Ethics – Karma – Non Magical Karma

by pre., Friday, May 1st, 2009.

In the west, the word “karma” tends to be misused. People assume it means that every good action needs a bad action to balance the yin-yang of life. People think it means that good things happen to good people. They think it means that bad people will be punished, either in this world or in a reincarnation or other form of afterlife. They think it’s like a cosmic bank where every good deed is a deposit on future luck.

Obviously, since there is no magic, if Karma exists it is none of these things.

Non Magical Karma

A real karma, one which is based not on magic but on solid understanding of game theory, sociology and ethics, is not so much a belief that “If I behave well, I will live in a better place” more an understanding of the the fact that “If everyone behaves well, the world is a better place.” For everyone in it.

The first meaning would require a magic karma fairy to keep score, to ensure that people who are nice meet each other more often than average. The second meaning is just a simple statement about probabilities. The more good acts there are in the world, the more chance there is you’ll come upon one.

Your good actions aren’t designed to give you, personally a better outcome. They’re designed to make your society into one with a greater chance of finding those good acts. Your part in a group effort.

Yes, it may be possible to cheat, to be a free-rider, to be bad while everyone else is being good and to take advantage of others, but in doing so you harm the society in which you live.

Prisoners Dilemma

The Prisoners Dilemma is a game in which the rules are set up so that ‘rational’, self-interested decisions result in each prisoner’s being worse off than if each chose to help the other.

Both players play a card: Either ‘defect’ or ‘cooperate’. Here’s a matrix showing the number of points each player scores depending on which cards are played:

Player A
Cooperate Defect
Player B Cooperate A:3, B:3 A:5, B:0
Defect A:0, B:5 A:1, B:1

As you can see, if both players play “cooperate” they get 3 points each. If both players defect they get 1 point each. However if one player cooperates while the other defects, they score just zero, giving the defecting player five points.

If a player uses the defect card, he does the best he can regardless of what the other player does. Likewise, if that other player plays the defect card then he in turn does better than the first. Yet if both play the cooperate card then between them they win more than if either play defect.

Note that the essential condition is this: By cooperating, more points are scored in total for the players than if they defect. An individual player will score 1 or 5 if he defects, or else 0 or 3 if he cooperates. A clear rational choice to defect. Yet the players in total receive 6 points for cooperating with each other and only 1 or 5 if one chooses to defect

“Games” in the game-theory sense which have with these conditions exist all over the society in which we live. Every economic transaction you’ve ever participated in is grounded in it. In the actual world, many games are NOT zero sum meaning the only way to score points is not to take them from another player.

We can call the total number of points awarded in the Prisoners Dilemma the ‘karma’. If both players cooperate, the karma is 6. There is more ‘karma’ to be shared between everybody. If both players defect the total karma is only 2. There are less points to go around. If only one player cooperates there are just 5 karma points in the system, even though they are all given to the defector.

A world with more Karma is a world in which more people choose to go against their selfish competitive one-upmanship and to cooperate to improve the lot of all. In that world with more cooperation, everybody wins.

A world with more cooperation, more karma, is a better place in which to live.

This argument tells us why we are better off in the long run, as a society, if we and everybody else ‘pull their weight’, if we help and cooperate with each other. However, the cold hard rules of natural selection care not for our lofty arguments or how well the group fairs. They care only for which genes are successfully producing the most copies of themselves. What works in evolution has to work here, now, immediately, personally, to increase the spread of a given gene.

Next week we’ll look into the mechanism found by evolution to dig species out of the selfish swamps of competition into the relative ease of cooperation.

Ethics – Karma – Social Reinforcement

by pre., Friday, May 8th, 2009.

Last week we mentioned the prisoners dilemma a simple system built to model a non zero sum game, we compared the total number of points scored by all players combined to the karma in the system. Cooperation increased the total number of points available, even if a larger absolute number of points could be gained for a given individual player by defecting.

In the penultimate chapter of The Selfish Gene, entitled “Nice Guys Finish First”, Richard Dawkins discuses the ways in which evolution, through simple selfish Darwinian selection, can still evolve cooperation. There is a BBC Documentry of the same name based on the chapter.

In it, Dawkins explains that in order to evolve cooperation, a system must satisfy three conditions: The interaction must be repeated, so that the same individuals are likely to interact again. They must be able to recognise the partners they are interacting with and they must be able to remember how their partner interacted last time.

