The Theory of Karma Involves Descriptive and Normative Claims (from Enacting Selves, Enacting Worlds: On the Buddhist Theory of Karma, by Matthew MacKenzie, in Philosophy East and West, Honolulu, April 2013)
Another key point to recognize about the theory of karma is that it involves both descriptive and normative claims. There is no fact/value dichotomy in the Buddhist tradition, and the theory of karma is meant to provide a framework for interpreting the complex relations between the moral dynamics of human experience and the larger causal order [cf. Advayavada Buddhism]. Specifically, Indian Buddhists understand sentient beings and their world in terms of dependent origination (pratityasamutpada). The focus, then, is on patterns of dependence between events or processes, rather than on, for instance, the operation of external forces on ontologically independent objects. The world is understood as a dynamic network of interdependent events, and the sentient beings within it are understood in the same terms. Karma, then, is a mode (niyama) or special case of dependent origination and is not [sic] co-extensive with it. Indian Buddhists identify five modes or domains (niyama) of dependent origination: physical (utu-niyamabija), biological (bija-niyama), mental (mano-niyama), ethical (karma-niyama), and spiritual (dharma-niyama). The proper understanding of an event may involve some or all of the modes, and it would be a mistake, on this account, to assume that everything that happens to a person is determined by his or her karma.
Moreover, one may interpret the theory of karma, in addition to positing certain kinds of causal connections, as expressing a commitment to a fundamental, internal relation between virtuous action and genuine well-being. The specifics of this connection may rest on empirical claims about human action and psychology, but commitment to the internal relation itself will not be a merely empirical generalization. In the final analysis, then, the general theory of karma expresses a regulative normative commitment to the idea that, as Aristotle put it, “activities in accord with virtue control happiness, and the contrary activities control the contrary”. According to the doctrine of karma virtues are both means to the end of genuine happiness or well-being (sukha) and partly constitutive of the end itself. Thus vices are harmful to oneself in that they detract from one’s objective well-being. In addition, vices will tend to undermine one’s ability to enjoy other things of value, such as worldly happiness or wealth.