Does the notion of collective karma serve a purpose?
There is a tendency for discussions of morality to be focussed almost entirely on individuals and their rights and responsibilities and obligations. Sometimes it is tempting to use group identity as a way of hiding away from inconvenient truths about an individual’s participation in systems that are inherently unjust or destructive. It is useful to have ways of talking about collective actions—the actions of business corporations, of nations, and of such nebulous things as the “consumerist culture”—and of avoiding the temptation to hide behind groups. To speak of group karma may be one way to achieve those goals.
Let us think this through by looking at some examples. Much has been written in recent years about Thomas Jefferson’s complex relation with the institution of slavery. On the one hand, he was morally opposed to the very idea of slavery and found it repugnant that one man should be the owner of another. He made it clear that it would have been better had an economy based on slave labor never arisen. On the other hand, Jefferson realized that an economy based on slave labor had arisen and that the consequences of abandoning it too quickly would be disastrous at many levels. He worried about how the agricultural economy of the American South and, to no small degree, the industrial economy of the American North would be able to survive in the absence of slave labor. He worried about how slave owners could be compensated for the considerable money they had invested in buying slaves if the slaves were set free. He worried about what would happen to the freed slaves if they suddenly found themselves freed in a society that did not fully welcome them as social equals or as fitting candidates for citizenship. How just would it be to send slaves who had been born in America to Africa, where their ancestors had come from? The men and women born into slavery into America were not Africans and never had been, nor were they Americans, and Jefferson wondered whether they ever would be.
Jefferson’s struggle with this issue of the morality of slavery is well documented, because he kept journals and wrote numerous letters. He thought about the question in a great deal of detail and considered a variety of possible ways to eradicate slavery and to return America to a more secure moral footing. The question is: could Jefferson have thought about this issue any more profoundly and arrived at any better solutions if he had had the doctrine of collective karma at his disposal? That is a question to which I have no answer, but I submit it is a question worth asking and thinking about.
In more modern times, the advanced economies of the world no longer rely on slavery, but they do depend on other forms of energy that raise many of the same moral problems. Naomi Klein is a Canadian Journalist who has written about the politics of global warming. In an interview with American journalist Amy Goodman in 2009, Klein spoke about a coalition of developing nations led by Bolivia but joined by numerous African countries. She says this about their position:
…essentially what they’re saying is that the climate crisis as we know was created in the industrialized world. There is a direct correlation between industrialization (what we call development) and carbon emissions. In fact, 75% of the historical carbon emissions have been produced by only 20% of the world’s population. Then we have this cruel geographical irony, which is that the effects of climate change [are] felt overwhelmingly in the developing world, and the parts of the world that are least responsible for creating the crisis. According to the World Bank, 75-80% of the effects of climate change are being felt in the developing world. So, you have this inverse relationship between cause and effect.1
The evidence that Naomi Klein reports is almost diametrically opposed to what one would expect from the doctrine of collective karma. A question worth asking—and again I have no answer—is whether some version of the doctrine of collective karma would be more effective in thinking about the combined actions of groups of people than analyses that make no references to karma and its ripening.
The next question to consider is: What are the downsides to the doctrine of collective karma?