The Paradox of the Belief in a Just World

In this extract from The Lottery of Birth: On Inherited Social Inequalities, Namit Arora talks about parsing through the fiction that he is the sole author of his success and about the wilful blindness among Indians about their inherited privileges.

Namit Arora in The Wire:

Namit-Arora_twitterA leading ideological fiction of our age is that worldly success comes to those who deserve it. Per this fiction, the smarter, more talented and disciplined men and women, with some unfortunate exceptions, come out ahead of the rest and morally deserve their material rewards in life. The flip side of this belief is of course that, with some unfortunate exceptions, those who find themselves at the bottom also morally deserve their lot for being – the conclusion is inescapable – neither smart nor talented nor disciplined enough.

Such a view partly derives from what social psychologists call ‘belief in a just world’ (usually amplified by ideology, more on that in the extended Introduction in the book). This widely held belief presumes that humans live under an overarching moral order – whether based on divine providence, karma, destiny, social cause-effect or another principle – which tends to produce fair and predictable consequences for our actions. It’s a belief in just deserts that, to varying degrees, all of us subscribe to. It’s evident in phrases like ‘chickens coming home to roost’ or ‘what goes around, comes around’. This deep-seated belief may well be essential for human self-preservation. It enables us to make plans, engage in practical goal-oriented behaviour and take pride in the outcomes of our efforts. Many aspects of our world even help validate this belief. Indeed, it seems like a natural instinct among people in all societies.

Yet this belief also clashes with the daily evidence of a capricious natural and social world that randomly and unjustly shapes individuals’ outcomes in life. A strong belief in a just world has a dark side. When something threatens the comforting cocoon of this belief, it can lead us to either deny the evidence, or to explain it away using tactics like victim blaming or discounting others’ hardships – especially in the face of systemic injustices and other situations that we can do little about. This often arises from our need to avoid the pangs of guilt we might feel for our good fortune, or to help justify our apathy, or perhaps to get over the emotional discomfort of empathising with the victim.

More here.