Wednesday, October 5, 2011
The Insidious Effects Of Just World Belief
There is some good evidence that the processes and states of being that we label as mind, and which appear to be tied to the evolutionary adaptation of our brains, have a natural tendency to produce transcendental experiences that we commonly label as "spiritual" or "religious". These often include a sense of the universal interconnectedness of all things and all life in particular, a sense of some greater enigma which we cannot convincingly describe let alone try to un-puzzle. Often these feelings act in concert with the other natural tendencies of our minds toward pattern-recognition (the ability to see meaning in seemingly random or disparate input), agency attribution (the tendency to see events as the result of the action of a "person" or actor), and obedience to authority. In this way they produce, or lend weight to, a world-view dominated by (a) benevolent God/god(s).
One of the deepest philosophical conundrums that man has faced since he has tried to use the powers of his mind to understand the universe in which he found himself, is the need to reconcile the deeply felt belief in the benevolence of God, with the empirically undeniable proliferation of suffering among sentient beings. How we bring these beliefs into harmony can have dramatic effects on how we see and behave toward the world and its inhabitants.
Just World Belief is the idea (whether conscious or latent) that, despite appearances to the contrary, the universe is actually, ultimately, perfectly just. The belief is formulated in a wide variety of ways. The New Age belief in karma formulates Just World Belief in a straightforward manner by asserting that all negative actions will eventually have proportionately negative consequences on the actor; likewise, all positive actions produce positive rewards. Usually a belief in reincarnation is necessary to harmonize a belief in karma with the overwhelming countervailing evidence; although we see cases of evil men profiting by their evil actions and dying old, fat, happy and unpunished, and cases of the innocent and good living and dying unjustly in agony, it is said they will get their reward or punishment in the next life. The traditional formulation of heaven and hell afterlives follows a similar line of thought but with the proportion of reward and punishment noticeably absent.
An interesting and instructive misfit example is the formulation found in the Hebrew Scriptures of the so-called Old Testament. With no substantive mentions of a coherent afterlife, let alone reincarnation, found in the Jewish Bible, we are left with the continuously arising problem of how to explain the profound injustices experienced in life in light of an all-powerful and all-good God. In response to this problem, the Bible develops and reinforces a robust Just World Belief. Those who please God are rewarded by God, those who displease Him are punished, both in this life. If a person is sick or disabled it is evidence that they have displeased God. Likewise, if a person is wealthy, healthy and successful it is evidence that they have pleased God. God is in charge of all things, He numbers even the hairs on our heads, nothing happens in the universe without His sanction, since God is all good, the world must be just. The result of the uniform application of this kind of Just World Theory is the noticeably harsh character attributed to God in the Old Testament. After all, only a harsh character would enforce such unreasonable punishments for arbitrary infractions while offering equally disproportionate rewards for equally arbitrary pleasing actions. Why was the most pious man in the village struck with agonizing bloody diarrhea death? He must have given the wrong sacrifice, or maybe he was secretly proud-hearted. Why has the town lush and adulterer just inherited a fortune? Maybe he was repentant, or had a humble heart or something. One thing, however, was necessarily true: they both deserved it.
And this gets us to the heart of the insidiousness of Just World Belief. Whether it is explicit or latent, the belief promotes the idea that we need not fight against suffering because it is deserved. In fact helping the suffering may even be controverting God's justice. In the same way, this belief leads to an unhealthy idolization of the worldly successful since their worldly success is seen as just rewards of some elusive God-pleasing characteristic.
We ought to examine our beliefs to see if we are influenced by this bias and, if so, examine the justification for such a belief. With the proliferation of world-views and philosophies which include Just World Belief as an underlying foundation, such as libertarianism and other forms of political conservatism, the New Age visualization techniques around the over-hyped book The Gift, as well as the traditional formulations in the world's great religions, we have reason to stand up for reality based world-views as the necessary bare minimum foundation for the truest formulations of ethics and philosophy