A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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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.

See also the illusion of control and the illusion of skill.

Last updated 14-Jan-2014

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