In Indian philosophy, karma is part of the tradition’s account of causation. The word means “act” or “action” literally, but in the context of causation metaphysics it refers to the continuity between a cause and its effect. An action has consequences, and then nature of those consequences will reflect the nature of the action. Attributes that would describe the consequence indicate the attributes of the cause. One can anticipate the consequences by reflecting on the characteristics of the originating action. Any action is an effect of past causes as well as the cause of future events.

Categorizing “good” and “bad” karma reflects an oversimplification of this continuity between cause and effect. Karma can be described as beneficial or harmful depending on the kinds of effects that might follow. An action performed in anger will have effects that are marked by anger. Bringing about physical health in the future depends on taking actions that contribute to physical health. A wise person focuses on beneficial actions in order to encourage a happy future.

Beneficial and harmful karma do not negate or balance one another. Every action sits in its own stream of causation, and one cause can produce both beneficial and harmful effects. One must work through the effects of harmful karma in order to be free of its continued influence. For karma associated with guilt, one might have to atone. For karma associated with pain, one might have to forgive. The decisions a person makes based on their karma determines whether future results are harmful or beneficial.

When included in an ethical framework, karma defines a dimension of reasoning in line with causation. The normative world of moral “ought” often overlooks the complexities of the causal world. Analyzing a decision karmically requires identifying characteristics the decision inherits from its causes and potential characteristics of likely effects. Karma enables one to identify the limits of their agency in the consequences visited on them by the actions of others, such as generational cycles of abuse. At the same time, one can also identify the when their agency can be effective in transforming the future of their situation.