On December 26, 2004, a tsunami in the Indian Ocean struck Indonesia and killed 150,000 people on that day alone. Although Indonesia was hit the hardest, the tsunami reached 11 countries in the Indian Ocean. When the disaster ended, over 280,000 people had died and millions more were left homeless.
Across the world, many Americans tried to make sense of the tragedy. A pious man I know explained it this way: in countries like Indonesia, parents often sell their own children into slavery. So God sent His judgment upon them with the killer tsunami.
The belief that God punishes people through horrible misfortune is far from new. Nor is it found in only one religion. In her monologue “Letting Go of God,” Julia Sweeney talks about meeting a Buddhist woman who took care of a disfigured orphan boy. When Julia expressed sympathy for the child, his caretaker said, “Don’t say ‘poor boy.’ He must have done something terrible in a past life to be born like that.”
One explanation is that in these situations, onlookers want to distance themselves mentally from the victims. They want to believe, “That could never happen to me.” It’s reassuring to think that people get what they deserve. We tell ourselves that people get ahead by working hard and playing fair. By the same token, immoral people end up paying a price. It may come through an “act of God,” an illness or some other calamity. But suffering follows vice and well-being follows virtue.
Except for when they don’t. The problem with this kind of thinking is it’s just plain false. The world is full of good people who struggle desperately and evil people who rise to the top. What’s more, life has been unfair since the dawn of time. People have wrestled with these issues for centuries, in works ranging from the biblical book of Job to Rabbi Harold Kushner’s famous treatise, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
Life is shown as unfair time and time again. But the idea that unlucky people deserve their lot is still so common, it’s actually considered a fallacy. Psychologists like Melvin Lerner have conducted studies that show people often form negative opinions of victims. It seems that belief in a fair world leads to a lack of compassion, as shown by the examples above. After all, why should we care about making life fair for everyone if it already is?
It’s important to know that humans are prone to this mistaken thinking. If we stop and recognize our cognitive bias, we can replace it with a more realistic understanding: sometimes life is fair but often it’s not. Poor people aren't necessarily lazy, women don’t “ask” to get raped and millionaires may not be smarter than everyone else. Once we acknowledge that injustice is real, we can work harder and come closer to ending it.