How prevailing ideas of justice may be a trap where no one wins

Why would someone honing their professional skills in mind-body wellness care about this topic? Like, a social worker in training to be a massage therapist. Justice, really? Well, along the same vein in my previous blogs, when we consider care services like emotional support (i.e. counseling) and therapeutic bodywork (i.e. massage), there are a number of social, cultural, and economic barriers that prevent entire communities from accessing them (reference 1, 2). If we are to be responsible facilitators of wellness in the community, we can’t ignore injustices that prevent people from what they need.

While there are a number of justice theories, they each attempt to achieve a similar goal: how to administer fairness in society. In the narrative of justice and fairness we often hear the concept of deserving / not deserving and the haves / have nots come into the discussion. What comes to mind are often heated conversations about why so-and-so deserves such-and-such, and why such-and-such should or shouldn’t have happened to so-and-so. Sound familiar? Now I’m going to play around with some rather deviant notions here. And no, not playing Devil’s advocate. I take full ownership of my dribble, but please note that I am not proposing anything. This is not a manifesto. The goal is to critically examine an idea and explore possibilities.

I’d like to start with a less common assumption:

No one deserves anything

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Even from my desk I can hear the zing of people’s shackles bristling. Rest assured, I’m not taking this in a young-adult-dystopian-novel or fire-and-brimestone kind of direction.

All jesting aside, this assumption can be a wobbly place to begin — no one deserves anything. Remember, this is only the starting assumption, not the conclusion. As far as I know, all ideas must be built on a set of assumptions. From a set of assumptions a variety of different theories can sprout, each vastly different from each other. Below I will share how I developed this idea and how it may be a constructive asset in conversations about justice. Let’s remember this conversation is still about fairness. I am simply changing the starting point. Let’s begin …

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This past week my stylist fired me as a client for missing a second appointment. Though I was shocked, I respected the decision in its entirety. Despite this, I still felt quite sad. I’ve been going to her for the past 4 years and I never missed appointments before. Now, it was totally on me that I missed two appointments, I take ownership of it. My behavior had an impact on my stylist to the extent that she decided to not take my business anymore, regardless of my offers to repair damages by paying for missed sessions. I’m not mad, but I’m sad. I realize that my actions led to this consequence, and yet I still found myself seeking empathy. Is it not human to behave contrary to knowing better, only to then suffer the consequence and still desire consolation? We see examples of this all the time. Yet, I didn’t seek empathy because I believed that I deserved the consequence and that I also do not deserve empathy. And the inverse is true, there are times when I believe others deserve the consequences and that I ought to intentionally withhold my empathy for them. So strange. Humans have great capacity for compassion and empathy, yet there are moments when we intentionally withhold it from others even if we know they want it. I am not maligning people who do this. I’ve observed this enough in people around me and myself to know that this is a very human element. So, what makes us do this and why?

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Is it not human to behave contrary to knowing better, only to then suffer the consequence and still desire consolation?

Humans have great capacity for compassion and empathy, yet there are moments when we intentionally withhold it from others even if we know they want it. 

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In psychology there’s a concept called locus of control. It describes the capacity which people believe they have power of the events in their lives. If the locus of control is internal,  the individual is the one credited to have the ability to affect events in their lives. If the locus of control is external, it is the environment that is considered to have been more influential. When observing ourselves and others there tends to be a consistent bias in how we perceive locus of control. Example, if people find themselves with a favorable outcome, they tend to attribute their locus of control internally, that they affected the outcomes with their own abilities. If they encountered unfavorable outcomes, they tend to attribute their locus of control externally, thinking that they didn’t yield the outcomes but that outside variables had more of an effect. Interestingly, there tends to be an opposite perspective when we view other people. That when others encounter favorable outcomes, there’s a bias to see it as happenstance (external). And when others encounter unfavorable outcomes, we see it as something they brought onto themselves (internal). What’s interesting is that we tend to extend these biases to people with whom we identify, and not to those we see as distant from ourselves.

For clarification, I’m using two very specific parameters for thinking about deserving/not deserving. I will be using “deserve/not deserve” to mean the same thing as “entitlement” and “rights.”

# 1 Often ideas of deserve/entitlement and ideas of want/need get seen as the same thing. That if I want water because I’m thirsty, that I am entitled to it. This type of reasoning, I think, can make for confusing and conflicting discussion. When does someone’s desire for something constitute an entitlement? When does it not? How do we decide? Some may refer to the rule of law, religious doctrine, personal liberties, and/or natural requirements for life. Yet, for me, it still stands that wanting something (no-matter how much I want it or need it) is a very different thing than deserving it. Whether or not I deserve it depends on how my situation is perceived by myself and others. Outside of the social domain, in the objective natural, ideas of entitlement/deserving doesn’t seem to exist on its own. Notions of whether or not you deserve it don’t exist without human consciousness. If you are hiking up Mount Everest and your oxygen tank runs out, nature doesn’t care how much you want or need air. You’re going to experience whatever is available or not available.

