A Sense of Injustice

One of the features of being in a place of doubt, is that while there are things that I find make it hard for me to believe in the existence of god, there are other things that I find equally hard to rationalise away. Some of these things are harder to define, somewhat more esoteric, perhaps, than specific doctrines, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying to elucidate them a little.

Somewhat related to the last post is the problem of our sense of injustice. As I said in the last post, it seems that a natural and somewhat universal human response to tragedy is to shake our fists at the heavens and shout “WHY?!” We experience a profound sense of injustice to situations of death, sickness and suffering – as if deep down within us somewhere we believe these situations to be fundamentally wrong. The question I have though, is why is this true? Why is this the most common human reaction to tragedy?

If you look at the question in Theistic terms (believing in the existence of god), then it is relatively easy to explain. Either, as discussed in the last post, the tragedy is caused or ‘ordained’ by the deity – in which case there is someone/something to be genuinely angry with. Or it is caused by the consequences of evil or sin in the world – in which case, there is again a force to be angry with, or else a right sense that the world was not meant to be this way, and therefore the situation is genuinely wrong.

It is more difficult trying to explain this sense of injustice from an atheistic (belief that there is no god) standpoint. In fact, I’m struggling now even to frame an argument for this side.

What purpose does a sense of injustice towards tragedy and dire circumstances serve? Does it somehow help us heal from the pain, to be able to have something to blame? Does having an outside cause stop us feeling so tiny, powerless and insignificant in the face of the vastness and complexity of the universe, and hence stop us going insane?

You could perhaps argue that a sense of injustice is simply an inherited characteristic from our more ignorant, superstitious pasts. But that doesn’t help much, because you then have to ask why such a superstition would evolve in the first place? What purpose does it serve? And why is it that, even the most committed atheists and agnostics seem to fall back to pain and anger in the face of personal suffering?

I guess my question is this: is it possible that a sense of injustice is inbuilt, inherent in all of humankind? And if so, how do we explain the existence of this response? It isn’t simply biological, because it isn’t something we see reflected in the animal kingdom – even the most ‘emotional’ animals grieve, and then get up and get on with their lives – they seem more able to accept death than humans are.

Humans are dumbfounded and full of rage and injustice in the face of death – as if we were never meant to die. A Christian will tell you that this is because we never were meant to die. But what explanation can the atheist give? The best I can come up with is that this is an inherited response from a more superstitious age, intended to protect us somehow from… and then I get lost.

In and of itself, this isn’t compelling enough to justify a theistic position for me. But there are other parts of our humanness that I can’t easily explain in evolutionary terms. Hopefully I’ll get on to those here in time.

5 thoughts on “A Sense of Injustice

  1. Josh says:

    As a theist – I don’t accept that we were never meant to die. We’re contingent beings. We have not always existed. (Or we cannot be shown to have always existed). Therefore – there is not basis to expect that – having come into existence – we will always exist.

    I think the explanation is _much_ simpler as an evolutionary psychology argument. Failure to maximize one’s reproductive potential (directly – and indirectly).

  2. I think you are asking the wrong question. I think people’s sense of injustice regarding tradegies has nothing to do with theistic or atheistic beliefs. It’s purely psychological.

    The world is a scary and unpredictable place and people make up stories to themselves to help them get through it. Every day things could happen that could end your life, seriously injure you or cause you emotional stress. You could get knocked over on the way out of your house in the morning, get involved in a car accident on the way to work, lose you wallet while getting lunch at the cafe, get drenched in a rainstorm on the way home and fall over while taking your trousers off in the evening while getting ready for bed. The story you construct says things like “its a rational risk”, “that never happens” or “I have no other choice”. Or even better you’ll not think about it at all – how many times a day do you think while in a car “I’m in 3/4 ton of metal and plastic doing 30mph. If the driver suddenly mistook the brake and accelerator I could die as a consequence”? I’m betting like me you never think this at all.

    Thinking of people to blame comforts people. It gives the illusion that someone was responsible and that it is possible to stop it happening again in the future. It also gives the feeling of it being a unique occurrence – something that can’t possible happen again.

