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The Naturalistic Principle of Karma

Author(s): Karl H. Potter

Source: Philosophy East and West, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Apr., 1964), pp. 39-49
Published by: University of Hawai'i Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1396753
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The Naturalistic Principle

of Karma
INDIAN WRITERS conversant with Western thoug.t have
compared the "Law of Karma" with the "Law of Causation," saying that,
whereas the latter governs the physical order, the former governs the moral
order.' In this conception several mistaken views about the so-called "Law
of Causation" are apparent.
In the first place, the phrase "the Law of Causation" is highly misleading.
There are two well-known senses of "law," and in neither one does the doc-
trine under discussion, viz., "every event has a cause," state a law. The "Law
of Causation" is not a prescriptive law, since a prescriptive law presupposes a
lawgiver. If there were a lawgiver for the "Law of Causation," it presumably
would have to be God. But consider a God who promulgates the Causal Law
"Every event must have a cause." Why should he promulgate such a law? A
prescriptive law is intended to compel people to act or restrain people from
acting in certain ways, and this edict can do nothing of the kind. God may
have created the world in such a fashion that every event indeed does have a
cause, either by some necessity within the scheme or even as a result of his
continuous and direct intervention, but it does not follow from that, even
if it be true, that he issued a prescriptive law to that effect.
Nor is the "Law of Causation" a descriptive law. For a descriptive law, a
"law of Nature" like Boyle's law, for example, is arrived at when a hypothesis
is constantly confirmed and never falsified. But the "hypothesis" "every
event has a cause" is not treated like ordinary hypotheses; apparent falsifica-
tions are disallowed on principle. Whereas an ordinary hypothesis is rejected
when the outcome of a properly-carried-out and relevant test is negative, the
causal "hypothesis" is safeguarded: if we fail to find a cause for a given
event, we are advised to keep looking; we are not allowed to reject the

'E.g., S. C. Chatterjee, The Fundamcntals of Hinduism (Calcutta: Das Gupta & Co., 1950; re-
printed 1960), pp. 72 ff.; Mysore Hiriyanna, Popular Essays in Indian Philosophy (Mysore: Kavyalaya
Publishers, 1952), pp. 30-34; Collected Papers of Professor S. S. Suryanarayana Sastri, T. M. P. Maha-
devan, ed., (Madras: University of Madras, 1961), pp. 233-238.


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Thus the "Law of C

it serves an extreme
tion of scientific inq
and all such explanat
If the "Law of Karm
"Law of Causation,"
formulates a certain
extremely importa
hereafter call "Ever
planations for phys
keep on seeking exp

As a result, neither the "Law of Causation" nor th

governs its respective orders, since they are both principl
or, if you prefer, programmatic decisions, and so cannot
except in the sense of guiding our future inquiries.
Far from detracting from the importance of the doctrin
considerations underline its ultimacy for human concern
we are committed to the causal principle indicates our ba
planations of physical occurrences, and likewise, if one is
karmic principle, this shows one's desire for explanations
rences. And, although it seems prima facie that the statu
inferior to that of a law, since principles are rejectable an
ond thoughts will reveal that this supposed inferiority i
of the fact that in our language-habits we allow ours
rejected principle, while a rejected law is no law at all.
Why should one, however, be committed to the karmic
why are scientists committed to the causal principle?
ferent answers: some see the practical advantages accruin
the sources of physical energy as a relevant reason; others
a lofty disdain for human concerns, at least while in their
wise, one might accept the karmic principle on the impe
he is merely interested in the moral order and not in an
human conduct his investigations might afford, at least w
tion is in progress. Scientists treasure their attitude of "o
that practical concerns threaten to cloud the clarity of th

2The word "causal" is currently out of fashion in empiricist circles, and d

rages over the question of an inductivist versus a deductivist account of veri
These discussions do not bear upon anything claimed here, however.

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ogists, even moral philosophers, may take a

they like. But the only result is that they separ
tors from their activities as inquiring persons
by so doing take the chance that attention to
if their laboratory results do not exist. Such a vie
ing under two hats, so to speak, seems to be
that objectivity does not require suspension of
strict observance of the canons of successful in
erate the questions we ask; they also, in the fin
we use for deciding whether or not our questi
neither consideration justifies the conclusion t
Just as man's predicament dictates an investigation of the sources of
physical power with an eye to adjusting to or even mastering such power,
so the very same predicament necessitates an investigation into the sources of
moral strength with intent to master such sources of self-control as can be
discovered. The karmic principle stands justified simply by our need to
understand ourselves.

In effect, the karmic principle merely makes explicit a vagueness in the

causal principle, a vagueness in the notion of an "event" in "Every event has
a cause." We have seen that this principle might less misleadingly be phrased
"Keep looking for causal explanations of all events." But what are to count
as "events"? At this point the various scientific practitioners begin demarcat-
ing their respective fields. The karmic principle insists that the field of mo-al
events not be overlooked.

