Justification Systems Theory Applied to Politics

Politics is a great place to observe biased justifications in action.

Posted Nov 12, 2020

Justification Systems Theory is the idea that humans tend to justify their actions in accordance with social goals. Or more specifically, there is a tension between personal interests, social interests, and accuracy in how people develop justification narratives about what is and what ought to be.

Politics gives us a nice lens through which to view this process. Like lawyers, politicians have clear goals. They want social influence and they want policies to be enacted that enable their team, donors, and friends to make gains so that they continue to obtain attention, money, and influence.

President Trump plays this game to the hilt. As I note here, it is so basic it can be considered as a simple algorithm. He will only endorse things that support his social influence. So, when the election was called by the Associated Press, he rejected it and has tried every possible claim to overturn it. Of course, Trump is not alone in this; it is everywhere in politics. He is just particularly blatant about it.

Because it is so blatant, he and his team allow us to see how dramatic reasoning and claims may be shaped by one’s motives and desires. Consider, for example, that when Alaska was recently called by the Associated Press for Trump, his daughter Ivanka proudly tweeted that her father had won the state. Of course, this pronouncement was inconsistent with the entire system of justification that Trump’s team had been building to explain why we should not consider Joe Biden President-Elect. As Trump tweeted just a few days ago: “Since when does the Lamestream Media call who our next president will be?”

According to JUST, this biasing feature is part of the basic design of the human ego, which can be considered the "mental organ of justification." Consider, for example, a story involving my kids. My daughter Sydney was 4 and she was playing with my son Jon (2). I happened to be watching them from the other room. Their play became contentious and Jon pushed her. Being bigger and stronger, Sydney pushed him harder and he fell on his bottom and started crying. I appeared on the scene and said, “What happened?” Without any hesitation, Sydney said, “He fell!”

 Pexels/Pixabay
Source: Pexels/Pixabay

This is actually a very sophisticated comment. Notice that it is technically accurate. Jon was on the ground and was crying because he “fell.” Of course, the reason he fell to the ground was because she had pushed him. But that self-incriminating fact was left out because she did not want to deal with the social consequences. Notice, this is not something she even had to reflect on and sort out. Rather, her developing ego immediately tried to create a narrative of events that preserved social influence.

When I said, “I saw you push him,” her immediate reply was, “But he pushed me first!” Again, no attention to her guilt or responsibility. Rather a motivated construction to defend the ego, regardless of actual facts. This is pretty standard for a 4-year-old. Thankfully, over the years, Sydney learned the importance of honesty and integrity. The other day, she was telling me about the opportunity some others were taking during COVID to cheat in their classes. She stated she wouldn’t do that because it was important to be honest.

As this narrative suggests, the justification system can develop in different ways in different people and different contexts. Much of our political system of justification seems to be about where Sydney was when she was 4.