The Inherent Unfairness of the Doctrine of Karma

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The concept of karma is an ancient doctrine common to several Eastern religions and philosophies. It posits that the way a person shall be reincarnated (reborn) into his or her next life will depend on how he or she lives and acts within the present life. If one engages in bad behaviour a sort of karmic debt shall accumulate and lead to a bad rebirth. The opposite is also true, namely that engaging in good behaviour will lead to a good rebirth. Certainly the latter is desirable.

On the surface karma might strike one as a just system because it supposes that no evil deed will go unnoticed and unpunished, just as no good deed will go unrewarded. However, critics have taken note of the purported unfairness of the concept and the lack of compassion it might produce within people towards others who are in the midst of suffering (this latter concern shall be examined in a further article).

The belief is that the suffering one is experiencing in the present is because of a karmic debt accumulated in a previous life. This brings to fruition some concerns concerning the fairness of the concept because the suffering one faces in the present is foisted upon him or her from deeds in a previous life unremembered. Consider that in the present a Hindu or Buddhist might be suffering from a type of terminal cancer. The experience is one of many hospital visits, intense medications and medical procedures, pain, and physical degradation leading to an untimely death. The victim of the cancer experiences such malady in the tangible, experiential sense while fully aware (or believing) that its origins is in the karmic debt of a life past. The victim is further unaware of what he or she did in the previous life because of a lack of knowledge. In this sense karma acts as a rationale for why suffering exists in the world and why seemingly good people experience pain. One might note that suffering lacks discrimination and encroaches upon the elderly, men, women, children, and infants. Would one say this is fair?

Or consider that karma has a bearing on Hindu social structure (known as the varnas). Traditional Hindu societies have had four classes: priestly (brahmin), warrior and rulers (kshatriya), farmers and merchants (vaisya), and the labourers and servants (sudra). Not all within society fall within these varnas, which has led some to propose a 5th class, namely the classless outcasts or untouchables (chandalas or dalits). Those in this class have the misfortune of facing discrimination, prejudice, and abuse. In traditional and many rural Hindu societies the varnas influence how some people are treated such as who one will marry or with whom one will eat or show compassion to. In some cases those from the upper classes will not drink out of the same well used by those from the lower classes. The varna is hierarchical and its categories deemed to be natural distinctions of divine inspiration. The same unfairness seen in the cancer victim manifests here: unknown good deeds might lead one to be born as a brahmin in the next life, whereas unknown bad deeds could have one born as an untouchable. One might wonder how many more leaders and thinkers could have attributed to human knowledge in the absence of being placed in the lower castes or been on the downside of karma.

One might believe karma to be a reality of human existence, but it seems to have constructed within it an inherent unfairness. If one lacks knowledge of previous misdeeds then how can he or she be expected to improve behaviour or face punishment for them? It might too negate what could possibly turn into the manifestation of moral good in the world. If an individual is born with a similar disposition to a Mother Teresa (essentially someone who could possibly bring to fruition acts of compassion) ultimately comes from a previous life of a Mussolini then she is going to likely have a bad time paying off that karmic debt, thus negating possible manifestations of good in the world. If one holds the idea of fairness to constitute an objective moral fact worth embracing and sharing then karma might be a source of hesitation.


  1. Hesitation, no way. It’s a call to action to be a great person and help others. It asked us to take responsibility for our actions, a bitter pill for some, I understand. Better to have karma than a devil who made me do it, it was him not me.

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