The Karmic Truth

Karl Smith wrote a rather beautiful piece today, called “The Karmic Lie“:

Karma is bullshit — the greatest lie ever told. In truth, the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards death and destruction. The universe is either utterly indifferent to your suffering or it actively seeks to destroy you and repurpose your molecules for other uses. In no way, shape or form is it your friend. In no way, shape or form is it balanced or just. If there is evil in the world then it is nature. If there is a God then he is a demon. If there is fate then ours is doom.

[N]othing ends well. In the end, the universe, like the house, always wins. Yet, we do not have to tolerate agony and pain all the way up until our inevitable demise. We live. We love. We laugh in defiance of that inevitability. If we have our heads on straight we’ll do it right up until the cold, bitter, utterly unjust and utterly unavoidable end. We are mortals — those who die. That fact should infuse our every value and animate our every action.

When my loved ones take ill they sometimes ask me — with hope in their eyes — “Am I going to die?” Yes, I answer, I cannot change that. But not today.

Not today.

I agree with almost everything Karl says here. And yet I’m a big fan of Karma. Not as anything supernatural or mystical. Karma, to me, is a characteristic of a healthy community. It is almost definitional: A good community is a community in which Karma obtains.

Niklas Blanchard, in the delightfully autistic manner of an economist, rephrases Karma in terms of game theory and inferred probability distributions following repeated interactions. And that’s great. The Bayesian maximizer of individual utility is an important aspect of what we all are. Conceptions of human affairs that are violently inconsistent with homo economicus are unlikely to be useful, and Niklas performs a service by pointing out how Karma and self-interest can reinforce one another in the game we play called everyday life.

But Karma is more than that. Karma is a practice, something we do, something we create. And not individually. Karma is as an emergent property of the collectives in which we entangle ourselves — if we are lucky, if we are good. Like temperature, Karma has no meaning when attached to a single atom, alone. We have no sure recipe for Karma. Many human communities, perhaps most human communities, are hypokarmic, which is a fancy way of saying toxic, bad, perhaps even evil. But we strive for Karma, because as atoms we are machines that shit and sleep and waste, and in collectives we steal and brutalize and manipulate, unless. Unless we inspire one another, unless the magic we do — when we help, when we smile, when we “produce” what others require, or perform what others will enjoy — causes others to do the same for us. We invent economics in the service of Karma, and Karma (Niklas reminds us) can be a consequence of economics.

Paul Krugman is fond of saying that “economics is not a morality play“. He’s right. We can’t expect economic outcomes map neatly onto notions of justice, especially when we cannot even agree on what outcomes would be just. But nor can economics be ignorant of morality plays or garishly antithetical to notions of justice, without destroying the communities it was invented to serve. Karma should constrain economics. Not every good act must be rewarded or every bad act is punished. Karma eschews detailed accounting. Demanding specific recompense for each particular virtue is bad Karma. Karma implies that people who are generally virtuous do okay and that people who are shitty to others do maybe less okay, over time. Karma prescribes no ranking of people. Karma is not about final judgments, but continual invitations to join the dance. Karma tolerates many conceptions of virtue, and embraces inconsistencies. It’s fine that asshole businessmen succeed, because they organize useful production, and that sanctimonious scolds do not so well, no matter how ostentatiously they slave. But beneath all the fuzz and noise of human events, Karma should emerge as a central tendency, a rough but real correlation linking virtue and reward in their myriad and conflicting guises. An economics that scrambles even so loose and gentle a linkage cannot be a good economics, whatever it does for GDP.

Karma has been injected into political discussions thanks to a nice Wall Street Journal column by Jonathan Haidt, trying to explain the “tea partiers” of all things. I think his application in overly narrow. A lot of the angst I feel, about politics, about my country, has to do with a sense that we are losing the preconditions of Karma in the United States. I think that most of us feel this, whether we call ourselves “progressives” or “conservatives” or whatever. It’s easy to romanticize the past, and I don’t think that Karma is or ever was very meaningful at the level of a nation-state. But “locally”, whether defined in geographical terms, or professional terms, or in terms of communities of acquaintanceship, Karma is getting harder to sustain. We are suffering from a kind of social pollution, our Karmic habitat is threatened. We are like magnetic particles trying to self-organize on a platter, but a gigantic magnet is forcing us into brutal lines, disrupting the patterns of interrelationship we’d like to form.