The acceptance of the karmic principle is incompatible with no laws of

conduct, not being a law itself. It does, however, conflict with certain alter-
native principles, specifically with those philosophical positions which deny
the existence of moral occurrences, or, while admitting the existence of such
occurrences, deny the relevance of causal explanation to them. Such views
are characteristic of non-naturalism in contemporary ethical theory. Ac-
ceptance of the karmic principle requires one to adopt the position of natural-
ism in ethics.

The question at issue in assessing naturalism is not one of the truth or

falsity of a doctrine, but, rather, one concerning the acceptability of a prin-
ciple as guiding our investigative policy. As a result, some of the more
superficial aspects of contemporary debate may be overlooked in favor of a
more searching analysis of men's motives in denying, or affirming, that there
are moral occurrences and that they are subject to causal explanation.

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The motivation for

the same as that wh
lieves that understa
and adjust to subseq
anticipation of and
cern. The naturalist
control. But he trus
Naturalism, then, p
eventually mastered
decisions is central
of scientific investig
The motivation for
But the major sourc
knew all the causes
will bring, a self-st
non-naturalist adm
limits, he opposes s
sions, the area of w
Though this is not
reasons for the view
uralism may be opp
ing, unlike God's, h
beyond his own lim
and that rash claims
are blasphemous. Al
the previous parag
any sort of events,
some positive harm
the debilitating pro
al inquiry, the same
admits to be approp
Yet the problem, o
are to be persuaded
(1) that complete u
enable us to predict
complete predictive
naturalist assumes i
should aim for. The

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ingly paradoxical account of human freedom as a state

at all is open.
Among the ancient darianas of India one can make o
tween naturalism and non-naturalism. This distinction
elsewhere called the difference between "progress
philosophy."3 In Sanskrit the former is called "jfti-va
vada." The cleavage is fundamental. The leap philosoph
ists, refuse to allow causal explanations as relevant to
endeavors, restricting causal categories to only a part of
cern men. The remaining part, unamenable to ratio
treated in varying ways by Indian non-naturalists. Som
Buddhists and the Vivarana branch of the Advaita Ved
ond sort of understanding (often called prajiid) to gra
egories. Other non-naturalists take refuge in theism, f
navite interpretation of Rdmanuja and Madhva's Dvait
of what is now referred to as the "bhakti movement,"
latter sort, which features dependence on the grac
increasingly prevalent in India. The result has been th
by adherence to the karmic principle have been more
favor of a resigned attribution to God of responsibilit
In a context of non-naturalism, the "Law of Karma" lo
principle and indeed takes on a strongly fatalistic flav
original intent, however.
Readers unacquainted with the cleavage in the hist
sketched above may well be puzzled when they find Hir
at one and the same time disclaiming deterministic con
of Karma" and yet apparently admitting that the "Law
event is completely determined-all the while apparent
contradictions involved in these views. Suryanarayana S
ful, seeing rightly the naturalistic implications of the
quacy of the non-naturalists' answer. His own solut
uralistic (Bhamati) Advaita is, unfortunately, not satis
the dubious authority of Eddington, he appeals to the
minacy to justify indeterminism. But he, like the othe
has been argued above, that the "Law of Karma" is not
which, so long as it is maintained, commits us to se

3See "A Fresh Classification of Indian Philosophical Systems," Journal o

(November, 1961), 25-32; the distinction is further expounded in my b
Philosophies (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963).

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order beneath the qu

order science may arr
Meeting the non-na
the baby with the b
an interpretation of
answer along the se
human freedom.

What are these "mo

principle exhorts us
perhaps the sources
well known to reflec
in life are due to ou
habits built up prior
karma, habit, which
straint is present.
The karmic princip
tions of habituation
which constitute th
ensure that those ki
leased from bondage
(perhaps even a suff
dependence on the n
When the self attai
that itwill be able t
future (and no doub
conception of man's
parently because n
phrase, "no choice is
analysis it will turn
in terms like "habi
inadequate grounds.
There are two sorts
to say "no choice is
tives are limited t
ordinary experience
wallet at gunpoint, b
since obviously one

4Chatterjee, op. cit., pp. 82

ing them.

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though the other alternative-probably being s

it is reasoned, restriction of alternatives even
desirable-how much worse if it were strictly
were open. Note how the repugnance we exhib
thing against our will is carried over into the st
is given why the description "alternatives lim
apply only to cases where the "alternative"

A second situation answering strictly to "no

tion where indeed no choice is open, since cho
of the intrinsic character of the situation. An
found in experiences of severe depression whe
worth-while than anything else, choosing seem
into catatonia. Again, this is not strictly a cas
since one could well say of such a depressive,
to him, including the choice not to do anythin
highly repellent, and this quality is easily car
taken to approximate. Again, note that the re
catatonic is carried over into the strict case, a
sanction for this identification.
Now let us return to "habit." Moral advisors s
in their attitudes to habit. Such a counselor adv
be a slave to habits; on the other, to develop h
bad, but so is an underregulated one. One may
important distinctions are being overlooked in
Surely we are not being advised to develop t
same time to dispense with?
We are insufficiently clear about habituation
say here that the problem which the foregoing
lem of telling which habits are good and whic
ing makes it sound as if there were propertie
which characterize two distinct classes of habi
classify habits into these two varieties by disc
properties. But since one cannot assume that an
are signs of the presence of goodness and b
move from an "is" to an "ought" or to comm
the non-naturalist goes on to conclude that on
these properties directly. Having intuited whi
exhorted to develop these habits. No causal

