concepts section : copyright Robert Ellis 2009

Cosmic Justice

Cosmic justice is the belief that the universe is in some sense just, and that in some way the consequences of actions for human beings (or the effects of human nature generally) are rigged so as to ensure that they reflect the good or bad moral attributes of our actions or our nature. This belief is widespread, and takes a variety of forms, some of which may be more obvious than others. Whatever form it takes, cosmic justice needs to be decisively rejected as a metaphysical belief that undermines the Middle Way. Belief in cosmic justice prevents us adequately understanding and engaging with specific conditions, because it interposes a dogmatic prior belief about the way that conditions operate. Beliefs in cosmic justice create a widespread influence in favour of the over-assertion of sweeping universal beliefs (at an extreme, think of the 9/11 hijackers, who believed they would be rewarded for their actions), or the under-assertion of beliefs about specific conditions that appear to conflict with cosmic justice (e.g. Soviet denial of the existence of unemployment in socialist society).

It is important to be aware of the whole range of forms that cosmic justice beliefs can take. The just requital that it claims will occur may be just in response to actions, to motives, or to a deserved ideal state of  bliss or damnation for all. The deserved outcomes may be either good or bad depending on our character and actions, or they may be all good or all bad regardless of our character and actions. The good or bad consequences may occur on earth or somewhere else, in this life or in another life. The mechanism for cosmic justice may be God, or the gods, or karma, or material processes that are believed to work inevitably. The people to be rewarded or punished may be assessed individually, as family groups, as nations, or even in terms of the whole human race. Marx's belief in the ultimate communist society brought about by socio-economic forces is just as much a belief in cosmic justice as a Roman Catholic belief in individual judgement by God and reward or punishment in heaven, hell, or purgatory. What these beliefs have in common is the moral outcome predicted, not on the basis of specific conditions known through experience, but because of dogmatic assumptions that are taken to apply to the entire human race regardless of experience.

Throughout chapter 3 of the thesis, cosmic justice is traced as a consistent feature of metaphysical beliefs of the type that assert an absolute source of morality, otherwise known as eternalist beliefs. There a much more detailed analysis can be found of the manifestations of cosmic justice in Plato, Stoicism, Christianity, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Schopenhauer, and Classical Utilitarianism.

It might be thought that cosmic justice helps to give purpose to many people's lives, enabling them to feel that they will be rewarded in future and thus supporting their efforts towards the good now. However, cosmic justice is not required for such a sense of purpose: all we need is a reasonable expectation of good consequences based on our knowledge of specific conditions. For example, some people may work hard to create a new resource for their community, such as a playgroup or a shelter for the homeless: the rewards of achieving such a thing by themselves provide plenty of motivation. Abstract motives based on beliefs about the whole universe, however, can motivate only actions that are alienated from conditions to some extent, creating fertile ground for political manipulation. A fighter in a holy war who thinks only of their future reward becomes alienated from the immediate consequences of death and destruction that follow from their actions, and even someone working peacefully for their community with an abstract motive of cosmic justice is more likely to love a final abstraction than the immediate observable results of their labours. The more cosmic justice actually works to motivate people, the less desirable are the effects it creates, and it is when it becomes less and less practically significant, when only lip-service is paid to it by religious or political workers who actually have more immediate practical motives, that it may as well not be there at all.


Further discussion

Cosmic justice as a feature of eternalism (scroll down to b.ii)

Christianity as an eternalism

Karma belief in Buddhism (from 'The Trouble with Buddhism')

Karma and rebirth in Buddhism (from thesis appendix: scroll down to iii)


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