Karma in Bioethics Reasoning: A Hindu Response to Vasantha Muthuswamy
Some bioethicists explore the question of whether there are unique ways of understanding bioethics using philosophical concepts from the Indian philosophical tradition. One of the best known of such concepts is karma. Karma is a Sanskrit word that in common parlance means “as you sow, so shall you reap.” But, like most philosophical concepts, for philosophers it is an immensely complicated and nuanced concept that is used in somewhat different ways in the diverse complex philosophical systems that constitute the Indian philosophical tradition. I argue it is inapt for bioethical reasoning. To the extent bioethics is practical ethics, then the concept is inapt because its native use is to understand certain experiences that arise in the spiritual life, especially in meditation (sadhana), the common practice among Indian philosophical traditions. To the extent bioethics is theoretical ethics, the matters touched on in karmic analyses are far removed from sociopolitical institutions within and from which bioethics derives its meaning. Bioethics is a school of ethics. Ethics is meant to guide action in the political sphere. The concept of karma categorically leads to political quietism or inaction. Even if one seeks to act thinking that “good” karma will arise from one’s actions, the concept of karma philosophically rejects the idea that there is any ultimate “good” karma, and moreover, one can never know whether one is fulfilling existing karma or creating new karma when one acts. Therefore, the use of karma in bioethics discourse is not recommended.