Evolutionary Ethics and Karma

A continuous view of the universe seems to inherently evoke an ethical compulsion. When the boundaries between self and other, individual and society, inner and outer begin to dissolve into a single universe of continuous unbroken reality it becomes difficult to avoid the moral implications of our choices. If the inner and the outer are truly one continuous event then our thoughts inevitably lead to action which results in what the world becomes. What we become acutely aware of is what Eastern spiritual philosophies call karma.

Karma is a term in the east that came early to Ralph Waldo Emerson who had a strong connection to Eastern Enlightenment traditions. Emerson was reading the Bagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, and Zoroastrian texts as they were first being translated in the west for the very first time in the early 19th century. Emerson’s conception of karma is contained in one of his early essays entitled Compensation. In that essay Emerson describes a world of cause and effect, give and take. It is a world in which every push causes a pull, where good deeds done today are not rewarded in some heaven of the afterlife, but right now in the realities created in our own lives.

The reality of karma naturally emerges from the notion of a universe that is one continuous whole because actions and their results can no longer be seen in isolation. Everything we do is done as part of one continuous chain of being. Karma as it has been interpreted in the west is often thought of as the law of cause and effect. That mechanistic interpretation, according to American Zen teacher Ken McLeod, is inaccurate. He writes.

“The full term for karma in Tibetan is ‘las.rgyu.abras’ which in translation yields action-seed-result. The Tibetan language expresses abstract ideas by joining together two or more words that cover a range of experience. For instance, distance is expressed by joining together the words for near and far, size by joining together the words for large and small, and quantity by joining together little and many. What abstract idea do the words seed and result convey? They convey the idea of growth. So, karma describes the way actions grow from seeds into results.”

One of the most powerful characteristics of karma when understood to be growth is the inevitability that is inherent in any growth process. A mechanistic understanding of karma which sees one thing leading to the next like billiard balls band one against the other on a table contains an inherent sense of separation between events and their causes. A billiard ball can be stopped in mid flight and the chain of cause and effect can thus be broken, but once a seed is planted and begins to grow into a tree there is no way to stop the process except by killing the sprout.  This image of karma, likely through the influence of Emerson on James and Peirce, seems to have been incorporated into the Pragmatic image of continuity