Love of All Wisdom

Good karma as eudaimonia

by on Apr.08, 2012, under Epicureanism, External Goods, Flourishing, Karma, Mahāyāna, Stoicism, Supernatural, Virtue

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.

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15 Comments for this entry

  • JimWilton

    These are good points; Wright’s analysis seems accurate.

    I’ll just note two minor points and one significant point.

    First, the linking of “karma” and “reward” is a distortion of Buddhist thought. Since there is no objective arbiter of the effects of karma, there is no reward — just effects of karma. I don’t think this necessarily undermines the point Wright is making. But it means that the definition of what is good karma and bad karma is not fixed — but it can only be defined in terms of motivation.

    Second, to make a distinction, as Wright does, between what is “human and social” and what is “structured into the cosmos” seems to me a false distinction — and one that equates the cosmos with an objective, external authority. In other words, the distinction is theistic and unnecessary.

    These are minor points. The significant point is that, at the end of the Buddhist path there is a transcendance of all karma — “good” karma as well as “bad” karma. If this is acknowledged, then it seems that there is a meaningful difference between the Buddhist approach to cultivating virtue from Western approaches.

    • Amod Lele

      Jim, I would agree overall, especially on the first minor point: that ties back to last week’s post, that there are no “rewards” that one “merits”. The word usually rendered “reward” is phala, literally “fruit” and just meaning “consequence”.

      On the second minor point, I don’t think the distinction is theistic. The laws of physics are structured into the cosmos, and clearly one doesn’t have to be a theist to believe in those. The operations of karma are often described in Buddhist texts as if they are parallel with the laws of physics in that respect. I think that’s where Wright’s distinction is coming from.

      On the significant point, I would certainly agree when it comes to early and most Theravāda Buddhism, probably even Indian Mahāyāna. But I think the more that a particular strain of Buddhism has descended, the less true this claim of transcending is likely to become.

  • Thill

    1. Wright’s concept of karma is not the concept of karma used in the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist traditions. In those traditions, the concept of karma has supernatural aspects, e.g., reincarnation as the means of transmission of karma, the Hindu notion of Īśvara (“God”) as the dispenser of karma, etc.

    In these traditions, good and bad karma respectively enable and disable the flourishing of both internal AND external goods.

    The Buddhist tradition is no exception. Even a cursory look at the Jataka tales would make this evident.

    2. “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…”

    If this is Wright’s central thesis, one would like to know what he means by “internal goods”.

    The quote from Wright beginning with “Had he been focused on internal goods, he might have said that…” gives or suggests the following examples of “internal goods”:
    a. “compassion and intimacy”
    b. the capacity to trust
    c. cohesion with society
    d. disposition to commit “healthy acts”
    e. “fulfilled existence”
    f. formation of good character

    All this seems to be an elaboration of the point that “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”.

    3. Is there a circularity in this account of virtue or good karma in terms of the flourishing of “internal goods”?

    There would be circularity if Wright included virtues, including dispositions to commit “healthy acts” or virtuous acts, in his account of internal goods.

    And Wright does exactly that! He lists virtues in his examples of “internal goods”!

    4. The way out of this circularity and the attendant tautologies, e.g., “If you are virtuous, then you have virtues”, is to provide an account of “internal goods” which eschews any reference to moral dispositions or virtues.

    Are there internal goods which are not in themselves moral dispositions or dispositions toward moral acts?

    Intelligence? “Presence of mind”? Composure? “Courage? (Courage is not in itself a disposition to perform a moral act. A thief can perform a daring or courageous act of robbery.)Strength of mind (the capacity to concentrate deeply, the capacity to remain focused or unwavering in one’s pursuit)?

    I think these are good candidates for internal goods which are not in themselves dispositions to act morally.

    5. If they are some examples of internal goods which are not in themselves dispositions to act morally, then the thesis that good karma leads to the flourishing of these sorts of internal goods gets the causal chain backwards.

    These internal goods are not the effects of virtuous actions, but rather the necessary conditions of performing truly moral acts and living a virtuous life.

    6. Could we then plausibly affirm that the internal goods necessarily lead to virtue or good karma?

    They are also required for successful performance of morally bad actions which are a means to secure the interests of the agent, e.g., successful bank robbery also requires those internal goods.

    This undermines the thesis that the internal goods necessarily lead to virtue or good karma.

  • Ethan Mills

    Don’t forget the Kālāma Sutta, which says that even if there is no afterlife, the Buddha’s teachings can still help you live better in this life.

    It’s not surprising Yavanayānas would gravitate to passages like this, but they are part of the tradition. Nonetheless, I suspect many Buddhists look at this as skillful means, thinking, “We all know rebirth is a fact, but you’ve got to play to the crowd a little bit.”

    It’s always been obvious to me that what I’d call “psychological karma” is at least loosely describing a real feature of human psychology even though I’m not at all convinced about metaphysical karma and rebirth. I suspect (from my secularized point of view) that the origins of the idea of rebirth probably had something to do with mistaking the psychological features for metaphysical, supernatural features.

