In Search of a Just World

It's called a pandemic because it's not about you.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard of the Just-World Hypothesis, but for anyone who hasn’t — or needs a refresher — it’s the fallacious tendency to think of the world of cause and effect operating on a moral level.

It’s likely very few people consciously proclaim a belief that good things always happen to good people or that bad things only happen to bad people, but this belief is still prevalent and works on us at multiple levels. When a bad thing happens to someone else — particularly to someone we don’t care about or actively dislike — it’s easy to start looking for what they might have done to cause it, or things they could have done to avoid it.

Often this reflex isn’t even about judging the other person so much as it is about reassuring ourselves: this couldn’t have happened to me. It wouldn’t have. I would have prevented it.

And the rationalization is not always obviously and squarely related to morality. If somebody else’s house burns down due to a misuse of space heaters and a lack of diligence around smoke detectors and clutter, thinking to yourself well, I know better than that isn’t a moral judgment, per se.

So perhaps it’s less about imagining a universe that is inherently moral than it is about imagining a universe that is tidy, orderly. A world that makes sense and that can be controlled.

If all consequences follow logically and predictably from our own actions then we are in control of our own destinies, the thinking goes, and we can avoid the ill fates that await others who are less well-prepared.

Even if it’s not explicitly a moral fallacy, though, morality tends to get attached to it because at its core the fallacy of the just world is about justice, about fairness. A person who does all the right things and still fails feels cheated, and to someone who clings to the notion of the just world, the ordered world, the idea that one could do right and yet have things go wrong is deeply anathema.

One might suppose that people who believe in an orderly universe of predictable cause and effect, who are convinced that doing everything right will lead to the best outcome, would be model citizens in a public health crisis, but this kind of thinking is one of the biggest obstacles we face right now, as a society, in dealing with the covid-19 pandemic.

We hear from anti-maskers the refrain: “It’s not right to treat me like I’m a sick person.” In their minds, they have done nothing wrong so they should not be punished by being asked to keep their distance, or stay home, or wear a mask.

Why? Because in their minds, these things aren’t causes but effects. Consequences. And the point of just-world thinking is that consequences are for other people, for people who haven’t lived life right and aren’t meant to reap the rewards.

“Isolate the vulnerable, but why punish healthy people?” they say, never minding how many previously healthy people have lost their careers, physical and mental capabilities, and lives due to viral exposure, and never minding that “the vulnerable” are not an obvious and objectively quantifiable group that can be identified and dealt with separately from everybody else.

“I’m not sick, so why should I wear a mask?” they ask, never minding how many covid-19 transmissions happen when people are in the pre-symptomatic phase, when they’re contagious but don’t even know yet that they’re infected and in fact feel fine.

Because just-world thinking requires that the universe be orderly and predictable — that it be simple — generalities about asymptomatic spread being rarer or older people being more vulnerable become flattened in the public discourse to absolutes like “science says asymptomatic spread isn’t a thing” and “kids are immune”, even as we’ve probably all by this point encountered people who suffered from asymptomatic spread or had a sick kid.

The truth is that we do live in a world that is governed by cause and effect, but that a world where billions of people have trillions of cells each is not one where we can reduce our health choices and their consequences to something as simple as a child’s Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book.

We could say that each person gets to manage their own risks, make their own choices and accept their own consequences… but that doesn’t cut it in a pandemic, where the risks each person takes alters the danger level for everyone around them.

In the unjust world in which we live, a person can exercise all due caution — do everything right — and still have things go wrong. This is particularly true when one person’s “due caution” is based on a belief that those around them are being similarly conscientious. If twenty people show up for a birthday party on the idea that every person present has isolated themselves and been tested, it just takes one person deciding “Nah, I’m not sick, why should I be treated with suspicion when I’ve done nothing wrong?” for the whole party to get exposed and then carry that exposure forward to other people who weren’t even part of the event.

That’s why I’m personally not participating in any events of that nature, but I am a social animal that exists as part of a larger society that I can’t opt out of. I have family members who need to go to doctor’s appointments. I have to go to banks and pharmacies. I choose to take some judicious risks with picking things up in person, when alternatives aren’t available. I’m exposed to people who are exposed to people who are exposed to people, and nobody in this chain can effectively make informed decisions to manage their own risks if everybody in it is not doing the same.

The bottom line is that we could be so much closer to the just world that is so desperately and earnestly hypothesized by so many if they would just let go of the dream that the world is fair and orderly and controllable, and work to make it so.

The great paradox of our age is that as we suffer in isolation, we can only get through this thing by working together. It would be easier if the societal structures we have created over the years for mutual, collective action — like our government and its agencies — were working to solidly support us. Among the obstacles there? The same just-world thinking; the fear that others may be getting help they don’t deserve, that we may be denied our own just rewards because others are being shielded from the consequences of their own actions.

If you’re suffering, if you’re sacrificing, if you’re seeing your income go down and your expenses go up while opportunities slip past you and milestones whiz by unmarked… I’d like to be able to tell you that you will receive due compensation from a benevolent and moral universe that rewards virtue like clockwork, but that would be a counterproductive lie.

All I can is that you’re doing the right thing, and that we need more people to do the same.

As I sit here trying to tie this reflection/essay off on a satisfying and upbeat note, all I can come up with is: we’re in this together, and that’s how we’re going to get through it.