    Theists might rationalise this in the way you have in your third paragraph. It is some function of god so it teaches, or it was part of a plan, or it made people do good or in the less palatable idealogies it was because the people involved somehow deserved it.

    Atheists might rationalise it in the form of science or some other non-theistic rationalisation. It’s survival of the fittest or some such.

    I submit that this is because to see it in its true form is incredibly hard for human beings psychologically. Sometimes ‘shit happens’. Bad things happen for no reason. People get hurt for no reason. Sometimes people are here and talking to you one day and the next they are dead and gone. Hell, sometimes good things happen for no reason too.

    I do my best to view the world in the ‘shit happens’ way but sometimes it is difficult. I know I am meant to die. I know other people are meant to die. I might emotionally not like it at the time but it does not negate the fundamental truth the everyone dies at some point and sometimes it is for no reason at all.

    As I said before, shit happens, and I am not arrogant enough to think that I am the only person to have grasped this.

    Feeling injustice over tradegy or dire circumstances is not a faith question (although that may be your personal answer). It’s a thinking question. Can you accept that sometimes bad things happen and your emotional response to it has no bearing on the event at all?


    • Kat
      I’m not negating the psychological answer, I think I’m asking what is behind that answer. Animals don’t seem to be so traumatised and crippled by the idea of death as we are (although, I recognise that is a rather subjective comment to make). Is it just a feature of having a ‘higher’ intelligence, that the inevitability of death becomes scary and needs to be explained away? Why would that be so?

      OK, that’s enough for now… I want to let other people lay into this if they so desire.

      • Hi Andy – it’s good to get a reply from you so I don’t feel so much like I’m spamming your blog this weekend. 🙂

        I agree that trying to work out how traumatised an animal is by another animals death is difficult and I suppose may not be quanitfiable enough to be fruitful.

        I believe however that people have a much higher ability to empathise and make predictions of the future than animals. Animals obviously have some ability to predict the future as we see the use of tools in many different species. A quick google search looking for scientific websites seem to suggest that empathy in some form is also present in animals but I don’t think they are as advanced as us in this area as we also have the ability to use these qualities on very abstract concepts. I can imagine what it feels like to be you for example. I can imagine what it feels like to be a 29 year old man, an experience that I will never have.

        But I can also imagine what it feels like to suffer, what it feels like to die in a tsunami like the one in Thailand, what it feels like to be in a car accident (OK, not too much imagining needed there 😉 ) or what it feels like to lose a child.

        Admittedly a lot of my imagining will be completely wrong as I’m sure that most things in life one cannot truly understand unless you experience it. But I can make a stab at it.

        If you see a news report about a tradegy, people dying or lost or just emotionally distressed about a subject you can imagine yourself in that position – how you would feel.

        I believe that is why it is more scary for us than animals. I don’t think an animal can empathise with someone halfway across the world who has lost a loved one in an earthquake (for example).

  3. I think the evolutionary biologist’s (not *necessarily* atheist) position these days is that self-awareness is a characteristic that has evolved into the human genome, the same with empathy, and I would guess the same would be said for a sense of “injustice” at nature. I was reading another blog that basically said the brain is “layers of evolution”: the reptilian brain is at the bottom, on top of it is a mammalian brain, and on top of it all is the neo-cortex, which is responsible for our self-reflective consciousness. I don’t know why, but this kind of makes sense. It certainly makes more sense than Theism with all of its conundrums (the power of evil coming to mind most prominently). But that still doesn’t answer WHY a sense of injustice evolved, just that it did. My best guess is that an appreciation for the injustice and randomness in nature makes a species more fit for survival…Which is more likely to survive and pass on their genes, a species that is aware of the injustice and randomness of nature, or one that isn’t?

    Of course this is just a guess. The more I think about these questions the more I start settling on answers like “they just are”. Theists do this all the time. For example, God “just is”. Doesn’t need a reason. Well if God can not have a reason, why can’t other things? I was introduced to this line of thinking after watching a response to a video where someone use the transcendental argument for God or TAG. Here are some links to the videos if you’re interested:

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