Evolutionary Ethics and Karma

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 10 Comments

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

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Carl
11 years ago

And Skinner’s science of behavior certainly provides a very precise, systematic, functional analysis of karma and the stream of interdependent origination in which our behavior is embedded, based on understanding and changing probabilities of response rather than crude billiard-ball like mechanisms.

Rit
Rit
11 years ago

Karma as continuously weaving tapestry; not as facile an image but one that conveys the interconnectedness of the threads we live.

Carl
11 years ago

Behavior science tells us that behavior is governed by its consequences, and secondarily by the relationships those consequences have with antecedents/conditions that precede behavior. The probabilities of our behavior are shaped and adjusted by our complex interconnections and experiences with antecedents and consequences. This principle of selection by consequences is the same as evolutionary scientists have described as natural selection at the biological level. The same underlying principle applies to the evolution of culture. Unselfishness is when consequences for others function as consequences for ourselves – when we act and make choices with the benefit of others as our motivation.… Read more »

carlbinder
carlbinder
11 years ago

Jeff,

I think, if those individuals are aware of how behavior is governed by consequences, they will collaborate to make clear what the consequences of various actions they can take individually or collectively will have on the Whole. I think they will, if conscious of the dynamics of behavior, be able to use those dynamics to collectively improve chances of positive outcomes.

Brian
11 years ago

Jeff, see Complex Adaptive Systems

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complex_adaptive_system

neena
neena
11 years ago

Its all about our making of conscious choices which have influence on the Whole ,which create conscious environment, karma is for the Whole and the responsibility lies with us all , in evolution !

Frank Luke
11 years ago

In comparing the two ways of conceiving karma, McLeod’s and the one of action resulting in consequences, I feel to interpret karma as growth may not encompass the concept of repercussion positive or negative. It’s also possible to interpret McLeod’s growth as a plant that grows out of the seed and that seems less germane to the idea, IMO. I understand that the resulting consequences of taking action is a large part of karma. We Westerners say “what goes around comes around”. There’s also visualizing it as bouncing a golf ball in a tiled shower stall–bounce, bounce, bounce.

Frank Luke
11 years ago

Hey Jeff, re: “I have been thinking about behaviorism and wondering this….in an intersubjective context of human beings working together…what happens when the individuals begin to realize that they are part of the environment of other individuals, so this way you have individuals who are consicous, but also a conscious environement?” The realization you mention is part of becoming a responible and spiritually alert person. Children are usuallyl very self-centered but as we mature, we hopefuly become conditioned and learn to operate socially without causing too much trouble. We could say the environment is a conscious one being that it’s… Read more »

Frank Luke
11 years ago

Re: Karma as a ball bounced off the walls in a shower stall: There is possibility of curtailing bad karma with measures that address it’s bad effects when good ideas, action and karma are applied to the situation. The bad karma can be perpetuated through generations and centuries, as we see causing huge problems. Charismatic leaders with good values and ideas can bring about great karmic changes. Bad leaders can set humanity and civilizations back, as we know too well. What seems the common denominator of oppressive leadership is the habit they have of taking care egoistically and manaically of… Read more »