  • Thill

    The Kālāma Sutta describes the four convictions or “assurances” cultivated or achieved by the practitioner of Buddhism. The first and second are as follows:

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html

    “Now, Kalamas, one who is a disciple of the noble ones — his mind thus free from hostility, free from ill will, undefiled, & pure — acquires four assurances in the here-&-now:

    “‘If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.’ This is the first assurance he acquires.

    “‘But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.’ This is the second assurance he acquires.

    The second “assurance” is that one could strive to be free from hostility, ill will, and trouble even if there is no afterlife.

    This does affirm the logical independence of ethical practice from belief in after life.

    But this does not imply that the Buddhist concept of karma, i.e., the concept of karma deployed in the Buddhist traditions, does not have supernatural elements, e.g., rebirth.

    It also does not undermine the claim that “supernaturalism” is integral to the Buddhist traditions.

    In Tibetan Buddhism, “supernaturalism” is the linchpin of many practices. In the accounts given in the Tibetan Book of Death, good and bad karma clearly shape “after death” experiences and the nature of rebirth.

    Don’t forget that ethical practice (the eightfold path) in Buddhism is a MEANS to Nirvāṇa.

    And Nirvāṇa is a supernatural state.

    • Ethan Mills

      Thill, these all seem like true claims to me.

      “This does affirm the logical independence of ethical practice from belief in after life.

      But this does not imply that the Buddhist concept of karma, i.e., the concept of karma deployed in the Buddhist traditions, does not have supernatural elements, e.g., rebirth.

      It also does not undermine the claim that “supernaturalism” is integral to the Buddhist traditions.”

      The last statement, however, needs to be clarified. If by “integral” we mean “integral to the history of how the tradition has actually played out,” I wholeheartedly agree. But if by “integral” we mean, “logically inseparable from the philosophical core of the tradition,” I would tentatively disagree. Here’s my argument:
      1. Buddhists have usually thought of karma and rebirth in BOTH what I call “psychological” and “metaphysical” senses.
      2. Nothing in the Four Noble Truths logically entails the metaphysical sense.
      3. Therefore, it is logically possible to accept the Four Noble Truths in a purely psychological sense while simply ignoring the metaphysical sense.

      I think there’s textual evidence for the first premise. I won’t go into the details (some of which are controversial), but even “rebirth” can be taken to mean the production of a new moment of consciousness or volition based on previous conditions and the twelvefold chain of dependent origination can be taken both psychologically (in a few moments) and metaphysically (over three lifetimes).

      As for premise two, I don’t think the third noble truth must be supernatural. The Pail is just “nirodha” or “cessation” (“nibbana” has a similar meaning). I’m not sure a Buddhist need be philosophically committed to puzzling doctrine that nirvāṇa is unconditioned (although plenty of texts say that it is). Also, Early Buddhist texts say that nibbana is achievable in this lifetime. The Buddha did so, after all. I don’t see any logical or philosophical – as opposed to historical or traditional – reason one couldn’t say that nirvāṇa is simply the cessation of suffering. Full stop. Of course, plenty of Buddhist texts are also clear that it’s hard for most of us to imagine what that would be like. I agree that this raises serious philosophical problems for the third noble truth, but that’s another subject.

      Of course the really big question (which you asked below) is whether such an interpretation of Buddhism, even if it’s logically possible as I’ve argued, would still be recognizably “Buddhist.” That’s a really important and serious question. I’m inclined to say “yes,” at least as a logical possibility, but I also recognize that this would be very much at odds with the vast majority of the tradition and that I might be infected by too much Yavanayāna thinking. This was something I worried a lot about back when I wanted to be a Buddhist. Now that I’m content to be simply loosely influenced by Buddhist philosophy without joining the club, I’m not so worried. Nonetheless, I would predict that in the next several hundred years, some sort of secularized, anti-metaphysical kind of Buddhism will arise as a serious tradition. Maybe I will be reborn when that happens to finally become a real Buddhist!

      • JimWilton

        The psychological approach to the 12 nidanas and rebirth is certainly part of the analysis. I would just add that an understanding of Buddhist karma and rebirth must take into account the concept of anatman (egolessness). We tend to think of rebirth as if it were a means for delivering a package through the mail — but Buddhism rejects that notion.

        So you might ask — what is reborn either in a psychological or metaphysical sense? The best that I can come up with is that what is reborn is a set of habits — or a set of conditions that can be traced back to past causes.

        In terms of rebirth from lifetime to lifetime, you can, of course, call that supernatural — and you would be correct if that view is error. But it is worth considering the alternative view as to what is “natural” and the evidence for that view. For example, if the alternative view is that self exists, is grounded or linked to the body, and is extinguished when the body disintegrates — what is the evidence for that? Where is self located in the body? Is self cognizance? What is the combination of material elements that results in cognizance? Has science even come close to answering this question? If self is grounded in cognizance — is cognizance a thing? What are its qualities? Does it exist apart from the perceived object?