I’d answer Karl by echoing him, with just a bit of a twist. The universe is cold and empty. We will suffer and die. But today we live. And not alone. We live in the warmth of one another’s company. Ideas like “kindness” or “justice” are alien in this universe. The laws of physics, are enforced cruelly, relentlessly. A falling object is indifferent to who is crushed beneath. But if I see you, I will smile, and hold the door open while you pass. And perhaps you will smile back and say hello. That, my friend, is Karma, and it is all that keeps this terrible universe in its place and at bay. For a while.


38 Responses to “The Karmic Truth”

  1. Ted K writes:

    Great post. A little daydreamy, but great.

    I believe in God and I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe there is something, an existence we will attain after this life, most likely connected with the God of the Jews and his Son. But I would be lying if I said my mind didn’t entertain other philosophies and possibilities from time to time. I’m hoping with more Bible reading, more talks with God, and more maturity, those last doubts will be sealed up before I croak. But I have seen too much “Karma” or “Grace” in my short and relatively unproductive (unproductive from an individual standpoint) life to believe we came either from apes or the more vacuous parts of Stephen Hawking’s mind.

  2. Mitch Skinner writes:

    Nice take.

    In the past, when all our interactions were local, the arc of the moral universe could be bent by neighborhood gossip and individual observation and the choices made based on that information. Our own evolved instincts could mediate karmic retribution and reward.

    But now, with increased mobility and long-distance interactions, karma is something we have to choose to build into our systems. Credit reporting agencies, bond rating agencies, brand recognition, rule of law; we’ve developed a variety of mechanisms to punish bad actors. And if those mechanisms get hijacked, if they get diluted, then faith in our social karmic systems gets undermined. And many of those institutions are now perceived to have been compromised, which means that they are compromised. I’m not surprised to see the cynicism that you quote.

    It’s great that people are recognizing this loss, but we can do more than just mourn. There are actual policy changes that we can make to more closely align our markets and our legal systems with our gut notions of justice and karma. And I’m sure that those changes would have a positive impact on long-term GDP growth, although (AFAIK) those effects are not yet well-modeled.

  3. Harald Korneliussen writes:

    Maybe that “dismal science” stuff wasn’t so inappropriate, if you agree with what he says :)

    H.P. Lovecraft shared basically the same world-view, that the universe was utterly indifferent to purpose and meaning, in practice actively hostile to it. If you really understood the depth of that indifference you would go mad immediately, he thought. His famous madness-inducing monsters were merely metaphors for the amoral universe.

    It’s not clear for me, then, why one with Karl Smith’s world-view should not “bow down to Cthulhu in the hope that he will eat you last”, so to say.

    But there are many better world-views, if you dare to take the leap of trusting something you can’t see.

  4. Rebecca Burlingame writes:

    I’m glad you picked up Niklas’ blog. Unfortunately I came unglued on Karl a bit, but did not tell him that my husband has been in the hospital for more than a week and nothing is certain about him coming home. It’s just that I want economic ideas to be able to do what political thought can’t even think about anymore: find ways to reestablish strong local economies that interconnect with global ones. If ever there was a time to find solutions this is it, and that was why I was so dismayed when the subject of karma seemed like one more wedge between economists and everyone else. I’m glad you do not see it that way at all.

  5. Thomas Hill writes:

    I’ve never cared about Karma and probably won’t ever, but the last paragraph is, well, the nicest I’ve read in a while. Somehow the staccato of the sentences immediately reminded me of the Great Dictator’s speech at the end?

  6. pebird writes:

    I think the universe can become indifferent. Certainly if the people (who make up part of the universe) become indifferent.

    Karma is an inexact category to describe that gap between material and spiritual that we all know exists, even while it slips out of our hands. To be karmic is to not care whether accounts are going to balance, realizing that the past may influence but does not determine the future, and that respect and concern and compassion are not self-serving behaviors.

