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One of the first posts I made on this blog examined Dale Wright‘s methodological approach of naturalized karma. This is a way of continuing to use the concept of karma, and thereby remaining more closely in dialogue with classical Buddhist (and Jain and brahmanical) texts – without relying on the supernatural connections usually implied by the concept, especially rebirth. (By “karma” here I refer above all to the referents of Sanskrit pāpa and especially puṇya, best translated respectively as “bad karma” and “good karma”.) I’d like to explore this idea in more detail here.

Wright’s basic approach is to read karma as meaning something like an Aristotelian virtue ethic: good actions are rewarded with a good, flourishing life, in this life irrespective of future ones (and bad ones correspondingly punished). This much is not a Yavanayāna innovation; plenty of Buddhist texts make it clear that good action is rewarded in this life as well as in future ones.

Śāntideva, for example, tells us that anger interferes with our peace of mind, happiness and even sleep, and loses friends as well, so that one who fights off anger is happy “here and elsewhere” (iha paratra ca, Bodhicaryāvatāra VI.3-6). He expands on this phrasing later, saying that wordly pleasures (kāmas) “are generators of bad consequences here in the world (iha loke) and elsewhere — here because of imprisonment, beatings and dismemberment, and elsewhere in hell and so on.” (Bodhicaryāvatāra VIII.40. Translations are mine.)

Śāntideva doesn’t specify what causes the “imprisonment, beatings and dismemberment” – my guess is he’s thinking of legal punishments administered to those who pursue sex and money so avidly they step outside the law – but it doesn’t matter too much in the present context. The point, as with anger, is that he believes that bad actions have bad consequences (and good actions good ones) here and now, in this life and this world, not merely in places like the hells which one will only get to in a future life. Wright’s constructive innovation is to treat karma only in terms of these worldly consequences and not in terms of supernatural ones in another birth.

The most obvious objection to such a naturalized theory of karma is that life doesn’t work that way; good actions aren’t really rewarded in life. This complaint is recognized as early as the Book of Ecclesiastes: far too often the wicked prosper as the just suffer. Christians rightly spend volumes of work agonizing over this problem. What reason could we have to think that being good is rewarded in this cruel world? Surely to speak of such worldly reward is mere wishful thinking, at least as much as to speak of reward in an afterlife.

The most important point about such an objection is that has in many respects been made against Aristotle’s ethics itself. Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia – human flourishing – includes within it to some extent both internal and external goods: both states of mind that we control, and at least some material or political goods that are out of our hands. And for the Stoics and Epicureans who followed Aristotle, this wasn’t enough. External goods are largely out of our control; we may be virtuous and still not have them, be righteous and still suffer. Yet an adequate concept of human flourishing, for them, needs to mean both virtue and happiness; and it cannot do this if external goods are also included as a constitutive part of flourishing. The Stoics reduced flourishing to virtue: the virtuous man flourishes by definition. The Epicureans reduced it to happiness, but to a happiness defined entirely through internal states of mind – which, they said, could be obtained without external goods.

It is to Wright’s credit that he takes this objection into consideration. The move from supernatural to naturalized karma involves in some respect a move from external to internal goods. He quotes the Dalai Lama saying “As a result of stealing, one will lack material wealth.” Wright’s reply is worth quoting at length:

Because we all know that successful thieves and corporate criminals may or may not live their lives lacking in material wealth, we can only agree with this claim insofar as we assume that the author is here referring to an afterlife, some life beyond the end of this one. That is to say that only the metaphysics of rebirth can make this statement plausible. Otherwise, the doctrine of karma cannot truthfully guarantee such an outcome of external rewards.

Had he been focused on internal goods, he might have said that, as a result of stealing, one will have deeply troubled relations to other people, as well as a distorted relation to material goods. As a result of stealing one will find compassion and intimacy more difficult, be further estranged from the society in which one lives, and feel isolated and unable to trust others. As a result of stealing, one will become even more likely to commit other unhealthy acts, and may ultimately find oneself in an unfulfilled and dimin- ished existence. These results of the act of stealing have a direct relation to the act; every act pushes one further in some direction of character forma- tion or another, and further instantiates us in some particular relationship to the world. External goods, while certainly important, cannot be so easily guaranteed, except insofar as one offers that guarantee metaphysically by referring to lives beyond the current one.

Although, promises of personal rebirth aside, there would appear to be no necessary connection between moral achievement and external rewards, there is a sense in which moral achievement does often make external re- wards more likely, even if this is never a relation of necessity. This is true because the more human beings enter the equation, the more likely it is that a human sense of justice will intervene, drawing some connection be- tween virtue and reward, or sin and suffering. People who characteristically treat others with kindness and just consideration are often treated kindly themselves, although not always. Those who are frequently mean spirited and selfish are often treated with distain. Honesty in business often pays off in the form of trusting, faithful customers, while the habit of cheating customers will often come back to haunt the merchant. These dimensions of karma and of ethical relations are clear to us, and we are thankful that they exist. But it would seem that their existence is human and social, rather than structured into the cosmos.

Therefore, all we can say is that things often work this way, not that they always do, or that they must. Sometimes unscrupulous businessmen thrive; on occasion, kindness and honesty go completely unrewarded. These occurrences make it impossible for us to claim a necessary relation between moral merit and external forms of reward. (pp. 84-5)

In short, insofar as there is a necessary relation between virtue and well-being, that well-being must be regarded entirely in terms of internal goods; the relation between virtue and external goods is a highly contingent one. I would go beyond Wright in noting that the latter relation doesn’t merely depend on other people, because virtue isn’t merely a matter of other-regarding morality; courage, self-discipline, mindfulness are virtues that would likely create external benefits even on a desert island. Wright’s basic point stands, though.

But this very tension between external goods and virtue is found in classical Buddhist accounts of karma, just as it is in classical Greek accounts of eudaimonia. We saw above how the Stoics and Epicureans disputed the role of external goods in flourishing with each other and with Aristotle. And similarly, Barbra Clayton’s in-depth study of Śāntideva notes that he uses the term puṇya (good karma) interchangeably both with śīla (good conduct) and śubha (well-being). He does not specify the relationship between śīla and śubha as clearly as either Wright or the Greeks do. But his usage shows that when we speak of flourishing in a Greek-derived way, referring to a good life that involves some combination of virtue and well-being with a debatable amount of external goods, then we can be quite justified in calling it good karma – even if we believe rebirth is hogwash.