Just world fallacy

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The world is full of injustice, and those who profit by injustice are in a position to administer rewards and punishments. The rewards go to those who invent ingenious justifications for inequality, the punishments to those who try to remedy it.
Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays[1]

The just world fallacy, also known euphemistically as the just world hypothesis, is a naturalistic fallacy that states that the consequences of all actions are predictable and deserved. This implies (although sometimes only subconsciously) a belief in some sort of universal force that ensures moral balance in the world, in such a way that a person who exhibits good and moral behavior will eventually be rewarded, while evil and immoral actions will eventually be punished. It is both a concept in theology and considered to be a cognitive bias in psychology. It is summed up by the phrase "What goes around, comes around."


Imagine a world where the just world and fundamental attribution errorWikipedia were correct, and karma existed. Wouldn’t that be unspeakably tragic?

The just world fallacy is commonly seen in theologies with some form of worldly reward system, such as in Prosperity Gospel beliefs. It is also present in Buddhism, Sikhism, and Hinduism in the form of karma. Gottfried Leibniz, attempting to solve the problem of evil, famously argued that since God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, that this must be "the best of all possible worlds."[3] Alvin Plantinga has argued that there is no "best of all possible worlds."[4]

A statement of Jesus in Luke 13:4-5 is often cited in opposition to the idea that people who suffer "got what was coming to them":

[T]hose eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.

Another biblical example that would go against this idea (in some way) is the story of Job, who had been struck by one misfortune after the other, losing everything in the process, from his wealth to his family. He was accused of being a monster who deserved all this; otherwise, God would not have caused him all this suffering. Little did any know that it was all part of a cosmic bet between the Abrahamic deity and Satan, all to prove that Job would remain faithful to God no matter what. In South Park Episode #506, "Cartmanland," Sheila and Gerald Brovlofski read this part of the Book of Job to Kyle Brovlofski, who was thoroughly disgusted by the thought of God raining misery on such a charitable and devout man just to prove a point to Satan.


In psychology, the just world hypothesis also goes under the name of "system justification theory."[5] Just world or system justification can be seen at work when people blame rape victims because their hemlines did not meet specification or define individuals who are poor as just lazy slobs, otherwise they would have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps already. Belief in the just world fallacy is correlated with religiosity, conservative political orientation, and admiration for political leaders, but also an optimistic outlook and altruism in some cases.[6]

Some accounts associate two motivators underlying the "just world fallacy" The first is the desire to believe that all the good things one has are attributable primarily or solely to one's self, hard work, and superior character and morality. The second is a refusal to accept that bad things can happen to one's self and one's loved ones due to circumstances beyond control.


Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings.

—Dr. Pangloss[7]

Leibniz's concept of the "best of all possible worlds" was parodied in Voltaire's Candide with the character of Dr. Pangloss.[8] Thus, the term "Panglossianism" is often used synonymously with the just world fallacy. However, it also carries the additional connotations of blind optimism or a conception of the world in which things are optimized for some purpose.

In evolutionary biology[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Evolutionary biology

Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin famously used the term "Panglossian" to refer to a style of adaptationist thought that overstated the power and prevalence of natural selection. They argued that what may appear evolutionary "design" may actually result from mechanisms other than natural selection or as a by-product of some other adaptation.[9]

The faddish Gaia hypothesis promotes a teleological conception of evolution and the biosphere, seeing nature as a self-equilibrating system that optimizes the planet for life.

The notion of teleology and progress in evolutionary theory is related to the conflation of cultural evolution with biological evolution. The two were linked — as in the work of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) — until Charles Darwin disputed the connection.[10]

In economics and political theory[edit]

There is a noticeable strain of Panglossianism in laissez-faire economic theory. The notion that people pursuing their own rational self-interest will create an optimal society is a common one in this ideology. As Frederic Bastiat wrote, "All men's impulses, when motivated by legitimate self-interest, fall into a harmonious social pattern."[11] This ties into the idea of markets as systems that tend toward equilibrium, full employment, and optimal allocation of capital and resources. Any "interference" in the market is considered a "distortion" of this self-correcting system. An extreme example of this is the Austrian school of economics. Adam Smith's concept of the "invisible hand" is often invoked as the optimizing mechanism of the market, though this is a misrepresentation of Smith's own views.[12]

As above, economic Panglossianism is often tied into the notion of progress and evolution. It also tends to come packaged with Social Darwinist ideologies — Herbert Spencer was a well-known popularizer of said ideas. In more recent times, the ideology of techno-optimism, or "Cornucopianism", has adopted the Panglossian view. Matt Ridley, for one, has advocated this viewpoint in The Rational Optimist.[13]

It is also associated with biological determinism, where the existing class and social structure is justified by appeals to the "innate" inferiority of the lower classes, other races, women or homosexuality. This is exemplified, for example, in the works of eugenicists such as Francis Galton.

In popular culture[edit]

Panglossianism has appeared as a theme in popular culture, including Charles Dickens' Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol, Moliere's The Miser, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, and even Steve Martin’s The Jerk.[14]:327-328 This is reflected in themes that give redeeming qualities to the poor that balance out the avarice of the rich:[14]:328

A rather curious form of this admiration for groups to which the admirer does not belong is the belief in the superior virtue of the oppressed: subject nations, the poor, women, and children. The eighteenth century, while conquering America from the Indians, reducing the peasantry to the condition of pauper laborers, and introducing the cruelties of early industrialism, loved to sentimentalize about the "noble savage" and the "simple annals of the poor."
—Bertrand Russell[15]:80-81

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Sceptical Essays by Bertrand Russell (2004). Routledge, 2nd ed. ISBN 0415325080.
  2. https://gwern.net/epigram#misc
  3. Leibniz on the Problem of Evil, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  4. Is This the Best of All Possible Worlds? PBS Closer to the Truth
  5. John T. Jost, Mahzarin Banaji, Brian A. Nosek. A Decade of System Justification Theory: Accumulated Evidence of Conscious and Unconscious Bolstering of the Status Quo. Political Psychology, Vol. 25, No. 6, 2004
  6. The Just World Theory, Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez, Markula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University
  7. Chapter 1 - How Candide Was Brought Up in a Magnificent Castle and How He Was Driven Thence
  8. Voltaire's Candide or Optimism, A.C. Grayling
  9. Gould, S. J. And Lewontin, R. C., "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique Of The Adaptationist Programme", Proceedings Of The Royal Society of London, Series B, Vol. 205, No. 1161 (1979), Pp. 581-598.
  10. Evolution as Pseudoscience? Massimo Pigliucci
  11. Frederic Bastiat. (1850) Economic Harmonies, hosted at Library of Economics and Liberty
  12. Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand: From Metaphor to Myth, Gavin Kennedy, Econ Journal Watch
  13. Matt Ridley: Optimism Without Limits, New Scientist
  14. 14.0 14.1 Panglossian Ideology In The Service Of System Justification: How Complementary Stereotypes Help Us To Rationalize Inequality by Aaron C. Kay et al. (2007) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 39:305-358. doi:10.1016/S0065-2601(06)39006-5.
  15. Unpopular Essays by Bertrand Russell (1921) George Allen and Unwin.