Ideas of immanent justice in cognition and culture

How common in cognitive development and how widespread across cultures is the idea of immanent justice, with the good or bad fortune being seen as generally deserved and even as a sign of the moral worth of lucky or unlucky people? A new article by Kristina R. Olson, Yarrow Dunham, Carol S. Dweck, Elizabeth S. Spelke and Mahzarin R. Banaji, “Judgments of the Lucky Across Development and Culture” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008, Vol. 94, No. 5, 757–776) provides novel and relevant experimental evidence.

The abstract:

For millennia, human beings have believed that it is morally wrong to judge others by the fortuitous or unfortunate events that befall them or by the actions of another person. Rather, an individual’s own intended, deliberate actions should be the basis of his or her evaluation, reward, and punishment. In a series of studies, the authors investigated whether such rules guide the judgments of children. The first 3 studies demonstrated that children view lucky others as more likely than unlucky others to perform intentional good actions. Children similarly assess the siblings of lucky others as more likely to perform intentional good actions than the siblings of unlucky others. The next 3 studies demonstrated that children as young as 3 years believe that lucky people are nicer than unlucky people. The final 2 studies found that Japanese children also demonstrate a robust preference for the lucky and their associates. These findings are discussed in relation to M. J. Lerner’s (1980) just-world theory and J. Piaget’s (1932/1965) immanent-justice research and in relation to the development of intergroup attitudes.

It would be particularly relevant to have studies on the topic combining experimental and standard ethnographic method and illuminating the relationship between the culturally affirmed views and the people’s (including children’s) spontaneous inference in the matter.

Picture: design by Erica Michaels.





  • Olivier Morin
    Olivier Morin 22 October 2008 (14:01)

    From what I read in the abstract, I suspect a confusion between two different ideas:
    1) Lucky people tend to be nicer, they make good social allies
    2) Lucky people deserve their luck because it is due to their moral worth. Conversely, fate serves unlucky people right, because they are ,or have been ,wicked in this world or another.
    I think that only 2) is a rigorous definition of immanent justice. You don’t need to believe in Karma in order to endorse 1). You just need to remark that lucky people, being rich and powerful, can afford to be generous, while not so lucky people, living in a ruthless world, cannot. For the same reasons, and others besides, it is better to befriend a lucky guy than an unlucky one. I am not saying that it is true (although it could easily be argued for), but you can see how a child could come to think that.
    Immanent justice, as I understand it, requires a wholly different set of assumptions: there must be some kind of causal link between luck or bad luck and moral worth, and most often this link is provided by a supernatural force – the judgment of God in medieval ”ordalies”, the legacy of past incarnations in Karma, etc. In this paper, I can’t see any of these ingredients playing a role in the task.
    One last word about the abstract: ”For millennia, human beings have believed that it is morally wrong to judge others by the fortuitous or unfortunate events that befall them or by the actions of another person.” If that means every human being, then that sentence is clearly inaccurate. Raped women, Jews, war victims, etc. have all been moralized at one time or another.

  • Nicola Knight
    Nicola Knight 22 October 2008 (16:41)

    ”One last word about the abstract: ”For millennia, human beings have believed that it is morally wrong to judge others by the fortuitous or unfortunate events that befall them or by the actions of another person.” If that means every human being, then that sentence is clearly inaccurate. Raped women, Jews, war victims, etc. have all been moralised at one time or another.”
    You’re certainly right — but the tendency to avoid moralizing luck does seem to be prevalent, at least in the modern West. Witness the resistance of those opposed to homosexuality to attempts to ’naturalize’ it, either by establishing some form of genetic origin for it, or by comparison to the non-human animal world. On the other hand, it does seem true that children may tend to react more cruelly towards, say, physically handicapped people than adults would. The fact that genetic luck is often behind such handicaps does seem to require instruction to be absorbed. This is a fascinating topic, however — I have long been interested in the role played by beliefs concerning the immoral or wicked origin of physical handicaps.

  • Paulo Sousa
    Paulo Sousa 22 October 2008 (19:36)

    Dealing with misfortunes in particular, it would be interesting to do developmental research on immanent justice in cultural contexts where witchcraft is the prototypical explanation of misfortunes. As many anthropologists have emphasized, including Dan in his Radcliffe-Brown’s memorial lecture, there are two basic types of supernatural explanations of misfortune — one in which the supernatural force (e.g., ancestors, God) is punishing a culprit with the misfortune; one in which the supernatural force (e.g., witchcraft) is ”attacking” the victim with the misfortune. Since the immanent justice type of explanation seems to be consistent only with (though it does not necessarily imply) the first type of explanation, we would have an interesting contrast.

