This is not the text of my Skepticon talk I gave at Skepticon with the same name, because that isn’t how I give talks. It is, however, an introduction to the same information for those who prefer their information in written form. So if you watch the video, you’ll get a slightly different experience.
Life’s not fair.
If you’re at all like me, you hear that statement in the voice of an aggrieved three-year-old child. As it turns out, that’s actually a pretty decent place to start with this topic. We’re introduced very quickly to the idea that we live in an unjust world, and we never do much come to like the idea.
Unlike most three-year-olds, however, humanity has had a lot of time to work on ways to deny the problem. And deny it we have. We’ve even gone so far as to embed that denial in our religious documents. The work has been with us from the very start of recorded Abrahamic tradition.
10 Tell the righteous that it shall be well with them, for they shall eat the fruit of their deeds.
11 Woe to the wicked! It shall be ill with him, for what his hands have dealt out shall be done to him.
7 The wicked are overthrown and are no more, but the house of the righteous will stand.
It remains with us even after the forging of a New Covenant.
7 Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.
Justice may be delayed, it may not even be something seen by the living, but it will come.
8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.
9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
The teaching is confirmed again in the Quran.
“If you do good, you do good for yourselves; and if you do evil, [you do it] to yourselves.” (from 17:7)
If you’re looking for a truly modern religious interpretation, look no further than the prosperity gospel. Here, the return on investment is not merely immediate, but somewhat disturbingly literal.
“When you give to God,” [Paul] Crouch said during a typical appeal for funds, “you’re simply loaning to the Lord and He gives it right on back.”
Nor are religious promises of justice limited to Abrahamic traditions. One of the best known traditions of supernatural justice is the Buddhist belief in karma and karmaphala, in which our moral behavior, good and bad, influences our circumstances when we’re reincarnated. As with Christianity, there are of course modernized versions of this belief in which the consequences of our actions are visited on us in this life rather than the next. We’re not good at waiting for justice.
All of these concepts have been secularized as well to varying degrees. Whatever the mechanism people subscribe to–from nebulous “energy” to the direct influences of our behavior on our surroundings–a great many of adult human beings are comfortable telling each other that the world is basically a fair place. No matter what three-year-old us knew.
In fact, in the 1960s, a couple of researchers named Melvin Lerner and Carolyn Simmons noticed that not only did a great many of us hold these beliefs, but we would go out of our way to protect those beliefs. In a 1966 paper, they described their experiments in which people would opt to compensate an innocent victim in order to restore justice in the world.
Sounds great, right? Believe in justice; create justice.
It wasn’t that simple, however. There was also an experimental condition in which subjects weren’t provided any opportunity to make things better for the victim. What happened in that case was much uglier. Subjects who couldn’t make thing right in a positive way settled for going negative. They decided that the innocent victim–the same victim people would compensate if they could–was really a bad person who deserved their misfortune.
Lerner went on to write a book on the phenomenon in 1980 titled, The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. It is alternately called “just-world belief” or “the just-world hypotheses”. It’s also sometimes referred to as the “just-world fallacy”, though it’s a bias or a fundamental belief about the world rather than a failure of formal logic or a faulty conclusion. Essentially, belief in a just world entails believing that what we experience happens as a consequence of our own actions and that these consequences are predictable and proportional.
Plenty of research has been done on the topic since that first paper. The existence of behavior we would consider to be protective of a just-world belief continues to be well-supported. In study after study, people make the choices we would expect them to make in order to resolve the cognitive dissonance of scenarios that challenge the idea that life is fair.
The Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of the phenomenon continues to be supported as well. There are plenty of studies showing that belief in a just world is good for the people who have it. That’s not surprising. It’s scary to think that control of your life could be randomly plucked away from you no matter what you do.
When we believe life is fair, we’re more willing to invest in the future. We’re more willing to trust each other and invest in each other’s success. We’re less likely to believe that any particular setback is part of a path toward doom. And we are, sometimes, more willing to help people who’ve been hurt.
At the same time, however, there’s a cost to all this feeling good. Many of the strategies people employ in order to be able to continue to believe in a just world have ugly consequences for people experiencing injustice. Carolyn Hafer and Laurent Bègue summarized the research on these strategies in their 2005 paper, “Experimental Research on Just-World Theory: Problems, Developments, and Future Challenges” (pdf). Activists who are working to decrease injustice will recognize many of these.
