Karma and the Just World fallacy

Karma (कर्म): The force generated by a person’s actions held in Hinduism and Buddhism to perpetuate transmigration and in its ethical consequences to determine the nature of the person’s next existence.

Karma is a cause – effect principle in eastern philosophy in which actions or deeds of a person lead to consequences in the life of the doer. It is also closely related to the concept of reincarnation, in which good deeds in the present life grant you existence as a higher (or more conscious) form of existence in the next, or even moksha in some cases (freedom from the cycle of life and death). In short, Karma is a mystical “balancing force” in the universe, which rewards the just and punishes the wicked.

While it may be safe and comforting to believe in the existence of such a force, it then leads to the obvious question – if good deeds are rewarded and injustice is punished, why do bad things happen to good people, and why does evil exist in the first place?

jaime lannister prisoner game of thrones.pngIf your gods are real, if they’re just, why is the world so full of injustice?

The concept of Karma comes in from a “Just world belief” – an assumption that the world (and the forces controlling it, if any) are just in nature, and all deeds are awarded or punished accordingly. There exists an external force in the world which causes you to “reap what you shall sow”. But why does a belief like this exist in the first place?

A belief in the “just” nature of things is a defense mechanism developed by the human psyche over the last few thousand years in order to justify our suffering, and eventually, our existence. No matter what you say, life isn’t easy, and existence isn’t a cakewalk. Our life have evolved over the years – for ancient man, survival (and living beyond the age of 40) was a struggle. For the modern day human, the struggle has moved on from purely survival to existential and spiritual, but we have struggles nonetheless. It is only natural that we seek causality and order in every wrong – if something bad happened, there must have been something that triggered it, while the reality is that the world is inherently chaotic and a cause – effect relationship is hard to establish for every action.

Another reason why the human mind embraces the belief of a just world, is that it provides a certain form of control or code on how to live our lives. Since present occurrences have their source in a past good or bad action, it is only natural to assume that present actions will lead to relevant consequences in the future. The belief in a force like Karma provides a blueprint for actions – do good deeds now, and you shall reap their rewards in the future. Here, control (or the illusion thereof) is important – the existence of Karma gives you something in your control (your actions) that can lead to future rewards. I remember reading the Alchemist, and reading the quote “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” – this is nothing but wishful thinking and an extension of the just world fallacy, because the universe doesn’t owe you shit, and will never conspire with or against you. People who believe in a just world tend to be more religious, more authoritarian and conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and more likely to have negative attitudes towards underprivileged groups (does this sound familiar?) – in short, they feel that people who have done well in life “deserve” the good life, and poor or underprivileged people must have done something in this life or the previous one to deserve it. A belief in a just world allows the human psyche to say – It’s happening to you, because you deserve it!

The Just World theory (or fallacy, whatever you may call it) has been the subject of much debate and discussion. Two notable examples are below (more details here)

  1. Acquittal of a rapist, because the girl was dressed provocatively and hence deserved the rape
  2. Lottery winners (at random!) were seen as smarter and more hardworking

The belief in a just world is reinforced from childhood

  1. Parents and teachers create action – reward scenarios for their children
  2. Concepts of justice, law and order, which state that sooner or later, the guilty are punished by the Government
  3. Religion stresses the importance of doing good deeds as a precursor for going to Heaven (differs from religion to religion, but the underlying concept is the same)

In all these three cases, there exists a higher authority (Parents, Government, Religious bodies) that provides judgement on deeds and provides a suitable reward or punishment. Hence, an action – reward scenario becomes the central framework of action of many people, reinforcing their belief in a just world.

Moving away from this loop requires deliberate thinking, and abandoning a certain degree of (the illusion of) control over events happening in our lives. Additionally, it becomes even more important to have an internal code of conduct – an amalgamation of important values and ethics – adhering to which provides the framework of our activities, and not the expectation of a future reward. To a certain extent, abandoning the belief of a just world leads us to embrace the chaotic and non – deterministic nature of things, and can potentially lead to more empathy and understanding for people who are not as fortunate as us.



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