Friday, October 20, 2006

Karma and Justice

Karma is supposedly a cosmic sense of justice, of just desserts, of reaping what one sows, of getting what one deserves. But the concept has the curious property of enlarging the scope of justice beyond the act to include other non-related acts -- that is, because of good or bad things you did before, you will gain more benefit or greater harm from some other, independent action in the future. Yet, when we think of justice, we think that gain or penalty ought to be tied to the act itself, regardless of who it is that commits it. It is the act and not the person that is being judged...or is it?

I taught for a while at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. The students there, of course, have enlisted in the Navy or Marines in order to attend. As such, they are not just college students, but also employees of the federal government. They get a paycheck for going to college as well as having their room, food, clothing, and instruction paid for by the tax payers. They also have to live under a stricter code of behavior with stricter punishments. If they are found guilty of an academic misdeed, they are not only are expelled from the academy, but under the contract they sign to be admitted, must repay the government for all costs incurred in educating them up to that point. To teach there, I had to sign a contract pledging to report any knowledge of such infractions.

Then, it happened. I got a paper where portions were clearly plagiarized. It was written by a good kid who did a dumb thing. This was not one of the sleazy kind of students who are always trying to get away with something; he was a hard-working, respectful, good-hearted young man who no doubt had one of those weeks where he was overwhelmed and in a moment of weakness did what he knew he shouldn't do.

I knew all this and knew that he didn't have the $100,000 it would cost him, a punishment that in no way fit the crime here. So when I called him to my office I decided that I would give him enough rope to hang himself. If he copped to it and expressed authentic remorse, I'd give him a second chance; if he tried to play me, I'd take the case to the authorities. Without a single word from me, he immediately broke down, admitted it, and apologized. I told him I'd give him a zero for the assignment, that he needed to write me a passing paper for next week, and never, never, NEVER do this kind of thing again.

He got off easy because of karma. If he had been a sleazy gamer, I'd have simply done what I was supposed to do under the contract. He got a second chance because he was a nice guy. Was that fair? Should we treat people differently for doing the same thing? He knew the penalty, he signed the contract and willingly agreed to be part of the system, and then committed the act anyway. Shouldn't he have suffered the consequences he agreed to, even if they were out of line with the lack of severity of the crime? I signed a contract that I violated. Did I do something wrong in showing care and compassion? Is karma doing justice in a larger context or is it unjust because it imports morally irrelevant facts into the discussion of a different action?