Monday, July 9, 2012

illusion of justice

The illusion of justice is the notion that our natural sense of justice is the actual way of the world. Our natural sense of justice inclines us to approve rewarding good and punishing evil. Our natural sense of justice inclines us to disapprove of bad things happening to good people and good things happening to bad people. It goes against our natural sense of justice to see bad behavior rewarded or good behavior punished. If I'm kind to you, I expect you to be kind to me, and vice versa. I don't expect you to cheat me and you don't expect me to cheat you. In the real world, of course, it is quite obvious that good and evil are distributed indiscriminately among the good, the bad, and the banal, and cheaters regularly get away with their malfeasance. To correct the injustice of reality, humans have blinded themselves to it or created myths to explain it. Our various ways of blinding ourselves to the reality of our indifferent universe is the subject of this blog entry. I'll leave discussion of the various myths to others, though most readers are familiar with stories of divinities handing out rewards and punishments in an afterlife, misfortunes due to actions in a previous life, fatalistic philosophies involving some sort of power that has ordained everything to be just as it is for some indecipherable but good reason, goddesses of Fortune, Lady Luck, etc.


The illusion of justice makes us vulnerable to stories about people getting what they deserve, whether good or bad, and to stories about being able to bring about good results by being good and avoiding bad results by avoiding what we consider bad habits or practices. To some extent, it is true that we can avoid bad health, for example, by following good nutritional habits, exercising regularly, and avoiding such things as smoking and excessive alcohol. It is not true, however, that you can avoid cancer by eating lots of organic fruits and vegetables while taking copious amounts of vitamin and mineral supplements. When someone who has smoked cigarettes for forty years is diagnosed with lung cancer, we're not surprised. We see not only a causal connection between his smoking habit and his cancer, we see justice being done. He deserves it. "It serves him right." Or, if someone you know has been cheating his customers for years and he finally gets caught and is sent to prison, you don't feel sorry for him. "He brought it on himself." But when a person who eats sensibly, exercises regularly, doesn't drink or smoke, and does all the kinds of things we associate with a healthy lifestyle develops breast cancer or a mental illness, we say "it's not fair." Yet, there are many people who, under the influence of the illusion of justice, think that your cancer must be your fault. If you lose your job, it's your fault. Never mind that you served the company well for thirty years and you were let go a few weeks shy of the date after which the company would have had to pay you quite a nice retirement benefit. It happened, so you deserved it. Everything happens for a reason. There are no coincidences or accidents. Justice always prevails. We may not know the reasons why certain people get cancer or lose their jobs, but you can be sure these actions are fair and just because the universe is fair and just. There is an inscrutable Divine Providence watching over everything to make sure that justice is always done. That's why my life and house were spared by the tornado and you and yours were destroyed. Some god likes me because I'm good and obey his commands. Apparently, you're an atheist or a Muslim.

The idea that a cancer could just happen randomly due to some fluke like a speck of asbestos getting trapped in a lung cell that later mutates and develops into cancer doesn't seem just or fair. Smoking for twenty-five years and getting lung cancer seems more fitting and in line with a just universe. An infant born with cancer does not seem reconcilable with a just universe, but those under the illusion of justice will find some way to justify such unfortunate events.

The illusion of justice often conflicts with the self-serving bias, the tendency to think our own accomplishments are due to our efforts and skill, while the accomplishments of others are due to luck. The other side of the self-serving bias is the tendency to think that our own failures are due to external circumstances beyond our control, while the failures of others are due to their incompetence. The fact is that luck plays a major role in the success of most people and corporations. We are reluctant to accept this fact because it does not fit with the illusion of justice. We want to believe that hard work pays off, that there is a recipe for bringing about good results and if we follow it we'll be successful. People who fail do so because they deserve to fail, except for us--we fail because we had bad luck. Those we despise who are successful are just lucky. When they fail, we see it as fitting and just.

As far as I know, nobody has had a bestseller called “The Seven Habits of Lucky People,” “From Good to Great Luck,” “Lucky to Have Lasted This Long,” or “In Search of Luck.” But there have been several bestsellers in the area of business management and success that have hinged on the power of the illusion of understanding combined with the illusion of justice. Identifying successful people or companies by some agreed-upon measure is relatively easy. Finding shared characteristics of the successful ones is also relatively easy. And even though the failures and the mediocre might also share those characteristics, authors can generally rely on a large market of uncritical thinkers who will overlook this fact as well as the fact that many successful people don't share these characteristics. Witness the success of such books as Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Good to Great, Built to Last, and In Search of Excellence.” People want to believe that they can understand how to be a success by doing the right things, that following the right steps and working hard will pay off in the end. People want to believe that somebody has figured out the recipe for success and that they can not only get that recipe for the price of a book, but they can be assured of success if only they follow the recipe. They don’t want to believe that luck has anything to do with their success. They want to believe that people fail because they deserve to fail and people succeed because they earned it. The truth, however, is that not all hard work pays off, not all successful people deserve it, and good and bad things happen to the good and bad indiscriminately.

note: Listen to the next episode of Unnatural Virtue on the Skepticality podcast (#187) for more on the Success Gurus and the illusion of understanding. It should be out around July 31.

14 comments:

  1. Good day!

    This is a recommended reading for such a subject.

    http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1288234?uid=3738824&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21100906390781

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    1. really? Did you read the entry, or just the title? This post isn't about justice, moral reasoning, or legal reasoning. The book you cite is about other matters than illusions that make us vulnerable to uncritical thinking.