  • Thill

    “‘But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.’ This is the second assurance he acquires.”

    This deserves a closer look.

    It says “if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease…”

    This is affirming that even if there is no karma, I could still have the strong conviction, commitment, or “assurance” that I will “look after myself” (“care of the self” a la Foucault) and achieve a state of freedom from hostility, ill will, etc.

    Thus, in this Sutta, it is affirmed that the Buddhist practice of the “care of the self” does not even require a belief in karma!

    But how does this fit in with third and fourth noble truth and their implications?

    They imply that the practice of the “care of the self”, to “look after myself with ease”, is the means to Nirvāṇa, the liberation from the shackles of karma and rebirth. Hence, the third and fourth noble truths imply an affirmation of the reality of karma and rebirth, and of course, the supernatural state of Nirvāṇa.

  • Thill

    But how does this fit in with third and fourth noble truth and their implications?

    Oh, well, I suppose there is no inconsistency in making the following claims:

    1. There is karma, rebirth, and a state of liberation from them, Nirvāṇa.

    2. The eightfold path is the means to Nirvāṇa.

    3. Even IF there is no karma and rebirth, the eightfold path can still be a means of “care of the self”, a means to “look after myself with ease”.

    However, the point that ethical practice in Buddhism is conceived, not as an end in itself, but as a means to attaining a supernatural state, Nirvāṇa, remains unaffected by all this.

    Here’s a question on the concept of Nirvāṇa:

    Could the concept of Nirvāṇa be “naturalized” along lines analogous to Wright’s “naturalization” of the concept of karma?

    If so, would it still remain recognizably a Buddhist concept?

  • Thill

    However, pl. note that:

    1. In the account of the “Four Noble Truths” given in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, there is no mention of karma or rebirth.

    2. The concept of Nirvāṇa affirmed in the third noble truth is already a “naturalized” one: “Cessation of suffering, as a noble truth, is this: It is remainderless fading and ceasing, giving up, relinquishing, letting go and rejecting, of that same craving.” Here, Nirvāṇa is simply a condition in which the causes of suffering have ceased to exist.

  • Thill

    “Here, Nirvāṇa is simply a condition in which the causes of suffering have ceased to exist.”

    Nevertheless, one could argue that not only is this consistent with the claim that Nirvāṇa is a supernatural state, but that it makes it so!

    In other words, it could argued that a condition in which the causes of suffering have ceased must be a supernatural condition given the facts of nature.

  • Thill

    Would it be reasonable, on the basis of statements in the Buddhist corpus on the concept of Nirvāṇa, that it has both naturalistic and “supernaturalistic” aspects or properties?

  • Thill

    There is a way to formulate a coherent, and, probably, interesting thesis on the relation between good karma and internal good in Buddhism.

    My thesis is that good karma is the necessary (but not sufficient – Nirvāṇa cannot have sufficient conditions because it is “unconditioned”) means of achieving Nirvāṇa, the supreme internal good and state of well-being in Buddhism.

    This requires us to first acknowledge that, in Buddhism, Nirvāṇa is the supreme internal good and the true state of well-being.

    We should note at the outset that the circularity Wright falls into is avoided in my account, hinging on the crucial concept of Nirvāṇa, of the relation between good karma and internal good in Buddhism.

    This is because Nirvāṇa is the nonpareil non-moral internal good. It is not a disposition to act morally, or a virtue.

    So, the circularity of an account of good karma in terms of internal goods which are moral dispositions is avoided in my account which countenances Nirvāṇa as the supreme internal good and state of well-being for which good karma is a necessary means.

    But this still sustains the point I made earlier: good karma, in Buddhism, has a supernatural aspect because it is a necessary means to Nirvāṇa which is a supernatural state or condition.

    Why do I keep saying that Nirvāṇa is a supernatural state or condition?

    This is because it is “unconditioned” by natural factors, not subject to the chain of causes and effects in nature.

  • Thill

    What is Nirvāṇa?

    That is the central question for Buddhist philosophy since Nirvāṇa is the telos of all Buddhist ethical and contemplative practices.

    I think I have only scratched the surface by saying it is a supernatural state or condition.

    If Nirvāṇa is the supreme internal good and state of well-being in Buddhism, what are its “hallmarks”?

    I would like to ask – in just the way Arjuna asked Krishna about the person established in the state of Stithaprajna – How does a person established in Nirvāṇa behave? What is his inner state?

    Perhaps, Amod, Jim, and/or Ethan can play Krishna and enlighten me!

  • kamatakki

    Ethan,

    I agree that the recognition of logical necessity has helped gain acceptance of the idea of reincarnation but I must say that it has at least been in the capacity of strengthening, if not originating, that supranormal (‘mystic’) experiences have lent support to it. Also, it is not as if these experiences are entirely beyond the scope of empirical verification. (see, for instance, Ian Stevenson’s works)

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