The Just World Hypothesis

Wilt thou hunt the prey for the lion? or fill the appetite of the young lions, when they couch in their dens, and abide in the covert to lie in wait? Who provideth for the raven his food? when his young ones cry unto God, they wander for lack of meat.

-God (Job 38)

What you get for helping people

It amazes me that many people today still cling to an outmoded and dangerous way of thinking, a view of the world which can be summed up as the “just world hypothesis.” (I think I got the phrase from Richard Dawkins). The hypothesis, or assertion, is that the universe obeys laws of justice, that what goes around always comes around, in short: life is fair.

This problem of justice and the universe drives at the core of our being. Our discussion of this topic likely goes back in history as far as our sense of humanity. One of the oldest texts on the matter is a wonderful book from the Old Testament, the Book of Job. I’m sure many of you know the story since I expect I am writing largely to a Western audience, but I’ll summarize the story so we’re all on the same page.

There was a man named Job who lived in the land of Uz (somewhere in the Middle East). Now, Job was an upright and honest man, and faithful to god. He sacrificed some of his many animals daily to God (back when that’s what God wanted), even sacrificing some so that God might forgive Job’s children if they happened to sin. Job was good to God, and God was good to Job: he was the wealthiest man in the land, and quite happy.

Then an adversary in God’s court (not actually Satan as many claim, but more of a devil’s advocate) challenges this wonderful setup, telling God that the only reason Job is righteous is because he is given wealth and prosperity. So god tries to prove the adversary wrong by unleashing plagues upon Job in quick succession:  his cattle are slaughtered by marauders, his house collapses and kills his family, and he is stricken with boils. For weeks he suffers immensely as his friends (“sorry comforters” as he calls them) come to him and in turn offer their view of why he is suffering, saying that he must have sinned against God to deserve what has happened. Through this Job refuses to repent for any sin, because he knows that he has not sinned, and that in a sense what he is experiencing is unjust. The conversation with the friends is quite a bit more complex than I am presenting it, but that’s the gist. After a while Job starts calling for God, or at least a heavenly mediator, to explain what is happening. Finally at the end God shows up and speaks to Job (the longest speech of God’s in the Bible). God doesn’t acknowledge either side of the argument, but instead puts Job in his place, telling him that he doesn’t know how the universe was stitched together, That Job’s not responsible for feeding a starving lion cub with the flesh of another animal. God describes a universe that isn’t ruled by laws of Justice at all, but something more nuanced and complex: a world of titanic forces which must be kept at bay, a world in which suffering must occur regardless of our puny human notions of “Justice.”

It was horrifying to me to discover that the Quran treats this story as if Job acted righteously and was rewarded as such, end of story. In Islam the world is described as Just, wicked people get punished and the righteous are rewarded. It’s amazing that they backtracked so much from a good lesson from a good book. It was quite obvious even at the time of writing the book of Job that wicked people prospered and the innocent suffered. This was so fundamentally upsetting to humankind that we had to create the concept of heaven and hell so that God still has a role in dispensing justice, so that the universe could still be ruled by Justice. Unfortunately this mode of thinking is at its best misleading, and at its worst damaging and poisonous to mankind.

When we believe that everyone gets what they deserve, how do we justify something as horrible as the holocaust? The moment you begin to justify that episode in our history you have insulted the memory of millions of tortured and dead humans. Would you look a child in the eye and tell them there is a reason that they have been forced to witness the murder of their friends and family and then be subjected to torture and death themselves? Any reason you give is not good enough. Any reason that God could give isn’t good enough. There is no reason for innocent suffering.

When we believe that everyone gets what they deserve, there is no need to help anyone. The poor are where they are because they weren’t motivated enough and the rich got to where they are by hard work and service to God. This is how I’ve previously characterized a Libertarian mindset.

Human history has been our slow and increasing realization of ourselves as God, as the only force of Justice in a cold, uncaring universe.  In a sense what I am saying contradicts itself: I call the universe uncaring, yet we are the universe, and we care. I do believe that there is a force of Justice in the universe, and it is us. We created God in our image, not the other way around. The onus is on us, we must do everything in our power to make of this universe what we want it to be: a place where the wicked suffer and the righteous prosper.



About Prometheus

I write about the coming technological singularity and its implications for our sense of identity, individuality, meaning, and existence. I argue that the most significant aspect of the singularity is the convergence of our consciousnesses into one superconsciousness, and that we should be very happy about this.

Posted on March 31, 2012, in Ethics, God, Values and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Who ARE the wicked? I am reading a book called “Captivity” by one of four people kidnapped in Iraq and held hostage for over a hundred days. The nuances of their experience are deeply moving. The captors have without exception suffered in varying degrees from the war. Sometimes it is hard to find their humanness – but often is not. Nor is it hard to see the human weaknesses of the hostages. My experience is that we are all good guys and bad guys. I cannot imagine how I could find the wicked among us who have not themselves been treated wickedly.
    But I love your interpretation of God’s speech in Job. I would add to God’s list of the wonders of His universe, the wonder that human beings are born to love. Bonhoeffer wrote: Christ (God) takes form through a band of persons.
    Affectionately, Gaia

    • yes indeed, no one is truly “wicked,” evil is a construct which can be identified within us all, we are all good and bad (mostly good). More to the point we must identify harmful patterns and try and alleviate them. It’s exceedingly complicated to sort out what is bad and good, and where it all begins, but that’s the task before us.

      I don’t think that the only reason that people do bad things is because bad things have been done to them. Sometimes they just don’t know better. I suppose that you could argue that an ignorant person has been treated wickedly by society by not being educated to act in a better way.

      Thanks for the feedback Grandma, It’s nice to see you’re still following along!

  2. Interesting post.

    By that I mean thoughtful.

    Our concepts of justice and fairness are vexed questions at best. But we seem to have them. We seem to have a notion of how things should be.

  3. Justice is a fallacy. There is opportunity, and then willingness to travel the perverse lengths needed to attain that goal.
    I know criminals with well-to-do, upstanding jobs, Producers that aren’t producers at all, who have lied to get where they are, and get work all the time, and i also know guys like me — who play by the rules and have to work extra hard to make anything happen. The difference being that I, for one reason or another, am convinced that by ‘playing by the rules’ (which is a vague concept in and of itself, at best), I’m working toward creating a better world.
    I’d like to see everyone do it.
    You know, actually stand on the laurels of what they have, what they’ve built, and what they are capable of, rather than the lies. The Devonian mindset of a universal justice is nothing more than a bit of ‘mind leverage’ which allows us to strive to more perverse heights to take what we want.

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