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  2. I noticed this phenomenon years ago when I used to read Guitar Player magazine regularly. The successful musicians interviewed in the magazine would often be asked for their advice to young struggling bands. The answer was invariably something like: “Follow your dreams, don’t give up and it WILL happen, I guarantee it.”

    I soon realized that this was next-to-useless advice. For every successful band being interviewed, there are likely hundreds of equally talented musicians who failed. If you only interview the successful ones, you get a skewed perspective and the notion that you just have to do what they did and you will succeed beyond your wildest dreams.

    The notion of luck – the right sound and being heard by the right people, at the right time is seldom, if ever mentioned.

    As you point out, I now see the same thinking in studying business success – we tend to study the Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the like.

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  3. There is nothing wrong with studying the lives of successful people or in modeling oneself after those we admire, but it is delusional to think that if we follow in their footsteps we will have similar results. Maybe we will, but the odds are against it.

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    1. Coincidentally this article show up in my Google reader today - saying that we should study those who finish second as those who finish first "...were often not the most skilled, but rather were those who got some lucky breaks early on or took big risks that happened to pay off." Synchronicity, anyone? ;-)

      http://ideas.time.com/2012/07/09/why-we-should-emulate-those-who-finish-second-not-first/

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  4. With regards to the first part of the post, wouldn't I be correct to think that on average those who do bad (as in illegal/unethical/unhealthy activities) on a regular basis for a long period of time would increase their odds of being arrested/humiliated/have cancer? In this case could we say that justice would be done? Again, on average.

    I'm also thinking that this illusion might help control some people's potentially devious behaviors by scaring them with the negative consequences of their acts.

    I bought "Unnatural Acts" and read it in one sitting! I really loved it.

    Nicolas

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  5. It appears to me that this fallacy is taken to it's most absurd and delusional form in the case of PROSPEIRTY THEOLOGY, in which God does not bother waitng until the after life, but rather rewards those in his favor with material wealth and professional success here on earth. So all those successful businessmen? Can't POSSIBLY be swindling cheats, because GOD (obviously) WANTED THEM to have that great wealth!

    I hypothesize that this thinking is (perghapd unconsiously) large part of the reason some middle-class and lower-middle class people (mostly religious Conservatives) vote against letting the Bush/Obama tax-cuts expire for the rich. After all: How can we even THINK of taking ANY of the money that GOD WANTED THEM to have?

    In any case, whether one buys into THAT or not, the very idea of the Abrahmaic God of the Bible being REAL makes the idea that people actually PREACH this brand of greed-rewarding theology downright TERRIFYING. (If God existed, the existance of Prosperity Theology ALONE would be enough for me to prove that Satan also existed!) Christians being told that having gobs of material wealth means you're A-OK in God's eyes?

    Well, shoot: They'd better HOPE the atheists are right!

    (Rich man through the eye of a needle, indeed!)

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    1. Prosperity theology is a perfect example of the illusion of justice at work.

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  6. The Universe is indifferent to our successes and failures. I am not sure why we want to fool ourselves otherwise. Great article. Balancing my spiritual explorations with common sense and skepticism has brought a great deal of happiness to me. I do understand that I cannot prove the existence of my inner world to others but I still enjoy the insights and events that occur in my meditations and 'paranormal' events. To tell others that these insights are 'the way it is' or that there is some spiritual law to follow is nonsensical to me. I appreciate the balance of the physical experience here. I have found it more pleasant to really understand that the Universe around me doesn't care whether I get a job, smash my car or become a millionaire. Yes, pleasant. I still don't think it's right for me to hurt myself and others in my life. I still have a desire to be happy and to allow others to be happy as long as no one is being badly damaged.

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  7. Bob, going beyond this blog post, even, I'm reminded of Walter Kaufmann's "Without Guilt and Justice," which I remember for its undermining of the likes of Rawls, among other things.

    For other commenters (or you), if you're not familiar with it, Kaufmann's thesis is more than that we should abandon our individual conceits about justice, but that, at least in the empirical application, there is no such thing as justice as a universal.

    He would say we as a species, as well as individuals, need to abandon some of our conceits about "justice."

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    1. Philosophy's always ticklish with words. It seems that justice as fairness is about as universal as it gets and even applies to other primates besides humans, but what cultures and individuals consider to be fair varies so much that there seems to be little connection between say the parent who tapes his kid shut in a plastic box with a little air hole as a punishment for disobedience and a society that puts car thieves in prison. The perverted sense of a just or fair punishment that some people would mete out if they could doesn't disprove a universal sense of fairness, but it does prove the nearly infinite capacity for stupidity and cruelty of some members of our species.

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  8. You have identified the underlying principle of "The Secret," a book whose central thesis I deplore. The idea that either we control our destinies and thus the Universe strikes me as deranged, as does the notion that some divine Super Being has created a perfect little cause and effect scenario that only the truly devout can understand (and circumvent). The illusion of justice is mean-spirited and anti-humanity to its core, elevating some lives and some beliefs far over others.

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  9. Considering what actually happens out there, every day and within fifty miles of us, quite a few people probably ought to pray that there really isn't a God who cares about how we behave ourselves.

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  10. Cause and effect, every action is followed by a reaction. Since the variables of any cause are infinite, therefore unknowable, effects can be predicted to a certain degree but never be assured. What is believed to be just and fair or not gives comfort to the many 'unlucky' ones.

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