- Denial or withdrawal: This is a basic refusal to interact with information that would bring a just-world belief into question. It may be active (denying the facts of a situation) or passive (also known as “noping out of there”).
- Blaming the victim’s behavior: This involves focusing some aspect of the scenario–or adding such an aspect–to make the unfair outcome a consequence of something the victim did. The classic here is “She shouldn’t have been wearing such a short skirt.” There’s no evidence that clothing choices affect who rapists target, but we pretend there is so as to feel better. This can also mean ascribing the effects of “luck” to hard work.
- Blaming the victim’s character: In this case, we decide that, though the victim might not have done anything to provoke the injustice directly, the kind of person they were means that, over the long run, everything has evened out and justice has been served. This is what we’re hearing when young black men arbitrarily gunned down by neighbors or police are described as “thugs” or “no angel”. When the outcome is positive, as when someone is rich or famous, it becomes unacceptable to question their character.
- Recharacterizing the outcome: Because cognitive dissonance is caused by a mismatch between what someone deserves and what they receive, we may also reinterpret the outcome rather than the person receiving it. “I bet those grapes were sour anyway” is a classic example. So is the concept of “building character” through adversity.
- Demonization: This involves recharacterizing someone who has perpetrated an injustice as inhuman or monstrous. This protects our belief in a just world by making the event appear unlikely to recur. The rapist in the bushes remains our popular conception despite decades of research saying people are much more likely to be raped by people they know or by intimate partners.
- Separate worlds: One of the ways we reduce our need to come up with reasons why something that looks unfair isn’t is by limiting the size of the world we need to believe is fair. Arbitrary things only happen over there, where “over there” might be in poor neighborhoods or other countries or battlefields, or anywhere that we can effectively stay away from. They don’t happen here.
- Ultimate justice: This is what I described at the start of this post, the promise of religion. Even if we don’t see it in this lifetime, justice will be served. Someday.
- Nihilism: It seems odd to include a rejection of a premise as a defense of that premise, but it does resolve our cognitive dissonance to shrug and say, “Eh, life’s not fair.” The problem with this strategy is that situations can often be made fair, or more fair, so rejecting the concept of fairness is just as wrong as considering it an absolute.
Luckily, some strategies for resolving our cognitive dissonance can actually result in justice to some degree or another.
- Punishment: This is frequently the first strategy we reach for to restore justice. It can do that, though the systems we set up to punish offenders are ripe with opportunity to perpetuate further injustices.
- Compensation: At its most basic, compensation involves providing a victim with something good that’s proportional to the harm done. Like punishment, it can be tricky to make work in practice, but with lower risk of doing additional harm.
- Prevention: For an activist, this is the gold standard of effective restoration of a belief in a just world. Want to believe the world contains less injustice? Make it happen. Make a more just world.
As should be clear by now, a belief in a just world presents many difficulties for activists. It is hard to get people to look at injustice, harder still to get them to recognize it, and hardest of all to get people to build the just world they want to believe in. So how do we do it?
The first thing we do is make it harder for people to get away from problems. It’s not easy to balance that need with necessary imperatives to take time off for self-care or with feeding the hope that keeps us going, but this is still always the first step.
Then we make it harder to resort to incorrect beliefs to resolve their dissonance. We knock down false beliefs about victims and perpetrators. We challenge the idea of supernatural justice and its distant future promises. We point out our own vulnerabilities to injustice and focus on what we have in common with its victims. We remind people that we know they care, because they act to resolve injustice when they can.
Then we do everything we can to show people how they can make a difference. We show them how they can support people who are making a difference, and we give them multiple ways to help so that everyone has access to the ability to create change. We guide their desire to help or to punish into actions that are meaningful and proportional. We give them opportunities to act before injustice can take place.
It can feel like dealing with such a fundamental bias as the need to believe in a just world makes it impossible to make any progress toward real justice, but with a solid understanding of how we work to protect that belief, we can channel that bias productively. And with human beings, sometimes that’s the best we can ask for, just or not.