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Is it a Just World
© Dave Ferruolo
Do we live in a just world, where blessings are bestowed upon good people and the actions of the bad thrust them into adversity? Many people across varied cultures agree with what psychologist Melvin Lerner labeled as the Just World Phenomenon, meaning simply that the world is a just place and people get what they deserve. But is this world really a predictable, orderly and ethical place where some governing metaphysical power dictates our fate based on our good or bad thoughts and actions or is it a social construct routed in religion and perpetuated by modern media?
If we look back, the stories, myths and legends of good people enduring adversity and death is riddled in writings of world history across cultures and countries alike. Jesus was persecuted and crucified upon the cross; Gandhi and Martin Luther King were both assassinated; 28-year-old King Tut is said to be killed by a blow to the head; Millions of Jews were killed during WWII and more recently our own beloved Superman, Christopher Reeves spent the remaining days of his life as a quadriplegic. Today as I browse the online new articles I find countless stories of good people in awful and disastrous situations. I have to sit back and wonder what bad act possibly could siblings of ages 9, 8, 6 and 5 have done to warrant severe physical abuse by parents and sexual abuse from a close friend? How can people possible justify the abuse of a five year old? What possibly could he have done wrong at that age?
A 22-year-old Fort Lauderdale woman was kidnapped at knifepoint and rapped twice. The assailant was set free, with the jury deciding that she deserved and asked for it due to her scant dress. Just World Theorists would say the decision of the jury was based on the fact that people often think victims of violence and hardships often deserve what happens to them. So dressing a certain way warrants rape, or perhaps she was just drinking too much or dancing provocatively. Maybe even she smiled at her assailant while passing in the bar. And what bad act could this poor woman possible of done to justify getting rapped twice at knifepoint? Is karma at play with the destiny of humanity? Do we have a vengeful Lord, who wrath is felt by the unscrupulous, corrupt and immoral, but blessings are bestowed upon the righteous?
For as many examples as I can find of bad things happening to good people, I can find equal amounts of references that show many terrible people leading wonderful and prosperous lives. And for that fact, the stories of bad people who come into adversity and good people who flourish are just as plentiful.
Karma—the law of cause and affect. Many people of the world have a superficial knowledge of Karma. Simplified, Karma may indeed be explained as a mystical power that attracts good to good and bad to bad. The Buddha did teach for people to be good, however anyone with a deeper knowledge of Buddhism can tell you that being moral or virtuous is not a prerequisite of being a good Buddhist. Karma’s true teaching, as intended by Siddhartha, was to correlate causal affects of thought and action on ones circumstance so one could better be prepared to avoid suffering. Siddhartha stated that if you are going to be a thief, then be prepared for bad things to happen because statistically thief’s are caught and punished. Prostitution can lead to disease, brutality and murder. Being generous and kindhearted will incite others to be more generous and kind to you. Karma is really a logical and cognitive way of considering your actions and the resulting consequences—good or bad or indifferent.
However taken out of context and meaning lost in translations, one would think Karma is some kind of universal power, which will govern our fait depending on our thoughts and actions. This also ties to religion, as being kind is rewarded and being bad is punished in the writings of the bible.
The LORD is a jealous God, filled with vengeance and wrath. He takes revenge on all who oppose him and furiously destroys his enemies! The LORD is slow to get angry, but his power is great, and he never lets the guilty go unpunished. Nahum 1:2-8 NLT. This is only one on many quotes in the bible, intending to scare people into virtuous living. I don’t know how many times I have heard my Catholic grandmother saying, “God must be punishing me,” or “God must be mad at me for something I did.” She would often feel that one or more of her actions have brought the wrath of God upon her, and the suffering must be warranted and justified. I would also hear her on many occasions saying that; “God is punishing that person.” Often she would be speaking of a minority who was in an accident, been robber or beaten or died young.
All of the worlds religious and spiritual texts have guidelines for living. Most outline virtues and morals one must have. They give the benefits of following these simple rules and the punishments for deviating. It is easy to see why people actually believe all things happen for a specific reason.
Couple the above with other psychological theories and we have a method of thinking that will easily justify our world. Cognitive bias affects how we think about ourselves and others and governs our actions in social situations. Lerner’s studies reveal that by just observing an innocent person being victimized, one has a tendency to devalue the victim and think they deserve the treatment. From childhood we are taught that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished; virtuous people are blessed and rotten people condemned. Lerner goes on to say that people often think, “I am just a person living in a just world, a world where people get what they deserve,” which would promote the disapproving of unfortunate sufferers. Lerner’s Just World Theory, however deeply ingrained within our minds, is even more perpetuated by the media.
TV and movies often depict beautiful heroes and heroines rising above the forces of evil unscathed. Contrarily, the wrong doers are most definitely heading for a bad time, whether it a good beating, serious injury, imprisonment or death. In sports events, the winners are deemed champions and losers often ridiculed. In political elections, we cheer the fresh incumbent and scarf the looser. On TV, in magazines and on the big screen, good is good and bad is just bad. The handsome law-biding cowhand, always kills the cattle rustlers, gets the girl and rides off into the sunset to live happily ever after!
I personally believe teaching children about Just World theory from the Buddhist approach of education about cause and affect—or Karma. I believe, as Siddhartha did, that pain and suffering come from expectation and the attachment to coveted outcomes. Try as we may to be good, sometimes bad things will happen. It is not whether we dwell on these unfortunate events that happen to ourselves or another innocent party; however, it is how we think and act which matters most. Teaching the spiritual karmic laws of cause and affect, emphasizing non-attachment to outcomes as you pursue life’s goals and educating kids about emotional intelligence on how to handle misfortunate, or any, situations, are some key methods of helping a child grow to be more aware, compassionate and understanding of the true workings of the world.
We can never control what happens to us, regardless of how “good” we think we are, we can however have considerable influence on our circumstance by understanding the rules of cause and affect. We can also combat the Just World Phenomenon by understanding that happenings are mostly random and can involve anyone at any time, and it is how we choose to act during and after a misfortunate situations that matters most and can have the most positive influence on everyone involved.