Bad things, good people, and eudaimonism

I showed in my previous two posts how the core of Buddhist karma doctrine is not a response to the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, but rather an articulation of the idea that good actions improve our well-being and vice-versa, congruent with contemporary eudaimonism.

Contemporary eudaimonic karma does, however, still face a major problem, one that has already come up a number of times. Thompson is right to focus attention on the apparent fact that bad things happen to good people – not because that fact supposedly drove the formation of karma theory (it didn’t, as far as I can tell), but because it poses a major problem for eudaimonism itself. As Thompson correctly says, “the proposition that an agent’s being good typically improves that agent’s well-being is not obviously true as a general descriptive proposition about the world.” An ethicized concept of rebirth can answer this question relatively easily, in a way that produces a straightforwardly consistent eudaimonism. Without rebirth, that problem is indeed harder to answer.

This problem – the problem that virtuous agents often do not seem better off – is one that every eudaimonist needs to address, whether Buddhist or otherwise. It was a problem for Aristotle himself, and it is a problem that Dale Wright and I have both addressed before in our discussions of eudaimonic karma.

There is one relatively straightforward way to solve the problem, which Aristotle’s Stoic and Epicurean foes took up, and that is to reject the claim that external goods – things we can’t control, like material wealth and relationships – are components of eudaimonia. If we take their approach, then the supposedly bad things that happen to good people turn out not to be so bad after all. That is a non-obvious position, and one with its own problems, but it consistently solves the problem as posed. Importantly, it is also a position that Śāntideva takes. Human flourishing consists above all in mental freedom from suffering (like Epicurus’s ataraxia), whether one’s own or others’, and to one who has this freedom, nothing truly bad can happen.

I myself do not take that approach, though, and few other modern Buddhist eudaimonists do either. Unlike Śāntideva and the Epicureans, I do think that external goods play a role in human flourishing, for reasons previously discussed. I think those goods are probably less important to flourishing than most Westerners take them as being, and I am significantly influenced in that view by thinkers like Śāntideva. I think Dale Wright makes a similar point when he urges viewing karma primarily but not exclusively in terms of internal goods. Still, allowing any role for external goods does complicate eudaimonism (and thus naturalized karma) significantly, since we agree that virtuous people’s lives can be genuinely hurt by things that may have nothing to do with their virtue.

Eudaimonists who value external goods, I think, have to admit that the virtue-flourishing connection – and thus the working of karma, when we speak in those terms – is probabilistic rather than deterministic. That is why I initially made sure to specify that being good typically improves well-being – and we can do more to specify the working of the “typically”. Virtues (beneficial dispositions) positively impact well-being in a variety of ways. Virtues like mindfulness and patient endurance have a very close connection with internal goods like peace and happiness. (I would argue the same is true for kindness, which I think is intrinsically rewarding.) More than that, virtues like self-discipline and courage directly help one achieve external goods, often though not always. Wright notes that other-regarding virtues like justice and honesty can help us attain external goods the same because of other people’s involvement: “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.” The internal good of a clear conscience is also of great importance to a flourishing or even happy life. All of these points add up to a summary of eudaimonism in which, as Neera Badhwar puts it, “the more virtuous are more eudaimon than the less virtuous under the same circumstances, and in a wider variety of circumstances.” (Well-Being 207, emphases in original)

The above on its own is hardly an airtight defence of eudaimonism, of course – it is one paragraph. But it is important in the present context since Thompson says that “eudaimonizing the concept of karma without facing up to this problem—the problem of evil—seems facile.” We are recognizing that problem and facing up to it – and we have been doing so at least since Wright’s original article, now sixteen years old.

So, I submit, the eudaimonic approach to karma is quite congruent with the traditional meaning and function of karmavipāka, which has to do with good actions making lives better and vice versa (in this world and another) by means of habits and dispositions. It does face a problem of its own (a problem faced by all eudaimonists) which needs to be addressed – but we are addressing it. Whether we are doing an adequate job of addressing it is its own important question, but I think that question is separate from the question of the congruency between traditional and naturalized conceptions of karma.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

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