A twitter post compelled my to quickly try and get down on pixel paper my thoughts on what Karma is.
As with, I think all Dharmic concepts, Karma is best understood as pertaining to systems rather than objects/people etc. So before explaining how I see Karma I’ll outline what a Moral System is to me:
Moral systems have emergent moral properties.
A moral system is a system that can emerge moral properties. I am a moral system. You are. Society is. Religion is. Schools are… and so on. All of these moral systems share the possibility of having moral properties attributed to them. Properties such as right, wrong, fair, cruel and just.
Moral properties are internal, in that they refer to the system or they are external in that they refer to some other system.
In addition these moral systems have the potential of specific attitudes towards other moral properties; my dislike in your unfairness, your compassion for their suffering, a charity’s stance against world debt.
Moral systems have emergent evaluations of moral properties.
Moral systems are able to refer to their own moral systems and in these references they necessarily will value distinctions between moral properties. (I believe it’s these constant valuations that all moral systems have to make that add the core bivalence between right and wrong into our moralities.)
A value within a system is a propensity to pursue or avoid some future state to which the value pertains to. If I value cream-pies then I will pursue those. If I hate cucumbers, I will avoid those. The same is true of moral properties, as moral systems will behave in accordance as to how they value the moral properties they can pursue and avoid.
All of these evaluative properties we can boil down into two abstract notions, the positive and the negative. Loosely, the positive are the things I or you would prefer to be the case and the negative are the contrary.
Karma is the causal interconnectedness between all Moral Systems.
I think that Karma is simply the network of moral causes and effects that radiate from each of our actions out into the world and, importantly, into ourselves.
The moral effects of our actions may be external; you make someone happy, you annoy an entire country . or they may be internal; your pride at your kindness, your guilt at your selfishness. This is all Karma is. We are in a sea Karma. It is our lies and admissions and hopes and fears and all of these motivators that guide not only us as individuals but the institutions around us.
Often people mistake Karma as being a substance or energy or force, and you can see why because all morality is potentially interconnected it is has this substantive aspect but that is just an illusion. The only sense in which Karma can be accurately seen as a Force is by analaogy to physical causation.
The cue ball causes/forces the black ball to move. The bad deed causes/had the karmic effect that Bob was sad.
If you are a good person the chances of you having a good life are increased, not because of some supernatural reward system but because of the “karmic feedback” of your actions and thoughts, internally and externally.
If you are a bad person then your lies and violence and guilt etetcera will increase the chances of you having more negativity in so many ways. Not only the obvious, like punishment etc but also in terms of ones psychology. The Buddha realised this and now so many studies are confirming it.
I think most people, when you take away the “majic” decorations that millennia of Buddhist culture have added to the concept of Karma would see it as the simple and obvious fact: good moral causes have good moral effects.