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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.

Belief is not a Choice March 8, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Philosophy, Religion.
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I’ve heard a fair share of testimonies by Christians who proudly proclaim how they “chose” to believe in Jesus and how much their lives have changed for the better after that decision. I have also faced many proselytization attempts based on the general idea of “choose Christianity or suffer eternal damnation”. These religious zealots present the choice as an easy one: believe in Jesus and enjoy eternal life in heaven, or disbelieve and endure fire and brimstone in hell. Who would be so stupid or defiant as to deliberately choose to get into the bad books of an omnipotent omnipresent being? But the fatal flaw in this is the assumption that we can choose what we believe in the first place.

We must first define what “belief” is. Simply put, believing in something means that your brain perceives that it is true. Can it be a conscious choice?

Let’s take a simple, secular example. Let’s say that there is a red ball placed on the table in front of you. Can you choose to believe that the ball is blue? What if someone offered you $100 to believe that it is blue? What if someone threatened you that if you did not believe that it was blue, you’d get a smack on the head? What if someone told you that not believing that it’s blue is immoral? It’s one thing to be able to make yourself say “that ball is blue”, but it is another thing altogether to actually force yourself to believe it. When you choose a belief knowing that it is false, is it really considered “believing”?

Well this is precisely how the skeptic sees the Christian argument and Pascal’s wager. The evidence, if any, is simply not sufficient enough to convince me to believe that the metaphysical assertions made in Christianity, or any other religion for that matter, are true. Telling me to choose to believe that Jesus is god is as absurd to me as asking me to choose to believe that I have two heads. Presenting me with Pascal’s wager does not make any difference: a belief cannot be consciously switched on or off, regardless of the purported consequences of unbelief.

Belief is not a choice, because the word “choice” implies that there are alternative options. It is impossible to choose to believe in something knowing that it is false, just as it is impossible to reject a true belief. Belief is something we have no control over; it is simply a stance taken by our brains after having considered the available evidence.

It makes me wonder what people really mean when they say that they have chosen to believe in Christianity. If you are already sufficiently convinced by the bible, religious leaders, or anecdotal evidence, then what is there to “choose”? But if you actually need to make a conscious choice, be it to disregard your skepticism, to ignore contrary evidence, or to simply disallow counter arguments from reaching your eyes and ears (aka the “la la la, I can’t hear you” method) then isn’t that just self delusion? Committing such acts of intellectual dishonesty to oneself is simply not worthy of respect, in my books.

The tyranny of the majority June 29, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Liberalism v Conservativism, Philosophy, Politics.
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Many of us mistakenly concede to arguments that end with “…well this is what the majority believes, so it’s just too bad for gays/liberals/whoever”. We erroneously believe that a law, a policy, or a practice can be justified simply because the majority agrees with it, because of the flawed notion that democracy, or majority rule, is equivalent to mob rule.


What is mob rule? Well, simply put, it is the tyranny of the majority. It is the tendency of the majority to put its interests and opinions over those of the minority. It is the assumption that the majority has the right to impose their will to enforce discriminatory laws or policies on the minority simply by virtue of their strength in numbers. In his work, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote:


“…there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling: against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.”


Just because an opinion is held by the majority, that does not automatically mean that the opinion is correct, or that implementing a rule based on that opinion is justifiable on that basis alone. If the majority of Singaporeans were to believe that say, Hindus, or Muslims (or the people belonging to some other numerically minority race or religion) should be deemed as second class citizens, that alone would not legitimize discriminatory laws against them. Similarly, even if the majority of Americans were to agree with discriminatory Jim Crow laws, that alone would not legitimize the reinstating of such unconstitutional laws. In the same vein, when homosexuals are denied certain freedoms on the basis that the majority of Singaporeans do not approve of those freedoms, there is no reason to presume that the will of the majority is sufficient to vote away the rights of homosexuals.


When it comes to practical issues, it may be perfectly sensible to go with majority rule. But I believe that the majority (or even a political or moral authority) should not be given that power when it comes to issues of personal liberty (as long as these liberties are not in violation of the harm principle). Allowing the majority to deny rights and freedoms to minority groups is no better than despotism.


I am no philosopher or political theorist, and I do not intend to argue about the conservative principles which value the sacrifice of individual freedoms to the collective will of society. (Not at this moment, anyway) But I do know that from a liberal perspective, there is little room for the government or society to impose discriminatory laws or opinions onto minorities, because of the ideology’s emphasis on the respect for individual rights and distaste for governmental or societal interference. After all, the smallest minority is the individual, and liberalism is simply the protection of individual freedoms from oppression by the tyranny of societal conformity, the tyranny of the magistrate, and the tyranny of the majority.


The full text of J. S. Mill’s On Liberty is available here. Highly recommended as a thorough introduction to liberalism. :)

Why bother with politics? May 25, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, Philosophy, Rants, Religion.
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So here it is. First post. And already I am faced with cynicism, not just from myself but also from the general air of apathy that seems to plague the people of Singapore. It would be so convenient to submit myself to blissful political ignorance, just like so many other youths do. After all, I’m not gay, or working class, or impoverished, nor do I belong to a racial minority. There’s no reason for me to get worked up over political and social issues that would probably never directly affect me. Right?


 Firstly, I am nonreligious. One would assume that it wouldn’t be much of a problem in secular Singapore, but that is sadly not the case. Too often, policies are defended and justified on the basis of reflecting the “universal” conservative opinion in Singapore, as represented by the various religions. When liberal atheists or freethinkers state their position on certain issues, we are brushed aside as representing a radical liberal minority, while other otherwise unjust and unreasonable positions (such as the justification of homosexual sex remaining criminal) are accepted on the basis of “religious reasons”. Where is our platform? Do we ironically need a “Church of Freethought” which claims to represent dogmatic liberal values (Ha!) in order to be taken seriously?

 Secondly, I am female, and many of our rights and freedoms are being contested and even denied in the name of fundamentalist religious or conservative reasons. I had never questioned the many freedoms that we Singaporean women enjoy, but the recent Aware saga involving the fundamentalist Christian takeover shook me out of my complacency. It made me realize how easily religious fundamentalists can take over an organization, and how hard won our freedoms are. Our reproductive choices, employment opportunities, protection from rape and assault and even the way in which society views women and their choices (sexual or otherwise) are so intricately linked to the activism of secular feminists, and ought to be fiercely protected in the face of religiously fueled misogyny and sexism.

 Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I am human. Discussions about politics and philosophy are essential for a fulfilling life as a human being. In Plato’s The Apology, Socrates says:

 I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living.

 Socrates would have rather died (and he did) than cease his philosophical inquiries. I only wish I were half as devoted to the pursuit of reason and rational discussion.

 I don’t expect my opinions to change society, but at the very least, this blog would serve to preserve my sanity which is constantly under siege by frustration over irrational and intolerant views. We liberals need to show that we exist, that we are not immoral or crazy, and that we do not deserve to be pushed to the fringes of society and have our views dismissed during policymaking.

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