Iterated Prisoners Dilemma

The first of these keys to the evolution of cooperation is that the game must be played more than once, ideally repeated over and over again indefinitely. If the game is played over and over again a host of new strategies open up. Rather than just “cooperate” or “defect” a player can do something more like “Defect on each alternate go and cooperate otherwise” or “Cooperate 3 times then defect”. This widening of the strategic field is essential to evolving a cooperative strategy, for simply “cooperate” OR simply “defect” are not complicated enough. Repeating the game changes it’s nature, rather than a simple prisoners dilemma game, it becomes the iterated prisoners dilemma.


The next essential element is that each player must be able to remember the results of previous iterations. Without the ability to remember the past, strategy can’t change depending on previous actions and we’re back to the simple game, with just “cooperate” or “defect”, perhaps with a random component. Even to implement “cooperate every other time” we need to remember which round we’re on, what we did last time.


Finally, Dawkins shows that the players must be able to recognise their partner in the game. To link their memory of the game to the particular individual they last played with. To remember, essentially, whether the individual they are playing against cooperated or defected on the last few iterations.

When all three of these conditions are present in an evolutionary system, the system becomes complicated enough that it can evolve ways to spread the advantage of an increase system-wide karma to all the agents in that system. Strategies can evolve to encourage cooperation so that the group, and each individual within it, can take advantage of group effort.


In the 1980s, Robert Axelrod hosted a computerized tournament of strategies which met these criteria. Computer programs were submitted which implemented a given strategy, and each program given the opportunity to compete over many rounds with all the other strategies.

The winning strategy, known as ‘tit for tat’, is very simple: Cooperate on the first move, then afterwards copy the move your partner made.

The strategy ‘punishes’ a player for defecting. The more they defect, the more Tit For Tat will defect back at them. Suddenly, in an environment of tit for tat players that you expect to meet again and again, the best strategy is to cooperate rather than defect.

Human Beings

Of course, actual creatures don’t have to consciously understand this data in order to cooperate. They just need to be built by evolution to instinctively cooperate, and punish defectors. It’s this evolution which has given us social emotions which make us so urgently feel injustice, feel such hatred against cheaters and criminals. They make us love those who have helped us, and want to repay the debt of kindness. They give us pride in our reputation, and instinctive ways to judge another’s reputation based on interactions with them and others they have interacted with.

Social Emotions

Karma, understood properly, is a measure of how much cooperation there is in society, a measure of the good in your community. Your own personal rewards are of course partially determined by this, and partially by your own actions.

If you lived in a community of cooperators, people who helped regardless of your reputation and your previous action, you could indeed defect and so gain personally at the expense of the society in which you live and the people with whom you interact. However, over time, this would cause damage to the society that supported you and discourage cooperation throughout. Those cooperating linages would die out. Your selfish strategy would cease to work. Each member of the species would suffer, without a bedrock of kindness to exploit.

This is not the world in which you live though. You are not in a community of mindless cooperators. You live in a world where you have friends, a reputation, enemies. A world in which people sacrifice their own gain in the name of punishing criminals, in the name of justice and honesty.

This is why the naive interpretation of ‘karma’, that people who do good are rewarded, are luckier, still holds some truth: Those who treat others well will indeed be better off than those who don’t. Nice people have nicer friends. Helpful people are more likely to be helped. Even the nicest people, even family, rightly have limits, They will eventually punish defection.

This is the essential point: You live in a society which rewards altruism, you have evolved in an environment which is made up, primarily, of other people who reward cooperation and punish defection. Each person doesn’t usually consciously spread gossip and information in order to assure that “you’ll never work in this town again,” full social exclusion is rare. However, people will pick up on each other’s tells, they’ll notice reticence in interactions, suspicion, reluctance. Your reputation, like it or not, follows you everywhere. There is much to gain from being a good person, most notably, good friends.

Of course, you can try to hide the truth about yourself. Hope you’ll get away with cultivating friendships without cooperation. Hope to cleverly take advantage of everyone you meet. Next week we’ll discuss how even defections which nobody but you know about can nevertheless have a negative influence on your life.

Ethics – Karma – Self Reinforcement

by pre., Friday, May 15th, 2009.

Last week we talked about the circumstances in which cooperation can be the best route for all parties, even in deeply competitive situations like evolution by natural selection. That in these circumstances the forces of natural selection favour the evolution of social emotions, methods which change the behaviour of organisms, and thus the very environment in which creatures live. By punishing defection and rewarding cooperation these social emotions increase the karma of the whole group by ensuring that the individual karma of each of it’s members is tracked, and that each of those members rewarded for adding to the karma of the group.

