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Karma and the Just World Fallacy May 23, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Philosophy, Religion, Society, Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , ,

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.



1. Lee Chee Wai - May 23, 2010

hehehe, this will be one time I’ll say “Amen to that!”. Karma is, imho, the lazy approach to dealing with the complexities of real life.

In real life, there are issues of fairness and justice one can control; there are things one can mitigate with proper understanding (katrina offered at least a day of warning); and then there are things beyond one’s reasonable control (a tree falls on you on your way to work).

Perhaps the one big flaw we as humans have is the need to rationalize everything. I am generalizing, of course. I’m pulling myself away from the need to know the whys (unless, of course, I wanna know why some bloke did something) and finding more joy and satisfaction trying to understand the hows. I do not think the quality of my short existence will suffer as a consequence :).

2. Daily SG: 24 May 2010 « The Singapore Daily - May 24, 2010

[…] decisions threat to secular society – Diary of A Singaporean Mind: Weekend Thoughts.. – Laïcité: Karma and the Just World Fallacy – The Rot Within: […]

3. Sloo - May 24, 2010

A wonderful piece that is so right for our times

4. Ryan - May 25, 2010

HI there. I disagree with your interpretation of karma. According to your article, you seem to think that people who believe in karma believe that everything happens in the world due to karma.

i believe in karma, but I don’t think the person who gets raped deserves it due to her acts in the past. To me, karma is a law of nature but it does not explain everything in the world. Free will explains the other part. Life is not set in stones due to what we have done in the past; free will plays a big part as well.

Anyone who blames anyone else’s misfortune solely due to karma is unfortunately misguided.



5. laïcité - May 25, 2010

Hi Ryan,

if karma is a “law of nature” but does not explain everything, then how would you explain the suffering of millions of innovent people in the world because of things like hurricanes or disease or famine? My point was that any attempt to explain such tragedies by attributing them to karma, or god’s wrath, or any form of divine direction is unnecessary and uncalled for. Trying to rationalize the “motivation” behind why god or mother nature made such events happen only leads to victim blaming. Is it really necessary to ask “why me” or “why new orleans” when tragedy strikes? Is it so hard to accept that there is simply no reason, no motivation, no reward or punishment, but simply random and undirected phenomena of nature?

We don’t live in a fair or just world where people get what they deserve. Bad things can happen to good people for no reason at all, and it’s only when we accept that fact that we can move on to more constructive actions.

6. twisted - May 25, 2010

Interesting article. Here’s my rather limited opinion of what believing in karma is in response to your post..

Believing in karma does not necessarily mean inaction in the face of injustice and leaving others or some divine intervention to ‘re-balance’ the ‘fairness’.

Believing in karma does not necessarily leads to the conclusion that random things happened (e.g. natural disaster) to people due to their deeds (good or bad). Random stuff can happen that can be independent of anyone’s actions.

My intepretation of karma is simply that one’s actions will have consequences (Good or bad, trivial or major). As simple as that. In fact, i guess this intepretation is almost rather common sense.

I am also guessing that the buddhist view includes the concept of past lives/reincarnation, but i am not sure about this and am not including this in my above intepretation of karma.

7. Ryan - May 29, 2010

Hi laïcité.

You asked me a question and my answer to your question is similar to what you said in the same post – one difference though. I won’t say that hurricanes, drought etc are ‘random’ phenomena of nature though. I would say that they are ‘unpredicted’ phenomena of nature. There is nothing random about Singapore being free from tornado or drought striking certain parts of Africa.

You also said ‘We don’t live in a fair or just world where people get what they deserve’. I would think that is an overgeneralisation. The world is fair to a certain extent; you reap what you sow – e.g. you plant an apple seed, you get an apple tree; you save some money everyday, you’ll save a lot after some time. But there is a limit to what we can control in our lives. As said by you, life can be unfair as well – e.g. good drivers get into accidents caused by bad drivers; people who don’t smoke get lung cancer but not some of the smokers. However, I think that being a non-smoker is still better than a smoker as the chance of getting lung cancer is lower. To me, this is an example of karma or law of cause and effect.

