Monday, January 23, 2012

Taking Chances, Making Mistakes, Getting Messy

A lot of people, it seems, have come to believe that the world is a fundamentally just place where good things happen to good people and if something bad happens to you, you must have done something to deserve it. It's called the Just World Fallacy and it's been with us for as long as can be remembered, because the alternative is living in a world where bad things can just happen to us no matter how much we've tried not to be an asshole. A great deal of people have would have difficulty living in this kind of world; nevertheless, one of the earliest lessons children learn is that life isn't fair.

So there are some mixed messages, of course. Not enough to keep plenty of people convinced of the notion that life is fundamentally fair, that if someone has an advantage it's because they earned it honestly, and if someone charges into a run of bad luck they obviously did something to justify it coming down on them.

This sort of thinking is particularly widespread in the United States, and at no time is it as visible as in the Presidential campaign season. I came to consider this earlier this weekend, when I encountered an article about the modern American political divide in the Toronto Star - specifically, the part hearkening back to a September debate, where Republican candidate Ron Paul was asked about the hypothetical situation of a healthy 30-year-old dude who elected not to hold medical insurance, only to suffer a serious accident that left him needing intensive care for six months.

"But congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?" Wolf Blitzer asks. The transcripts and videos I've found don't cover Ron Paul's response; for the purposes of this I'm not particularly interested in what he had to say. What I'm more focused on is the audience's response, members of the peanut gallery hooting and shouting yeah, that society should let that person die.

Because it was his own fault, you see. So the fallacy goes.

Do justice, and so on.

What concerns me is that it's a distinction that would be lost on a lot of people, or could be made to be lost by those in positions of authority who have an interest in making it lost. Right now in the United States, I imagine there are some people who could get health insurance but don't feel the need; I imagine there is a far, far greater number who could get health insurance, but feel that buying food and paying rent is more important. But because of the idea of the Just World, there are those in society that agree that those people should die because obviously they made the wrong choices, made too many mistakes, or otherwise they wouldn't be there.

Yet the world isn't just. Bad things happen to good people, and society is not on an even keel. There must be as many reasons why people believe otherwise as there are people who believe otherwise. Just a recognition of that, a rejection of the fallacy, by more people could do a lot to correct the sort of inequities the world faces today. Even if you think that society should allow a person to die for one simple mistake, that doesn't take into consideration the messes that come whether or not you want them to.

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