Recently, I joined Circle and Cross Talk, an email discussion list dedicated to dialogue between Christians and Pagans. The other day, one of the list members posted an article, The Just World Theory. I posted my own thoughts to the list and thought it appropriate to post them to my blog as well.
After giving some thought to the topic (as well as what I want to say about it), I’ve decided to weigh in on the “Just World” hypothesis. Unfortunately, I’m at work and thus have access to neither the article nor the excellent thoughts everyone else has already shared. So please forgive me if my thoughts are rambling and don’t stay quite on target. Of course, in fairness, my thoughts would probably stray even if I *did* have access to the discussion so far. 😉
I honestly can’t say that I’m surprised by the article’s suggestion that most people operate under the philosophy that we live in a “just world,” and that therefore we are inclined to think that people have somehow brought their fate upon themselves. And to some degree, I don’t think that this is an entirely bad thing. While I cringe in horror and disgust at the suggestion that a rape or murder victim did something to deserve such brutal treatment, I also cannot deny that some people find themselves in situations of their own making due to the choices they have made. For example, the person who gives into our society’s consumer mentality and consistently spends money in excess of their income will need to recognize the part they played in creating their situation when they eventually find themselves crushed under insurmountable debt. Until they do so, and correct their spending habits sufficiently, they will continue to find themselves in that situation. (Indeed, many people who do not learn this lesson before making use of consolidation loans and other tools for making one’s debt more manageable simply spend their way back into a worse situation than the one they were trying to escape.) After all, there are those situations in which the concept of personal responsibility does apply.
However, there is a huge difference between such a scenario and a situation where someone is victimized by another person (or a case where someone who finds themselves in debt due to the high costs associated with an unexpected medical emergency, to offer my own counter-example) is unthinkable. A victim has been clearly wronged by someone acting in a reprehensible manner. There are no factors that nullify that or even mitigate that fact. And to suggest that a victim “had it coming” for any reason is unthinkable and, in my opinion less, morrally reprehensible. In short, comparing the two scenarios is like comparing apples and bicycle tires.
What bothers me even more deeply about the whole concept of the “just world” hypothesis, though, is the implications of how we as a society understand justice. It suggests a paradigm in which justice is nothing more than the process of punishing wrongs and rewarding right behavior. To my mind, this understanding of justice is incomplete, poorly devised, and practically useless.
To me, justice is about maintaining and restoring the right order in all situations. To again draw back to the example of someone being raped, punishing the rapist alone is not justice. A victim has been traumatized and seriously wronged, and true justice must address that and rectify these wrongs as much as possible. This means helping the victim to heal from this ordeal, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It means helping the victim to put their life back in order as best as anyone can accomplish. In this sense, I sometimes think that the civil law system offers more true justice than the criminal justice system in the fact that it enables victims (and their families) of violent criminals to sue those who wronged them, as they can then use that money for expenses that reasult as a part of the healing process.
To go back to my own example, justice is not served if we simply determine that someone is in debt due to their own poor financial choices, either. Even if said person is in that situation due to his own choices, he doesn’t deserve to be left there. In that instance, justice is served by not only helping him get out of debt, but gently pointing out his own part in getting there and showing him how to make better choices in the future so that he can avoid returning to the same situation down the road.
I’m convinced that the belief that the world is a just world is a false one, no matter how appealing the idea is to all of us. But I think that part of the reason it’s false is that the underlying premise of what justice actually entails is flawed. True justice requires action, and we are the actors.
My apologies for being so long-winded.