The just world fallacy and the need for empathy


Clasped hands painted to look like EarthAnalyses of contemporary issues tend to be rooted in the immediate, concrete and practical aspects of life. There is also value, though, in more amorphous questions. In that spirit, and conscious of its own generalities and limitations, this essay considers the importance of empathy — the ability to recognise feelings or emotions in another person, or put ourselves in another's shoes.

This focus is timely to anyone concerned about the Australian political scene and, in particular, the lack of moral seriousness in much of our public conversation.

Witness Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's recent statement on asylum seeker policy: 'I don't think it's a very Christian thing to come in by the back door rather than the front door ... I think the people we accept should be coming the right way and not the wrong way'. This conclusion, which blames people for their own desperation, presents a topsy-turvy world in which Australia is victimised by 'unChristian' asylum seekers.

Abbott's statement has been elegantly deconstructed, on both a factual and a moral basis, by Julian Burnside QC. The eminent barrister appealed to his readers to put themselves in someone else's situation:

Imagine, just for a minute, that you are a Hazara from Afghanistan. You have fled the Taliban; you have arrived in Indonesia, where you will be jailed if you are found; you can't work, and you can't send your kids to school. You will have to wait between 10 and 20 years before some country offers to resettle you. But you have a chance of getting on a boat and heading for safety in Australia. What will you do?

I know I would get on a boat; I know that most Australians would get on a boat. I imagine that Tony Abbott would get on a boat.

This essay does not pretend to any expertise in migration or refugee policy or seek to offer any prescriptions. Instead, moving from the specific to the general, it considers the broader question of empathy and suggests that we need to address a lack of imaginative understanding in both our public language and private thoughts.

The kind of language used by Abbott, with its refusal to acknowledge any complexity beyond an inflexible 'right way' versus 'wrong way', echoes the tenor of comments that depress readers of online news and opinion sites. With distressing predictability, almost every story about asylum seekers, global poverty, racism or disadvantage in Indigenous communities will attract at least one comment which begins 'I have absolutely no sympathy for ...'

A lack of understanding has become a matter of pride; a badge of strength. Compassion is for the weak.

Concerns over abusive or callous remarks on the internet are often overstated, amounting to a kind of moral panic at old habits in new technology — human beings have been busily demonising, insulting and attacking each other since we first appeared on the earth.

As blogger Stilgherrian argued recently in Crikey, it is strange to blame social networking sites, or the internet more broadly, for 'universal human behaviour'. Stilgherrian noted that some people seemingly 'can't connect the words they're seeing on screen with a real living, breathing human being who might be reacting emotionally'.

The capacity to recognise that other people — who are unknown to us, who do not look or act like us, or with whom we do not agree — are 'real living, breathing human beings' is not a bad working definition of empathy. It is worth stating, though, that this ability does not come easily. In a commencement address he gave to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005, the late writer David Foster Wallace spoke of the importance of having critical awareness of ourselves and our certainties. One such 'certainty', Wallace noted, was this:

Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us.

It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of ... Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Feeling true empathy for other human beings necessitates a constant questioning of this most fundamental certainty: that I matter more than you, or him or her. It also requires us to look beyond our families, social groups or nationalities to undermine the assumption that we are more important than them.

Empathy also requires something even harder: a wilful erosion of some of the mental devices that help us to function in a chaotic and frightening world.

It has been persuasively argued that human beings have a cognitive bias towards what the social psychologist Melvin Lerner in 1978 termed the 'just world hypothesis' — the belief that the world is a fair and orderly place in which one's actions have appropriate consequences. This belief is a means of assimilating an unpredictable, arbitrary universe into our desire for stability.

James Waller, a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies, characterises the idea of a fair universe as a 'self-protective device' which gives us 'the courage to go out into the world'.

Unfortunately, this device also fosters in us a view that if someone is victimised, they must be somehow at fault. Thus as Waller notes the just world concept encourages a deep sense that 'victims deserve, and can be blamed for, their fates'. Armed with this belief, humans feel 'in control of our world ... because we would always behave more cautiously or wisely than other victims have'. We could never be desperately poor or face persecution and be forced to flee for lives; we would never need to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics posit that if the 'belief in a just world simply resulted in humans feeling more comfortable with the universe and its capriciousness, it would not be a matter of great concern for ethicists or social scientists'. They note, however, that the impulse to victim-blame means that the 'belief in a just world may undermine a commitment to justice'.

This tendency is displayed in attitudes towards women who have been sexually assaulted; it is often assumed that they are at fault. Some research suggests that female jurors are particularly reluctant to believe an alleged victim's testimony. Although this seems counterintuitive, it may reflect the fact that acknowledging that rape can happen to anyone through no fault of their own would confront jurors with their own vulnerability to assault.

I do not seek to dismiss the fears that lead us to cling to the just world hypothesis. We live in an uncertain age. We may fear the caprices of the global economy, worry about our children's futures, fret about our families' welfare, suffer from stress; dread illness or personal failures; or feel dislocated from friends and communities.

The majority of us also, as writer Tim Dunlop noted, have increasingly limited 'options for meaningful participation in our democracy'. Our fears may therefore find expression in anger, hostility and victim-blaming.

