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The Justification Hypothesis

The third piece of the unified theory

Thich Quang Duc

On June 11, 1963 an elderly Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc calmly walked to the center of a circle of protesters, sat down on a cushion, and meditated in the lotus position as he was doused by his religious brothers in a specially concocted mix of gasoline and diesel fuel. He then proceeded to light a match. Although he reportedly grimaced in agony, he did not move, scream, or cry out as his body was incinerated.

What could possibly account for such a dramatic and seemingly unnatural human act? Common psychological constructs such as schedules of reinforcement, personality traits, neural networks, unconscious conflicts, and evolved predispositions do not appear to provide a framework that would allow for the meaningful interpretation of such behavior.

The third piece of the Unified Theory is called the Justification Hypothesis. It is the 'joint point' between Mind and Culture on the ToK System. Whereas Behavioral Investment Theory provides a framework that allows for the understanding of how human behavior is continuous with other animals, the Justification Hypothesis provides the framework for understanding what makes people such unique animals. It is an idea that casts the relationship between language, human self-consciousness, and the evolution of Culture in a new light by interpreting both human self-consciousness and Culture as justification systems. As described in the first Theory of Knowledge post, justification systems are the interlocking networks of language-based beliefs and values that function to legitimize a particular worldview.

Look around and you will see systems and processes of justification everywhere in human affairs. Arguments, debates, moral dictates, excuses, laws, as well as many of the more core beliefs about the self, all involve the process of explaining why certain claims, thoughts, or actions are warranted. In virtually every form of social exchange, from blogging to warfare to politics to family struggles to science, humans are constantly justifying their behaviors to themselves and to others. Moreover, justification processes are a uniquely human phenomenon. Other animals communicate, struggle for dominance, and form alliances. But they don't justify why they do what they do. We are the justifying animal.

How does the understanding afforded by the Justification Hypothesis (JH) fare in explaining Quang Duc's actions? Before his final dramatic act, Quang Duc left a letter, now known as the Letter of Heart Blood, which justified his sacrifice as an attempt to demonstrate to the world the magnitude of injustices that were being perpetrated on the Buddhist community by a repressive regime. His plan worked well, in part because the act was captured by a Western photographer and entered the world's consciousness. Many nations consequently brought pressure on the South Vietnamese government to soften its attitude toward the traditional religion, and ultimately it complied. Quang Duc's justification for his self-sacrifice can thus be situated within a larger constellation of cultural justification narratives and-according to the JH-it is these very narratives that provide the key to interpreting a wide range of human behaviors.

The JH consists of three basic postulates. The first is the biological postulate, which is the idea that the evolution of language created a new and unique adaptive problem for our hominid ancestors, namely the problem of social justification. The problem of social justification is the problem of explaining why you do what you do. To consider why this is a 'problem', ask yourself the following question: Would you want everyone to be completely aware of all your thoughts? Or, to put it another way, do you always tell everyone who asks exactly what you are thinking? If your answer is "no" (which is basically everyone's answer), you have a sense that it is often important to filter your thoughts and offer a socially justifiable narrative that explains your actions.

The second postulate of the JH is the psychological postulate, which is the claim that the human self-consciousness system functions as a justification system that constructs narratives for why one does what one does in a manner that takes into account one's social context and relative degree of social influence, and filters out unacceptable images and feelings. Let's define the human self-consciousness system as the portion of the human mind that reflects on one's experiences and builds language-based narratives for what happens and why. In this light, self-consciousness becomes the conduit point that connects one's inner world to the outer world of others. (Along these lines, the well-known neuropsychologist Michael Gazzinga refers to the self-consciousness system as 'the Interpreter'). The JH's second postulate predicts that the human self-consciousness system is designed in such a way that the individual maintains a consistent, relatively stable justification narrative of the self and generally works to maintain a justifiable image in the eyes of others.

To see the implications of this view of self-consciousness, think of Freud's perspective. Although many of Freud's original ideas (e.g., the Oedipal Complex) were wrong, Freud was an enormously astute observer of human behavior. And what was Freud's central insight about the nature of self-conscious thought? That it filters out socially unacceptable impulses (or wishes or fears) and generates socially justifiable narratives for one's behavior. This chapter on the JH reviews a large body of modern research in both cognitive and social psychology confirms that the self-consciousness system does in fact work this way. For example, people tend to alter their beliefs to maintain a narrative of themselves as effective, helpful and intelligent, people will consciously maintain socially acceptable nonprejudicial attitudes yet demonstrate subconscious biases against minorities, and people will tend to explain actions that result in favorable outcomes in terms of stable, internal causes, whereas actions that result in unfavorable outcomes are explained in terms of transient, external causes.

The third postulate is the social postulate, and is the idea that the JH provides the basic framework for understanding cultural levels of analyses. This is because the concept of large-scale justification systems providing the rules and patterns for acceptable behaviors is consonant with modern conceptions of culture. From this vantage point, laws, moral dictates, and even religious and philosophical beliefs are all seen as justification systems writ large that offer the individual roadmaps on what behaviors are socially acceptable. These large-scale cultural justification systems offer beliefs and values about what is morally right and wrong and make claims about how one should organize their personal and public lives accordingly.

As noted by the famed scientist E. O. Wilson, there currently is a large explanatory gap between the natural and social sciences. He wrote:

We know that virtually all of human behavior is transmitted by culture. We also know that biology has an important effect on the origin of culture and its transmission. The question remaining is how biology and culture interact, and in particular how they interact across all societies to create the commonalities of human nature. What, in the final analysis, joins the deep, mostly genetic history of the species as a whole to the more recent cultural histories of far-flung societies? That, in my opinion, is the nub of the relationship between the two cultures. It can be stated as a problem to be solved, the central problem of the social sciences and the humanities, and simultaneously one of the great remaining problems of the natural sciences (Wilson, 1998, p. 126).

The JH is an idea that fills this gap by: 1) offering a clear formulation of the evolutionary changes in mind that gave rise to human culture; 2) offering a theory of human self-consciousness that links human psychological with sociological levels of analysis; 3) integrating a wide variety of different theoretical perspectives (e.g., psychodynamic theory, social cognitive theory, everyday life sociology) into a coherent whole; 4) organizing and explaining vast domains of empirical data in psychology; and 5) offering a framework of explanation of human behavior that is consonant with frameworks in the social sciences.