    It is easy to fall into the commonplace conception of karma as “payback”, which is about as un-karmic as possible. The idea that something of value can be built by others with your assistance and you probably will not directly benefit is a foreign concept and, in fact, ridiculed by many.

    But, the strength of Karma allows us to ignore such insults and continue to pay respect, concern and compassion to others, with absolutely no expectation of any recompense (in this life or any other). Maintaining your ethical stance and participating to help others is probably the most radical thing anyone can do today. Karms does not say it is easy, nor that others won’t call you stupid, just remember you aren’t doing it for yourself.

  7. RN writes:

    The universe is NOT indifferent. It has its laws, and ye who obey survive. Unfortunately the human mechanism was only designed to be able to obey them for a while.

    Karma is scientific. It is behavorial modification based on an observed behavior.

    God is merely a construct of human ignorance, realized as a result of human weakness, by those too weak to admit to the human mechanism’s limited ability to understand.

    It is the tragedy of man, and will likely be what destroys us, that we are not able to accept ignorance as a limitation of our being.

  8. We are influenced by each other in so many subtle ways, that much is sure. What is less sure is the directional effect that influence will have on our decisionmaking over time and space. I sure hope it tends to more prosocial, cooperative behavior. The local equilibriums in places like Papua New Guinea are disheartening.

  9. Tom Hickey writes:

    “Karma” is a Sanskrit word that simply means action. It’s technical meaning in Indian thought signifies action and its consequences. These consequences are both mental and real. Action produces mental impressions, called sanskaras or vasanas. Accumulated impressions are stored in deep memory, which persists across lifetimes.

    Similar impressions gather in heaps (vasanas). They have subtle energy of consciousness that manifests as desire. Desires based on these heaps of impressions arise in the mind, especially in conjunction with corresponding stimuli. Strong desires have sufficient subtle energy to impel a person to action (thought, word, and deed). Depending on the quality of the impressions, desire and actions arising from them are either positive or negative and result in happiness or suffering respectively.

    If one acts on such desires, then the impression gets reinforced.Thoughts produce “lines in air.” Words produce “lines in water.” But deeds carve” lines in granite,” difficult to erase. If one does not act on the impression, then the subtle energy of the impression get somewhat dissipated.

    The basis of karma yoga is to perform good actions to form good impressions that result in happiness and to avoid bad actions that produce impressions that result in suffering. But even good impressions result in binding that keeps one attached to the wheel of karma. Saints are said to be bound by “chains of gold.”

    The highest from of karma yoga is to act without being attached to the fruits of action, that is, without self-interest, doing what is right just because it is right. Then one does not gather impressions from the action and the subtle energy of existing impressions eventually dwindles. When the subtle energy of one’s impressions is exhausted, then one discovers one’s true nature, existence-knowledge-bliss (sat-chit-ananda) and gets liberation from the wheel of karma.

  10. […] The Karmic Truth Steve Waldman (hat tip Richard Smith) […]

  11. Alan Honick writes:

    One can simply substitute the term “fairness” in each instance where you use “karma”. There is nothing mystical about it; fairness is the necessary precondition to a sustainable society, and we are indeed losing it. Fairness is the lubricant that keeps the wheels of society turning; without it, they will eventually grind to a halt.

  12. Benign writes:

    Behind the curve. There is a valid scientific literature suggesting that the Nietschean-Pynchonesque nihilistic vision you cite is in fact wrong. Start with Lynn McTaggart’s “The Field” and Dean Radin’s “The Conscious Universe.”


  13. Dave of Maryland writes:

    Judging by the last paragraph, you believe that when you’re dead, you’re dead & that’s the end of the matter.

    Regret to say that in my 25 years of personal work, I find this is not true. Existence continues past death, it continues for believers & non-believers alike. In the West we’ve moved out of the kindergarten stage where “God will take care of me” into a much scarier Darwinian survival of the lonely. Which is where I come in. Somehow I have a sympathetic shoulder, people cry on it. When they complain they are being haunted by the ghost of Jim Morrison (for example), I go & find that ghost comfort, whereupon 1. he vanishes utterly, never to be seen again, and, 2. the person in front of me bursts spontaneously into tears. Happens every time. Take me to the local graveyard, I rather think I could do this on demand, by the hour.

