No Justice No Peace: When the Belief in a Just World Crumbles
Updated: Dec 27, 2021
“Individuals have a need to believe that they live in a world where people generally get what they deserve.” The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion (Lerner 1982).
On November 19th, 2021, an 18-year-old (Rittenhouse) who fatally shot two people during last year's civil unrest has been acquitted of all charges in a criminal trial. Legally, it might be a case of prosecutorial overreaching with evidence law issues - prosecutors struggled to overcome Rittenhouse's claim that he acted in self-defense on the night of the shootings. However, the high-profile killings and subsequent trial are another moment of societal moral reckoning - mediated by the courts. It follows the recent trial of Chauvin, that murdered George Floyd, and precedes the trial in Georgia in the case against the three men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery.
These are not just a bunch of high-profile cases; the fight for racial and class equality in the US takes place in the courts, each case another battle. These cases are part of a larger whole: the current fight for justice in America. And when justice loses, it has latent socio-psychological effects.
The Belief in a Just World (BJW) describes an individual's belief that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get (Lerner, 1980; Lerner & Miller, 1978; Lerner & Simmons, 1966; Rubin & Peplau, 1973, 1975). The BJW serves a protective function, defending the individual psychologically against the possibility of an undeserved negative outcome. Americans are famously outliers in terms of holding strong beliefs in the effects individuals hold n their life outcomes:
Yet the social movement for social justice is a marker that Americans are no longer satisfied with "bad apples" explanations, but internalize more than ever before a new understanding of systematic inequality -- in the words of the BJW, in the US good things happen to bad people and bad things to good people.
When Rittenhouse was acquitted, the belief in a just world just got harder.
If we do not live in a just world, why shouldn't people organize to rob status symbols such as Louis Vuitton or Nordstrom?
My hypothesis is that we are now in the midst of an unparalleled socio-psychological shift in America - the American dream quickly becomes a historical concept, a story from another generation, as the public's BJW spirals down. A rise in crime, a record low approval rate for the legitimacy of SCOTUS, record numbers of people quitting their job (1, 2), skepticism about the benefits of holding a job; these are not different phenomenons, people no longer believe that their actions determine the outcome. Why work if there's no chance for upward mobility? Why follow the law if cops use violence indistinguishable and there's no justice in the justice system?
Others have pointed out the relationship between BJW and social policy, but the focus has been on economic policy:
- "Subjects with higher JWBs prefer less-redistributive compensation systems."
(Performance pay or redistribution? Cultural differences in just-world beliefs and preferences for wage inequality)
- "[T]he more efforts [a person] engaged in improving her situation, the less deserving of government benefits she was judged to be by respondents with a strong belief in a just world. The reverse was found among respondents with a weaker belief: more efforts were associated with greater judgments of deservingness"
(When Effort Is Threatening: The Influence of the Belief in a Just World on Americans' Attitudes toward Antipoverty Policy)
- "The implications of [BJW] for international differences in political ideology, levels of redistribution, labor supply, aggregate income, and popular perceptions of the poor."
(BELIEF IN A JUST WORLD AND REDISTRIBUTIVE POLITICS)
A decline in a BJW might impact safety and justice - either through people's willingness to follow the law, respect court verdicts, or participate politically. At the very least, researchers should find out if there truly is a decline and the ramifications. Policy should also seriously engage with this possibility because deterrence and retributivism assume BJW and break down as mechanisms for justice or peace in a declining BJW situation.
Research shows that other countries that do not hold strong BJW beliefs compensate through a robust welfare system. This is, quite possibly, the right solution for a changing American ideology (see: "American “Belief in a Just World” Versus European “Pessimism”).