Is Karma Fair?By: FireTag
“Liberals have difficulty understanding the Tea Party because they think it is a bunch of selfish racists. But I think the Tea Party is driven in large part by concerns about fairness. It’s not fairness as equality of outcome. It’s fairness as karma — the idea that good deeds lead to good outcomes, and bad deeds will lead to suffering. Many conservatives believe the Democratic party has been the anti-karma party since the 60′s. It’s the party that says, ‘You got pregnant? Don’t worry, have an abortion. You got addicted to drugs? Don’t worry, we’ll give you methadone.’ It’s the party that absolves you of moral irresponsibility.” – Jonathan Haidt, moral psychologist, in response to New Scientist interview question, March 3, 2012, issue.
When I started to read Haidt’s answer to the interview question above, I was expecting the usual intellectual formulation of “fairness as equality of outcome” vs. “fairness as equality of opportunity”. When he instead suddenly brought up the spiritual/emotional notion of “fairness as karma”, I instinctively responded on a gut level: “That’s right! He gets me!”
I think humans are more rationalizing creatures than rational creatures. Our rational faculties operate in override mode in respect to our instincts, and sometimes rationality is confiscated to reinforce those instincts. Thus, exploring our emotional moral centers may reveal the true man or woman more fully. As I wrote in a post in a blog long ago and far away, there is scientific evidence correlating politically liberal or conservative beliefs with several critical personality axes. That suggests to me that our societal morality may be stronger when we acknowledge we need both perspectives on fairness to see our way forward.
However, I know what I feel fairness should mean, and the notion that good things should happen to good people, and bad things should happen to bad people is a deeply held feeling. The world seems profoundly unfair when the good suffer and the irresponsible prosper.
Mark D. Tooley expressed this notion recently; I’ve added the bolds for emphasis:
“Traditional Christianity envisions a world of balance in which all persons are called to contribute towards the common good with their own God-given talents. Traditional Christianity sees all persons as moral agents responsible for their own decisions. And traditional Christianity sees all persons as sinners who often need rewards, punishments and incentives as well as ongoing challenge and accountability.”
Is “traditional” just a subconscious moral translation of “conservative”?
Now, intellectually, I also know that my gut feeling about fairness as karma can’t be the whole story. I know that bad things happen to good people and bad people. I began writing a blog in the first place because I thought modern cosmologies offered some new answers to the dilemma that God as Creator and God as Destroyer are one and the same God. My gravatar shows one galaxy sterilizing stellar systems in another galaxy by the thousands. What could anyone do that could be bad enough to bring down that kind of karma?
So, when I made the connection to the emotional core of conservative fairness, I started trying to translate liberal fairness from “equality of outcomes” into emotional terms as well. What I came up with was this: progressives regard things as fair when everyone gets their “happy endings”. Progressives feel the same sense of profound unfairness as I do, but it is triggered when there is NO happy ending for somebody.
Perhaps this is what is classically meant by “liberal guilt”. Not unrequited love, but unsuccessful love. I didn’t save Snow White, so there wasn’t a happy ending. (Obligatory “The Hunger Games” reference — I couldn’t save my little ally, and so I will keep my promise to my little sister, no matter what it costs!)
And guilt as a failure of love can be a strong motivator to save others, to show mercy irrespective of cost.
I am old enough to remember the moral agony of America as we divided over the Vietnam War. While we were there, we were horrified at the destruction; when we withdrew, we were not looking back even as the “killing fields” of Cambodia bloomed behind us. However, one of the dearest friends of our family found himself and his wife taking in a family of refugees from that horror.
The refugee wife had been widowed with her child when the Khmer Rouge killed her husband (a high official in the education ministry of Cambodia) upon seizing the Cambodian capital. One day she lived in safety and comfort, trying to help her country prosper; the next day everything was gone into barbarism.
Our friends became life-long friends with that family, and years later, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, he felt compelled to go into Cambodia to take up the work of educational development in the devastated areas, even sacrificing his personal health to do so. That was the unhappy ending from which he couldn’t turn his eyes away.
