Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Trouble With Karma

I don't really believe in karma--the general idea, rooted in Buddhism and Hinduism, that the sum of a person's actions will decide their fate in the future. Basically that people, for better or worse, ultimately get what they deserve. 

Then again, I'm also not religious. And although I'm a lawyer who believes in my work, I also know that the justice system has grave limitations:  When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Sometimes religion, karma, and justice are just hammers, and whatever nuanced problem you're facing simply won't conform to the shape of a nail. In other words, it's axiomatic that people sometimes get away with doing bad things, and that bad things sometimes happen to people who don't "deserve" it. If karma were real, that wouldn't be true.

But I'm a strong adherent to secular humanism and the social compact. The idea that our actions have consequences and should be rooted in a system of ethics. And that this system of ethics, in turn, should be driven by a collective goal for a more just society, with the primary motive being the protection of the whole and not necessarily--in every instance--the individual.

I've been thinking a lot of about these concepts in light of this week's "karmic justice" meted out by the Internet to two closeted misogynists and a price-gouging pharmaceutical executive

All three were young, white males with all the apparent advantages, power, and privileges that society can confer. And in both cases, they admittedly and beyond any doubt used their privilege in a manner that harmed the collective and that benefited themselves directly. In one case financially and in the other sexually. 

Society took note, and delivered a punishment. Outrage over dangerous and misogynistic rantings forced at least the temporary closure of the misogynists' business, and collective disgust that one man's bald-faced greed could jeopardize the health of thousands forced him to lower the price of a life-saving drug in direct response to society's reproach.

It's easy to feel a sense of poetic justice and schadenfreude when you watch people like this get their comeuppance. I feel it too. But I also recognize that feeling as a failing in my own character. It's too easy and it's base. 

So I try to channel my ignoble glee toward a more fundamental and productive truth: That absent a collective societal outrage--now easier than ever to harness because of technology--these men would never have faced any consequences for their conduct at all. And that in both cases, the punishment is a financial one, imposed upon three individuals who appear well-positioned to absorb its impact and whose own selfish actions precipitated it. In other words, it's hard to feel sympathy.

It's also hard not to appreciate the power and importance of the social compact. We all live together as humans on this planet, whether we like it or not. A planet that is quite literally growing more crowded, vulnerable, interconnected, and interdependent by the second. Anyone who says or thinks otherwise is kidding themselves. If every individual did everything he or she wanted to do all the time, society would descend into anarchy. 

That's why all of us depend on one another to call out crimes against our fellow humans when we see them. Even--and especially--where, as here, those crimes are undefined in the law and lack any other remedy or recourse.

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