The Karmic Law: Liberal/Conservative Divide

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do liberals and conservatives view karmic law? How does karma fit in with our values of liberty and fairness?

In his book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt discusses how karmic law is part of the philosophy behind the Tea Party movement. This is because karma is entwined with our ideas of fairness and liberty. He explains how liberals and conservatives prioritize these values differently.

Read more to learn how karmic law relates to our ideas of liberty and fairness.

Karmic Law and the Tea Party

The founding of the Tea Party explains the different ways Democrats and Republicans understand the Liberty/oppression and Fairness/cheating principles of Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundation theory. It began with a man named Rick Santelli, who went to the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 2009 and suggested that we shouldn’t be paying for our neighbors’ bad mortgages or giving anyone government handouts. Commentators on the left didn’t take Santelli seriously because his argument was to the right of the mainstream Republican party. They didn’t understand that he was arguing for the law of karma (karmic law). Karma relates directly to the Fairness/cheating and Liberty/oppression principles. As Santelli argued, when people manage their finances poorly, it is only karmically fair that they have less money. Similarly, when a group of people feel oppressed, and rise up successfully against their oppressor, they are delivering karmic justice on behalf of liberty

A Karmic Experiment

One experiment on cooperation makes the link between karmic law and liberty and fairness clear. Economists Ernst Fehr and Simon Gächeter asked students to play a game of “public goods” that consists of 12 rounds. In this game, you’re placed in a group of four and you each get 20 money tokens for each round. You can keep your tokens or “invest” in a communal pot. After every round, the tokens in the communal pot are multiplied by 1.6 and distributed evenly among the four players. 

If everyone contributes all their tokens to the pot every round, everyone makes money. However, you make the most money if you hold all of your tokens but everyone else invests. On the other hand, if you contribute but no one else does, you lose a lot of money.

No one knows who is in their group, and after every round, the groups are scrambled. The right choice is clear—everyone should just hold their tokens, as there’s much more risk to putting the tokens in. At the beginning of the game, people contributed an average of about 10 tokens. However, as the game wore on and some people got burned for contributing more than others in their group, contributions went steadily down. Cooperation declined.

However, after the sixth round of the game, players found out that they could punish other players. They could pay one token to take three away from another. The right answer in this case is even more obvious—don’t pay to punish, because after every round Fehr and Gächeter mix the players up, meaning you don’t get the benefit of dissuading your partners from acting selfishly in future rounds and you may well lose tokens yourself. However, 84% of participants paid to punish. Additionally, cooperation skyrocketed for fear of punishment. After 12 rounds, the average contribution was 15 tokens. 

This experiment prompts questions—why did people pay to punish? Why did cooperation go up?

  • People paid to punish because it felt good. When people take without giving back, we inherently want justice, or karma, to be served. This was Santelli’s argument—he was referring to the conservative argument about proportional Fairness.
  • Cooperation ticked up because people were afraid of punishment. They acted better when that threat existed. This experiment proves that Glaucon, the Greek philosopher from Plato’s Republic, was right—people do care more about the appearance of morality than actual morality. 

We can conclude from this data that egalitarianism exists in society more because of fear and hatred of domination and punishment than appreciation for equality. This proved to Haidt that he needed to add a receptor about liberty and fear of domination.

Fairness and Proportionality

The Fairness foundation supports both anger at people who cheat you out of money or possessions directly and anger at people who are leeches on society as a whole. In a large, industrialized society, “cheats” and “leeches” are mostly people who consistently rely on the social safety net, or the people who Santelli argued deserved to be punished. 

The Fairness/cheating principle is thus based on proportionality and karmic law rather than equality, and it’s mostly conservatives’ domain. Everyone cares about proportionality to an extent, but conservatives care much more. Liberals are concerned about the retributive aspect of karmic law much more than conservatives, and, for example, feel uncomfortable with long jail sentences for non-violent crimes. This is because this sort of punishment interferes with the Care/harm principle.

The Karmic Law: Liberal/Conservative Divide

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  • Why we all can't get along
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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