The Justification Hypothesis (JH) is a proposal in Gregg’s Tree of Knowledge (ToK) System that conceptualizes the process of “justification” as a link between the Mind and Culture levels of complexity and as a foundation for a scientific theory of culture. The JH is described on the ToK website as follows:
The evolution of language gave rise to the problem of justification, and this evolutionary pressure ultimately resulted in the human self-consciousness system and human culture. The JH carries with it three fundamental postulates. The first is that the evolution of language must have created the problem of justification, which is the problem of explaining one’s self to others in a justifiable manner. The second postulate is that the human self-consciousness system can be understood as a “justification filter”. This second claim links the evolutionary analysis with key insights from psychodynamic theory. Specifically, psychodynamic theory posits that socially unjustifiable impulses are inhibited and socially justifiable reasons are given for actions taken. The third postulate is that culture can be understood as large scale justification systems that coordinate the behavior of human populations. (Emphasis mine)
The focus of this post will be on the third postulate of the JH. Put simply, the beliefs, values, and behavioral norms of a society, along with the social institutions that emerge from those beliefs, values, and behavioral norms, can be conceptualized as “justification systems”.
However, this seems to be only half of the “cultural picture”, for a basic sociological distinction can be made between material culture on the one hand, and nonmaterial culture on the other. As the name suggests, “material culture” basically refers to all those things that people make and use, such as technology and agricultural products. Clearly, conceptualizing culture as “justification systems” is more precisely referring only to nonmaterial culture. For a complete foundation for a theory of culture, not only would something fundamental about material culture need to be incorporated into that foundation, but “that something” would need to be effectively synthesized with the Justification Hypothesis.
The solution to this problem, I suggest, lies in the thought of 19th century political economist and social philosopher, Henry George.
Who was Henry George?
Henry George (1839 – 1897) was a self-taught economist and social philosopher of the late nineteenth century. As a young man, George was a printer in San Francisco. Future grandaughter, Agnes de Mille, wrote:
George was endowed for his job. He was curious and he was alertly attentive to all that went on around him. He had that rarest of all attributes in the scholar and historian that gift without which all education is useless. He had mother wit. He read what he needed to read, and he understood what he read. And he was fortunate; he lived and worked in a rapidly developing society. George had the unique opportunity of studying the formation of a civilization — the change of an encampment into a thriving metropolis. He saw a city of tents and mud change into a fine town of paved streets and decent housing, with tramways and buses. And as he saw the beginning of wealth, he noted the first appearance of pauperism. He saw degradation forming as he saw the advent of leisure and affluence, and he felt compelled to discover why they arose concurrently.
In 1879, George wrote Progress and Poverty where he explored this vexing issue as to why greater poverty emerged simultaneously with greater progress.
Land and Natural Resources, Material Culture, & the ToK
Near the very beginning of Progress and Poverty, (chapter 2), George found it prudent to “…define our terms so that each meaning remains consistent. Otherwise, our reasoning will be vague and ambiguous.” Three important terms that he defined were the three classical factors of production: land, labor, and capital. Basically, they can be summed up as follows:
- Labor – all human exertion in the production of wealth
- Land – all material factors of production that are not a product of human labor, (this would include all natural resources)
- Capital – all material factors of production that are a product of human labor, (e.g., tools, machines, buildings, agricultural products, etc.)
Here, we can already begin to see excellent consistency in these definitions with the four levels of complexity in the ToK. With only a slight rewording of these definitions, such consistency comes into sharp focus:
- Labor – all human behavioral investments in the production of wealth, (consistent with Level 3 of the ToK)
- Land (including natural resources)- all the physical, (e.g., raw land, minerals, the electromagnetic spectrum) and biological (e.g., natural growth forests, wild animals, etc.), factors of production that are not a product of human labor, (consistent with Levels 1 and 2 of the ToK, respectively, moving from the “bottom-up”)
- Capital – all the physical, (e.g., technology), and biological, (e.g., domesticated plants and animals), factors of production that are a product of human labor, (consistent with Levels 1 and 2 of the ToK, respectively, moving from the “top-down”)
Thus, a “crisp” distinction can be made between “land and natural resources” and “material culture” consistent with the ToK, that is contingent upon a functional relationship with the human behavioral investment of “labor” on the one hand, and the physical and biological levels of complexity on the other. “Land and natural resources” refers to the physical and biological levels of complexity that are not a product of human labor, while “material culture” refers to the physical and biological levels of complexity that are a product of human labor.
