The Just World Fallacy (or JWF hereon) is a fairly well known idea among psychology circles, even though outside of it, it hasn’t really created waves. It probably should. It has the power to make you feel horrible about the world.
YOU are walking by a busy street in Bangalore and spot two beggars, who are evidently in need of money and help. One is blind and the other is completely weak and malnourished. Of course you do not know the background or history of either of them. All you see are two beggars on a street begging for money.
Your friend next to you asks you, “Do they deserve to be so miserable?” What are YOUR first thoughts?
Consider another scenario:
YOU are glancing through a magazine not really reading any of the stories in depth, when you happen to see the cover story: “Two of the richest women in the country”. You take a look at both the women in it, acknowledge that they have a lot of money and then just move on to a different story. So you are completely unaware of the backgrounds of either of them.
A person sitting next to you asks you, “Wonder if those women deserve all that money?” What are your first thoughts?
Without knowing the background of each of the beggars, the first place your mind goes to is to think that these beggars had at some point made choices that made them deserve their current plight. And without knowing the history of the two women, the first place your mind goes to is that these two women must have made the right choices at some point that made them deserve all the money that they currently had.
THIS rationalization that you just did is what is called as the Just World Fallacy. The tendency of human beings to attribute good outcomes to good actions and bad outcomes to bad actions lies at the heart of this fallacy. We all do it – all the time. We make judgments on how each person deserved what they got or are going to deserve what they WILL get. We want to believe that making good choices in life will result in good outcomes and that making the bad choices is going to result in bad outcomes.
In other words, we want to believe that this world is ‘just’ and ‘fair’ and that whatever goes around comes around. And that ” …you want to believe hard work and virtue will lead to success, and laziness, evil and manipulation will lead to ruin, so you go ahead and edit the world to match those expectations.” However, our failure to take into account chance and luck into the outcomes of the choices made is a clear demonstration of our own need for a just and fair world. We like to believe that we are in control of our lives – by making the right choices and by not making any bad choices. We do not like the results of our actions to be dependent upon chance. Hence, we embrace the Just World Fallacy.
As much as this appears obvious, leading you to believe that YOU have never fallen prey to it, the truth is likely to be otherwise. This phenomenon is part of being human. So don’t blame yourself if you find you are guilty of it.
Now lets go back to the beggars and the women. You have already worked it out in your head that the beggars must have done something horribly wrong at some point of time to deserve this and that the women too, must have done something right at some point of time to deserve all that money.
Later, you learn about the beggars’ history and life. This is what you learn:
BEGGAR 1: A man bets all his life savings on a cricket match and loses it – all of it. He is bankrupt, cannot feed his family and is eventually deserted by his wife and kids. He becomes an alcoholic, loses his job and his life in general, becomes miserable. He now makes a living begging on the streets.
BEGGAR 2: Another man loses his parents when he was young in a car accident with a truck whose driver was drunk. This led him to be sent to an orphanage where he was a model boy leading a disciplined life. He then becomes a victim of human trafficking and ends up working as a slave to a wealthy man, occasionally molested during the time. He then has his eyes taken out and is forced into begging. His ‘owners’ leave him to himself after a few years and he has since made a life out of begging on the streets.
Curious about the 2 women, you then decide to read the entire cover story. This is what you learn:
Woman 1: A middle class couple have a girl baby. They bring her up and give her all the education and love they can. She grows up to be an A-grade student at school, topping her class and getting into the best universities. She works hard and lands a well paying job and has now established a company by herself which is doing tremendously well. She is featured on the cover of a popular magazine as one of the richest women in the country.
Woman 2: Another middle class couple have a girl baby at about the same time. She is given a good education as well but she drops out of school and college as she does not make the grades – possibly due to her constant partying and neglect of her academics. She grows up to be a woman with very loose morals, becomes an alcoholic and eventually gets into prostitution. She does not make any effort to start a new life and continues to make a living out of prostitution. One day she wins a Jackpot at the lottery and goes gambling. She wins all her hands and overnight becomes one of the richest women in the country. She is also featured on the same magazine cover . She now lives in a big mansion with a lot of servants and with her money safely stashed away.
NOW, what are your thoughts?
There are 4 scenarios here, with each scenario being a combination of the kind of choices one makes, and the eventual outcome. The possibilities are fairly evident: Bad choices/bad outcomes (Beggar 1); good choices/bad outcomes (Beggar 2); good choices/good outcomes (Woman 1); bad choices/good outcomes (Woman 2).
