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Karma and the Just World Fallacy May 23, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Philosophy, Religion, Society, Uncategorized.
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The concept of karma is almost universal, only differing in name across other belief systems and cultures outside of Buddhism.  Some label it as “you reap what you sow”, or “what goes around comes around”. It basically involves the belief that the world is just; that the universe (or god) is fair, and kind deeds and hard work are rewarded while evil doers are punished.

Now you may be wondering: what so bad about such a worldview? Sure, it may be naive, irrational or overly optimistic, but what harm could possibly come out of the idealistic notion that the universe is fair and just? If anything, wouldn’t this worldview motivate some to be good and kind?

Well, aside from the fact that there is nothing commendable about performing good deeds for the sole purpose of collecting “gold stars” to get into the universe’s (or god’s) good books, this “just world fallacy” also produces a troubling artefact when one is made to rationalize the gross injustices and tragedies that befall seemingly good people.

When one believes that the world punishes bad people and rewards good people, what happens when they observe someone falling victim to an act of evil or to unfortunate circumstances? Unable to solve the contradiction of tragedy befalling someone good and moral in a universe with a karmic self correcting mechanism, the “just world” believer would then come to the conclusion that the victim must have done something to deserve his fate. Believing that the world is fair and just leads one to the troubling outcome that is victim blaming.

The just world phenomenon and the victim blaming that comes along with it are far from uncommon. In a study conducted by Lerner (1966) in which subjects watched videotapes of a “participant” of an experiment being made to undergo painful electric shocks, the subjects devalued the victim and viewed her as deserving of her fate.

Belief in a just world was found to be strongly linked to religiosity and authoritarianism. (Rubin and Peplau, 1975). This hardly comes as a surprise, considering how the extreme religious right has been known to attribute hurricane Katrina to god’s punishment for New Orleans’ acceptance of homosexuality, and the 2004 tsunami to god’s revenge for the “wicked ways” of women. When “everything happens for a reason”, some people can’t help but weave god’s (or the universe’s) vengeance into the picture in order to rationalize an otherwise inexplicable force of nature. It is also hardly surprising when such rationalizations evolve into a sense of superiority and self righteousness: “I told you so. This is what happens when you don’t listen to (my) god.”

In a way, believing in a just world is also a form of self preservation and a source of comfort. It is so much easier to simply assume that only bad people fall victim to catastrophes or acts of evil, because by believing so, we are convincing ourselves that since we are good people, bad things won’t happen to us. Since I am not a slut, I will not get raped. Since I donate to charity, god/karma will ensure that I won’t get cancer. All these little lies we tell ourselves help us feel in control of our lives, instead of being subject to an unforgiving and unfeeling world where we are vulnerable to the evil acts of others, or to the indiscriminate acts of mother nature.

But when we start to blame the victim, we not only cause the victim to suffer unnecessary guilt and shame, we also stop being (rightfully) outraged by the real sources of injustice. We start to fixate on the untruth that rape victims somehow “ask for it”, instead of focusing on the fact that rape and violence is unacceptable and always the fault of the perpetrator, regardless of how the victim dresses or acts. We start to rationalize that the poor and disadvantaged deserve their fate as punishment for being stupid and lazy, instead of looking at the structural, institutional and social impediments to their upward mobility in society. We start to tell ourselves that only stupid, careless people who show off their wealth fall victim to theft, instead of focusing on the choice made by the thief himself or addressing the possible social and psychological reasons that may cause one to resort to such forms of crime. We focus on blaming HIV/AIDS on homosexuality and promiscuity instead of on finding the cure, or on preventive education, or on providing subsidised medication. We even rationalize that victims of domestic abuse must have done something to deserve it, or were at least stupid enough to remain in an abusive relationship, instead of spending that time and energy offering our empathy.

Ironically, staunchly believing that the universe is naturally just prevents us from addressing the real injustices of the world. As long as we assume there is a supreme being or magical force that will somehow ultimately mete out justice, we fail to take responsibility for ensuring that justice is served. The sooner we can accept the fact that bad things do happen to good people for no reason, and that nobody deserves to be raped, or assaulted, or murdered, or to live on the streets, the sooner we can replace disdain and self righteousness with respect and compassion.

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