Explaining events in the world: reasoning about moral justice

Previously in the chapter, we covered research by cognitive scientists of religion, who showcased how people are cognitively biased to explain naturally occurring events in terms of an inherent purpose, known as teleology. How many times have you heard the following phrases employed by people to explain an event? “It was meant to be,” “everything happens for a reason,” “what goes around comes around,” “you reap what you sow.” You may have even uttered the words to yourself on occasion. Chances are that when you utter these phrases, they are not being used to explain mundane, insignificant events, such as realizing that your spouse did not tighten the lid on the jam jar properly.

As people often think that significant events happen for a reason, they are also motivated to uncover the reason for the event. Consider the endowment of the disaster with purpose; to communicate something to the people affected. On 11 March, 2011, a powerful magnitude-9 earthquake in Northeastern Japan initiated a series of massive tsunami waves that wreaked havoc on many coastal areas of the country. Around 150,000 evacuees lost their homes, and approximately 16,000 people lost their lives. The damage of property was estimated to be in the region of $235 billion, making it the costliest natural disaster in world history.91 On 14 March, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara told reporters that the disaster was “divine punishment” because the Japanese people had become egoistic and greedy.92 His comments sparked many public criticisms—most notably from the governor of Miyagi Prefecture, north of Tokyo on the east coast of Honshu island, where the death toll was expected to be around 10,000. Shintaro later retracted his remarks and apologized.93

On the one hand, we can attribute Shintaro’s comments about the tsunami to the unfiltered thoughts of a 78-year old conservative politician with a history of making offensive remarks. On the other hand, while Shintaro was the most vocal, he was not the only public figure to have offered such explanations.94 A poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PPRI) in April 2011 reported that 38 percent of Americans surveyed believed that natural disasters, such as the Tsunami in Japan, were a sign from God.9'1 What differed in the accounts between the Eastern and Western cultures was the mechanism through which they proposed the tragedy occurred; Ushihara, a follower of Buddhism and Shinto, attributed it to a supernatural force, whereas many Americans attributed it specifically to the will of a monotheistic God. What was similar to both Buddhist and Christian explanations was the assumption that the tragedy was purposefully intended to communicate something to the people affected. This is a prototypical example of teleological reasoning.

In addition to reasoning that the event had a purpose, Shintaro was also assuming that bad things tend to happen to bad people. The tendency to reason this way, and conversely, that good things happen to good people is common among ordinary people as well as political leaders. It is part of a tendency known as immanent justice reasoning. We may find Shintaro’s comments morally offensive, yet we would find it more cognitively perplexing if he had commented that the disaster was a divine reward (rather than divine punishment) because the Japanese people had become self-centered and greedy.

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