Imagine the following situation:
You have before you one cake, a very delicious cake.
There are two people present.
How should the cake be shared?
The obvious answer that comes to mind is to cut the cake into equal halves. Various authoritative voices from your childhood chime in with various reminders to be a good child who is fair and shares equally with their friends. Indeed, it would be glaringly unfair if the cake were to be split with a larger portion going to either cake-eater.
The cake is cut but one person, whom we’ll call cake-eater A, gets a noticeably larger share of the cake.
That seems grossly unfair doesn’t it? Besides, it’s not difficult to cut a cake into equal halves.
However, I’m sure if asked, you could think of various justifications for why cake-eater A might have gotten the larger share.
Perhaps, cake-eater A actually made the cake, while cake-eater B sat around doing nothing much at all.
Or maybe, on closer examination we see that cake-eater B already had 2 other cakes on their plate, whilst cake-eater A had none.
If we bring in ideas of karma, it might be that cake-eater B had slighted or stolen from cake-eater A before – in this life or another.
These possibilities are not revolutionary in any sense, but why is it that on average, we would stand on the side of cake-eater B and scream UNFAIR at the top of our lungs, despite the broader picture or rather without even considering a wider picture might exist?
The analogy of cutting a cake seems to be to be a perfect representation of how we are taught to make judgements from a young age. As children we are taught to be fair and forgiving with such simple examples such as the cake. Yet, this simplicity obviously cannot accurately capture the true complexity of life. But when, if ever, are we taught to extend, question and develop our basic principles and morals to see beyond the cake in front of us? We make judgements about life’s great injustices, especially the injustice others have inflicted on us, based on the cake we see in front of us. Sure, once we ‘mature’ into adults, we are expected to acquire a more nuanced approach to such judgements. But, how many of us actually consciously try to look beyond the cake presented in front of us, especially when we are disappointed or even distraught about our share?
Then, would counting all the cake then solve the problem? Well, yes and no. Perhaps, in a cynically pragmatic sense, being able to count every bit of cake every made and split it evenly according to either contribution to production or equal outcome would solve any question of injustice, providing we agree on what the ideal distribution is. However, that idea comes alarmingly close to championing some kind of socialist utopia with a Orwellian big brother keeping close tabs on every person’s actions, thoughts and emotions. In reality, that ideal world, if you can call it that, simply isn’t possible given the mass oversight or mass brainwashing required and let’s not forget that big brother would be human as well. The thing is, as humans, we are limited in time, patience, attention, so more often than not, we end up counting only the cake on our own plates making ourselves much more miserable that we ought to be.
This now leaves the question, should we bother trying to divide the cake at all? Why not just let everyone eat what they can get their hands on and forget about this justice and fairness nonsense? Given that no one individual can possible count all the cake in world, or even the cake that concerns them, how is it that we can ever achieve any sense of ‘justice’?
In response to this question, one might wonder whether or not perhaps ‘justice’ is actually a ‘sense’ rather than a reality. Faced with the question of whether justice is something we as humans can accurately decide, you might now be more uncertain of your answer. But let me ask, it is really the strict, exactly calculated crumbs of respective cake allocations that concerns you? I would say no.
Instead, what concerns me is the idea that equality exists, and operates, even beyond the powers of my human comprehension. It might take the form of karma, or it might take the form of shared morals and the justice system but whatever the form, I am happy to be just another person living my life in the best way I can – sincerely, and without bringing intentional harm to anyone. I am not concerned with the cake, simply because once I’ve eaten this cake, I will promptly forget about it and move on to making a new one. As long as I can be convinced that the cake I have is what I deserve, well then, I will be happier than if I had twice the cake but in fact felt I deserved twice more than that. Life is a relative experience, and by extension, justice must also be.
Given we can never personally make those relative comparisons, are we not then left with the choice of dropping everything and counting cake for the rest of our lives, or trusting in karma, social justice or whatever it might be and living the rest of our lives?
In such a way, I personally believe in karma, not because I have conclusive proof for it, but because it makes little different to my sense of justice whether karma’s cake counting actually matches up to imaginary ‘facts’. I’m free to live my life sowing the seeds of good deeds for my future selves to reap, and being thankful that my past selves did not leave me much bad karma. If at the end of this life, it turns out that my existence simply disappears into the void of the universe, well, I will be no worse off for living my life believing in karma and trying to bring some good into the world. If however, it turns out that karma does indeed exist, then my future self will thank me and I will have benefited from “this seemingly endless existence.”
(Written in response to/inspired by Merrichristine’s post Karma, justice and privilege dollars)