Our Just World Fallacy works perfectly well for Beggar 1 and Woman 1. For they both appear to get what they deserved. After all, the Beggar 1 did make the bad choice of betting all his money – which is clearly a bad choice. And also that Woman 1 worked her way up the society with hard work, discipline and making the most out of what was given to her. On first thoughts, it appears that this is how the world functions and in fact, should function – the good getting rewarded while the bad getting punished.
Now lets get to the tricky part about the other beggar and the other woman. Now that you are aware of the choices these two have made previously, do you still think they deserved what they got? Do you still want to believe that chance and luck have no bearing on the outcomes and that it is dependent only upon the choices you made?
Maybe deep down inside you know many times it just boils down to dumb luck and chance. But that knowledge doesn’t make you feel good about the world you live in. After all, how can someone who has made no wrong choice in his life end up on the streets as a blind beggar? Or how can someone who has wasted away their life and indulged in immoral activities become one of the richest women in the country?
So how does one explain this glaring anomaly in what we consider a fair and just world? The known causes and effects are not sufficient to explain, justify or rationalize what happened to these 2 people. But the fallacy is so strong that you WANT to believe in it – no matter what. This is because you believe this world works under the just and fair laws of the entity we have come to refer to as God. And God always makes it right.
So then, how does God make his laws such that the situation with this seemingly unfortunate beggar and seemingly undeserving woman are justified?
Now, for a moment, let us go back in time – a few thousand years ago, when organized religion was still on the horizon and people were still preaching their God and their religion to their people. Now imagine if, during one of these preaching sessions, someone got up and asked the preacher something along these lines: “I have never committed a single misdeed that you have described in your teachings, but I lost my wife and son last week. My neighbor steals, cheats, kills and harasses people, but he is living perfectly well. How is this fair? My only daughter asks me why she lost her mother when she has been a good girl and did everything she was told? What do I tell her?”
Now if you are the preacher, you know that you have been preaching that this is a just and fair world and that God is always just – rewarding the good and punishing the bad. Then how do you explain to this man that what you have been preaching is still right?
Thousands of years ago, the preacher DID come up with an answer. And it was a masterstroke!
The answer comes in the form of Karmic retribution – or simply Karma.
Now do not underestimate the reach of this Karma. Unlike the straight forward manifestations of the JWF, Karma goes out and beyond to enforce it! Karma takes into account not just the actions of the individual that they have committed in this life. No Sir! The Gods (or maybe just that charming preacher) have realized that, in order to make anomalies like the above two cases appear completely just and fair, Karma has to take into account the actions of the individual in his previous lives too!
Because you see, by including the activities performed by the individual in his previous life as potential ’causes’, one can explain and justify EVERYTHING that has ever occurred on this planet from the beginning of time and forever and ever!
Show me a man who has had the life much akin to Beggar 2, suffering bad outcomes after bad outcomes for absolutely nothing wrong he may have done in this life – and I will show you a religion which tells you that he is suffering because of something bad he must have committed in his previous lives. (Actually you can just look at Hinduism).
Show me a woman who gets rewarded even after having lived a wrongful and immoral life filled with neglect of responsibility – and I will tell you that she had done something tremendously good in her previous life for her to deserve that sudden change of fortune!
And Karma doesn’t just stop there!
Show me a man who is getting away with crimes against humanity and is still living a luxurious care free life – and I will tell you that he WILL SUFFER …. albeit in his NEXT life!
Show me a man who is doing all good deeds in this life but not getting rewarded in any way – and I will tell you that he WILL be REWARDED … albeit in his NEXT life!
The fact that the scriptures say you will go to hell if you do not believe this, coupled with the complete inability to know what EXACTLY the individual did in his/her previous life – gives rise to a tremendous masterstroke!
You now have an explanation for every seeming violation of God’s ‘just and fair’ laws while at the same time, there is no way that non-believers can disprove this – as the burden of proof (of choices in previous lives) is thrown upon the shoulders of the non-believers!
The preacher had told the skeptic: “You prove to me that your actions in the previous lives DO NOT affect your present outcomes and I will take back what I said. I believe that it does because God said so. And I believe in everything God says!”
To which the skeptic said, “Ok preacher. I believe in God now too. Because if I don’t, I might go to hell.”
So you see, the idea of Karma is a masterstroke. There is no way of disproving it for those who do not believe in it. And for those who do, well, there IS NO necessity for proof!
And so the world goes on, with people attributing every seeming violation of a just world law of God to some action the individual must have done in his previous lives. They convince themselves that he/she deserved whatever they got because God is only giving out justice by making them suffer!
Truly, what a sick world we live in….