In other words, we can now say in a manner consistent with the ToK that we have both a conceptualization of nonmaterial culture grounded in the human behavioral investment of “justification” AND a conceptualization of material culture grounded in the human behavioral investment of “labor” as it relates to the physical and biological levels of complexity.
The challenge now is to tie these two separate conceptual foundations for material culture and nonmaterial culture into a coherent whole for a complete conceptual foundation of culture. For the answer, we need to turn again to Henry George — specifically, the answer is found in the fundamental reason as to why poverty exists in the midst of progress.
It All Boils Down to Land
To say that no human being made land and natural resources is pure tautology. Furthermore, it is an obvious truism that all human beings need land in order to live and make a living. It also equally true and obvious that, ultimately, land and natural resources are a necessary prerequisite for there to even be any material culture, for one clearly cannot make something from nothing. Even a hunter-gatherer needs raw material such as flint in order to make a stone tool.
Also, land is in “fixed-supply”. That is, there’s only “so much of it”. Indeed, as population rises, then the demand for land will rise, and thus so will its value.
This is one way in which the value of land is a socially created value, but not the only way. For as a community emerges and develops, the value of any parcel of land in that community will rise, as well, simply by virtue of its location.
But then there is the issue of land ownership and its distribution. If land is owned by some to the exclusion of others, then the owners have a clear, (and indeed, tremendous) fundamental advantage in terms of power. George puts it succinctly:
Land is required for the exertion of labor in the production of wealth. Therefore, to control the land is to command all the fruits of labor, except only enough to enable labor to continue to exist.
And to this, George adds in the same chapter of Progress and Poverty:
The great cause of inequality in the distribution of wealth is inequality in the ownership of land.
Ownership of land is the great fundamental fact that ultimately determines the social, the political, and consequently the intellectual and moral condition of a people. And it must be so.
For land is the home of humans, the storehouse we must draw upon for all our needs. Land is the material to which we must apply our labor to supply all our desires. Even the products of the sea cannot be taken, or the light of the sun enjoyed, or any of the forces of nature utilized, without the use of land or its products.
On land we are born, from it we live, to it we return again. We are children of the soil as truly as a blade of grass or the flower of the field. Take away from people all that belongs to land, and they are but disembodied spirits. Material progress cannot rid us of our dependence on land; it can only add to our power to produce wealth from land.
Hence, when land is monopolized, progress might go on to infinity without increasing wages or improving the condition of those who have only their labor. It can only add to the value of land and the power its possession gives.
Everywhere, in all times, among all peoples, possession of land is the base of aristocracy, the foundation of great fortunes, the source of power.
By directing our focus to the fundamental issue of land and natural resource ownership, so many sociological and anthropological issues surely, and intuitively, come into sharp focus — issues such as inequality, power, social stratification, social class, and so forth.
Take hunter-gather bands, for example. It is common knowledge that hunter-gatherer societies are relatively egalitarian, and that such societies hold the land in common. Is not the relationship between these two social facts obvious?
Or let’s say we take the specific example of gender inequality. What if we lived in a world where only men were allowed to own land, but women were not? In such a world, any woman would have to stay in “good standing” with some man in order to even have a place to live, would she not? Certainly, such a state of affairs would hardly be conducive to any chance of gender equality.
(Here, it is particularly worth noting something about Carrie Chapman Catt, who was a major leader in the movement for establishing the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women the legal right to vote. Catt was also the 1920 Presidential candidate for the Commonwealth Land Party — a U.S. political party established on Georgist principles.)
