Blog Site

Thursday, July 16, 2009

On retribution: how bad people lose (pt 1)

A closeup of the right panel of The Garden
of Earthly Delights
, depicting Hell as a place
of horrors for those who misbehave in life.
By Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516).
When studying and practicing some ancient philosophies, you may notice over time you become less concerned with retribution. Not only retribution in your personal interactions, but retributive perspectives on social and moral issues.

Biologically, humans share social instincts with the rest of our primate cousins which include a deep seated sense of equity in relations. This gives many primates an innate sense of fairness. Part of that sense includes an instinctive desire to inflict retribution on those who have 'broken the rules' of behavior.

[Explore further: Researchers First to Recognize Sense of Fairness in Nonhuman Primates]

As we all know, these impulses can at times turn into obsessions, but even in mild cases it is possible to be consumed by these hateful desires. Certainly, the kind of retributions that might satisfy our emotions are not always possible, so being wrapped up in this sort of thing will impact our long term happiness and equanimity in life.

The Christian worldview, especially by the Medieval era, is almost entirely based around a grand cosmic architecture of sins, sacrifices, judgments, and punishments - the end result of a maddening intellectual gymnastic to satisfy that deep need to believe that evil doers will get their due, and good doers will get their rewards. This retributive cosmic code is so deeply woven into the Christian worldview that God himself seems unable to overcome it. All Christians know the story about God having to sacrifice his own Son to atone for the sins of humanity, but no one ever asks who made up these strange cosmic rules - rules where a certain subset of human behaviors have some effect on where souls can travel, and - even more strange - that the shedding of blood can somehow account for them? Turning these rules into supernatural physics and separating them from (and imposing them over) God's will has been a modern interpretation to make God seem less whimsical and unjust, but I digress.  Christianity can't be solely to blame for its bizarre cosmic mythos. Retribution-based cosmic architectures are found in all the Abrahamic religions, and can be traced back to Zoroatrian roots, which were big on picturing all of reality in terms of a grand struggle between good and evil, imagining these human notions to be burned into the workings of the cosmos.

But ancient philosophies, East and West, are pre-Abrahamic and don't quite share such a strong focus on comeuppance. It should be no surprise then, that as we move our perspective outside of that Medievalism, the importance of retribution begins to diminish in our value system. But what takes its place?

Even karma has been framed as a kind of magical scorecard which deals out punishments for misdeeds, but this is a mistaken view of the concept. This misperception exists among many Eastern practitioners themselves who don't know their own religion well, and the misunderstanding is even worse when seen through Zoroastrian-influenced Christian Western eyes. When many Westerners try to understand karma, they keep the cosmic judging thing, and simply replace God with 'the universe'. But karma is not a retributive, judging, or punishing phenomena - and it is not a cosmic Santa's list.

I will not get into a full explanation of karma here and now (for that, readers can see my longer essay A Naturalistic Approach to Buddhist Karma & Rebirth). Rather, in part 2, I'd like to take a naturalistic worldview, and outline the many ways that bad people do suffer.

[Read Part 2]

No comments:

Post a Comment