    It’s a different sort of process, one I’ve been working on with myself, to track the ghost from that point into their next life & then put the two lives end to end & see how events in one life are resolved in the next. While there’s no precise way to prove this (it will always be “he said, she said”), I find that while karma exists & can be demonstrated (you’re this way because you misbehaved earlier, etc.), karma is, in fact, subservient to the individual’s will.

    This is where it gets creepy. Presuming you believe in reincarnation, you presumably believe that Adolf Hitler will pay for his crimes. That George Bush junior will be brought to account. Regrettably, no, they won’t. The doctrine of karma is subservient to the doctrine of free will. Adolf will never have to do anything he doesn’t want to do. That’s how it was when he was alive. That’s how it will always be. Karma won’t change that. Adolf will change when he decides to change, and he will do it in order to be admitted (or readmitted) to a group he badly wants to join.

    The upshot is that instead of being in denial (The universe is cold and empty. We will suffer and die. – that’s hilarious, by the way), one will actively plan for the time he will spend in the other world (call it what you will) and will profit by his time there. Which will then set up the next life to be somewhat better than this one, and wouldn’t we all like that? Of the religions I have studied, only Buddhism handles this at all, and they are quite weak. NONE of the other are of any use whatever, but here I confess to a Chinese menu approach – a bit of this, a bit of that, etc. I’m still working on it. Turn the Catholics inside out, they’ve got some useful raw materials.

    Megan, in the far north of Canada, tells me I have a tendency to talk to myself. Which has saved me from being just another dime-store preacher.

  14. Ted K.-

    The petabytes of human genomics data we’ve been looking at indicate that you might want a banana.

    Sincerely, the scientific community.

  15. Sudhir writes:

    Heard it explained in the Indian perspective that Karma is ‘nonlocal causality’ – actions produce consequences that are linked across space and time, just nonlocally.

    That ‘good’ in an ethical/sustainable sense produces good and bad produces bad.

    Thus, a karmic person (agent in a system) essentially uses free will (control variables) to influence his future circumstances (state variables) into a positive bent. Not that different from Homo Economicus optimizing rational expectations into the infinite horizoned future, eh?

    Karma, by extending across lifetimes – across births and deaths, also prevents both despair at the possibility of the extinguishing of the consciousness as well as the wanton uncaring destruction of nature and future that may result if man were to believe that there is truly nothing after he has died.

    Just some thoughts.


  16. jimmy james writes:

    I know nothing of karma but popular culture’s conception of it, and THAT much at least is insidious. So many people “well, that’s bad karma what he’s doing; he’ll get his in the end” when what they need to do is reach out and grab justice.

    If people didn’t believe in karma the world would be a better place.

  17. kristiina writes:


    In a universe that consists mostly of something called dark energy, of which little is known, and even that entirely hypothetical, declaring the universe friendly or unfriendly is somewhat audacious. One can’t help feeling there’s a certain element of projection here. Unknown, after all, is the prime surface for it – as we really don’t know what is there, we can let the full contours of what is here show. Sometimes it just gives me the creeps to see what shows. There is indeed great despair in the world, but it is not out there. The vastness of unknown is just unknown, and claiming it implies something: god, cthulhu, evil, whatever, is avoiding the truth. We really don’t know that much. There’s a lot to find out, if one can stop blaming the world for getting one’s ass spanked every now and then.

  18. Jim writes:

    Karma is no more and no less than cause and effect. Over 200,000 innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan have died because we are afraid of our own imaginations. Now we have a a lot of karmic debt and it seems like repayment time is upon us.

  19. Jim writes:

    Karma is a fact, not something to believe or disbelieve in.

