Here's the abstract for a fascinating article by Dale S. Wright on a more naturalistic conception of karma I found in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics:
Abstract: In an effort to articulate a naturalized concept of karma for the purposes of contemporary ethical reflection, this paper raises four critical questions about the Buddhist doctrine of karma. The paper asks (1) about the advisability of linking the concept of karma to assurance of ultimate cosmic justice through the doctrine of rebirth; (2) about the effects of this link on the quest for human justice in the social, economic, and political spheres of culture; (3) about the kinds of rewards that the doctrine of karma attaches to virtuous action, whether they tend to be necessary or contingent consequences; and (4) about the extent to which karma is best conceived individually or collectively. The paper ends with suggestions for how a non-metaphysical concept of karma might function and what role it might play in contemporary ethics.
I'm most interested in the last question: what role would a naturalistic conception of karma play in contemporary ethics? Here are the concluding paragraphs of Wright's paper:
How would we develop such a concept? Here are just a few suggestions. A naturalistic theory of karma would treat choice and character as mutually determining -- each arising dependent on the other. It would show how the choices you make, one by one, shape your character, and how the character that you have constructed, choice by choice, sets limits on the range of possibilities that you will be able to consider in each future decision. Karma implies that once you have made a choice and acted on it, it will always be with you, and you will always be the one who at that moment and under those conditions embraced that path of action. The past, on this view, is never something that once happened to you and is now over; instead, it is the network of causes and conditions that has already shaped you and that is right now setting conditions for every choice and move you make. From the very moment of an act on, you are that choice, which has been appropriated into your character along with countless others. In this light human freedom becomes highly visible, and awesome in its gravity, but is noticeable only to one who has realized the far-reaching and irreversible impact on oneself and others of choices made, of karma.
The concept of karma brings this pattern of freedom in self-cultivation clearly to the fore, and does so with great insight and natural subtly. It highlights a structure of personal accountability in which every act contains its own internal, natural rewards or consequences, even if Buddhists sometimes succumbed to the temptation to offer a variety of external rewards as well. Although money does talk, promising it when it may or may not be forthcoming is a questionable strategy of motivation. Better to teach, as Buddhists have, that the best things in life are free, and that the very best of these is the freedom to cultivate oneself into someone who is wise, insightful, compassionate, and magnanimous. This freedom, however, operates under strict and always fluctuating conditions. A mature concept of karma would encourage people to recognize the finitude of freedom and choice, and all of the ways we are shaped by forces far beyond our control. Although always attempting to extend our ethical imaginations, and therefore our freedom, failure simultaneously to recognize the encompassing forces of nature, society, and history places us in a precarious position, and renders our choices naive. Our choices and our lives originate dependent on these larger forces, and in view of them, mindfulness and reverence are appropriate responses.
If the solitary ethical decisions we have been focusing on so far have the power to move us in the direction of greater forms of human excellence, then how much more so the unconscious “non-choices” that we make every day in the form of habits and customs that deepen over time and engrave their mark into our character. Some accounts of karma are exceptionally insightful in that their understanding of character development takes full account of the enormous importance of ordinary daily practice or customs of behavior, what we habitually do during the day often without reflection or choice -- the ways we do our work and manage our time, the ways we daydream, or cultivate resentment, or lose ourselves in distractions, down to the very way we eat and breathe.
This is clearly a strong point in Buddhist ethics. On this understanding of karma, which was closely related to the development of meditation, ethics is largely a matter of daily practice, understood as the self-conscious cultivation of ordinary life and mentality towards the approximation of an ideal defined by images of human excellence, the awakened arhats and bodhisattvas. To an extent not found in other religious and philosophical traditions, Buddhists saw that ethics is only rarely about difficult and monumental decisions, and that, in preparing yourself for life, it is much more important to focus on what you do with yourself moment by moment than it is to attempt to imagine how you will solve the major moral crises when they arrive. They seem to have realized that it is only through disciplined practices of daily self-cultivation that you would be in a mental position to handle the big issues when they do come up. They also claimed, insightfully, that the self is malleable and open to this kind of ethical transformation, and here we see the impact of the concept of no-self as it was developed in various dimensions of the tradition.
Moreover, the Buddhist doctrine of no-self is one of the best among several places in the teachings where we can begin to see beyond the individual interpretation of karma that has dominated the tradition so far. If karma is to be a truly comprehensive teaching about human actions and their effects, extensive development of all of the ways in which the effects of our acts radiate into other selves and into social structures will need to be grafted onto the doctrine of karma as it currently stands. This extension of the doctrine has already begun, however, and will not be difficult to pursue because it can be grounded on the extraordinary Mahayana teaching of emptiness, the Buddhist vision of the interpenetration of all beings. Following this vision, we can imagine a collective understanding of karma that overcomes limitations deriving from the concept’s original foundation in the individualized spirituality of early Buddhist monasticism.
A naturalized philosophical account of the Buddhist idea of karma can, it seems to me, insightfully reflect these and other dimensions of our human situation. Separated from elements of supernatural thinking that have been associated with karma since its inception, its basic tenets of freedom, decision, and accountability are impressive, and clearly show us something important about the human situation, including the project of self-construction, both individually and collectively conceived. I conclude, therefore, imagining elements in the doctrine of karma having the potential to be truly effective in the effort to design concepts of ethical education that are both honest to the requirements of thinking in our time, and profoundly enabling in the quest for human excellence.
I'm still chewing on this, so I'll reserve remarks for next week. One interesting tie-in is with Judaism: some Jewish soteriologies conceive of salvation as something collective, not individual: a recognition that we're all in this together. Wright seems to be moving in a similar direction.