Is Karma an adequate foundation for morality?

Karma is a prominent teaching in many Eastern religions (such as Hinduism and Buddhism) that has become increasingly appealing to people in the West. The word "Karma" means "action" or "doing."1 The religious doctrine of Karma teaches that any act of volition or any willful deed performed in this life produces effects that shape and determine our future lives. Karma is, thus, rooted deeply in the eastern idea of a potentially endless cycle of rebirths or reincarnations.

Is Karma Morality?

Karma is not a moral law. It is a law of cause and effect by which some actions have relatively desirable results, and others have relatively undesirable ones, but it makes no judgment as to whether these deeds are "right" or "wrong." Ultimately, any Karma keeps one ensnared in the cycle of rebirths and thus should be avoided. As Buddhist scholar Walpola Rahula explains:

"Volition may relatively be good or bad, just as a desire may relatively be good or bad. So karma may be good or bad relatively. Good karma (kusala) produces good effects, and bad karma (akusala) produces bad effects. ‘Thirst’, volition, karma, whether good or bad, has one force as its effect: force to continue— to continue in a good or bad direction. Whether good or bad it is relative, and is within the cycle of continuity (saṃsāra)."2

Thus, all Karma, whether "good" or "bad," ultimately keeps one bound to the suffering cycle of death and rebirth. If Karma were real, one's aim should not be to avoid only bad Karma and accumulate good Karma in hopes of a better life, but rather to avoid all Karma in hopes of liberation from this endless cycle of suffering. Therefore, Karma does not prescribe that people do good things and avoid bad things. Instead, it prescribes that we abandon the idea of a personal self that is distinct from the objects around us so that we can purge ourselves of any desire at all. If we act on desires, even desires to help people, we will be bound by our Karma. If we have an ambition, even an ambition to end an injustice, we will be bound by our Karma. Volitional action must be avoided, even if the action is noble. As one Hindu source teaches:

“The truth is that all things are one, but those who see a difference go from death to death like water runs to waste among the hills. The soul goes into embodiment according to its actions and according to its knowledge,”3

The great Hindu sage, Samkara, likewise said:

'Neither by the practice of Yoga or of Samkhya, nor by good works, nor by learning, does liberation come; but only through the realization that Atman[the inner divine essence] and Brahman[the universal divine essence] are one - in no other way."4

Karma is not the idea that we should do certain things so the universe will reward us or avoid certain things so that the universe will not punish us. It is also not a force of justice, seeking to right wrongs or give people "what they deserve." Rahula himself explains that Karma is not concerned with justice or morality:

"The idea of moral justice arises out of the conception of a supreme being, a God, who sits in judgment, who is law-giver and who decides what is right and wrong."5

Karma, then, is not a source of moral justice or active virtue. It either encourages us to abandon all motivation and all desire to do positive good for others or at best it gives us a self-serving pragmatism by which we might act in certain ways so as to obtain the future life we desire. As Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hanh explains:

"Right and wrong are neither moral judgments nor arbitrary standards from outside. Through our own awareness, we discover what is beneficial ('right') and what is unbeneficial ('wrong')."6

Applying the Doctrine of Karma

Consider what this means. If you seek enlightenment and an end to suffering, you must abandon all desire and all distinctions. You cannot give sacrificially of yourself with the goal to help other people because that entails desire and the ideas of separation and distinct selves. On the one hand, you will certainly not rape, murder, steal, nor cheat your neighbor because those things flow out of personal desires for possessions, sexual gratification, power, or revenge. On the other hand, neither will you go about seeking to cure diseases, bring about reforms that will end societal injustices, or even buy a gallon of milk to help a poor lady who can't afford to feed her infant. These actions are also volitional acts of the will. They flow out from desires and the idea of personal selves and distinctions in the universe. The quest for enlightenment might produce a quiet, harmless life, but not a virtuous one.

If, however, you reject enlightenment and instead decide to live in the world of Karma and engineer your future births, what then? What kind of life would you live? Well, that would depend on the kind of future life you wanted. Karma doesn't tell you what kind of life you should desire. It just tells you that if you do certain things, then certain kinds of effects will follow. A violent man might come back as a lion, but then again, a violent man might want to be a lion. There is nothing immoral about being a lion. It's all a matter of preference. It also might be that, though I know a certain action will come around to hurt me in a future life, I weigh the pros and cons and decide that it is worth it. This might be short-sighted, but who's to say you can't be short-sighted once in a while? Karma has no opinion on the matter.

The Only True Foundation

If we want a foundation for moral justice and virtue, Karma does not offer us the answer. Instead, as even the Buddhist scholar cited above concedes, it arises out of the nature and commands of God alone. The wise King Solomon wrote:

"The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil" (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

And of those commandments, our Lord Jesus said:

"And He said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).

This is our only true foundation for morality.

  • 1. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 2.
  • 2. ibid
  • 3. David Burnett, The Spirit of Hinduism (Monarch Books, 2006) 66, paraphrasing the Katha Upanishad
  • 4. Samkara, Crest-Jewel of Discrimination (Mentor Book, 1947) 42, as cited in David Burnett, The Spirit of Hinduism (Monarch Books, 2006) 180
  • 5. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 3
  • 6. Thich Nhat Hanh, "The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching" (Broadway Books, 1998) 11