...Archive for October 2010

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.