The Paradox of the Belief in a Just World

By Namit Arora | Apr 2017 | Comments

(An excerpt in The Wire from the Introduction to The Lottery of Birth)

In this extract from The Lottery of Birth: On Inherited Social Inequalities, Namit Arora parses through the fiction that he is the sole author of his success and the wilful blindness among Indians about their inherited privileges.

TLOBA leading ideological fiction of our age is that worldly success comes to those who deserve it. Per this fiction, the smarter, more talented and disciplined men and women, with some unfortunate exceptions, come out ahead of the rest and morally deserve their material rewards in life. The flip side of this belief is of course that, with some unfortunate exceptions, those who find themselves at the bottom also morally deserve their lot for being – the conclusion is inescapable – neither smart nor talented nor disciplined enough.

Such a view partly derives from what social psychologists call ‘belief in a just world’ (usually amplified by ideology, as I discuss in the book). This widely held belief presumes that humans live under an overarching moral order – whether based on divine providence, karma, destiny, social cause-effect or another principle – which tends to produce fair and predictable consequences for our actions. It’s a belief in just deserts that, to varying degrees, all of us subscribe to. It’s evident in phrases like ‘chickens coming home to roost’ or ‘what goes around, comes around’. This deep-seated belief may well be essential for human self-preservation. It enables us to make plans, engage in practical goal-oriented behaviour and take pride in the outcomes of our efforts. Many aspects of our world even help validate this belief. Indeed, it seems like a natural instinct among people in all societies.

Yet this belief also clashes with the daily evidence of a capricious natural and social world that randomly and unjustly shapes individuals’ outcomes in life. A strong belief in a just world has a dark side. When something threatens the comforting cocoon of this belief, it can lead us to either deny the evidence, or to explain it away using tactics like victim blaming or discounting others’ hardships – especially in the face of systemic injustices and other situations that we can do little about. This often arises from our need to avoid the pangs of guilt we might feel for our good fortune, or to help justify our apathy, or perhaps to get over the emotional discomfort of empathising with the victim.

In other words, belief in a just world is easier to sustain if we can blame, even if subconsciously, the victims of poverty, illnesses, traffic accidents, sexual and domestic violence, police brutality, alleged discrimination, employment termination and drone strikes in faraway places. Pause to think about how common such tendencies are. We imagine without evidence, or based on the slightest of cues, that ‘it must be partly their fault’ or ‘they brought it upon themselves’. This move has big psychic advantages:it releases us from worrying too much about injustice in the world and brings more calm to our worldly pursuits (many Indians, under a spell of karmic fatalism, tend to oppress, tolerate and explain away a lot more than they ought to). Alas, it can also bias us against remedial measures – such as welfare schemes to help the poor, marginalised minorities, or women – because it biases us to think that others must have done something to deserve their (unhappy) lot.

So we have a paradox. In the absence of any belief in a just world, we’d see the world as unruly, without a reliable payback for our efforts, where striving for specific outcomes would seem futile. That would make life unbearable. This is why at least some belief in a just world is helpful. Yet the same belief can lead us to indulge in victim blaming and to rationalise inequalities that favour us, including those created by unjust social institutions.

Belief in a just world spans cultures and social locations, though, not surprisingly, the belief is weaker among the least powerful members in a society. It is the penchant of the strong to see the world as just and their place in it rightfully deserved. Belief in a just world is further amplified by powerful social narratives and practices, such as of racism, sexism, Brahmanism, social Darwinism, libertarianism, meritocracy and more.

Above all, our belief in a just world can prevent us from seeing how random and undeserved our own success and rewards are – that we could just as easily have been in another person’s shoes – a very threatening idea especially to those among us who have come out ahead. It questions our identity of being ‘self-made’ and having truly ‘earned it’ through merit and hard work (even as we habitually blame bad luck for our own failures, not the lack of merit or hard work!). Such wilful blindness and double standards can, in turn, lead us to support and defend, often subconsciously, narratives that preserve our unearned advantages and rewards in social life.

An example might help here, so let me look at my own life. In 1985, I got into the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur. Being among the leading engineering institutes of India, it’s well known for giving its graduates a running start in life. Most people around me saw my All India Rank of 190 as a reward for my academic merit and hard work in school, and bestowed on me enough awe and respect to embarrass a minor god. I had prevailed, or so it was held, in a competition open to all, for which I, Namit Arora, deserved all the thunder and applause. After graduation, I received financial aid for a master’s degree from an American university, worked hard in Silicon Valley and was justly rewarded for my knowledge and labour. This is how most people still see it. It is the default narrative.

But this is not how I analyse my own success. If I’m honest with myself, I can’t take much credit for it. A great deal of my success was not my own doing, but was accidental or due to my being at the right place at the right time. What catapulted me ahead was achieving a high score on the IIT entrance exam, which on any given day, for any examinee, involves a fair bit of luck. But exam luck was only the tip of the iceberg. As psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman has noted, “luck plays a large role in every story of success; it is almost always easy to identify a small change in the story that would have turned a remarkable achievement into a mediocre outcome.” For starters, the IIT entrance exam itself was a rigged competition. Its selection criteria favoured certain Indians over others, largely based on socioeconomic factors that are arbitrary and derive from accidents of birth. The runners on the racetrack to the IIT – i.e., other kids my age – couldn’t begin at the same starting point. How proud should I feel for prevailing in such a race?