#2 Entitlement and consequence are also different. It’s one thing to experience a consequence of something, it’s another to be entitled to that consequence. A child can be running along a wet pool deck and trip. Falling was a consequence of running on a wet pool deck. There is a mechanical cause-and-effect at play. Whether or not that child deserved it is another issue, and that issue has less to do with the mechanics of cause-and-effect and more to do with our psychological opinion of the situation.

How we decide whether or not we (or others) deserve what happened depends on how situate the locus of control in any particular situation. If we think the person created the situation by themselves (internal), then we tend to say that this person deserve what they yielded. If we see it as something created by chance of the environment (external), we attribute it to good/bad luck and thus the person didn’t really deserve it. Remember, this goes for both good and bad outcomes. Example, there is a general sense that if an abusive person was kicked out of their significant other’s apartment, that they got their just dessert (since the abusive person was considered to have internal locus of control). Our view might change, however,  if we learned that the person being kicked out is belligerent as a result of late stage dementia. Now the locus of control is seen as external and that it’s not really the abusive person’s fault and therefore they don’t deserve to be kicked out. Yet, what this person needs and what consequence they experienced are besides the point, as these things lie outside the domain of my working definition of “deserving.” The question of deserving is: Should this person have been kicked out and stranded without a roof over their head?

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It stands to reason, then, that the concept of deserve (at least on a psychological basis) is a matter of perception. And if our perception can be sculpted, like clay, by culture and politics, then are we really in control of whether we think someone deserved something or not? I would think that this means our basis for deserving/not deserving is very relative and variable. Another way to put it, I don’t think notions of deserving/not deserving is an absolute constant. It depends on how we view something given the information available to us at any particular point in time.

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Activity: (a) Look at the image below and ask yourself, do these students deserve this treatment? (b) How did the way you view locus of control affect your answer? (c) How did people who disagree with you view locus of control differently? 

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Okay. At this point some people may be thinking: So ideas of deserving aren’t natural, they’re human made. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We still need it as an instrument of the social contract. We need it to decide how to live among one another. I don’t entirely disagree. The reason I say this is because I agree that a social contract requires a set of criteria to dictate who gets what. We need to have a way to decide how to distribute resources. There’s kinda no way around it. However, I don’t think figuring out who is entitled to what is the way to go about it. It’s too arbitrary, too subject to variability. It can change at the flick of a switch as people’s views are influenced by time, politics, and culture. For matters concerning the social contract (security, housing, healthcare, education) are too important to be dictated by something as fickle as social views of entitlement.

So what if we scratched the idea that people deserve anything. They may want it, need it, or have caused it to happen. But all of those things are not the same as deserving something. The natural world functions quite effectively in terms of resource management and distribution without ideas of deserving. What might we learn from observing nature? This is where I get intrigued with evolutionary game theory. Instead of trying to figure out who deserves what and who is right or wrong, what if we asked different questions? What if we asked, what are the overall outcomes that we wish to achieve? There are computer algorithms that can simulate complex scenarios that generate a variety of outcomes depending on a set of variables (i.e. decisions, traits, environmental factors). In a wonderful TED talk, Professor Donald Hoffman talks about running simulations to study the evolutionary fitness of organisms that see reality as it truly exists versus organisms that see reality as only what they need to see in order for day-to-day survival (link).

So I’ve become very curious about methodology more so than ideology. It seems that ideology may be useful in the envisioning phase of a social contract, but not necessarily in its administration. We can use ideology to envision what kind of world we wish to have. That is very different than using the ideology as the strategy to achieve it. Goals and strategies are different things. The compass is not the same thing as the map. One shows us the direction we want to go, and the other shows us the roads to get there. So often people try to use ideology as a method, and since ideology tends to be a matter of conviction more than investigation, we may find ourselves limited in our ability to learn and adapt. Ideologies have characteristics of a living organism in that their primary interest is survival. Critical methodology aspires to discover capacities and limitations of any given strategy, and make adjustments as needed. It learns, it adapts. If we observe something new about the terrain, it makes sense to make changes to our map. The compass may tell me that my destination is in front of me, but if that takes me down a waterfall, I might consider an alternate route.

In closing, I didn’t arrive at the idea that no one deserves anything because I’m coming from a place of de-valuing life. I think life is too precious to be mapped out by a strategy that doesn’t hold its many complexities. This music video by Zedd really got me feeling this sentiment. It beautifully depicts people in all their glory and flaws. In the same way, we need methods of inquiry and creation that is as multi-dimensional and elegant as life itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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