And twisted, I agree with your post. =)



p/s – incidentally today is Vesak Day

laïcité - May 29, 2010

Hi Ryan,

If karma were simply defined as the law of cause and effect, then I would have no argument against it at all. Of course driving while intoxicated leads to poor judgement which leads to an increased risk of an accident. Of course jumping off a cliff leads to certain death. I wouldn’t call that a “belief” at all. It is a fact, like gravity. Actions have consequences which are directly a result of that action.

But that is not what is meant when most people use the word “karma”. They use that word to explain events that do not have a direct link. For example, they would use the word “karma” to explain when a person of poor character (say, a liar or an abuser) gets a terminal illness. Or they would use it to explain when someone of high moral character wins the lottery or whose business is booming. It is when such unlinked, unrelated events are explained away by this magical force called karma (or god) that irks me so. It is unnecessary, untrue, unwarranted.

Unlike simple cause and effect, “karma” has this moralistic undertone. Do good, and good things will come your way. Do evil, and expect evil to be done to you. Whereas the rule of cause an effect would simply say that things have consequences. It takes a neutral stance, and can even be consistent with statements like “Be smart, shrewed and manipulative and you will be economically successful”.

By the way, I do not attach moral value to the act of smoking or not smoking. Personally, I choose not to smoke for the same reasons you do, but I do not perceive it to be a “better” choice because smoking is simply a risk that smokers choose to take, just like how me choosing to drive is a choice to accept all the risks that come along with it.

8. Weekly Roundup: Week 22 « The Singapore Daily - May 29, 2010

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9. Deb - May 30, 2010

What a great and post.

10. The Just World Fallacy « Permitted Flavourings - May 30, 2010

[…] – Secularity and Secularism, which by the way is an excellent blog. The most recent entry, Karma and the Just World Fallacy, lays out comprehensively and with effective rhetoric the evils of believing that good things […]

11. Ryan - May 30, 2010

Let me comment on your statement below.

“They use that word to explain events that do not have a direct link. For example, they would use the word “karma” to explain when a person of poor character (say, a liar or an abuser) gets a terminal illness. Or they would use it to explain when someone of high moral character wins the lottery or whose business is booming. It is when such unlinked, unrelated events are explained away by this magical force called karma (or god) that irks me so. It is unnecessary, untrue, unwarranted.”

I, on the other hand, believe that it is more likely for a person of poor character to get sick. I would think a person who lies worry more than the average person and the person who abuses others has psychological problems. Worry and stress are well-known factors increasing the rate of getting certain sickness. But obviously the deduction works one way. Just because someone gets sick, it doesn’t mean that the person is of questionable character.

I also think that it is more likely for a person of higher moral character to do well in business. Doing business involves a lot of interaction with other people, e.g. clients and suppliers. Being trustworthy and honest increases the likelihood that other people continue to do business with you. Obviously a supplier would not want to supply goods on credit to someone who is perceived to be a cheat.

My point is just because the link is not clear does not mean that it does not exist. ‘Karma’ could be known in different terms, but to me it is similar to the law of cause and effect (but obviously with a lot of probabilistic factors).

Anyway, thanks for putting your thoughts down. I always appreciate a good intellectual discussion. =)

I wanted to reply on your comment on ‘karma’ from a ‘moralistic point of view’, but I will wait for your reply (if any) to this post first.



laïcité - May 31, 2010

Hi Ryan,

Thank you for taking the time to engage in a discussion with me.

With regards to the assertion that those of poor moral character are more likely to get sick, I think that’s just a case of conformation bias. I’m pretty sure there are many instances of how being a “good” person increases one’s likelihood of falling ill too. For example, those in the healthcare profession, who are usually perceived as caring and patient, are at greater risk of contracting contagious diseases, just as how those who choose the underpaid and underrewarded jobs in childcare and preschool teaching are more susceptable to illnesses like the flu because of their proximity to children. I would even go so far as to argue that the “good” people tend to worry more: about their loved ones, the poor and underprivileged, the elderly, the environment etc, and it is instead the selfish who are without a care in the world but themselves.

