Psychological Constraints on Egalitarianism: The Challenge of Just World Beliefs

Abstract

Debates over egalitarianism for the most part are not concerned with constraints on achieving an egalitarian society, beyond discussions of the deficiencies of egalitarian theory itself. This paper looks beyond objections to egalitarianism as such and investigates the relevant psychological processes motivating people to resist various aspects of egalitarianism. I argue for two theses, one normative and one descriptive. The normative thesis holds that egalitarians must take psychological constraints into account when constructing egalitarian ideals. I draw from non-ideal theories in political philosophy, which aim to construct moral goals with current social and political constraints in mind, to argue that human psychology must be part of a non-ideal theory of egalitarianism. The descriptive thesis holds that the most fundamental psychological challenge to egalitarian ideals comes from what are called Just World Beliefs. A troubling result of Just World Beliefs, one that poses a prima facie obstacle to egalitarianism, is that people tend to dismiss or explain away any threats to their belief that the world is fundamentally just. The pervasiveness and severity of Just World Beliefs predicts that people will be resistant to egalitarian policies. My aim is to show how research on Just World Beliefs can help diagnose common problems for egalitarianism and assist in making realistic recommendations for bringing current societies closer to egalitarian ideals.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See also Verba (1987) for a comparison of opinions about equality among the powerful and affluent in the U.S., Japan, and Sweden, and Wong (2006) for further discussion about the relevance of cross-cultural constraints for the plausibility of egalitarianism.

  2. 2.

    Though of course exceptions will be made for those who are perceived as having given great effort (such as members of the military).

  3. 3.

    One proposed explanation for how people are capable of blaming victims for their suffering is that JWB actually reduce the mental states people attribute to victims, thus making it easier to ignore pain and suffering. For example, Kozak et al. (2006) gave participants a story involving a poor college student facing budget cuts at his job. In one condition he keeps the job, while in the other condition he loses his job and, as a result, struggles to pay bills and buy food for himself. The results showed that those who learned that the student had lost his job and was suffering actually reduced the mental states they were willing to attribute to him (including goals, attitudes, and emotions).

  4. 4.

    To clarify, it is thought that being reminded of the presence of injustice in the world has a similar effect as being reminded of one’s mortality. The link between JWB and mortality salience has good empirical grounding: for instance, prompting people to think about death leads them to be more suspicious of innocent victims; and conversely, presenting people with positive images of innocent victims increases death-related thoughts (see Landau et al. 2004).

  5. 5.

    An idea proposed in a slightly different form by Cohen (1989).

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Acknowledgments

I am grateful to have received helpful comments on this paper from Linda Radzik, David Wright, Jake Greenblum, and an anonymous reviewer from Res Publica.

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Correspondence to T. J. Kasperbauer.

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Kasperbauer, T.J. Psychological Constraints on Egalitarianism: The Challenge of Just World Beliefs. Res Publica 21, 217–234 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11158-015-9284-z

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Keywords

  • Egalitarianism
  • Just World Beliefs
  • Non-ideal theory
  • Psychological constraints