Relational justification systems are the set of propositions that define the values and legitimize the actions and roles played by people in small groups or society at large. These systems provide the basic verbal framework that governs the rules of social exchange. Consider, for example, the notion that all people are created equal. This proposition forms one of the foundational principles for law and governance in this country. From the vantage point of the unified approach, we can identify four kinds of relational justification systems, which are as follows: 1) Power; 2) Love; 3) Freedom; and 4) Achievement.

Power-based justification systems legitimize the dominance and control of one individual or group over another. I have recently been listening to a historical fictional account of Genghis Khan. The system he set up (at least as depicted in the book, which is an acclaimed work but I have no idea how truly accurate it is) is the epitome of a power-based justification system in its most basic form. The entire social system revolved around Genghis Khan, and the hierarchy that he set up, and his authority was never questioned.

At one point, for example, he decrees that five thousand people need to be sacrificed for the war he is carrying out, and that decision is accepted by his people out without a murmur. From Genghis, to his brothers and generals, then officers and key male figures, then male soldiers, and then women and children and finally slaves, who can be used at the whim of the others, there is a crystal clear dominance hierarchy. What struck me was how clear the character of Genghis was about his power based values. In the book, Genghis repeatedly comments that he cares not for wealth or fame or women, but rather for the submission of others to his will.

Love-based justification systems legitimize connection, self-sacrifice, equality, solidarity, fairness, and the good of the group. Many hunter-gatherer societies developed a love-based justification system, where dominance, selfishness or the attempt to elevate oneself above the group is strictly prohibited. Socialism, with its focus on equality, the communal distribution of wealth and self-sacrifice for the societal whole is an example of a love-based justification system, although, as history has shown, such systems can turn into totalitarian systems as the government forces individuals to subjugate themselves for the group.

Freedom-based justification systems emphasize liberty, autonomy, and self-determination and oppose any form of obligation, force or social control. Ayn Rand’s philosophy and the more recent Libertarian Party epitomizes justification systems based on freedom. Consider for example, the preamble of the Libertarian Party, which is, “We seek a world of liberty; a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others. We believe that respect for individual rights is the essential precondition for a free and prosperous world, that force and fraud must be banished from human relationships, and that only through freedom can peace and prosperity be realized.”

The final kind of relational justification system is achievement-based. Achievement-based justification systems legitimize a hierarchy of social rank based on competency and mastery in certain domains, such as intelligence or a demonstrated record of accomplishment. Achievement-based justification systems are formally known as meritocracies. Virtually every form of social justification includes achievement-based thinking in one form or another. For example, Genghis Khan would appoint generals based on competence, and Ayn Rand emphasized that freedom would allow the most competent to rise to their potential, which would be of benefit for all.

Most complex systems of government, like the United States, adopt a combination of these systems. Their core values pull against one another, and this plays a role in creating political divisions. For example, the Democratic Party emphasizes fairness and equality relatively more, whereas the Republican Party emphasizes freedom from control and obligation, as well as more deference to traditional values and authorities.

It is also worth noting that these systems of relational justification apply in small groups or intimate relations as well. For example, work on parenting styles has delineated four basic styles that correspond well to the four relational justification systems described here. Authoritarian parents represent heavy reliance on power, permissive parents emphasize love, “neglectful” parents emphasize the freedom dimension, whereas authoritative parents are balanced and emphasize the cultivation of competencies in their children.

Ultimately, the perspective that emerges from the unified approach is that we should seek to build relational justification systems that maximize mutual relational value, which is the extent to which individuals feel valued by important others. The achievement of mutual relational value is gained by a deep appreciation for and effective navigation of the dialectical tensions between power, love, freedom, and the competent control over resources.


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