Just War Fallacy

There is a long tradition in philosophy of arguing over the idea of a “just war,” i.e. a war which is rationally defensible for at least one of the participants. In the West, we usually trace this back to the Greeks, but apparently, it goes back as far as Ancient Egypt, and the Chinese and Indians have their own Just War traditions. I don’t want to litigate the history of just war philosophy, rather I want to suggest that the very idea of a “just war” is problematic at best and, moreover, anti-human, certainly from the perspective of the people who are going to die in that war, a war that isn’t about justice for the vast majority of them

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How the Hero Narrative and the Just World Fallacy Interact to Create Evil

Everyone is the hero of their own story. Whether or not your own story is successful in your own mind, you’re still at the centre of it. There is no way to avoid this; there is no way to be objective or to be a different subject than the person you are – you are necessarily at the centre of your experience due to the nature of human consciousness and of human existence. Now, whether you’re a real hero or a villain in the minds of others is something that is very hard for you to judge; others are much better at judging your actions.

Viewing myself as the hero of my own story is a fact I have to live with but it obviously distorts reality in many ways; being biased towards myself is a problem when it comes to making moral/ethical decisions involving of affecting other people. Other people’s and society’s judgment and feedback help with my ability to make these decisions but sometimes they hinder me too. I can get good advice and bad advice and I can get social cues that help me figure out the right thing and social cues that encourage me to do the wrong thing. But even with good guidance from outside, we are still prone to many cognitive biases that come from our radical subjectivity, where we’re at the centre of the universe and nobody else is. And these biases of our own radical subjectivity interact with another bias, the Just World Fallacy.

The Just World Fallacy is the belief that the world is actually, fundamentally fair – or should be fundamentally fair. It might seem weird to argue that a subjective view of the world and a view of the world as objectively fair could coexist in the mind but it’s actually typical of the human experience. Human beings can and do carry irreconcilable beliefs in their mind as a fact of experience. Moreover, these two beliefs actually support and reinforce each other, allowing us to have terrible beliefs about other people who are not at the centre of the universe as we are.

The belief that the world is fair makes us believe that everyone gets what they deserve. This allows us to blame anyone who is less better off for their problems. There are many, many ways that this affects our lives. I have written about this extensively.

A further problem, that is not part of the original investigation of the Just World Fallacy, is that our radical subjectivity distorts the Just World Fallacy further, subjectivity warps perceived fairness around us. So we view the world as fair for everyone else – so the successful are successful because they are talented and the unsuccessful are so because they are lazy, etc. – but it is either extra fair or extra unfair for us: we deserve the things we get more than anyone else does or, for people who suffer from depression, we deserve the bad things we get because we are so awful, whereas everyone else is treated the right way.

So we have a warped Just World where the universe is fair but it is centered around us. And this causes us to apply our view of the Just World Fallacy selectively. To wit: a woman is shot and killed during hunting season in the woods, technically within the city limits of Hamilton, Ontario. She was not wearing the colour orange which is what all hunters are supposed to when hunting deer in these woods during hunting season. The belief in the Just World tells us she should have known better, she should have worn orange and, because she didn’t, she deserved to die. (If that sounds harsh to you please know that this is a real incident and real people told me that this woman deserved to be shot as their first reaction to the news. You cannot make this stuff up.) But our radical subjectivity skews the Just World so that if I was shot for not wearing orange in Hamilton, ON during hunting season, I cannot have deserved it. If anything, the hunter should have known that I couldn’t have known that I needed to wear orange. Other people are victims because they deserve to be, but I am an undeserving victim because I am the centre of the universe – I matter more than the woman in question because I am the hero of my own story.

The belief in a just or fair universe is bad enough, it allows victim blaming and the lionization of people who lucked into success. The belief that I am more important than anyone, including you, is bad enough, as it allows me to believe that I am special or The worst. But the two of them combined allow us to take victim-blaming and personal exceptionalism to new heights. One of the reasons social psychology exists as a discipline is to explain how human beings could participate in genocide (specifically, the Holocaust). One reason human beings could participate in the Holocaust is that the belief in a just world allows us to believe the people in concentration camps did things to be there. And being the hero of our own story allows us to believe that, whatever those people did, we would never do those things (nor would anyone we would choose to know). Our radical subjectivity plus the belief that the world is fair allows us to spend our lives victim-blaming and believing that, whatever we do, we are not deserving of the same treatment. In essence, the combination of these two biases allows us to tolerate the suffering of others. Maybe that’s why we don’t live in a just world.