One fairly popular subset of afterlife belief is reincarnation. Reincarnation is the idea that, when a life form dies, its soul or spirit remains intact and goes on to occupy another life form coming into existence. Hinduism is one of the most popular pro-reincarnation belief systems in the world today.
There are many arguments against reincarnation that come to my mind, but the technical, scientific, and logical arguments against reincarnation are virtually identical to the general anti-afterlife arguments I have already made in this blog. Therefore, in this blog entry I will focus on the moral problems of reincarnation.
Let's assume for a moment that reincarnation is real and happens to everyone. How can rewards and punishments for behavior be properly administered? If Hitler came back to this world just after his death in the form of a newborn baby, should that baby be persecuted for his past life crimes against humanity? What about in American prisons, where many criminals are serving multiple life sentences? If a criminal dies while serving the first of three life sentences, should his new reincarnated self also be forced to serve the remaining life sentences?
And what about property rights claims? If a rich man dies, can his reincarnated self lay claim to his previous life's estate and property? If he believed in reincarnation, would he even bother writing a will? Or better yet, would he write his will so that all his property was given directly to the next incarnation of himself? I doubt his next of kin would be very happy with that idea. Conversely, if a man with large financial debt dies, can his creditors attempt to settle his debts through his next incarnation?
In response to the questions I have raised in the last few paragraphs, I can see only two answers (if anyone sees more answers than the two I am about to list, please post them in the comments section; I would hate to present a false dichotomy):
1. Assets, liabilities, and responsibilities should be transferred from one life to the next.
2. Assets, liabilities, and responsibilities should not be transferred from one life to the next.
I believe that both answers expose huge moral issues with the reincarnation concept, enough so to make reincarnation dangerous and downright evil. Let's look at both of these answers individually and the consequences each one brings to morality if reincarnation is real.
1. Assets, liabilities, and responsibilities should be transferred from one life to the next. First of all, how do we determine who is who? If Hitler came back to life in a newborn baby after his death, how do we find this next incarnation of Hitler to transfer these liabilities and responsibilities to? We could use hypnotic techniques (assuming that hypnotic "past-lives" techniques worked), but it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. With over 6 billion humans (assuming that reincarnated souls stick to the same species they inhabited previously), it would be quite difficult to find the next reincarnation of Hitler. And what if multiple people claim to have been Hitler in past lives? Don't laugh at this, as any decent detective will tell you that innocent people often confess to crimes they couldn't possibly have committed. And even if the real Hitler was found and detained in his next life, he could commit suicide knowing that he will come back to life as another human being and the search would have to start all over again. Any person with large past-life liabilities could use this tactic. It would be a literal spiritual convict chase from body to body!
And what of the rich man? How could he claim his wealth and property in his next life? One thing that is known about people who claim to have past lives, is that their memories of these past lives is difficult to access, and sometimes inaccurate. Could the rich man's next incarnation remember the names of his family members, or maybe the pin number to his bank account, or maybe even his previous life's social security number? Doubtful. It would be quite possible for an expert at identity theft to claim to be the next incarnation of the rich man. The identity theft could research specific details about the rich man's life, and present them as if they were recovered memories from his past life, and fool people into believing that he was someone he wasn't in a past life.
Clearly, the transfer of assets, liabilities, and responsibilities from past lives to new lives would be so difficult as to be impossible. The logistics issues, as well as time and resource limitations, would severely retard the productive work capability of society. It would open up a huge door for fraudulent claims. It would allow people to escape their punishments. The majority of people on Earth do not seem to even have any recollections of any past lives (I sure don't) and would raise ethical concerns about the morality of even attempting to transfer assets and liabilities from past lives onto new "blank slate" lives. Many versions of reincarnation belief include the concept of karma, where consequences for past life actions are automatically or divinely administered. If karma were a part of the reincarnation process, then manually administering the transfer of assets, liabilities, and responsibilities would be redundant, or even a kind of "double jeopardy" in some circumstances.
2. Assets, liabilities, and responsibilities should not be transferred from one life to the next. At first glance, this answer would be in line with the karma concept. But why would this answer really be justified, because divine administration of karma would take care of it already, or because the next incarnations of every spirit deserved a clean slate? If the next incarnations deserve a clean slate, then karma becomes immoral. Let's imagine for a moment that karma was not in effect (no divine "correction" ever took place for the actions of past lives) because of the idea that new incarnations did deserve clean slates or another chance. Wouldn't it provide for a big escape hatch for criminals? What if Hitler shot himself at the end of WWII, knowing that karma did not happen in between lives, and that he could give himself a quick death with little suffering and avoid his deserved punishment, all to start anew with a clean slate? Where is the morality in that?
Getting back to the concept of divine administration of karma: Let's now assume that karma "fixes" problems created by a person upon his death and rebirth, like a murderous criminal being born as a murder victim or a septic tank repairman in his next life. Not only would this make the transferring of liabilities and responsibilities to the next life pointless, but it would also make the administering of punishments in the current life pointless! Don't believe me? Consider this: Charles Manson is in prison for life for his crimes. He is being punished in this life for his crimes in this life. But when he dies, won't karma still intervene and punish him in his next life as well? Isn't this still an issue of redundancy or even "double jeopardy" as I mentioned a few paragraphs above? Charles Manson would be punished by divine karma in an appropriate manner, regardless of how we punish Manson while he is alive here and now. We could dismiss the idea of punishing anyone for his or her crimes by saying "karma will get that person eventually." Indeed, punishment for crimes committed by humans wouldn't even be the responsibility of other humans; it would be the responsibility of divine karma. The victim would be in the wrong to directly seek justice.
Consider also the criminal who is subjected to this karma. In his next life, the criminal would likely not even remember his past life and the crimes he committed then. All he would be aware of is his victimhood in his new life, such as that of a murder victim or septic tank repairman. Indeed, even victims of crimes in this current life could be dismissed by saying that karma was being administered to them for crimes they committed in past lives. But what is moral about a divine karma system where justice is administered in a different life than the one where the crime was committed? It would tend to frustrate people to see that justice is not served in a way that keeps the crime and the punishments in the same lifespan. Having punishments and rewards administered in a way that overlaps life spans would be an indirect and imprecise method of justice at best, and a justice system that frustrates victims is not justice at all.
Reincarnation renders morality impracticable. With a divine karma reincarnation worldview, victims cannot be identified and criminals cannot have justice administered to them. With a karma-absent reincarnation worldview, criminals can escape justice by hopping from one life to the next, while exemplary humans need to quitclaim on their lives and accomplishments upon death and start all over again. It seems that reincarnation would make death superfluous. Why necessitate birth and death if every soul comes back to life over and over again?
Afterlife beliefs are inherently immoral, and reincarnation, in all its forms, is no exception. As my previous blog entries have shown, the only way any moral system is possible, and the only way justice can be served, is with a single, finite life.