Exploring and exploding the “Just World Hypothesis.”
You may not have heard of the Just World hypothesis (sometimes referred to as the Just World fallacy) but there’s few people who have not lived some of their life believing in it at some level. The English language is littered with idioms that reflect it: you reap what you sow, chickens coming home to roost, what goes around comes around. It’s basically a belief that there is some form of natural justice inherent in existence, that eventually, the good you do is rewarded and the bad that others do is punished. Dear old Wiki has a good summary:
The just-world hypothesis or just-world fallacy is the cognitive bias (or assumption) that a person’s actions are inherently inclined to bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person, to the end of all noble actions being eventually rewarded and all evil actions eventually punished. In other words, the just-world hypothesis is the tendency to attribute consequences to—or expect consequences as the result of—a universal force that restores moral balance. This belief generally implies the existence of cosmic justice, destiny, divine providence, desert, stability, or order, and has high potential to result in fallacy, especially when used to rationalize people’s misfortune on the grounds that they “deserve” it.
Observationally, this seems to be at the core of much new age philosophy, and some would say that the concept of karma is the same thing. It isn’t, it really isn’t. It’s too much of a diversion to try and explain why it’s a completely different thing but it is.
In recent years I have seen an increase in the negative effects of this hypothesis. It gives people a get-out clause from caring about the misfortunes of others, because if you believe that someone brought something upon their own head, you can remain morally superior and see it as that person getting what they deserve. It also means that people believe that their good luck and success is the result of the universe working in their favour: good things for good people, according to the theory. It makes people turn on others, even people they have perceived as good, when misfortune, illness and accidents happen to them: the sneaky feeling that somehow they MUST have deserved it. It’s pernicious and so easy to fall into. Observe any discussion about, say, chronic and incurable illness, and you will see people at first offering helpful suggestions and gradually, the tone changes and becomes hostile, especially when the sick person continually explains that no, no matter what changes to diet or exercise they try, nothing will really make much difference to a disease that’s already baffled medical science to help. At that point, many chronically ill people find a falling away of friends and allies, because they are told, you’re too negative, you’re not trying hard enough, science is bullshit and so on.
There are plenty who argue that the Just World hypothesis is necessary for mental health (do read the whole wiki article; it’s excellent) but like faith, once lost, a belief in a universe where there is intrinsic justice is hard, possibly impossible to regain. It’s a feature too of what is referred to by some Jungians as the Middle Passage, and by others, as a mid-life crisis.
“One of the most powerful shocks of the Middle Passage is the collapse of our tacit contract with the universe–the assumption that if we act correctly, if we are of good heart and good intentions, things will work out. We assume a reciprocity with the universe. If we do our part, the universe will comply. Many ancient stories, including the Book of Job, painfully reveal the fact that there is no such contract, and everyone who goes through the Middle Passage is made aware of it.”
Where can you go from here? The acceptance that life is not fair, never was fair and never will be fair, can for some be a game changer beyond anything else. The quiet hope that one day, a life of hard work, sacrifices for the sake of others’ well-being and for society as a whole, will somehow bring rewards, recognition, success and so on, is gone. And with it, in some ways, the sense of purpose that it brought with it, the whole, one day, one day, longing for things to work out nicely. It’s why so many of us take refuge in fiction, both reading it and writing it, because within the world our words create, we can be god and we can have a world where there is true justice when in the outer world, justice is a rare commodity that needs to be fought for and longed for and sometimes, achieved. But there is no contract with the universe or God or a higher purpose that ensures that this is a given, however long it takes. We are not absolved from trying to change, to seek justice and be merciful and kind, to make the world a better place as far as we each can; this, sadly, is the problem with the Just World hypothesis, the belief that (like Candide in the early part of the novel) somehow everything will magically work out for the best for the best of all possible worlds. It won’t. It’s up to us to strive to make things better, even knowing that we may fail, and fail again and again.
It’s that or fall entirely into despair.