The Book of Mormon contains a lengthy discussion (Alma 42 in the LDS version; 21 in the CofChrist version) of the complexities involved in navigating between the twin moral requirements of justice (karma?) and mercy (happy endings?). I don’t want to recapitulate that discussion here due to length, but I do want to observe that the existence of the discussion itself demonstrates that this dilemma has been a central pillar of Mormon theological questioning from at least the early 19th Century. Somehow, an understanding of Christ’s atonement has to plot a course between the two seemingly opposed requirements — without negating either one.
On earth, we have to similarly plot a way that addresses those twin demands in real issues of the day. And that brings me to the example of fairness as happy ending vs. fairness as karma in the context of the debate over Obamacare being heard in the US Supreme Court this past week.
The gut feeling of fairness in health care as happy ending goes something like this:
“Society imposed a requirement that if you come for emergency treatment without insurance or personal means to pay – doctors and hospitals still have to pay to take care of them, because otherwise we will feel terribly guilty. We’ll allow providers to spread the costs of that care over all of us, and we’ll have our happy ending.
However, there will still be people without means to pay and insurance for them is becoming increasingly unaffordable, even if we spread the costs over all of us to the extent that society will voluntarily agree. We will still not have our happy ending, and we will still feel guilty. So we will compel everyone to contribute to the solution of this problem about which we will otherwise feel guilty. That will be fair and that will give everyone a happy ending.”
Notice that this solution is chosen as fairer than either sacrificing more of the advocate’s own resources to achieve the happy ending, or of letting the persons who did not contribute (the “free riders”) bear the consequences of their choices.
By contrast, I saw TV reports last year of the extraordinary financial stress some local governments were under in providing fire protection services. In response, fire departments restricted all services to within the boundaries of their taxable jurisdiction after offering contracts to provide fire protection outside for a fee in advance. Otherwise, they stood by and let homes burn if there was no one inside. They did not provide coverage for “pre-existing fires”. That was harsh, but it was a different solution to the “free rider” problem. It was a “fairness as karma” solution.
Or, as Justice Kennedy, considered the swing vote on the Supreme Court for the Obamacare decision, put it:
“The reason this is concerning, is because it requires the individual to do an affirmative act,” he said at one point. “In the law of torts, our tradition, our law, has been that you don’t have the duty to rescue someone if that person is in danger.”
As much as this harshness alarms those who view fairness as happy endings, conservatives are alarmed by something that Tooley also expressed in the piece I linked above (bolds again added for emphasis):
“But in the Religious Left’s surreal universe, all persons are intrinsically good but victimized by oppressive social systems, for which they are entitled to endless redress by a mammoth, centralized state, controlled of course by the enlightened Left.”
This is indeed anti-karma, but also not a genuine happy ending for anyone but the rulers who are in control.
Once we accept the notion that I can compel you to accept the duty to address problems about which I feel guilty, we simultaneously grant me the power to deny you the opportunity and resources to address problems about which you feel guilty. The “happy ending” I seek for one becomes the “unhappy ending” for someone else. I would help the sick, but deny you the opportunity to help the orphan. I am touched by the present poverty of African villagers, but you lose the chance to protect the environment of Africa for future generations. You help the refugees; I help the wounded soldiers; or we both protect Americans and leave women in Afghanistan to the generosity of the Taliban. Or we switch roles on particular issues; the permutations are endless.
And there is no end to the potential pain about which we may choose to feel guilty. Some people will be burdened by poverty, physical unattractiveness, cruel parents, incurable diseases, accidents, bad political systems, ad infinitum. And so we will always choose to embrace guilt over some problems and avert our eyes over other horrors for reasons that are not obvious even to ourselves.
Indeed, there seems no reason to limit the resort to compulsion to problems that evoke guilt. Once the mechanism is in place that I may compel others, what limits the acceptable emotional basis for compulsion to becoming something darker than guilt? What about fear, or revenge, or greed, or lust? Who picks up the mechanism we’ve established, and for what end? Perhaps it will be even those who believe in fairness as karma instead of happy endings who pick up the mechanism – and decide to give karma a governmental helping-hand. Ann Coulter quipped on TV last night that she wanted to be appointed Health and Human Services Secretary in a Republican Administration. She said she’d issue so many mandates that even liberals would hate Obamacare.
How many of the nearly 200 nations in today’s world are governed by “good karma for the rulers; bad karma for the opponents of the rulers”? The fairness as karma crowd wonders if that might be the road we are actually being diverted to follow in our pursuit of fairness as happy ending. What do you think?