Journal Entry – Mon Dec 07

Why is a worm the only thing an early bird catches? I am an early bird, and I’ve never caught a worm! And anyway, that sits just fine with me; thank you very much! Who wants to deal with worms early in the morning? Ewwwww! I’d much rather chase butterflies and smell flowers! πŸ™‚ (I’d even go jellyfishing with Spongebob.)

The early bird watches as the butterflies fly and the flowers open to the joy of a new day πŸ™‚

BTW, what does the late bird catch? (insomnia?) And has anyone figured out what the fox says? (meow?)

I didn’t draw yet, but the day’s not over! Did you know that your brain shrinks as you go about your day – Do your productive/creative stuff in the morning! BUT … it depends on you circadian rhythm, so get to know yourself!

Lecture 19: Victim-blaming and the Just-world Hypothesis

The just-world hypothesis refers to our tendency to believe that the world is a just and fair place, and because of that, people get what they deserve. Victim blaming is a dark tendency related to the just-world hypothesis.

We can trace the psychological study of victim-blaming and the just-world hypothesis back to Melvin Lerner and Carolyn Simmons, social psychologists who first explored these issues in the 1960s. When we are helpless, Lerner and Simmons found, we tend to reject and devalue victims’ suffering. We do this because of our need to see the world as a just place.

In a 1975 study, Zick Rubin and Letitia Anne Peplau wondered what kind of people believe in a just world. They observed that everyone might well believe the world is just at a very young age. Some people “outgrow the belief.” Others never do.

In their surveys, they found that people who endorse the just-world hypothesis tend “to be more religious [and] more authoritarian … than nonbelievers.” They also found that believers tend to be “more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups.”

In a 2016 study, Laura Niemi and Liane Young explored why we’re sometimes sympathetic towards victims and why we sometimes scorn and blame them. They suggest that our attitudes are a function of our moral values and our ideological commitments.

Focusing on Perpetrators: In their research, Laura Niemi and Liane Young found that one way to reduce victim blaming is to increase our focus on perpetrators and decrease our focus on victims. When study participants read vignettes that focused on victims rather than on perpetrators, participants perceived the victims as more responsible for what happened to them. How we tell stories affects our perception of victims.

Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature

Specifically, they distinguish between two value systems. On the one hand, some people largely endorse individualizing values, focusing on prohibiting harm and promoting equality and fairness. In comparison, others support binding values, which focus on maintaining loyalty, obedience, and respect.

Niemi and Young argue that the more someone endorses individualizing values, the more they care about people who stand outside the group. The more someone endorses binding values, the more they tend to be insensitive to victims’ suffering. This means that there is more than the just-world hypothesis at work when we blame victims; underlying moral outlooks also support it.

The phrase “what goes around comes around” is an expression of the just-world hypothesis, but it’s also grounded in a view of the world associated with various Indian philosophical and religious traditions. The concept here is karma.

Karma is a Sanskrit word for “action.” In the early Vedic religion, karma was a word used to refer to specific kinds of action, particularly ritual action. In time, however, the word came to refer to both action and its consequences. Along with this expansion of the concept, various traditions developed different theories of karma. 

For Jain thinkers, karma becomes a kind of physical filth that we produce through unwholesome actions. This gunk weighs down on the soul and binds it to the cycle of death and rebirth. To achieve liberation from this cycle, we have to cleanse ourselves of this karmic filth, and we do that through moral discipline and spiritual asceticism.

For Buddhists, karma is mental intention. The Sanskrit word here is “cetana.” According to the Buddha, “action is volition. After having intended something, one accomplishes action through body, speech, and mind.”

There are four kinds of action: 

  1. Wholesome actions lead to good consequences
  2. Unwholesome actions lead to harmful consequences
  3. Mixed actions are a combination of good and bad consequences
  4. Indeterminate actions are performed by enlightened beings, like the Buddha and have no consequences

Karma centrally refers to “the thing” that keeps a mental intention going and the connection between the action and its consequences. In this sense, karma is the moral law of cause and effect.

In the Buddhist and Jain senses, belief in karma would suggest a reasonable belief in the just-world hypothesis because it links actions with their consequences in that people reap what they sow. One natural way is to think of this is as a retributivist conception of karma. Suffering and misfortune come from unwholesome actions that were committed earlier in this life or a previous one.

Professor Arvind Sharma offers a medical analogy related to blame. When a doctor encounters a chronic smoker with lung cancer, it’s reasonable to think that the smoker is responsible for having cancer. The morally important factor is that the doctor still needs to do her duty and treat the patient. Blaming the patient is neither helpful nor appropriate, even if attributing responsibility is reasonable. Additionally, condemning the less fortunate is neither helpful nor appropriate, even if attributing responsibility is reasonable.

This analogy highlights that for those who endorse retributive karma, karmic explanations are causal and factual explanations. It makes an implicit distinction between what it means to blame someone vs what it means to hold them responsible. One way to make the distinction is to say that blaming someone means holding them morally accountable, whereas to hold someone responsible is to say that they played a causal role in bringing about a particular state of affairs.

Author Mikel Burley highlights, “there is an important difference between the medical, scientific belief that smoking increases one’s chances of developing lung cancer and the karmic belief that suffering in this life results from sins performed in previous ones.” To see this difference, Burley asks us to imagine someone who doesn’t believe in karma but visits a doctor who does.

This patient asks the doctor why she has cancer when so many other smokers are perfectly healthy. In response, the doctor tells her that there’s more to the story than lifestyle and genes; in the end, it’s one’s karma that determines such things. She must have done something wrong in a past life. (Douche!)

The difference between the medical diagnosis and the karmic judgment is that the medical diagnosis is a statement of fact that might carry with it implications about personal responsibility, but karmic judgment is inherently bound to moral disapprobation. For someone who endorses the karmic worldview, this might not be so jarring, but for someone who doesn’t, it’s morally offensive because it carries with it a kind of moral condemnation that seems otherwise – outside the framework of retributive karma – completely unwarranted.

The contemporary Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has a suggestion that might help us see how someone could maintain a belief in karma without even implicitly blaming anyone for the state they’re in. 

Consider gardening/farming: If you plant tomatoes, but they do not grow (for whatever reason), blaming the plant would be absurd (and people would think you’ve gone mad.) Additionally, what are you hoping to accomplish by blaming the tomatoes for not growing? A more effective route would be to understand what could inhibit growth, the conditions the plant needs to grow, and provide an environment that supports its development.

The profound lesson: Human Beings are like plants πŸ™‚ Just as we would want to cultivate the proper environment for our children to grow, we must extend such concern to everyone. It’s inappropriate and pointless to place blame. (It is much better to understand and look for ways to make life better for everyone – Plus, it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside πŸ™‚ )

Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature

With this in mind, Thich Nhat Hanh provides us with the resources to articulate a conception of karma that is causal but not retributive. No one is ultimately responsible for their situation, even if there are complex causal processes entangled with our past and present choices that have led to where we are now. Since no one is blameworthy, the problem of victim-blaming will never emerge.

The lecture concluded with two ideas:

  1. Thinking the world is a just place might not be what centrally drives us to blame victims. Instead, the driving factors might be binding values and a commitment to the reasonableness of blame. Whether anyone thinks victim-blaming is reasonable might come down to concrete moral obligations.
  2. We can eliminate victim-blaming while maintaining the belief that the world is a just place. In other words, believing that the world is a just place doesn’t have to come with the dark tendency to think that victims always get what they deserve.

(Source: The Great Courses – Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature)

Feature Photo Credit: Larisa Koshkina from Pixabay

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