An excellent question posed by a Scot, a reader at The Friendly Atheist. While Richard gives a fine answer supposing belief in a supernatural version of Karma, I find several of the comments interesting and more akin to the way I’ve used the term. Gary says:
Actually, the word “karma” is sanskrit and simply means “action”. Actions have effects. In Hinduism and Buddhism, some actions have beneficial effects and others have detrimental effects. Effects of actions in the current incarnation may have effects in later incarnations. In these religions, karma is a regarded as a law analogous to physical laws. A supernatural agent is no more required to administer karma than is required to administer the laws of physics. In Buddhism, which doesn’t have a belief in a creator god, one’s fate is entirely up to oneself, based on one’s actions. While a scientifically minded skeptic may not believe in rebirth, it is hard to claim scientifically that actions do not have consequences.
In fact Victorb does relate the concept directly to physics:
If you’re into modern physics, you should be able to see how this concept of karma can be mapped onto Hugh Everett’s many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. The branches that your reality takes as you moves through time are dictated by what is possible based on all your existing choices.
But trixr4kids is having none of it:
For the average educated, spoiled Westerner, sure, virtue is its own reward–but that’s not karma. Luck must be factored into the equation. “Karma” is an egregious concept (even in its watered-down versions, I think) precisely because it disregards the fact that suffering and hardship are random and tends to equate happiness with virtue.
I do think there is a connection between happiness and virtue. But the corellation isn’t as strong as it’s often made out to be. Used properly the idea can be inspiring, but as an absolute philosophy it can be downright insulting to those who have suffered hardships through no fault of their own (which is not to say we are relieved of all personal responsibility for our happiness – some hardships are indeed self-inflicted).