Karma and Compassion: Bridging the Cultural Divide, pt. 9

This is the ninth of an 18-part series that explores our deep cultural divide and offers 10 suggestions about how we can contribute to bridging the divide.

By Dr. Denise R. Ames

09.1 karmaSuggestion #6: Karma and Compassion

Compassion is one of the most important of the six moral foundations, since it is valued by all groups of people. It is embraced by traditionalist, but it is especially important among progressives. When understanding today’s left-right divide it is essentially a battle between the law of karma and the principle of compassion.

Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind explains that conservatives generally want to live in a world governed by karma—the ancient Hindu philosophy in which people reap the fruits of their actions, both good and bad. Karma is usually thought of as a law of the universe, like the law of gravity.01.3 Righteous Mind

Conservatives have historically opposed the growth of the welfare state or government supported programs to help those at the lower rung of the economic ladder. Part of the reason for this opposition, as Haidt explains is “the belief that it grants people a sort of karmic exemption, allowing those who are lazy or irresponsible to draw resources from those who are more industrious.”

The right believes that the left has used government programs to indiscriminately redistribute money, Haidt continues, thus creating an entitlement society in which almost half of the people “are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

Conservatives conclude that society would work better if people helped themselves instead of getting a handout, and unsuccessful people failed. This also includes unsuccessful businesses, such as the auto industry which received government-backed loans in the 2009 recession.

09.2 compassionProgressives, in contrast, would prefer to live in a world ruled by compassion. They are more likely to give people second and third chances, sometimes even more. They are eager to create government programs to help people to, in their view, succeed. For example, many progressives are enthusiastic about passing legislative programs such as Medicare for All, forgiving student loan debt, granting free college tuition, expanding food stamps, enlarging Social Security, and providing a basic income for all people. Generally, conservatives scorn these policies.

For a well-functioning society both karma and compassion are necessary pillars. Haidt concludes, “Conservatives are right that a world in which the law of karma applies tends to work better than one in which it doesn’t. Results from experimental games show that cooperation rates skyrocket when cheaters expect to be punished. But it is cruel and unfair to apply karmic thinking in an unkarmic world.”

09.3While the idea that unemployed people are lazy may sometimes be correct when the unemployment rate is very low, in an economy with a high unemployment rate that insinuation is not justified. In capitalist societies, hard work pays off much better than laziness, yet illness, disability, unemployment, and other kinds of bad luck can hit anyone. Capitalist societies can be unforgiving at times. Karma and compassion don’t balance themselves; that’s a job we must do.


01.2 DeniseAbout the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Ames’ varied life experiences—scholarly research, teaching, reflections, and extensive travels—have contributed to her balanced and thoughtful perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development trainings, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded the educational non-profit, Center for Global Awareness, developing globally-focused books and educational resources. She has written seven books, blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, and teaching units for the non-profit and clients.

Dr. Ames is now developing a program called Turn—transformative understanding and reflection network—that encourages life-long learners to see things with new eyes, shift perspectives, and understand the balance in all things. She teaches classes and writes about cross-cultural awareness, indigenous wisdom, a transformative worldview, learning from the past, a mythic journey, and transforming travel.

Divided: Five Colliding Worldviews and How to Navigate TheDivCover-dsm has just been released!

Divided addresses the question on the lips of every American: why can’t we get along? The cultural divide is threatening our democracy and destabilizing our country. Divided looks at the deep cultural divide through the lens of five colliding worldviews—indigenous, traditional, progressive, globalized, and transformative. This approach helps us make sense of our deep divisions and suggests ways of bridging them.

It is urgent that we understand and bridge the cultural divide. Bridging the divide is dependent upon first understanding it. Gaining an understanding of the five worldviews enhances our success of arriving at sensible solutions and increasing civil conversations. If not, rancor and intractability ensue.

Divided is one of nine books written by Dr. Ames and the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books  

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