All the members of a community, then, have an incentive to enforce justice. An incentive to punish mis-deeds, to befriend only the most friendly. Genes, emotions, memes and social conventions evolve to build an environment in which individuals can take advantage of the rising tide of good karma which lifts all boats.

Note however that these social emotions aren’t just about others. An individual in this society is better off, personally actually better off, if he cooperates more. He’s better off because, in the special circumstances we mentioned earlier, the other individuals in his group make it so. They enforce the rules.

Thus each individual evolves conscience. If those who fail to cooperate are out-competed by those who do, if there exists a selective pressure to encourage cooperation, then those who feel genuine guilt, those who feel remorse, who make amends and resolve never to again do the thing which caused these feelings will prosper over the guiltless and the selfish.

Self Reinforcement

All of which means that not only have you evolved in an environment of family and friends which carefully watch and judge your ethical actions, your contribution to the group’s karma, but also that you have also evolved to judge yourself on those same scores, those same criteria.

Whether you want it or not, your are always being judged, not just by the wider community (for they are not always present) but by yourself. Every time you find yourself wanting, every time you wrong someone or something, every time you reduce the amount of karma in your society, you will damage your own opinion of yourself.

This self image will be in your mind all the time. If you know you’re not a great person, you won’t expect great friends. If you know you’re a thief, you’ll act like a thief. You’ll condemn yourself.

When you finally are in the company of others again, this self judgement will filter on to them through your non-verbal subliminal body language and behaviour.

Your expectations will change. If you know you’re great, you’ll expect great things. If you know you’re a bastard, you’ll accept being treated like one.

Changing Yourself

At the Transcendence Institute, we believe that these things are fundamentally changeable. It would seem that if you so desired you could erase these effects, judge yourself in a deliberately inaccurate way. Consider yourself better than you are, more kind and friendly than you are. Cynically wear one mask when others are around and another when alone.

However, this would be a mistake.

As we have explained, in a social society the benefits to you, personally from making properly ethical decisions far outweigh any short-term temporary gain you may be able to glean from the dishonest, unfriendly or unethical choice. It’s a good thing to have these social emotions, not only for society at large but (because of the way you’ll interact with that society in future) for you personally too!

In fact then, we should encourage these social emotions. The pleasure of helping someone, the joy of adding karma to your society, the guilt and unhappiness of wronging someone.

The last meditation in this lap around the spiral, presented next week, will help you to build those emotions, to take more pleasure from doing the right thing.

Ethics – Karma – The Meditation

by pre., Friday, May 22nd, 2009.

This month we have examined karma. We have pointed out that in traditional eastern culture it’s a measure of good will in society rather than a given individual’s score, analogous to the total scored in an iterated prisoners dilemma rather than an individual’s score.

Last week we looked at the social emotions which have evolved to encourage the kind of cooperative behaviour which, especially in environments consisting of similarly evolved beings, increase the lot of everyone. The rising tide which lifts all the boats in the harbour.

It would seem, then, that these social emotions are personally beneficial in an environment where defectors are detected and punished, or even noticed and not helped. It’s better for society at large, and for each individual actor, if they act the way those social emotions will encourage them to act.

More personally: It’s better for society at large and you personally if you personally feel those social emotions as relevent and immediate and deep.

This month’s meditation aims to help you to feel and pay attention to those emotions. It aims to encourage you to notice and seek the joy of helping others, the pleasure of increasing your community’s karma, of spreading the love.

As usual, you’ll do this through practice, through visualisation and recall (or precall, imagination if you can’t think of an occasion at all). You’ll focus upon the way it feels to help someone, on the emotional repercussions of that action. On enjoying the smile of the person you helped, or the general increase in karma in your social group.

In doing so you’ll also prime yourself to focus on these things in the future at the time they happen, increasing your emotional reward for ethical behaviour, for increasing your society’s karma.

Of course we’ll also try to make suggestions and give instruction designed to help you to understand karma more thoroughly, to learn to see it as a score for the community rater than yourself.

What you’ll hear

After the usual talk-down and slide into that suggestible state, you’ll spend a few minutes thinking about an occasion in which you helped someone. When you added to the community’s karma. Then you’ll send a couple of minutes thinking about a time when you didn’t help, maybe even when you hurt or refused to cooperate.

Each time you’ll be encouraged to allow the emotional effects on your conscience, on karma, to grow. To feel them more strongly.

Finally you’ll compare the emotions evoked by the two different types of action, impressing on your mind the personal emotional benefit to you of helping others.

Download The Meditation:

Guided Meditation File 16 – Ethics – Karma
Backing Music “Lost Loves In Space” By The Stan Operate
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