Sharon Stone remarked that the earthquake that devastated China on May 12th could have been the result of bad karma. Her hypothesis, if it can be properly called that, is that China’s actions in Tibet resulted in bad karma and this, in turn, played a role in the earthquake.
Karma is a metaphysical notion about causation. Put in terms of a Western saying, it is the notion that you will reap what you sow. While there are various specific views of karma, the general notion is that a person’s actions have a causal impact on his experiences. Obviously, it is hardly controversial that our actions have various effects.
What makes karma special is the idea that there is some sort of metaphysical process that will bring about the effect in question. Put in popular terms, karma is often said to be good or bad. Good karma is supposed to yield good results. For example, someone who is kind to others would accumulate good karma. Perhaps on the day when she is in need herself, her good karma will somehow cause someone to aid her. Bad karma is supposed to yield bad results. For example, someone who does bad deeds will thus have bad experiences.
Those who take a popular metaphysical view of karma would hold that the good and bad that occurs is not the result of what we think of as the normal causal order. For example, if Bill is trying to shoot Ted in the face and Ted stabs him in the eye, that would not be seen as a karmic situation. If Bill went to Ted’s grave, slipped and died when he struck the tombstone with his head, then that would probably be seen as a karmic situation. Thus, a common hallmark of “pop karma” is that the “payback” is unusual and not part of the “normal” causal order.
In the case of China, it is clear that China’s actions in Tibet could not cause an earthquake in China. In the case of the karmic view, the idea would be that China’s misdeeds in Tibet someohow caused the geological disturbance that resulted in the devastation and death.
Even if karma is a real causal factor, it seems unlikely that karma played a role in the China earthquake. The typical notion of karma is that it is a system of justice in which good is returned for good and bad for bad. If those individuals who had done misdeeds in Tibet where the only ones hurt by the earthquake, then I’d be inclined to suspect either an amazing coincidence or some sort of metaphysical factor-such as karma. However, the earthquake hurt the just and unjust alike. It no doubt did hurt and kill some bad people. But, it also killed many young children who had nothing at all to do with Tibet. Thus, if someone believes in a karmic system of justice, it would be rather inconsistent for them to hold that this system punishes the innocent. That would be unjust.
Of course, the idea of mass punishment that includes the innocent is a common notion. For example, people have claimed that 9/11 and Katrina were cases in which God was striking America for her sins. If that is true, then God’s aim is not very good. Unless, of course, we wish to say that everyone harmed in such disasters is evil. Accepting this entails accepting that unborn children, babies, cats, dogs, birds, fish, plants and so on are all evil. There are, of course, so who accept this view. But this seems absurd. If we are all evil and God destroys the evil, we would not be here.
Perhaps someone could accept the view that karmic or divine justice requires mass punishments for mass crimes. So, if a country does evil, then the punishment is inflicted in a general way on that country with no regard for individual guilt or innocence. This sort of punishment is not uncommon. For example, I recall from my school days incidents in which an entire class or athletic team would be punished for the misdeeds of a few. The usual justifications tended to be either that the authorities could not find the individual perpetrators so they had to get everyone in the group or that we bore a collective guilt for the actions of our members.
In reply, such punishments still seem unjust because they punish the innocent. In the case of karmic or divine punishment, it would be odd that such a system would operate in such ignorance. Then again, perhaps the universe is a mess from top to bottom. In the case of collective guilt, that only applies if there is individual guilt. This could, for example, be based on a failure to prevent the others from acting badly. For example, if a few of my fellow cross country runners smoked pot and we were all punished, it could be argued that the rest of us should have stopped them. We are, after all, supposed to be part of a team.
Of course, even if you buy the notion of collective responsibility, this still would not apply to those who could not bear any responsibility. In the case of China, it would take a rather cruel and spiteful person to hold the dead school children accountable for what China has done in Tibet. They did not deserve to die and they did not die because of what China did in Tibet.
Interestingly, Stone’s karma remark gave her some bad karma: her films have been banned in China (or at least in one of the largest theater chains).