  • guest guest 22 October 2008 (22:34)

    Although I consider theories of ”Just World” beliefs to be far too close to the data which they purport to explain, there are a wealth of psychological findings on victim derogation which are consistent with the notion of ”immanent justice”, as referenced in the abstract. But consistency is not sufficient. Before proposing a ”justice system” or ”karma mechanism” equivalent to the ”Just World instinct” found in social psychology, cognition and culture investigators should consider whether relatively basic processes may influence or potentially explain their results. For example, executive systems, poorly developed in young children, inhibit the impact of irrelevant information on judgment and performance in domains ranging from the Stroop task to social stereotyping. Children, or adults under cognitive load, should therefore be more likely to conflate the positive affect related to good luck and good deeds. Another basic bias found across various measures is the hedonic preference for familiar stimuli. Simple explanations must be ruled out to justify appeals to finer-grained design.

  • Craig Joseph 23 October 2008 (09:34)

    I haven’t had a chance to read the article, but the abstract put me in mind of a classic paper by Bernard Williams entitled ”Moral Luck.”
    From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: ”Moral luck occurs when an agent can be correctly treated as an object of moral judgment despite the fact that a significant aspect of what she is assessed for depends on factors beyond her control. Bernard Williams writes, “when I first introduced the expression moral luck, I expected to suggest an oxymoron” (Williams 1993, 251). Indeed, immunity from luck has been thought by many to be part of the very essence of morality. And yet, as Williams (1981) and Thomas Nagel (1979) showed in their now classic pair of articles, it appears that our everyday judgments and practices commit us to the existence of moral luck. The problem of moral luck arises because we seem to be committed to the general principle that we are morally assessable only to the extent that what we are assessed for depends on factors under our control (call this the “Control Principle”). At the same time, when it comes to countless particular cases, we morally assess agents for things that depend on factors that are not in their control. And making the situation still more problematic is the fact that a very natural line of reasoning suggests that it is impossible to morally assess anyone for anything if we adhere to the Control Principle.
    The phenomenon that Williams is talking about is different from the one treated in the paper (which seems to be just quasi-moral judgments of lucky and unlucky people), but it raises a very interesting empirical issue which I’m not sure has been addressed. An example of moral luck is the following: you are driving along a road at night, following the speed limit, headlights on etc., but you have had a few drinks. A child darts out into the road in front of you, and you strike her with your car. Even if you were sober, you could not have avoided the child because of the speed with which she ran into your path. Nevertheless, I think most people would say that the drunk driver is to blame for the accident, while a sober driver would not be.

  • Dan Sperber
    Dan Sperber 23 October 2008 (11:02)

    Many interesting comments. Thank you!
    Here I would just like to add a conjecture to the point made by Paulo Sousa ( who kindly alludes to an earlier paper of mine) about the contrast across societies between explanation of misfortune in terms of mystical sanction as opposed to mystical aggression. I did my fielwork among the Dorze of Southern Ethiopia where, at the time, the massively dominant account of misfortune was in term of mystical sanctions brought about by the transgression of ’taboos’ (or gome, to use the local term). The possibility of misfortune being caused by mystical agression (witchcraft, local term bita) was recognised, but only infrequently invoked. As a result, being ’unlucky’ could be a sign of having commited many violation of taboo. Being taboo and being immoral were not seen as exactly equivalent and the mystical sanction could fall not only on the violator but also on members of his/her family, so the correlation was not perfect. Still, on the positive side, i.e. someone being lucky in life, being healthy, having healthy children making money and so on, was viewed quite positively, including from a moral point of view.
    This stands in diametrical opposition to standard cases of witchcraft-dominated societies where people who are too lucky are easily suspected of being witches. Here is my conjecture. In all societies, children are likey to think well of lucky people, even from a moral point of view (possibly for the kind of reasons evoked in the comments of Olivier Morin and Colin Holbrook) . This is likely to endure into adulthood and to be more or less explicitly asserted in societies that, one way or another, assume some form of immanent justice. In witchcraft-dominated societies on the contrary, the bias in favour of the lucky should vanish in cultural discourse and one interesting question is to what extent it would also vanish from adult’s tacit inferences.