  20. Stelios Theoharidis writes:

    I think that notions of ‘mutual predictability of behavior’ make sense here in relation to Karma an functioning social systems in general. While I certainly cannot predict the full range of human behavior in social cirumstances I can expect that it does not on a regular basis vary between a set of mutually agreed upon norms. That would likely apply to strangers in the world. I can expect with great certainty within the cultural context that I exist that someone is unlikely to stab me in the eye with a pen. With that in mind I can make investments of time and my energy that have a longer term payoff. Religion and laws as a set of rules function to ensure that mutual predictability of behavior amongst agents within a social system. This varies within and between social contexts, I wouldn’t suggest that inner city neighborhoods have the same level of mutual predictability of behavior that surburban areas do.

    When there is a social breakdown, that I often see in the case of civil warfare, often when atrocities are committed I believe that the predictability has broken down. We look at these atrocities as terrible within our social context as they are, but if ours were to change into a similar scenario I doubt that we would maintain the semblance of morality that we attach to.

    Relationships of trust extend beyond mutual predictability of behavior based upon a pattern of interaction between agents. One can not only expect that behavior will be limited within realms of possibility but also that agents can cooperate to obtain a mutually agreed upon outcome.

  21. Kalpa writes:

    Eastern religion has taught me much, but I’m not so into “karma.” It is the yin and the yang that explain everything. The Tao also reminds us that we cannot judge what is good and bad because the complexity of our interconnectedness makes that impossible. I am planning to write a post on that soon. What good is a blogger without getting philosophical once in a while?

  22. ZeroInMyOnes writes:

    Thank you for a thoughtful post…

    Are we able to believe that the wheel of Karma is indeed turning? As mortals, we would have a hard time asserting either side of that argument. Our time frame is too short.

    Karma is time dependent, thus its philosophic linking with the idea of reincarnation. Although we may observe a lack of justice in our own small lifetimes, the idea of Karma assures us that justice is surely pending in a lifetime yet to come.

  23. axiom writes:

    Beautiful piece, yes.

    Fully enabled by Karl Smith’s closing line, ripped off from the movie “Gladiator”:

  24. […] Steve Waldman om karma Thursday, October 21st, 2010 | Author: Martin Steve Waldman om karma samhälle och varför vi har en ekonomi. Tags: ekonomi, framtid, karma, länk tips, moral, […]

  25. Sanford Calef writes:

    Karma is simply continuing a negative pattern of behavior.
    The bad results are not due to some angel keeping track,
    but the bad pattern leading on to a bad result.

    Think about someone who drinks and drives.
    Eventually he will crash or get a DWI.
    God didn’t punish him. He just continued a bad pattern.
    (or was helpless to stop one if suffering under an addiction)

    Take our bankers.
    They gamed the market.
    Got caught up in the crash.
    Then got a govt bailout(with an amnesty attached even).
    Bad behavior to infinity.
    why stop?

    So it is indeed supremely ironic that the Mortgage fraud
    may land em finally in jail where they belonged all along.


  26. mattski writes:

    Many human communities, perhaps most human communities, are hypokarmic, which is a fancy way of saying toxic, bad, perhaps even evil.

    That’s a misuse of the term. As a couple of commenters suggested above, karma refers to the consequences of action, or cause & effect. May I recommend an outstanding book? “What The Buddha Taught” by Walpola Rahula.

    Ironically, while Christianity offers us “eternal life”—a sop to our craving for experience—eastern religion offers to solve the opposite problem: the unending continuity of suffering which is the karmic consequence of our craving!

  27. Ted K writes:

    This is for Pelle Schultz Above,
    Mr Schultz, I appreciate an intelligent argument as much as the next guy. The key word in your sermon there is “indicate”. As many scientists have found out, that word “indicate” can get you in a lot of trouble. But you go to the zoo and do your best. Or maybe just research at your own house. Cats have four legs and dogs have four legs, that “indicates” they might be related. Maybe if you can get the cat to eat fish, you can find a connection between the cat and your mother-in-law. Maybe you can even get a research grant out of it.

    Luke 18:1–18:8
    1 Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, 2 saying: “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. 3 Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, ‘Get justice for me from my adversary.’ 4 And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, ‘Though I do not fear God nor regard man, 5 yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.’”
    6 Then the Lord said, “Hear what the unjust judge said. 7 And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? 8 I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?”

