A Plea Against Karma

“We do not have the ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. Where one can do right with no effort because he can detect the obvious.” | Philip K. Dick – The Man in the High Castle (p. 216)

If you ask someone if they think they are a good person, chances are they’ll give an affirmative response. After all, we consider ourselves an above-average good person, just like we find ourselves above-average funny and above-average nice (which is of course paradoxical and therefore not possible). But why would we want to be good people anyway? Life has shown often enough that people can get away with a lot of bad deeds. Does something like karma even exist, or is it a utopian illusion of which we’d wish it’d exist? And yet many of us try to be good, only to be disappointed and pained over and over again when something bad happens to us. Where we ask ourselves the question: …

Why do bad things actually happen to good people? What’s a reason to be good if the chance that something bad will happen to you tomorrow is greater than the chance that something good will happen to you tomorrow? This may well depend first of all on how we define good and bad events, and the length of their effects. Many good events can be seen as the absence of the bad, the bad things that could’ve happened to you but didn’t happen to you. In addition, bad things often have a much longer negative effect, for example dealing with a loss, while a good event can quickly feel normal.

So why would you want to be good if you can’t even be sure that good events will happen to you? If being good always resulted in good things happening to you, and being evil always resulted in bad things happening to you, then everyone would be good. We just want good things to happen to us, and if we could only get them by being a good person, everyone would be good. The problem that arises is from this is that people no longer want to be good because they want to be good, but that someone’s main reason to be good is that good things will happen to them. Being good changes from a form of altruism to a form of selfishness.

A good person whose only reason to be good is a selfish reason. It may not even be as special as it sounds. One of the places where this has been the case for centuries, for example, is religion, where people try to behave well because then they’ll go to heaven, or at least have a good life in the afterlife. (It can be argued, however, that many religious people over the centuries have not behaved well, but perhaps they would’ve behaved much worse if they had not been given the promise of a good afterlife as a reward for good behaviour.)

This reminds me of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who says that you should never use people as a means to an end. According to him, we must live in a ‘Kingdom of Ends’, in which each person is an end goal, and in which actions must be carried out based on that thought. He’s so strict about this that good behaviour isn’t good when there’s a form of self-interest involved. If you want to do a good deed, but this good deed is partly based on self-interest, then according to Kant it’s unethical behaviour. For example, if you want to help someone and at the same time you become very happy when you help someone, and getting this happy feeling is part of your motivation to help someone, then it’s unethical, even if the act itself is good. In that case you use someone else as a means to achieve a goal for yourself. There’s selfishness in your ‘good’ behaviour. You use a fellow human being as a means rather than a being whose existence you must respect.

But what’s a reason to be good? According to Kant, the reward for a virtuous life in the ‘Kingdom of Ends’, in which you see everyone as an end and not as a means, is happiness. However, this is debatable, because no matter how good you are as a person, bad things can still happen to you, which cause your happiness to decrease considerably. In that case, life can be seen as the greatest test of man’s goodness, and perhaps that’s why many good people are subjected to so many bad events. To see to what extent they’re really good, to what extent they’re really capable of expressing and showing their goodness constantly.

Perhaps it’s better that karma often doesn’t work, and sometimes may even do the opposite; that people who have done little or nothing wrong experience miserable life events. After all, it shows which people are actually good of themselves. It offers them an opportunity to show that they really are good people. Then of course it can be asked what reward someone receives when that person is a good person and there can be no selfishness. Perhaps the real reward is the goodness itself that resides in someone, which ensures that the person is a good person, or tries to be a good person. Because that alone is a very difficult and unique achievement in this world. Achieving that achievement is, in a world with plenty of bad people and selfish deeds, one of the greatest possible rewards you can get.

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