The Gratitude Advantage

The health benefits of counting your blessings.

A Replacement for Religion

Many people are replacing religion with secular humanism. Here is one version.

Ever more people feel they’re not religious but are spiritual. And even many people who don’t think of themselves as spiritual want meaning beyond working, playing, and family.

The replacement for religion I propose here is a variant of secular humanism. It’s a mindset I call Cosmic Justice. That mindset emanates from two principles:

  • Every act impacts the planet on a continuum from -10 (plotting to destroy the planet) to +10 (working toward being a Messiah that would inspire everyone to abet humankind.) People who regularly consider their actions’ place on that continuum will add secular spirituality to their existence.
  • Here is where the cosmic comes in. Even if an action, net, is good for humankind, it mustn’t violate even one person’s fundamental rights. For example, the eugenicists of the early 20th century, including such eminents as Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, feminist leader Margaret Sanger, and Stanford University President David Jordan believed that humankind would net be abetted if all mentally retarded people were sterilized. Whether or not that’s true, denying all mentally retarded people the right to be parents seems a cosmic injustice. That’s subjective but subjectivity is part of the religion replacement proposed here. Many people, including me, find religion’s black-and-white principles lacking in necessary nuance.

Human beings will sometimes behave not cosmically but selfishly. That doesn’t invalidate a Cosmic Justice approach to life, any more than Christians' failing to adhere to all the Church's teaching doesn't invalidate Christianity. Religion and secular humanism only provide benchmarks to strive for.

How does a cosmic justice mindset manifest?

A cosmic justice mindset can manifest in every decision you make: from what you eat to how you treat clerks to your choice of career, friends, and purchases. Some non-obvious examples:

Should you give money to a homeless person? On the upside, there’s a good chance your donation will be used for a more basic purpose than if you spent it on yourself. And if it’s used to buy a mind-altering substance, even that has some value: It provides temporary relief from his or her hard life. But such a donation has limited ripple effect. It’s unlikely, for example, to help move the person from unproductive to productive, let alone abet the curing of cancer. If your money would otherwise go to a cause more likely to net benefit the planet—for example, funding tutors for low-income high-ability children—cosmic justice dictates you give the money to the latter.

Should you pay all the tax you owe? If the money could be better used, for example, by donating it to a nonprofit, then redirecting would-be tax dollars to a private charity would, on a Cosmic Justice basis, be justified even though it violates the law. But experts are unclear whether government or nonprofits spend more efficiently. Because, in agreeing to be a citizen of a country, you implicitly accept the social contract that says you agree to pay the taxes mandated by the people you elect, and because it is unclear whether diverting the money to a nonprofit would do more good, not paying a fair share of taxes is cosmically unjust.  

Should you eat organic food? According to the Mayo Clinic and Stanford research, there’s no evidence that organic food is healthier. It may even be less safe, so the extra cost of organic can’t be justified on those grounds. But if something is organic, it means that pesticides and fungicides were not used. In the U.S. at least, approved pesticides and fungicides appear to pose minimum risk to the ecosystem, including our air and water but such research is inevitably incomplete. It seems logical that not using pesticides and fungicides is likely safer for the planet. But organic food is more expensive, so the question is whether the additional cost would be spent on something more beneficial to you, your family, or the planet. So someone attempting to live by Cosmic Justice could justify eating or not eating organic food. The key is that s/he considered all stakeholders and the opportunity cost.

Should you go to medical school?  Many doctors end up practicing medicine only part-time if at all, or take many years off. Especially in rural areas and in the inner city, there is a shortage of physicians, so it is unjust to accept admission to medical school if you feel there’s a good chance you wouldn't practice far fewer total hours than the person who'd take your spot in medical school.

Should you pursue a career as a bond trader?  Bond traders do little good for humanity. They take a little hunk out of each trade but don’t really improve anything. So, for most people, that would be a cosmically unjust career choice. But if your skill set is quintessentially well-suited to that profession and you’d love to be a bond trader, thereby motivating you to be excellent at it, it becomes more justifiable in that cosmic justice sense.

Should you give all your assets to the poor until you’re as poor?  Few people would do it, even those who preach redistribution (For example, Hillary and Bill are worth $55 million.) But I believe that's cosmically just. If you’re born in Beverly Hills to brilliant, loving, well-connected parents, your chances of success are far greater than if you were born to a heroin addict in Bangladesh, yet you deserve no credit for your increased likelihood of success. For that reason and because it seems cosmically unjust to live in relative wealth while literally billions of people are living on a dollar a day, it is just to give away as much wealth as possible to the less fortunate.

Should you discourage someone from pursuing a career you believe they’d fail at? If  you have good reason to believe that person would fail at a career and the person is unaware of the long odds, that person should be told. Of course, she could blow you off but, especially if the counsel is persuasively and tactfully dispensed, there’s a chance s/he’ll change course, which increases her chances of career success, and in turn, benefit all the people she’d be helping in that career.

Should one devote significant time to time-consuming hobbies such as muscle car restoration, golf, video games, sitcom watching, unnecessary shopping, pop culture, etc? From a cosmic justice perspective, those are a relative waste of heartbeats, contributing little to humankind. Only modest time on such activities canbe justified as necessary rejuvenation.

Should you marry/stay married to someone who’d likely be better off with someone else but is too scared to leave you? It depends on how much better off you, s/he, and any children would be. The cosmically just person would make the net-beneficial choice.

Should you have a child?  How societally contributory is that child likely to be? You gain a sense of that by asking yourself and your partner, "How good a set of genes for physical and mental health,  intelligence, personality, and looks is the child likely to acquire? How good parents are we likely to be? Will there be enough money to provide at least the basics? How about the community in which the child will grow up? How much are we both likely to enjoy being parents? If there’s a sibling, how will s/he be affected? What could we otherwise do with the time and money if we didn’t have a child?"

Should you use the medical system to treat your end-stage cancer?  Everyone agrees that, especially under the Affordable Care Act, access to medical care will become more limited. Hospice care is clearly justifiable because it is low-cost and hospice physicians are expert at pain control. But it seems cosmically unjust to get resource-intensive cancer treatment when the statistics indicate it will extend your life minimally if at all, time probably spent in significant pain. It seems cosmically just to, at that point, refuse treatment so medical resources are available for those who more likely to derive significant benefit. Again, I am well aware that’s easier said than done.

Is this all too intellectualized?  All these examples of decision making by Cosmic Justice assume a level of rationality that probably isn’t realistic to expect most people to maintain. Again, Cosmic Justice merely is a set of ideals to aspire to. I hope you don’t reject the entire concept because its ideals are difficult to achieve. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Marty Nemko is profiled in Wikipedia.

The Gratitude Advantage