  28. Lennyh4747 writes:

    If it is a cold dark universe.If reality is nothling more than e=mc2 then anything is permissable.
    There is no right or wrong. Your thoughts and feelings have no meaning. Reason can not justify your thought and feelings. Hitler had Reason. Hitler had noble thoughts. Hitler had noble feelings. Germany was the center of culture. Hitler wrote a book. (was it peered reviewed)? What makes a baby more important than a rock on the ground. Reason? Feelings? Without something with spirit (god) then
    any and everthing is ok. Who is to judge? Is power to judge. If Adolf could have taken Moscow would the Third Riecht judge. Reason, sentiment, and power; a monster can have those. If there is nothing more than a cold dark universe then lets just get drunk and salute the nazi flag.

  29. carping demon writes:

    SRW, I like your interpretation of Karma. I read the Smith, Blanchard and Haidt articles and had a bunch of crap I was going to say, but, honestly, when I got to comment #4 I just couldn’t. My thoughts and hopes will be with Ms. Burlingame and her husband. I hope she can post good news soon.

  30. Ajagbe writes:

    Karma is just cause and effect. That’s it. It’s not mystical or anything like that. If you smack, odds are good I’m going to punch you in the face. AND, if you do drugs excessively, your punishment is that you become a drug addict. As one teacher put it, “You become the kind of person that does that sort of thing.” Karma doesn’t give an eff whether you believe. It has nothing to do with belief. It’s simply what happens.

  31. nowhereman writes:

    I’d rather liken karma to interconnectivity. You know the state where two atoms are interconnected so that when one is changed, the other, regardless of distance, changes instantly.
    We are all interconnected. What we do instantly affects everyone, regardless of the intent. What goes around comes around.
    Sure we’re all going to die, that’s inevitable, it’s what we do in the interval between birth and death that counts. Including, how we treat each other, because it’s coming right back atcha whether you like it or not.

  32. Lennyh4747 writes:

    Nowhereman please listen… Karma is not interconnectivity or cause and effect. Tom Hickey #9 gives a good explaination of Karma. The Jesus Freak Ted K. will tell us we reap what we sow. Buy in to some kind of spirit world or the suffering of #4 becomes meaningless. How can an economist do any thing of value if there is know value in a cold dark universe. If Karma is bullshit than everthing is bullshit because life has no value. At least the Hindu or the Christian tries to come to grips with why bad things happen to good people. If the world is nothing but atoms and quarks and whatnot then your hopes and dreams and sorrows are just sensations of an animal. Your more than a carbon based desease infecting the starship Enterprise.

  33. mattski writes:

    How can an economist do any thing of value if there is [no] value in a cold dark universe.

    Value is what you care about. If you’re a selfish, solipsistic nihilist you still care about gratifying yourself. Those are your values. As long as there are beings in the world there is value.

    What is truly great about Hinduism & Buddhism, in my view, is that they derive morality from reason, not faith. I highly recommend to you the book I cited above. You might find you enjoy it.

  34. Ricky writes:

    Karma is a great topic that is not disgussed outside of philosophical cicles and the popular show my name is earl but excellentt incite on living anothe day and the twist with politics.

  35. Ted K writes:

    Moses didn’t get to cross the river Jordan, and John the Baptist got his head cut off. Shall I have to go through the apostles too??? God doesn’t promise roses, sweetness and light, the constant smell of cinnamon, and pixie dust sprinkled over your shoulder once you find God or dedicate your life to Jesus. Quite the opposite. And if a person is too dumb to parse out real Christians from the guys on TV (“Evangelists”) that person wants to blame their confusions for, it’s not my problem.

  36. Rebecca Burlingame writes:

    Thanks ever so much to those of you who expressed concern. My husband hopes to be able to come home from the hospital by this weekend. While he will still have to be very careful as to any activity, it will just be good to have him home.

  37. Fumatorul writes:

    I never thought about karma like that. If is good for some people, that is fine for me too.

  38. […] The Karmic Truth Steve Waldman (hat tip Richard Smith) […]