The platitude that “what goes around comes around” has traction in both western culture and eastern religions, and this pernicious thought is often what can be identified as karma. It’s a tenet of many eastern religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. Likewise, it’s a popular belief among many westerners who may or may not subscribe to any other claims of the previous religions. This is not surprising, however, as the crux of karma has its roots in the cognitive bias known as the “just-world hypothesis,” which transcends culture.
For the sake of clarity, I am defining “karma” as the claim that one’s moral (or immoral) actions will later result in a desirable (or undesirable if immoral) consequence imparted on the actor. This definition, I would contend, is not unfair to western or eastern conceptions of karma.
Holding both a belief in karma and free will is troublesome if karma entails that everything good or bad is the result of one’s own past actions. If a person were to treat me in an immoral manner, then one would have to conclude that karma forced that person to treat me poorly. This would mean karma, and by extension my past actions, forced another person to act in a way that he or she had no control over—thereby robbing him or her of free will. Worst yet, since this automaton performed a bad deed, would he or she not be punished by karma in the future? If all bad deeds are punished, then this may be the case. Perhaps karma makes exceptions when it overrides free will, but then we cannot hold the belief that all actions committed by people truly “come around.”
At least two moves can be made in order to free—pun intended—karma from the problem of free will. First, one could reject free will. Westerners may find this slightly difficult, though. Second, one could reject the position that all bad or good things are the result of karma. This seems reasonable enough, but I would be hard pressed, as I imagine karma believers would be, to demarcate karma-imposed consequences from ordinary causality. To help separate karma from bland, non-supernatural causality, we can turn to the distinction between moral evils and natural evils.
Moral evils refer to the immoral acts committed by a being with agency, such as murder and theft. Natural evils refer to evils that arise due to the conditions of the natural world, so natural disasters and diseases would apply. Defenders of karma could argue that karma, when it does punish, only deals out natural evils. All other evils are the result of moral agents, and it’s out of karma’s control. Additionally, karma is able to maintain cosmic justice by dishing out the appropriate amount of natural evils to those who commit moral evils.
Ostensibly this would allow karma and free will to coexist, but the view fails to account for the astronomically cruel natural evils dealt to those who have not committed equivalent moral evils. It’s an absurd and particularly sick thought that suggests terminally ill children were the defendants in a cosmic courtroom hosted by an incompetent jury and judge, who were acting in accordance with foolish laws.