Making Sense of Beliefs and Values: A JUST Approach

Making Sense of Beliefs and Values via JUST

Posted Feb 15, 2016

This is a blog designed to help you get a better frame for understanding beliefs and values. Let’s start by considering the following scenarios:

Jack comes home from a Trump rally and announces to his wife Joyce that he is voting for The Donald. Joyce, a lifelong progressive Democrat, believes this is crazy and wonders whether this will truly hurt their marriage.

Susan receives a C+ on her first graduate midterm and interprets this to mean she does not have the intellect to make it as a chemist, and debates about calling her parents and telling them she is going to drop out.

At 17, Tom sneaks out of his window at night to go visit his girlfriend. Thinking about the rules his parents have against such action, he thinks to himself, “Screw them, it is my car, my life, and I can see my girlfriend anytime I want.”

Gregg, a psychologist interested in physics, reads about an announcement that physicists have recently discovered gravitational waves. He researches the methods and concludes that they have in fact done so.

Each of these scenarios describes everyday examples of humans forming and having beliefs and values. Despite the fact that beliefs and values are central to human functioning and psychology, there is much confusion and controversy about them. Academics debate how they should be defined, how they form and change, and why there is so much variation on what different people believe and value, both between and within groups.

Used with permission from Author
Source: Used with permission from Author

This blog frames beliefs and values in terms of Justification Systems Theory (JUST), a perspective grounded in the unified approach. Prior to diving into JUST, I want to note that the title of this blog is pulled from a new book, Making Sense of Beliefs and Values, by my good friend and colleague Dr. Craig Shealy. He has a perspective which is very congruent with JUST, and he offers compelling narrative about why beliefs and values are so central to understand:

Pick up a newspaper or turn on a radio or television anywhere in the world and one ineluctable fact becomes immediately clear: beliefs and values are at the very heart of why we humans do what we do—and who we say we are—to ourselves, others, and the world at large....Likewise, it is crucial that we realize that the “actions, practices, and policies of individuals, groups, organizations, governments, and societies are mediated by beliefs and values that may be highly subjective, non-conscious, and self-serving rather than just, equitable, rational, and sustainable”.

So how do we understand beliefs and values? What are they? How do they work? How are they organized? Here I describe a JUST approach to thinking about beliefs and values in a way that I hope is fairly “user-friendly”. Specifically, the focus here is on helping you map the various domains that go into thinking about human beliefs and values in a way that will hopefully allow you to frame what beliefs and values are and why people have the beliefs and values that they do. There is much more to say, as beliefs and values are a very broad and complicated topic. But I hope the six key ideas from JUST will help you make sense of beliefs and values and how they play out in the social arena.

The first key idea is that we need to differentiate between perceptual-emotional types of beliefs and values from language-based ones. When you look up and see an attractive person in front of you, you could be said to have the “belief” that there is person in front of you, and that she is attractive. That is an “experiential” (or phenomenological) “belief”, what some have called an “alief”. In contrast to these kinds of processes (what some call "system 1" processes), JUST is concerned with our explicit, language-based beliefs and our self-conscious deliberation about them (what some call system 2). JUST is concerned with the kind of processes that allow me to write this blog. One key difference between these two systems is that the former can never be shared directly (you can never know exactly how I consciously experience the person in front of me). However, language-based beliefs can be shared directly if the person is so inclined. (I am sharing with you directly the narrative in my head about JUST via this blog).

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

The second key idea is that we should label the explicit, language based system of beliefs and values ‘the Justification System’. Why? Because it is functionally organized into systems of justification that determine what is and what is not justifiable. Returning to the examples at the beginning of the blog, using the frame of JUST, we would say that there has been a change in Jack’s justification system, such that he now thinks voting for Trump is justifiable. Tom activated justifications that legitimized his sneaking out, Susan is activating justifications that might legitimize her dropping out. Gregg finds the physicists claims justifiable. Framing belief-value networks in terms of justification allows us to emphasize how they are functionally organized.

