From the Con Game to the Research Lab

Identifying four different contexts of justification.

Posted Aug 23, 2020

This blog was co-authored with John Vervaeke and Guy Sengstock.

A crucial idea in Justification Systems Theory (JUST) is the “context of justification”.  One way to conceptualize the context of justification stems from the work of the socio-ecological theorist Urie Bronfenbrenner. He identified the context of justification into three levels of scale and one of time. The largest scale is the macro-level of norms, values, religious ideologies and other cultural codes that shape the broad context. This can be considered the “cultural bubble”. The meso-level of community and group identification (which is usually where things like socio-economic class show up). The micro-level of context refers to the actual exchange and relationships between the participants. Finally, there is the time and history context across the three levels of analysis, which Bronfenbrenner called the chronosystem. (Note: Bronfenbrenner also identified the structural “Exosystem” elements. In the language of the Unified Theory, Bronfenbrenner’s exosystem refers to the institutional and technological aspects of society, and thus is part of “material culture” rather than Culture proper).

As suggested by the diagram below, we can align this with the Updated Tripartite Model in JUST. The context of justification can be thought of as the location and framing of dialogical exchanges that take place on the Culture-Person plane of existence.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

A second way to think about the context of justification is to consider the goals that are driving the social influence and reason-giving dynamics. This aspect was discussed in this Voices episode with John Vervaeke and Guy Sengstock, as they were exploring the implications of JUST and what it means to be a person. This blog shares their analysis, and then extends it.

Vervaeke and Sengstock were discussing how important the context of justification was for our development and socialization as persons, and they identified two central social contextual frames. One frame they offered was the “courtroom”. This is the context of when one is being challenged by another or a social group to defend one’s actions or else face sanctions. Indeed, the fact that our social lives can quickly turn into the context of the courtroom is crucial to the logic of JUST. JUST posits the courtroom dynamics of social influence is one of the primary reasons we have psychodynamic defense mechanisms. Here we can interpret “defense” as referring to the need we have to able to justify our actions on the social stage and defend our position in the social influence matrix of relational exchange, especially when challenged or attacked.

The conversation between Vervaeke and Sengstock was part of a larger project that involves developing an ecology of practices that foster "dialogos". Dialogos refers to a form of deliberate, reflective dialogue that cultivates deep interpersonal relating for existential insight. According to Vervaeke, dialogos can be framed as a call to return to the great Socratic tradition of philosophy as the practice of dialogical engagement to foster well-being, self-realization, integrity, and the exploration and cultivation of wisdom.

Given the goal of dialogos, Vervaeke and Sengstock moved the metaphor of the context of justification from “the courtroom to the courtyard”. The courtyard here can refer to two things. First, it can refer to the general process by which people come together to discuss what is and ought to be, and how to coordinate actions in everyday life. Second, seen through the lens of dialogos, the courtyard can be thought of a more refined and sophisticated deliberate practice of engaging in rich exchanges with fellow philosophical travelers.

I (Henriques) found their exchange highly valuable and contacted them both and invited them to join me in writing this blog (i.e., so that the three of us could come together in a "dialogical courtyard"). I shared with them that these two contexts could be “bookended” with two other contexts of justification. The result is a continuum of four contexts that can be helpful in framing different contexts of justification and the motives that drive human reasoning.

The first additional context is the “con game”. Here reason-giving and related actions are deliberate efforts at lying and misdirection for the purposes of manipulation. The goal in this context is structured to so that what appears to be the case to the mark (i.e., the victim) is in fact a con that has a completely different reality behind the scenes that is the real driver of events. The broader grammar here is the lie, whereby conscious deceit is used to give the appearance of truth because of the hidden motives.

The other context which moves to the opposite side of the continuum is the scientific research lab. The idealized goal of the scientific research lab is objective truth claims. In the lab, variables are measured quantitatively and then manipulated via experiments to determine causal relations. Such experiments are done “blind” in the sense that the goal is to factor out, as much as possible, the biases of the experimenters and yield results that generate deductive or inductive conclusions that can be derived from logic and evidence as truth statements about reality that exist independently from the preconceived notions and desires of populace. Thus, the lab is very much about factoring out the social influence dynamics of justification to yield an analytic description of some aspect of reality. (Note: We are not claiming that science genuinely works this way in all or even most cases; however, this is considered by many to be the idealized goal of the scientific endeavor). By book-ending the courtroom and courtyard with the con game and the research lab, we can lay out these four different contexts of justification the continuum depicted below:

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

What is fascinating about this continuum is that each describes a distinctly different relationship between personal motives, social motives, and the truth. In the case of the con, the perceived reality of the mark is deliberately manipulated and distorted based on hidden motives of the social group. In the case of the courtroom, two different motivational sets (i.e., plaintiff and defendant) are opposed to attempt to arrive at truth that then leads to social sanctions (or not). In the courtyard, personal and social motives are mingled with pragmatic truths to coordinate human activity. Finally, in the lab the idea is to factor out human motives to generate truth claims that are, in theory, free from bias and desires.  

What are the implications of this analysis? The ultimate implications are that human activity is driven by (a) interests and investments; (b) influence and being influencing; and (c) justification processes and contexts (see here for a similar analysis). This means that we need to be systematically aware of the kinds of institutions we are constructing and the implications they have for structuring our lives. Ideally, we will construct contexts of justification that channel our interests and relationships toward fellowship, dignity, and a shared, sustainable commons that enables the cultivation of well-being. The current global situation is quite far from this ideal and strong arguments can be made that we have built institutions and contexts of justification that are not particularly well-suited for human flourishing and well-being in the 21st Century. Along those lines, we will conclude with a link to an exchange between Gregg Henriques, John Vervaeke, and Jordan Hall that offers some discussion about how these kind of ideas might be cultivated to envision a brighter future.