Moral Luck: Newsletter #29.

We don't normally associate religion with gambling; if anything, religious beliefs are the opposite of the lottery. God, if she exists, is the ultimate bulwark against chaos. Faith, certainty, prayer; every one of these mental habits is an attempt to persuade oneself that things are all right and will remain so. Of course, we see the opposite every single day. Humpty Dumpty falls on the ground, shatters into a billion pieces and can't be put back together again. Humpty Dumpty is a rebuke to everyone who believes in a just world.

In the best of all possible worlds, the cosmic Ram Rajya, the world is good and all of us mirror that goodness. The streets are clean, there's no crime, citizens are kind to each other; misfortune, if at all it strikes, is quickly corrected by the state and the people. "God is in his heaven and everything's right with the world."

The logician always aims for Ram Rajya, for the perfect conjunction of mind and matter. The probabilist is suspicious of perfection. To a probabilist, too much belief in a just world can be a problem in of itself. In fact, to a probabilist, the inherent goodness of the world only appears to be a liberal idea, it's actually a very conservative one.

The reason is simple, it has to do with how the logician and the probabilist handle imperfection. What happens when you see beggars on the street? The logician is unwilling to doubt his faith; in his view, signs of imperfection are the fault of the imperfect. The beggar is poor because he's lazy. Even worse, imperfection is a sign of real malevolence. Imperfection is the mark of the devil. If so, there's only one solution: get rid of the offending spots. Burn the slums and kill the beggars.

Like scorned lovers, evidence of imperfection turns the faithful into fundamentalists. This is not a merely theoretical observation; experimental studies have shown that people who believe in the just world hypothesis are more likely to blame the poor and the needy for their condition than people who believe in luck. The moral of the story: in our social engineering, we should design societies that they are robust with respect to dice throwing.

The Mahabharata figured out the dangers of faith before anyone else. It's no surprise to me that a dice game is at the heart of the story. In the conventional narrative, Yudhisthira is a perfect human, Dharmaraja, except for his addiction to gambling. He literally gambles his kingdom away. Let me offer a counter narrative, that gambling redeems him or else he might have well turned out to be a monster. If he hadn't played against the Kauravas, he would have remained an unchallenged ruler; that's a recipe for totalitarianism. Instead, Yudhi experiences first hand what happens when the dice are loaded against you. I think it makes him a better king.