer to University of Illinois 1973 publication –God’s Words among men–.Page 91. Karma by itself cannot produce effects. For
    it is an unconscious material principle. To become effective, it must be used by a conscious agent as an instrument. Karma exists by Vishnu’s favour. In absence of His favour Karma doesn’t exist.
    Karmic effects—Reward or punishment is aimed at bringing out the
    nature of the soul—Vishnu loving, Vishnu hating or Vishnu indifferent.
    Nature of the soul, emerging is basic and karmic effects are of
    temporary utility

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