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desirable, for the no

to develop certain on
The weaknesses in t
that goodness and b
two kinds of mora
intuition is suspect,
to give any criteria f
non-naturalist does
abandon others with
habits. Note that th
"is" to "ought" or w
admit that, if it we
maneuvers would be
such a search is unne
The problem is no
rather, to avoid habi
the Bhagavad-giti te
habituation, is a feat
it is not an intrinsic

Let us distinguish "

ular pattern, from "
ways determined by
habituated1, but ma
can control his smo
will for a given peri
The presence or abs
matter of natural fa
wise, discovery of th
for scientific invest
finally, utilizing thi
ferent kind of prob
utilization may well
ment of habituation
Now, with such a c
naturalistic concept
to aim for as the non-naturalist claims it to be. Once we have seen that

5The Gitad finds three kinds of habits: good (sattva), passionate (rajas), and indifferent (tamas).
But they all bind. See III. 5 and II. 45.

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habituation need not involve loss of control to the

a state of perfect freedom we might be habituat
choice is open," and yet it will not follow that so
making our choices for us. No choice is open to u
because we are in complete control of ourselves an
by desires arising from alien sources. We will no
to external control; rather, we will have renounc
have renounced all desires arising from the not-sel
There are other principles that Indian naturalis
the karmic principle. Prominent among these is
tion or transmigration of the self. In judging th
we should first reconstrue it as a principle, asses
then judge the other aspects as critically as we w
above to explain the function of the karmic princ
some of the specific ways in which this principle
ular consumption. For example, the tracing of sp
previous acts must either be independently justifi
tion or, if not, it must be construed as a pictures
of the concerns which lead them to adopt the kar
guise, the doctrine of karma need not be taken any
ful people than any similar myth.
Likewise, the doctrine of transmigration seems t
elements with an extremely important natura
principle "keep looking for causes of habituation2
may be called the principle of beginninglessness,
exploring earlier events as possible causes for hab
out of candidates among later events. Thus the p
ness extends the scope of the search for causal ex
as it were. The principle underlying transmigrati
beginninglessness and, so to speak, expands it. It
the causes of the habituation2 of an individual inh
region to look for such causes in any and all spac
behavior in question.
As a result, it allows us, if we wish, to construe
person as extending without spatial or temporal r
so to construe my history we could include in tha
have in any way conditioned my habituation2, wh
in this physical body I now possess or in another
soever. Whether we wish to construe the conc
way is a matter for us to decide; there are clearly

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speaking, prominent a
deviation from curren
Such drawbacks are no
scheme, however. t If
be gained in discover
would outweigh all oth
It is quite possible tha
identity along these li
history of an individ
penetration of his hist
the absence of any fur
ing of the karmic prin
one cannot seriously a
popular Indian classics
former birth, etc. How
"seriously"; they are m
disseminating the kar
The corollary to the k
rather providin than
individuality, to provi
bound to each other an
cerns. Instead of dis
through time from eac
learn to think of our h
one among several mod
those fields as being l
from the physical one
from various angles by
mutual concern, is not
realm; it can and must
Furthermore, along th
universal insights curr
that through love for
The decline of natura
Indian naturalists wh
position for the ultim
influence of a shallow
failed to recognize the

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Indian philosophy is now identified with non-n

Western philosophers, despite its pioneering wo
of the ledger. One would hope to see a reviv
naturalism sophisticatedly aware of developmen
but emphasizing the unique contributions of
classically expounded in such naturalistic tex
Patafijali's Yoga-sfitra. Such a revival would con
vance in the resolution of the deep-seated issues
non-naturalists throughout the philosophical wo
What, then, are the philosophical implications
The most fundamental implication is that the h
us to view our world naturalistically, i.e., as go
ularities. Only by so viewing the world can we
the suffering which, by common consent of all
dhist, and Jaina, pervades our lives. It is wor
philosophers who have allowed themselves to su
karma is only a convenient fiction have tended
treme devotionalists. These latter types of phil
abandon the traditional Indian ideal of salvation
by outright denial of its possibility, as in the ca
stituting other ideals in its place, as in the med
Indeed, karma, the naturalistic principle, is no
cal implications so much as a presupposition
philosophical implication. When the presupposit
we quickly leave the characteristic concerns of
for the quite different concerns of medieval an
The cleavage between naturalism and non-natur
is no more important choice to be made by thos
than that between these two methodological assu

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