I often feel a little puzzled about the origins of karma theory; it seems like an answer to a question that didn’t need to be asked. Karma functions very well as an answer to a common question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” People who are good now receive bad fates because of bad things they did in former lives, and vice versa.
The thing is, Buddhists – and their predecessors in Indian culture – don’t need an answer to this question. The suffering of good people, it seems to me, is a major problem for those who believe in an omnipotent and omnibenevolent god. If God is really all-powerful and all good, it would stand to reason that he would stop bad things from happening to good people (and maybe bad people too) – so why doesn’t he? It’s a logical problem – theodicy – that monotheists continue to wrestle with answering.
But for someone who’s not a monotheist, the question seems like a non-starter. The question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” seems to me like the question “Why do yellow things fall when they’re dropped?” The very phrasing of the question suggests a certain lack of understanding. Why would we ever think that bad things wouldn’t happen to good people? What, other than the belief in an omnipotent being, would lead us to make such a connection?
I wonder if there’s something in the human condition that compels us to expect that the good will be rewarded and the bad punished – basically, that the world is fair. I’ve heard of studies of chimps that show signs of distress when others get more than they do – more distress than they feel when they have less themselves. Is there, perhaps, a justice instinct – even a theodicy instinct?