The following is part of a series of blog posts on the telos of the university, a topic originally explored on the HxA blog by Jonathan Haidt in his piece, “Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice.”

In recent years, colleges and universities have implemented a variety of social justice initiatives on campus. These include things like mandating diversity training, focusing on microaggressions, condemning certain speech acts, establishing safe spaces, deploying trigger warnings, deleting courses that don’t advance diversity initiatives, etc.


Jonathan Haidt and others explain this phenomenon in terms of a struggle between two different goals for higher education. The first goal is truth. This is the Truth University model, and the patron saint of Truth U is John Stuart Mill.  When truth is the goal, the university will strive to both discover and disseminate the truth. The second is social change. This is the Social Justice University model, and the patron saint of Social Justice U is Karl Marx. When social change is the goal, the university will strive to change culture by wresting power from those who wield it unjustly and using it to uplift the downtrodden.  

When faculty and administrators view the university primarily as an instrument to bring about social change, it leads naturally to the sorts of initiatives mentioned earlier. And the problem, as Haidt points out, is that these visions can come into conflict. For example, safe spaces impede the search for truth. Thus, the argument goes, no university can really have both goals. Each must choose between truth and social justice.

Framing the dilemma this way gets much right. Initiatives of these sorts are rightly seen as instruments of social justice since social justice is considered the subset of ethics concerned with structuring society so that all people are treated fairly or justly. For example, an administrator might think that justice requires mandatory trigger warnings for students struggling with PTSD. And there really are some faculty and administrators who care more about this sort of social change than truth. Finally, no university can really have two incompatible goals (at the very least they would need to be prioritized).

However, this framework is deficient in an important respect. It implies that the only reason a campus would consider social justice initiatives is a shift in purpose. That ignores the important difference between the goals of an institution and the side constraints of an institution. Side constraints refer to the ethical guardrails that limit the scope of an endeavor. Once that distinction is made, it becomes obvious that even a truth-seeking institution will care about social justice.

The goal of an institution is its telos. The limits on achieving the goal are the side constraints. The goal is where you want to end up, and the side constraints are the boundaries along the path toward that goal. In other words, the goal is what you want to achieve. The side constraints are how you are allowed to achieve it. 

Consider a basic example: In bowling, the goal is to knock down the pins. The side constraints are the foul line and gutters. To win the game, you have to achieve the goal (knock down the pins) while operating within the side constraints (not crossing the foul line and keeping your ball out of the gutters).

Confusing goals and side constraints can lead to bad decision-making. For example, students across the country have petitioned their university endowment committees to divest from fossil fuels and other putatively harmful industries. When the committees refuse to do so, one common justification is that using the endowment funds to bring about social change would alter the goal of investing. And the goal of an endowment committee is to earn a profit, not change the world. Hence, it would be irresponsible to divest from companies that are turning a profit. (My own college offered this rationale a few years back.)

This response confuses two dimensions of the situation. The students weren’t asking the committee to change the goal of their investing. They still wanted a good return that would help the college. They were asking for a change in how the investing was done. In other words, they were asking for a new side constraint. Indeed, that’s what socially responsible investing (SRI) is: investing with a goal of making a profit but doing so in ways that are less environmentally or socially harmful than the status quo.

Side constraints are at play even when the goal is truth. Consider a CIA interrogator tasked with discovering the truth about a terrorist cell. She may interview a prisoner, but she must do so within the bounds of the Geneva Convention. Truth is the goal, but only certain ways of obtaining that truth are permitted by the side constraints.

This holds for higher education as well. There are undoubtedly all sorts of important truths we could discover if scientists were allowed to run any experiment they like without needing approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB). Yet, the Stanford Prison Experiment taught us that IRB-imposed side constraints on our pursuit of truth are a good idea. As a result, we willingly forgo certain discoveries in the name of justice. Note that the very existence of these constraints implies that values other than truth are at play in higher education.

Similarly, there are probably novel ways of teaching the truth that we could use if we were open to humiliating students in class, making public examples of people, etc. But we forgo those methods because, while they might work, they disrespect members of our academic community.

In this way, there’s always a tension between goals and side constraints. The tradeoff has been overlooked by those defending the Truth U model of the university. For example, here’s what Haidt says about the role of justice within Truth U:

There seem to be two major kinds of justice that activists are seeking: finding and eradicating disparate treatment (which is always a good thing to do, and which never conflicts with truth), and finding and eradicating disparate outcomes, without regard for disparate inputs or third variables. It is this latter part which causes all of the problems, all of the conflicts with truth. (slide 7)

This is entirely mistaken. A focus on disparate outcomes isn’t the only source of conflict with truth. In fact, eliminating disparate treatment often conflicts with the goal of discovering or disseminating truth. The horrific treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany gave rise to all sorts of important medical discoveries, many of which we still use to save lives. Closer to home, the Tuskegee syphilis study is an odious example of treatment that yielded insights into the progression of untreated syphilis. The problem isn’t that the researchers didn’t advance the goal of truth. They did. The problem is that they did so in ways that violated important side constraints on how people ought to be treated. 

Thus, even a university that holds the discovery and transmission of truth as its highest goal needs to consider how those truths will be discovered and transmitted. For example, we require experiments involving human subjects to go through IRB approval. Even though truth is the goal, IRB approval is the side constraint.

It’s plausible that at least some of the social justice initiatives in today’s universities could function in the same way. Perhaps we should put parameters on our teaching of truth (like trigger warnings). Perhaps we should put parameters on the discovery of truth (like putting some research topics off-limits). Neither implies that social justice is the goal of the university. Instead, the university might be willing to constrain the dissemination or pursuit of truth in certain ways. Saying that we have to choose between truth and social justice is a sort of false dichotomy; multiple values are in play even when truth is the goal.

The takeaway lessons are twofold. First, identifying the goal of a university as truth doesn’t end the discussion about social justice initiatives. We still need to think about how we will pursue the truth, and justice will provide various side constraints. Promoting social justice initiatives at your institution need not be aimed at the goal of social change outside of the university. Instead, it might be aimed at treating the denizens of the academic community with the respect they deserve, regardless of what goes on outside the university gates.

Second, two important questions about social justice initiatives need to be addressed: (1) Does a given initiative work? (For example, do trigger warnings really offer the psychological protections they advertise?), and (2) Under what conditions are we willing to sacrifice the value of truth for the value of social justice? (For example, are we willing to forgo potential discoveries about how male and female bodies work if it turns out that this sort of research ostracizes members of the transgender community?)  Answering these questions is beyond the scope of this piece but crucial for the future of higher education.