Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

by Benjamin Studebaker

“Why do bad things happen to good people?” This is one of those questions that is often asked but rarely comprehensively answered or seriously thought about. I’d like to take a stab at it.

Most human beings have a sense of justice, a sense that people should get “what they deserve” in life. Society, and the universe more broadly, should reciprocate good behavior. If Bob is a good person, good things should happen to Bob. If Bob is a good person but bad things keep happening to Bob, there’s a palpable sense of unfairness. In particularly extreme and inexplicable cases, such as when children get cancer and die, that sense of unfairness can be overwhelming. There’s a disconnect between our sense of fairness and justice and what seems to happen in the wider universe. How do we explain it? Why do bad things happen to good people?

Religions often attempt to answer this question. They offer two broad answers:

  1. Karma & Reincarnation (Hinduism & Buddhism)–bad things don’t happen to good people. When a child gets cancer, the child is being punished by the universe for bad actions in a past life.
  2. Afterlife (Christianity & Islam)–even if it appears that bad things happen to good people in this life, in the afterlife these injustices are rectified.

These religious answers require an act of faith in something that cannot be observed. Either we must take on faith that people are reincarnated and that karma tracks our actions in these lives, or we must take on faith that there is an afterlife and that benefits and detriments are justly accorded there. These answers often struggle to satisfy us because they require faith in two far-fetched things:

  1. That there are immaterial states of being after death through which one accesses a future life or an afterlife.
  2. That in this future life or afterlife, benefits and detriments are justly distributed.

Irreligious people typically reject both of these things, but even if only the latter is rejected, the answer is rendered wholly dissatisfying. If there is reincarnation or an afterlife but benefits and detriments are not justly distributed in those places either, we are left with the same question–why do bad things happen to good people?

Despite the leap of faith that is required, the religious answers remain popular, in no small part because the alternative seems to be accepting an extremely discomforting answer–moral nihilism. The moral nihilist answer is that there is no answer, that bad things happen to good people because there is no justice in the universe, that justice is a human fiction that does not objectively matter. In practice, moral nihilism often leads to a malicious strain of egoism. If there is no objective morality or justice of any kind, then individuals are free to do whatever best suits them without fear of consequence in this life or the next.

But this is not the full extent of our options. We need not choose between taking two leaps of faith and conceding a morally indifferent universe. Instead, we can accept a simple but often unrecognized premise–people are part of the universe. We are not external to nature but rather part of it. Our bodies and minds are composed of molecules and atoms, just like everything else, and we operate in accordance with the same principles by which the rest of the universe operates. Justice and fairness need not reside outside of us in any metaphysical form. There may be no benign deity, afterlife, or series of lives, no karma or justice to be given by any external source, but that does not mean that there is no justice, it means that justice resides in us, that we are the part of the universe it objectively exists in.

Cancer has no sense of justice, it attacks anyone, regardless of whether that person is good or bad, but we have a sense of justice and we can work to clean up the injustice we see. When a child gets cancer, justice is to be found in the person of the doctor, of the oncologist, who acts on behalf of wider society. We determine that the child should not have cancer, that the cancer should be cured, and insofar as we are able, we cure the cancer. It is our task to judge who should experience what, how benefits and harms should be distributed, and what techniques we should use to maximize benefit and minimize harm. In ways great and small, all people participate in this process, a process that is inherently societal, that stems ultimately from the state, which organizes and distributes our collective resources for the good of citizens.

There is no greater social horror than a state that has become unhinged, that no longer recognizes its task or carries it out in an unjust way. Such a state ceases to serve justice, to serve the best interests of its collective citizenry, and must be reformed. In ways great and small, all states imperfectly serve justice and require reform of their structures and policies, including our own.

Often this kind of answer is met with a further mistake. It is argued that if justice resides in us, we may freely determine what justice is for ourselves as individuals and come to an infinitely diverse array of conclusions. This presumes a high level of autonomy and freedom in our evaluations of justice and the good. It suggests that these concepts are nebulous and can be freely defined or constructed by people however we choose. This fundamentally misses that whatever decisions we make about justice, there is ultimately a testing ground for those decisions–the realm of experience. If tomorrow the government decides that children who get cancer do not deserve to be treated for it, those children and their families cannot simply choose to feel nothing about that decision. Their unavoidable and inescapable pain and suffering would be objective and real.

Just as happiness and suffering are experiences we have rather than experiences we choose, justice is something that resides in us but cannot be freely redefined at will by us.  If you smack me in the head with a bat, you may wish that I enjoy the smacking, and I may wish that I enjoy the smacking, but unavoidably and undeniably, I will not enjoy the smacking far more than you will enjoy it. That truth makes it wrong to smack random people in the head with bats, even if you or I might delusively think otherwise. But will that be enough to stop us from smacking one another? Is our sense of justice sufficiently well trained, well educated? In many cases it is not. In many cases, our moral education remains incomplete–itself an injustice.

So why do bad things happen to good people? Because other people are as yet unable or unwilling to prevent those bad things from happening, to rectify the injustices in the world. We hope to someday build a world for people to live in where it is possible to rectify all injustices, to ensure that bad things never happen to good people.  This is, in some sense, the great human project that every person participates in every day. Justice resides in us and only we can provide for it. By recognizing that, we can see that we have a lot of work to do, but that only we can do it. Only we can stop deferring to the next life and start realizing our potential in this one. It’s cliché, but it’s true–we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.