While sympathising with the origin of these sentiments, though, we must not remove them from the sphere of analysis. This is because the just world hypothesis is not neutral in its impacts: it helps to prop up the powerful and undermine the marginalised.

The statements on which one might rely to articulate the concept of a just world — that wickedness never goes unpunished; that people get what they deserve; that God helps those who help themselves; that what goes around, comes around — imply that the suffering have only themselves to blame.

These rationales, which are intuitively appealing and may be strongly believed, pose serious challenges for those who seek to implement progressive social policies, for they fit in neatly with a kind of dog-eat-dog economic rationalism. If people are to be blamed for their own poverty, disabilities or unemployment, then why do we need a welfare state, anti-discrimination legislation, and subsidised healthcare and education?

In the context of the global financial crisis, these institutions, which depend upon a sense of solidarity or fellow-feeling, are increasingly vulnerable to being depicted as luxuries. If they are perceived as offering succour only to the undeserving — with the very need for help becoming evidence of one's own moral or practical failings — their position becomes more precarious still.

It is ever more important that we challenge the concept of the just world; if we want justice, we need to work for it. Acknowledging and seeking to understand the experiences of others is part of this work. A call for empathy may be frustratingly ephemeral, and its practice undeniably challenging, but it remains humankind's best hope. 

Sarah Burnside headshotSarah Burnside is a freelance writer with experience in law and policy. She is completing an MSc in economic and social history at the University of Oxford. She was awarded Third Prize in the 2012 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers for the above essay. 

Judge's citation for Sarah's essay

This article makes a very worthwhile contribution to an important discussion in Australia today. It invites us to feel empathy towards those who come to this land seeking asylum. It also explores several obstacles to the experience of empathy. One of these is the 'just world hypothesis,' which implies that those who suffer calamity must somehow be at fault.

I do not believe that any of us yet know either the best international and regional solution to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, or the part that Australia should play in this. Like the author of this article, however, I am convinced that a good place to begin in our search for a solution is in the experience of empathy — recognising the plight of those who flee their native lands in fear of their lives, feeling with them, and therefore seeking answers with them.

This article identifies several obstacles to the experience of empathy. I am sure there are other obstacles which the article does not identify. One of these is tribalism, which restricts our compassionate concern only to those who also belong to our own tribe. Yet another is the lack of interest of those who are caught up in the busyness and demands of their own lives, and who are therefore not motivated to look beyond their own situation.

The quote from Julian Burnside QC illustrates one way of overcoming these obstacles. It is to spell out the plight of the refugee or asylum seeker, and then to ask the reader to see themselves in this situation.

There are surely many other things we should be doing as we try to develop empathy both within ourselves and within our fellow Australians for the plight of those who come to us in fear of their lives and seeking refuge.

This article makes a very worthwhile contribution to this task. It therefore merits Third Prize in the 2012 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers. 

Topic tags: Sarah Burnside, empathy, Julian Burnside, asylum seekers


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Existing comments

What a wonderful essay. Today we are learning that it is not the "rational" part of our brain that drives us...the part that reduces everything to a rational statement not connected to real life. We are learning that it is our "limbic" brain that drives us. The part of the brain where emotion lives, moves us on. Empathy is certainly in the limbic brain. I note that the writer did not call for sympathy which means we stand outside the situation. Congratulations for yet another thoughtful, life-provoking essay.
Jeffreycal | 26 September 2012

Where did the person get the money from to pay the people smugglers? I would not find it easy to fork out $ 5000 to $15000 and to travel from where I live in Wagga Wagga to say Brisbane is an expense which I would have to consider carefully. Afghanistan to Indonesia would be beyond my means.
Theo Verbeek | 26 September 2012

An essay worthy of a prize. But may I suggest that before anyone (and I mean any adult human being, male or female, over the age of 18) writes about "the need for empathy" he/she ought to read the work(s) of Abraham Maslow, especially his theory on The Hierarchy of Needs. If nothing else it will give them a framework within which to examine the motivations which drive human behaviour. "I think the people we accept should be coming the right way and not the wrong way" to quote Mr Abbott, is more indicative of the level and manner of political debate than of a re-phrasing of the scholastic maxim - Good is to be done and evil avoided. The PM frequently defends her government's policies with the expression: "We are doing it because it is the right thing to do." Said in such a manner that if a journalist were to question it he/she would be challenging "right-living". The PM's expression can also raise further questions: "By what standard is the action/policy assessed to be right? What about all the other 'right things' that need doing? Why has this 'right thing' been given priority over some other 'right thing'?"
Uncle Pat | 26 September 2012

There, but for the grace of God go I, is well worth remembering at all times.
Margaret McDonald | 26 September 2012

Thank you for writing this most intelligent, humane and compassionate criticism of the many 'justifications' for bigotry, racism, and cruelty. Fear, ignorance and a delusion of superiority based on self-centredness do not excuse people for creating social injustice. If you can love others as you naturally care for yourself, you cannot turn your backs on the suffering which has been caused, not by the victims, but by people who are scared of losing what they have, or are greedy to have something which violates the rights of others.
Annabel | 26 March 2014