Doesn’t the teaching on kamma teach people to be callous toward the sufferings of others?
No. Knowing that you have both good and bad seeds in your field that haven’t yet matured, the teaching on kamma teaches you to ask this question instead: What’s the wisest way to view other people whose bad seeds are currently sprouting? And the answer is: with compassion. Is your compassion so rarified that you give it only to people who have never done anything wrong? If it were, you wouldn’t find anyone to receive it.
So when you see someone suffering, you don’t say, “They deserve it,” and leave them to their suffering. Actions yield results, but nobody “deserves” to suffer. The path is for putting an end to suffering, “deserved” or not. You look for the potential good seeds in other people’s fields that are about to mature and try to give whatever help that will aid those people in not suffering from the bad seeds. After all, that’s how you’d like them to treat you when your bad seeds start to mature. And in acting this way, you create good kamma for yourself.
When you see someone who’s suffering, the Buddha recommends that you reflect: “I, too, have experienced that sort of suffering in the course of my many rebirths.” When you see someone who’s happy, he has you reflect in a similar way, “I, too, have experienced that sort of happiness in the course of my many rebirths.” This reflection helps you not to be jealous of the happiness of others or to look down on those who are suffering. You’ve been there, too—and it’s likely that you’ll return there at some point if you don’t find a way out of rebirth. So be compassionate to everyone you meet [§41].
As for whether your attempts to help another person will bear fruit, it’s useful to remember the Buddha’s observation about the three groups of sick people: those who will recover from their illness even if they don’t get medicine, those who will recover only if they get medicine, and those who won’t recover even if they get medicine. As he noted, it’s because the second group exists that doctors give medicine to all three groups, because it’s impossible to know beforehand to which group a sick person belongs.
In the same way, the Buddha said, there are those who will gain awakening even if they don’t hear the teaching, those who will gain awakening only if they hear the teaching, and those who won’t gain awakening even if they do hear the teaching. It’s because the second group exists that he teaches everyone who comes to him.
The same principle can be applied to kamma in general: Some people born with bad kamma will see the results of that kamma run out on their own in this lifetime even if they don’t get help from others; some will get past that kamma only if they get help from others; some won’t get past it even with the help of others. It’s because the second group exists that we should all have compassion and be helpful to one another.
This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the book, Karma Q & A : A Study Guide, (pdf) pp. 23-24.