The third key idea is that there are two fundamental problems of justification, which philosophers recognize as the problem of is and ought. The problem of “is” refers to the problem of what is justifiably true or factual. That is, does the claim under consideration deserve to be considered accurate or valid or not? The construct of beliefs roughly corresponds to justifications about “is”. The second fundamental problem is the problem of “ought”, which refers to what course of action one should value and thus, given a set of circumstances, then be guided by. Since the time of Hume, philosophers have been clear that in terms of logic, problems of “is” and problems of “ought” are conceptually separable. But they are interconnected in most human justification systems. Lots of evidence suggests that human motivation deeply influences what they believe to be true. Likewise, what is actually the case will frame what are legitimate options to value. The bottom line is that although these two elements of “is” and “ought” are conceptually separable, they are nonetheless deeply connected in human thought. (A side note here. It is often useful to get clarity in one's thinking to separate out what folks believe is actually true from what they wish was true or thought ought to have been true).

 A fourth key component of JUST is that justification systems exist both at the individual and the group level. Thus, I am guided by my justification systems when I am arguing with my wife, meaning that I am informed by my beliefs about what is the situation and what should happen. At the same time, both of us live in a particular social context that has “large scale” justification systems about men and women, husbands and wives. Consider, for example, that my arguments with my wife will correspond much more closely with the kind of roles and conflicts that are apparent between Phil and Claire in Modern Family (a modern day sitcom) than Ralph and Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners (a sitcom from the 50s). Why? Because the gender roles for husbands and wives have changed dramatically in the past 50 years. (Note that gender roles are the scripts that frame and legitimize actions and ways of being for males and females in a culture).

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

A fifth key component to JUST is that there are different domains of justification. Justification systems arise out of dialogical processes; that is, social exchange, debate, rhetoric, argument, and reason-giving between individuals. Because of this, the content and strength of justifications will vary as a function of the audience and the dynamics social influence (i.e., who has power, whose interests are aligned and so forth). Consider an everyday example. Joan comes home to her husband (David) and recounts the numerous ways in which her boss, Bob, is a pain in the ass. However, the next day, Joan is at work, and Bob stops by and asks how things are going and she says, almost automatically, that things are “Fine”. Why were her complaints so much more easily accessed and shared in the context of David than with Bob himself? The reason is that David will experience her complaints about Bob as much more “justifiable” than Bob himself will. Moreover, since Bob has power, this will make Joan more hesitant to access her complaints with him present, because then she will be placed in a socially dangerous (unjustifiable) position. With the point about domains of justification made, we can further state that the most basic distinction between the domains of justification is the domain line between the private (justifications one makes to one’s self) and the public (shared with others, to varying degrees). The point here is that the audience of self will give rise to a different system of justification than others.

If we combine the first claim that there are two streams of mentation (experiential and justificatory), with the fifth claim that there are two domains of justification (public and private), we arrive at the conclusion that there are three broad domains of belief-value networks: 1) the private experiential/feeling system; 2) the private narrator (what we justify to ourselves), and 3) our public persona (what we share with others). This is the basic “tripartite framework” for understanding human consciousness that grows out of the unified approach.

But there is yet another claim to be made about the relationship between these domains, and that is that there is filtering between them. The idea of filtering is the sixth key insight. As the example with Joan, David and Bob makes clear, there is filtering between the private narrator and the public. The unified approach variously refers to this as private-to-public filtering or when referring to the filter itself, it is called the Rogerian Filter. It is called the Rogerian filter because Carl Rogers placed much emphasis on the process and role of filtering our true private thoughts from the public for fear of judgment. It can be noted here that although fearing judgments from others is often the primary motivating factor, lying for manipulative purposes would also be an example of private to public filtering. The unified approach claims that there is also filtering between the experiential system and the private narrator. This arises when the justification system of the internal narrator is such that the emergence of private images, feelings, or impulses is deemed to be “unjustifiable”. The filter between the experiential system and narrator is called the Freudian filter (see here and here for more on this process).

Gregg Henriques
The Tripartite Model Maps Different Domains of Belief-Value Networks
Source: Gregg Henriques

So, to summarize: To understand human beliefs and values, we much first recognize that there are two different streams of cognitive process (experiential and linguistic-justification). Second, language based belief-value networks form into systems of justification, which (third) function to describe both what is the case and what ought to be the case in ways that are closely linked. Fourth, these systems of justification exist at the individual and group levels, which provide a framework for explaining why culture has such an impact on individual’s worldviews. Fifth, there are two domains of justification in adult humans, the private (what you say to yourself) and public (what you share with others). Finally, there are filtering processes between what you subjectively feel and experience, what you privately narrate to yourself and what you share publicly.

Hopefully, the map provided by JUST can help advance our understanding of human beliefs and values, for as Dr. Craig Shealy notes, few problems are more important for humanity.