You can’t study Buddhism for very long without bumping into the concept of karma – or more specifically, good karma (pu?ya) and bad karma (p?pa). Karma poses a significant problem for those trying to learn from Buddhism in a contemporary context informed by natural science. In a great many Buddhist texts, the central thesis of karma – that good actions result in good fortune for the agent, and vice versa for bad actions – is simply assumed. Śāntideva, for example, spends a long time warning you about the time you’ll spend in the hells as a result of being bad, but doesn’t give you any reason to believe this is true beyond his own say-so and that of the s?tra scriptures.
But does this mean we should simply throw out the idea of karma? I don’t think so. The most helpful way I’ve seen to think about karma is in Dale S. Wright’s valuable article Critical Questions Towards a Naturalized Concept of Karma in Buddhism. Wright proposes an approach to karma based on an Aristotelian approach to virtue: roughly, good actions develop good habits in us – which is to say virtues, such as courage, generosity or patient endurance – and those good habits in turn tend to make our lives better. The key point is that it depends on a distinction between internal and external goods: virtue makes us better and happier on the inside, and makes our lives better in that respect. It doesn’t necessarily make better events happen to us.
There are some problems with Wright’s thesis that I expect to take up here later. But its central insight seems to me worth adopting for a very simple reason: that it is both Buddhist and true.