Or we could look at racial inequality in the same manner as we look at gender inequality above. If all the land in the world were, for example, owned by caucasians to the exclusion of non-caucasians, would not a world of tremendous racial inequality be difficult to imagine?
And if ownership of land is the fundamental source of power in any society, then would not the particular system of land ownership co-vary with the “large-scale justification systems” of such a society? If women were excluded from land, would we not expect to see justification systems of “women’s inferiority” that ultimately function to reinforce that particular justification system of land ownership? Could we not expect the same thing in a society in which people of a particular race or ethnicity were excluded from land? Would not that society’s religion function to “divinely” justify such a state of affairs?
Perhaps, one might wonder the possibility, would even our academic justification systems function to justify such a state of affairs of power and privilege, even if implicitly and unwittingly? If this is even a possibility, then the need — indeed the moral obligation— for the academy to direct a critical eye back towards itself cannot be understated.
Synthesizing Material Culture and Nonmaterial Culture
At this point, it is probably becoming clear as to an appropriate conceptual foundation for culture that fundamentally accomodates both material and nonmaterial culture in a coherent way. Furthermore, such a synthesis provides a logical starting point for investigation of any society and its culture, regardless of time or place:
Justification systems of land and natural resource ownership
Indeed, such a conceptual foundation is commensurate with Gregg’s view of society having four components:
- Culture (the language based beliefs and values networked together into systems of justification
- Behavioral investment patterns (activities that humans are engaging in)
- Technology (materials humans develop to coordinate the flow of resources)
- The biophysical ecology in which the human population lives
Furthermore, a link between facts and values can be made here, as well. It is factual, for example, that no human beings made the earth, though all human beings need the earth to live and make a living. It is also a fact that land and natural resources are ultimately a neccessary prerequiste for there to even be any material culture, (or even “culture” in general!)
It is also a question of fact, in regards to a particular socio-historical context, as to what kind of justification system of land and natural resource ownership any particular society has, past or present. But it is a moral question as to what kind of system of land and natural resource a scoiety ought to have. George’s position was quite clear.
Henry George’s Position and His “Remedy”
George was explicit in what he saw as the “true” remedy for poverty in the midst of progress, along with the unequal distribution of power that came with this:
Deduction and induction have brought us to the same truth: Unequal ownership of land causes unequal distribution of wealth. And because unequal ownership of land is inseperable from the recognition of individual property in land, it necessarily follows that there is only one remedy for the unjust distribution of wealth:
We must make land common property.
And as a practical application of such an end in a modern society, George’s solution was both simple and elegant:
If rent were taken by the state in taxes, then land would really be common property — no matter in whose name or in what parcels it was held. Every member of the community would participate in the advantages of its ownership.
Land values increase as population grows and progress advances. In any civilized country, this is enough to bear all government expenses. In better developed countries, it is much more than enough. In fact, when rent exceeds current government revenues, it will be necessary to actually increase the land tax to absorb excess rent. Taxation of rent would increase as we abolish other taxes. So, we may put our proposition into practical form by proposing:
To abolish all taxes — except on land values.
George’s “remedy” sparked an international movement that lasted for over a generation. Progress and Poverty sold 3 million copies in the U.S. when the population was under 50 million. Perhaps, one might even call such a movement a “useful” mass movement. It had notable advocates, including Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, John Dewey, and Albert Einstein. Indeed, this movement could even make for an interesting sociological case-study in social movements, considering its phenomenal rise and then steady decline a generation or so after George’s death.
In Henry George’s thought, I have attempted to find a way to synthesize nonmaterial culture, (expressed as “justification systems”), and material culture in a manner consistent with the ToK System. Furthermore, such a synthesis could perhaps help accomodate greater synthesis amongst the various social sciences, such as economics, sociology, political science, and anthropology within the context of the ToK.
But perhaps even more importantly, Henry George’s thought and Gregg’s ToK capture the same spirit in which “…we might actually be able to make a systematic difference in society that gives individuals…a chance to reach their full potential as human beings.”
Perhaps that could be Henry George’s most important ccontribution of all to the Tree of Knowledge System and indeed, to the academy as a whole.