Back four or five years ago, there was a little TV show called My Name is Earl. It was a sitcom starring Jason Lee, and it had a simple premise: the lead character, Earl Hickey, was a pretty bad person, and one bad thing after another kept happening to him. After one particular devastation, he vows to do good, specifically by making a list of everything he's ever done bad to someone, and making it up to the person, one by one. The faith behind his actions is karma--for every good deed he does, he claims, something good will happen to him. It was a good (or at least decent) show, but the pseudo-mysticism aspect of it never really worked for me. A morally edifying show is fine at all, and as far as ethical systems or religious institutions go, "do good" is a fairly innocuous manifesto, but the idea that you should do good because you'll be rewarded for it very soon--that bugged me. It seemed to be a sort of sitcom logic, where everything needs to wrap up in 30 minutes, one way or the other, and "they all lived happily ever after because they're nice people" is a good a wrap up as any.
But there's another side to the temptation of such karma. It's not just being rewarded for doing good--it means you've got certainty. Life's full of choices, and it's not always clear if you've made the right one. A system that rewards and punishes quickly is a nice source of feedback. Case in point: I'm in line at the self-checkout. It's a peak time and there's a bit of a wait, and so I spend every minute of it castigating the people in front of me for being so clearly poor with the self-checkout system. I get up there, and, in my desire to show them how it's done, immediately screw up, keying in the wrong number and charging myself an extra 3 dollars. Now, normally, I'd call a cashier over to cancel the item, but I've got a long line behind me yet, and there's only one cashier to manage the four tills, and she's already busy. So, making a split decision, I take the hit. I pay for my groceries, and I amscray. And at the moment, I remember thinking, "This is karma. You deserved to have this happen." Well, yes and no. I felt impatient, I keyed in items in a hurry, I screwed up, and I felt too embarrassed to fix my mistake. That's only karma if karma is another word for cause and effect. If I hadn't felt socially conditioned to refuse to hold up the people behind me any longer, I would have gotten my money back (or rather, never spent it at all). Is that karma? And if the self-checkout system allowed cancellation, I could have avoided the whole thing. Is that karma?
Karma. An attempt to understand the way the world works when forces are beyond our control. A justification for condemning someone for their misdeeds and bad consequences. And a neat mcguffin for a Jason Lee vehicle.