Karma: eschatology, theodicy, or eudaimonism?

In my previous post I discussed how Evan Thompson and I may agree in principle that not all innovations to a tradition are legitimate. The real question, then, is how applicable the accusation of cherry-picking (or shopping cart) is in this case, the case that we are discussing, of the naturalized eudaimonistic approach to karma. So the question is whether this new approach is congruous with Buddhist tradition, or with Buddhist sources.

If I am correct that it is, then it would seem that Thompson’s accusation of cherry-picking does not stand. I contend that the traditional view of karma generally follows the view of Śāntideva that good and bad actions bring the agent good and bad results “in this world and another” (iha paratra ca). On that traditional view this pattern is deterministic: every good action ripens as a good result and vice versa. What my approach does is to say that karmic results happen only iha, in this world, because it turns out there is no paratra. As a result karma must be probabilistic and not deterministic in order to make sense. On my view, this naturalized approach to karma entirely continuous with the iha half of the traditional view, even as it rejects the paratra half – and this does not radically change the system because both halves work in similar ways.

I will say more about Śāntideva in future posts. But before going further, I think we need to clarify some key concepts at issue in Thompson’s most recent response. Thompson relies a great deal in this response on the concept of eschatology, so it is important to clarify what that concept means. Regarding the concept of karma, Thompson says:

Lele claims that its core is eudaimonistic, whereas I think it’s eschatological. Eschatology in general and karmic eschatology in particular are concerned with rationalizing why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. According to karmic eschatology, in the long run—in the next life—people will receive the good results of their good actions, and the bad results of their bad ones.

There is a great deal of conceptual confusion in and around this passage of Thompson’s. First of all, this is just not what eschatology is or means. The word comes from the Greek eschatos meaning “last”. Its traditional use in Christian theology is to describe the end times: the Second Coming, Revelation, the Last Judgement. If it were to be applied to Buddhism, its meaning would therefore likely be something like what Wikipedia says it is: the appearance of the future Buddha Maitreya, the Sattasūriya Sutta‘s prophecy of destruction.

By contrast, the branch of Christian theology concerned with rationalizing why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people is not eschatology but – theodicy. The term “theodicy” comes from the Greek for “God’s justice” – as we should expect, because, again, the question really becomes a philosophical problem for those who, unlike Buddhists, believe in an omnipotent and just God. If we want to speak of karma’s functioning as rationalizing why bad things happen to good people, we should then not be describing it as karmic eschatology but as karmic theodicy. The adjectival form, I’m told, would be “theodicean” – so the claim that Thompson has been making is actually that rather than being eudaimonistic or eschatological, karma’s core is theodicean.

Adding to the confusion: Gananath Obeyesekere, whom Thompson cites as a source for the idea that karma is eschatological, also misuses the term “eschatology” – but in a different way than Thompson does! As far as I can tell Obeyesekere unfortunately does not define eschatology, nor does he justify his use of the term. Like Thompson he does not use “eschatology” in anything like its traditional theological sense of final end times – but unlike Thompson, he nowhere says that eschatology has to do with “why bad things happen to good people”. Obeysekere, unlike Thompson, does not confuse eschatology with theodicy; instead he confuses it with something else – perhaps soteriology, the study of individual salvation, though this is itself not entirely clear from his usage. At any rate, though, it bears repeating that, Thompson’s claims to the contrary, whatever term one is using for the question of why bad things happen to good people and vice versa, Obeyesekere nowhere claims that this question is what karma was ever primarily about.

Clarifying this terminology becomes important in part because of yet another conceptual confusion, and perhaps the most important one: when we turn to the final sentence in Thompson’s passage above, what is being described is neither eschatology nor theodicy. Eschatology proper, just like eudaimonism, is concerned with anticipating the future – which theodicy, especially karmic theodicy, is not. Theodicy’s concern is with explaining why bad things are happening to good people in the present; a karmic theodicy explains this in terms of the past. Eudaimonism is about the results of one’s present actions on one’s own future well-being.

And so what Thompson describes as “karmic eschatology” in that sentence turns out, ironically, to be its own form of eudaimonism, just one that relies on rebirth as a mechanism. Thompson has been working with my definition of eudaimonism as the idea that “an agent’s good actions and good states of character typically improve the agent’s well-being (flourishing, eudaimonia)”. Notice then that the view that Thompson describes in that sentence, that “in the long run—in the next life—people will receive the good results of their good actions, and the bad results of their bad ones”, is a form of eudaimonism, by the definition of eudaimonism that we have agreed on! Good actions, on Thompson’s account of karmic so-called “eschatology”, do improve the agent’s well-being – it just happens to be in the next life rather than this one. Remove that last qualifier, about the next life, and now you have something very close to the eudaimonism I have been arguing for. By contrast, the view described in that sentence of Thompson’s is not by itself theodicy, let alone eschatology. For theodicy – the explanation of why bad things happen to good people – is not concerned with the future; it is about explaining the present or even the past, why bad things are happening to good people right now or happened to them before, and (if one’s theodicy relies on karma) explaining this as a result of one’s past actions. And Thompson has done nothing to show that that is what karma is primarily about, despite his claims to the contrary. I will substantiate that point in upcoming posts.

Cross-posted on 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 Reply to “Karma: eschatology, theodicy, or eudaimonism?”

  1. These works might give a strong footing to the karma doctrine from the Buddhist perspective.
    A) https://philarchive.org/rec/CHIKAA
    Krtapranasa and Akrtabhyagama : An Analysis, Defence and Rationale of the Buddhist Theory and Action by Prof. Mangala Chinchore. This article critiques the theory of Karma on two grounds first ‘Krtapranasa’ – Action perishes without the does coming to enjoy its fruition, and second ‘Akrtabhyagama’ – results accruing to the one who had not performed the action. Finally giving the Buddhist karma doctrine with the help of the concept of Sahetukta (Intentional) as opposed to Sakaranta (causal).
    B) For the argument of Paratra karma – https://www.academia.edu/29842071/Can_one_be_a_Buddhist_without_believing_in_rebirth_A_question_before_Engaged_Buddhist_thought
    The paratra karma is used in two explanatory purposes firstly ‘supporting morality and condemning immorality’ and secondly ‘Pratityasamutpada and Dwadashnidana’. Given textual evidences it is shown that rebirth (relates to paratra karma) explanation is not necessary as per apannaka-sutta.

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