In my case, I happened to be born in an upper-caste household, inheriting eons of unearned privilege over 80% of all other Indians. I was a fair-skinned boy raised in a society that lavished far more positive attention on fair skin and boys. My parents fell somewhere in the middle-to upper-middle-class range, had university degrees and valued professional education. My birth in this family was entirely random, inducting me into the advantages of the so-called ‘lucky sperm club’. In other words, I randomly inherited a fairly decent place in the hierarchy of status and dignity. I was born in a kid-friendly township with parks, playgrounds and even a staff clubhouse with sports facilities. I attended an English medium school, a huge advantage in taking the IIT exam conducted only in English. I also had role models and access to a library, coaching classes and peers preparing for engineering careers.

I neither suffered any caste discrimination, nor faced any social and physical restrictions on account of my gender, nor was troubled by my sexual orientation. My growth wasn’t stunted by malnutrition, nor did I have any physical or mental disabilities (at least none that I know of). My parents weren’t among the 60% illiterates in 1970s India. I wasn’t raised in a village, nor lived in a noisy and crowded urban slum. I didn’t have to defecate in the open fields or by the railway tracks, as most Indians did back then. My mother didn’t walk miles or queue at a public tap to fetch water every morning. I never had to go to bed hungry, nor had to wash dishes or clothes at home, or clean our toilet (until I went to America). I never had a parent or sibling die when I was young (though both my parents had witnessed sibling deaths in childhood). I was never catcalled or sexually harassed, nor did anyone mock my accent or physical appearance. No one hurled abuses or sent cues to me or my family to stay within our aukaat (‘status’). My social class ensured that I was taken seriously in shops, offices and hospitals; in such spaces, I didn’t have to deal with suspicious stares or an implicit diminishing of my concerns.

Clearly, hundreds of millions didn’t have my kind of start in life. My background gave me a sense of security and self-confidence that put me ahead of perhaps 96% of Indians – the odds that I would excel in standardised college entrance tests were huge from the start, even as the lack of certainty permitted me the illusion that I had won based on my own merit. But how much of it was me versus my inherited background that won?

I got lucky in other ways too: I lived in a time and place where my natural aptitude for science and mathematics was much in demand. Would I have done as well in an earlier age when rewards favoured those with an aptitude for trade or administration or art? My random aptitude served me well in an India looking to industrialise and the US facing a shortfall of engineers, which eventually secured me an H1-B visa and a lucrative job in Silicon Valley.

But what about the personal drive and hard work I put into it? Do I not deserve credit for my diligence? Hard work is certainly important to get ahead in life, but while it’s usually necessary, it’s hardly sufficient: many of my peers who didn’t make it worked no less hard than I did. Besides, countless factors beyond my conscious choices also shaped my ambition and drive to work hard and succeed – my parents’ work ethic, parental and peer pressure, my childhood experiences, personal insecurities, career fads, role models, available life paths, lucky breaks and other contingent factors. So how much of it was me versus my socially conditioned ambition and drive that won?

As I began seeing through the fiction – that I’m the sole, or even primary, author of my success and so I morally deserved my rewards – I also began to see the ways in which I was setting myself apart from others. I had to undo a fair bit of my social programming. It led me to start recognising our common humanity and to desire a social order that more justly doled out its successes and rewards. What especially bothered me were life outcomes that depended on the lottery of birth, where people were, so to speak, marked in the womb for worldly success and failure, based on their accidental inheritance of caste, class, gender, region, religion, sexuality, language and more. This was a screaming negation of belief in a just world. I also saw that the biggest beneficiaries of inherited inequalities everywhere, as also in India, tend to be least aware of them, nor wish to be reminded of them. Instead, they tend to hold to a narrow ‘merit’-centric stance in public life that breeds apathy, perpetuates their inherited advantages and stifles equality of opportunity.

We could call those with a strong belief in a just world ignorant or deluded, and while it may make them behave very badly indeed, it would be a stretch to call them all wilfully evil. Their behaviour is more an instance of what the philosopher Hannah Arendt called the ‘banality of evil’, which refers to the tendency of ordinary people, who, as cogs in an oppressive system, unthinkingly inflict great violence on others and normalise and perpetuate the system, all while believing that they’re leading a good and moral life.

Knocking down these oppressive systems would therefore reduce the ready justifications people find for their unthinking behaviours. If some belief in a just world is inescapable – with both its positive and negative consequences – we should at least aspire to a world where this belief is not sustained by an unjust social order, that at least our social institutions and dominant ideologies aren’t the ones furnishing many justifications for victim blaming. Among other things, The Lottery of Birth is my attempt to understand the powerful and often covert social forces that furnish exactly such justifications in India, forces that help sustain the fiction of ‘deserved’ successes and rewards, perpetuate inherited privileges and obstruct equal opportunity for all.

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