Many of us intuitively think so. Jonah Lehrer focuses on one example, prison rape, in his examination of the question, “Is the World Just?” That is one hell of a question for a single blog post.

In his response, he describes what is among one of the most interesting practical ethics tests on the books:

This is known as the Just World Hypothesis and it was first developed by the social psychologist Melvin Lerner. One of the classic demonstrations of the effect took place in 1965: Several volunteers are told that they are about to watch, on closed circuit television, another volunteer engage in a simple test of learning. They see the unlucky subject – she is actually a graduate student, working for Lerner – being led into the room. Electrodes are attached to her body and head. She looks a little frightened.

Now the test begins. Whenever the subject gives an incorrect answer, she is given a powerful jolt of electricity. The witnesses watching on television see her writhe in pain and hear her scream. They think she is being tortured.

One group of volunteers is now given a choice: they can transfer the shocked subject to a different learning paradigm, where she is given positive reinforcements instead of painful punishments. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of people choose to end the torture. They quickly act to rectify the injustice. When asked what they thought of the “learner,” they described her as an innocent victim who didn’t deserve to be shocked. That’s why they saved her.

The other group of subjects, however, isn’t allowed to rescue the volunteer undergoing the test. Instead, they are told a variety of different stories about the victim. Some were told that she would receive nothing in return for being shocked; others were told that she would be paid for her participation. And a final group was given the martyr scenario, in which the victim submits to a second round of torture so that the other volunteers might benefit from her pain. She is literally sacrificing herself for the group.

How did these different narratives affect their view of the victim? All of the volunteers watched the exact same video of torture. They saw the same poor woman get subjected to painful shocks. And yet the stories powerfully influenced their conclusions about her character.

Here the most disturbing data point: the less money the volunteer received in compensation for her suffering the more the subjects disliked her. The people explained the woeful injustice by assuming that it was her own fault: she was shocked because she wasn’t paying attention, or was incapable of learning, or that the pain would help her perform better. The martyrs fared even worse. Even though this victim was supposedly performing an act of altruism – she was suffering for the sake of others – the witnesses thought she was the most culpable of all. Her pain was proof of her guilt. Lerner’s conclusion was unsettling: “The sight of an innocent person suffering without possibility of reward or compensation motivated people to devalue the attractiveness of the victim in order to bring about a more appropriate fit between her fate and her character.”

Narrative is inextricable from ethics. We need a story to make a judgment call. Ethicists are trapped by reality.