Developing the
mind of Christ

Theology, philosophy & apologetics from Reformed marketing expert Dominic Bnonn Tennant

Thorny problems with karma #2: who sets the rules?

By D Bnonn Tennant

If karma is basically a system for balancing your morally bad choices, who exactly is it that makes the moral rules you must follow?

← Continued from part 1, on what makes karma tick

Karma functions, as I understand it, by balancing evil actions with good ones. This seems to imply that it works according to moral laws which exist independently of any particular person, and to which all people are subject.

This obviously raises the question of where these person-independent moral laws come from.

On the face of it, it seems impossible to account for the existence of objective moral laws in the absence of an objective moral lawgiver. Since morality only applies to persons, where would such rules originate, if not from a personal, moral being? So it seems we need something like the Christian God to underwrite moral values in a karmic worldview—but karmic belief systems reject the existence of God (again, I am speaking of the most popular versions in the West—Hindus may be able to slip around this problem).

You could try to answer this with moral relativism, and say that karma functions to balance only the actions a person perceives to be bad based on his own moral code. But this comes at a very high price. It implies, for example, that a sociopath like Ted Bundy has no need to balance his many rapes and murders, because he had no moral qualms about committing them. Indeed, the very counterintuitive conclusion we’d have to draw here is that the more blind a person is to their immorality, the less karma will affect them.

As with the issue of who “supervises” karma, this problem seems to reveal a fundamental contradiction in karmic worldviews that don’t also believe in a supreme god. I’d be interested to hear any responses that try to solve it.

Continued in part 3, on how karma turns charity into something selfish and inconsiderate →


  1. B.C. Askins

    I’m no expert on Eastern religions, but I always thought there were both theistic and non-theistic streams of karmic religion. Vedantic Hinduism is theistic; Buddhism or Jainism is non-theistic, holding karma to be analogous to natural law, reducing morality to an economy of “cause” and “effect,” effectively.

    In a western context, it all becomes very convoluted very quickly and confuses the lex talionis with quantum mechanics and bumper stickers where “karma runs over dogma,” etc.

    Two cents.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I’m not expert on eastern religions either. That said, you are right—various sects of Hinduism hold that karma is superintended by a supreme God. This would seem to alleviate the problems I’ve raised so far, and in that respect these sects certainly seem to have a more rationally defensible view of karma.

  3. Tony

    “On the face of it, it seems impossible to account for the existence of objective moral laws in the absence of an objective moral lawgiver. Since morality only applies to persons, where would such rules originate, if not from a personal, moral being?”

    this seems like a rather arbitary assertion, first of all there is no such thing as an objective moral lawgiver, all law givers are by definition subjective, so if moral rules come from a personal, moral being it would be subjective, you might try to dance around this problem Dominic but there is no avoiding it, claiming “God is objective” doesnt work because it doesnt make any sense its an inchoerent statement like saying “this Rock’s favourite colour is blue”

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I think you need to explain what you mean by “objective” and “subjective”. It sounds like you’re using very idiosyncratic definitions.

  5. Tony

    dont worry i am not by objective i mean something that is NOT RELATIVE to a individual SUBJECT. Isnt that the type of morality you are always critizing athiests for having? It’s hardly the fact that i am just redefining words to suit my own benefit

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Tony, I’m not sure what you mean by “not relative to an individual subject”. Do you mean that something objective exists independently of a given person’s perceptions or conceptions?

    If so, then we agree. But what you need to show is how this definition fails if morality is grounded in God.

    A morality which is ontologically grounded in a necessary being whose essence is his existence, is a morality which exists independently of any particular person’s perceptions or conceptions.

    Now, certainly that morality does not exist independently of God (that was the whole point of my argument). How could anything exist independently of existence? That’s a contradiction in terms. But God is not the kind of person taken for granted under the definition of “objective”. You can insist that he is, but then you’re just trying to impotently impose an idiosyncratic definition on me. I’m using the term as philosophers and theologians use it when they are discussing morality, and frankly I don’t care how you’d prefer to use it.

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