Similarly, as much as good character can help in a business, what many may consider to be poor character can also result in a business thriving, such as choosing work over family and loved ones, engaging in capitalist expansion and monopolizing markets, or expolitation of the environment, or the exploitation of workers and the running of sweatshops, or the use of “guanxi” or personal relationships (instead of meritocracy) to move up the corporate ladder.

In this way, there is simply no real reasoning why a good person is more likely to have good events befall him, or a bad person more likely to have bad events happen to him, except in the most obvious and direct consequences, such as establishing friendships or getting arrested. Unless there are real statistics to show that such an assertion is true, such examples will only remain anecdotes, and there are a fair number of anecdotes to illustrate the contrary as well.

When events seem to unfold in a just manner (for example, a rapist gets cancer, a philantropist gets booming business), we conveniently attribute it to “karma”. When an unjust series of events occur, we attribute it to “that’s life”. That is hardly reasonable. That’s just picking and choosing “evidence” that supports a worldview, while ignoring examples that point to the contrary.

12. twisted - June 1, 2010


My interpretation of karma in the previous post is just a simple clear indisputable cause and effect notion and that this is not what you are referring to in your post and comments. So my apologies for going slightly off topic there. This, i agree, is different from your point of people using the concept of karma to explain “unlinked, unrelated events”.

I can understand your irritation whenever people simply attribute a link between an incident to the bad/good character of a person or the bad/good deeds by the person when clearly the correlation between the character/deeds of that person is pretty negligible to the incident. Thus using the concept of karma to justify an unlinked incident is groundless and may even imply the presence of some divine intervention.

This raise an interesting thought though. I’m sure in incidents, say such as that of a friend involved in a freak car accident, most people will recognise the low correlation between the character/deeds of the person to the incident and yet they may still attribute the incident to karma. Yes, its irrational, but are these same people simply saying this as a source of comfort to themselves and others (with the understanding that others know that this is the case as well) BUT don’t really believing it?

If this attribution of the incident to karma is just a source of comfort to themselves and others and everyone don’t really believe such a link exist, then i guess this is pretty harmless. On the other hand, if they really believe some (proven) unrelated behaviour is able to cause the incident, then this is irrational.

Simply put, if this false attribution to karma is just an expression like saying “Sh*t happens”, then i think its harmless. If they really do believe the unrelated events are actually linked despite the zero probability, then yes, its a fallacy. I do not really have much experience in hearing people attributing incidents to karma, but i shall ask them (if appropriate!) if they really believe in that, or are just saying it as a source of comfort.

Whatever the interpretation of ‘karma’, i still stand by my position that karma cannot justified inaction in the face of injustice or prevent the possibility of random events occuring. You said you are irked by people claiming karma for (presumably proven) unlinked, unrelated events, i said ask these people if they really believe that and hopefully the answer is ‘no’ for the sake of our rational sanity. :)

Of course the link between the claimed cause and effect may not be clear or may even be difficult to prove. In this case, i guess the onus is for the person making the claim to explain why that is so.

laïcité - June 1, 2010

hi twisted,

you are probably right that people usually come to such conclusions more out of a need for comfort than out of spite or our of true belief that a person’s character has a real effect events that happen to him. But is such a view really harmless?

For example, imagine that a woman has been raped. Understandably, her friends and family would be outraged and saddened by the event and would struggle to understand why their loved one had to suffer such a horrible act of violence. They start to make fallacious rationalizations like: Maybe this wouldn’t have happened if… she had worn a less revealing outfit? … if she were less of a party girl? …if she were accompanied by a male instead of walking home alone? … if she were less of a flirt?

Such statements are far too common as attempts to rationalize rape, but are anything but “harmless” to the victim, because it makes it seem as if the onus were on her to prevent the rape. In singapore, it has already been drilled into our minds that the onus should be on us to prevent crime from happening to us. But this makes us fail to see that the crime is wholly the result of a choice made by the perpetrator, a human actor himself.

Instead, a more constructive outlook is to stop focusing on what the victim should have/should not have done (in any case, there is simply no evidence to suggest that one’s clothing has any effect on one’s risk of getting raped), but to ask questions like “how can we make this neighborhood safer for women walking home at night?”, “How can we educate young men to respect women’s choices, regardless of how much they drink or flirt?”, or “How can we better ensure that these rapists are caught and convicted?”. These are the issues more pressing to the crime than any of the actions on the part of the victim.

13. Lee Chee Wai - June 3, 2010

Barring quantum effects, the only “absolute” system of cause and effect in the known universe is physics. When quantum effects are taken into account, even physics becomes probabilistic at the quantum-mechanical level which was why Einstein was so famously upset by the idea (“God does not play dice.”)

Life works for human beings because we have a good understanding of the probabilistic effects of our actions for most things at various scales of physical effects. We have also evolved varying levels of empathy and the ability to read the emotions and intentions of others to have a reasonable probabilistic model for expectations involving human-to-human and to a far lesser extent, human-to-animal interactions. This is also often the reason why, without sufficiently deep study, we frequently misinterpret animal-to-animal interactions.

Karma is meaningless rationalization for those rare occasions when things do not happen as we expect them to happen. It is meaningless rationalization (I believe Laicite’s article attempts to address this) to justify when our human emphatic expectations are violated. That, along with the phrase “God works in mysterious ways” has no place in a rational world where we do not need such rationalization to bring us the comfort we used to need in the face of uncertainty.

It is time for humans to stand confident, not only in our understanding of what we know, but also in our understanding of what we do not know.

laïcité - June 3, 2010

Hi Chee Wai,

thanks for putting things in such a concise and precise way. I think you’ve hit the bullseye by describing it as a “meaningless rationalization”. When a bad guy gets his just desserts, believers can self righteously say “I told you, karma/god exists.” When a bad guy wins the lottery, the same believer simply says “Karma/god works in mysterious ways.” A meaningless concept indeed.

Rederam - July 12, 2010

Hi Laicite.

You give an example of a bad guy winning the lottery, yet when in real life does that ever happen? By the same token, you could even argue that the most deserving person doesn’t win the lottery either, but we all know money and power corrupts so the question is why should a “good guy” be turned into a “bad guy”? Please give real life examples, as your examples seem to be based on generalizations and a pessimistic view of life. You could argue that a small fortune would not corrupt absolutely, but then again being poor can promote very positive things such as self-reliance and humility. If someone succumbs to lying, cheating and stealing through experiencing poverty, well that’s a whole other issue altogether.

A morally sound person remains that way because they never get “too big for their shoes”-so to speak-making them incorruptible. The most a “bad guy” can ever expect as a “reward” for his bad deeds are small/minor victories. Villains either never experience real power or inevitably self-destruct as a result of their corruption. We must also remember that many villains were initially victims to begin with.

I strongly agree with you though, that we should never stand back while hundreds suffer and that we must promote goodwill towards our fellow men, but reality has limits. Why do people do the things they do? Were they born good or evil? Did they become that way through life-changing events or is it a possible culmination of the two? In the end there are not too many things in this universe that we are in control of. We do not choose our parents, the country we are born in, our birth name, our birth date, our appearance or our personality traits. We don’t even choose who or what we are attracted to. We are in fact “guided” rather than actually being in the driver’s seat. All these things are decided for us before we are even born, yet they play major recurring roles in our lives through the years. Do we really have a choice of who we are in the end? We can only try.

By the way, I really enjoyed reading your article and found yours to be a fascinating point of view. Ironically I stumbled onto your article because I was feeling rather negative, but having read your article has allowed me to gather my thoughts rationally and I truly thank you for that.

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