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heterodox: the blog

Opinion Piece

The Truth is Not Enough

Oliver Traldi December 2, 2020

The following is part of a series of blog posts this month 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.”

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Jonathan Haidt has argued forcefully that universities must choose between the telos – the goal or fundamental value – of truth, and that of social justice. This has been accepted, by some at least, as the definitive statement of the values of Heterodox Academy (HxA), and of the broader movement for academic freedom and politics-free inquiry and discourse of which HxA is a part. With social justice informing more and more teaching and research, according to Haidt, academics increasingly engage in motivated reasoning and shut out competing viewpoints, failing to see why contrary evidence and counterarguments might be compelling and overlooking plausible alternate explanations of data when a politically convenient one is available.

I largely agree with Haidt. But “truth” is not the right idea for distinguishing between these two ways a university might work. There are two reasons for this. First, truth is not an exacting enough criterion. One can believe something to be true and still not be intellectually responsible in believing it — in the way the university should push one to be. If someone believes, accurately, that about 71% of the earth’s surface is water, but believes the reason for this is that Poseidon is obsessed with that number and generated this particular planetary outcome, they believe a true thing, but for the wrong reasons.

Second, most people who take their teaching and research to be part of an activist project do not think they are doing anything untruthful. A sociologist whose academic work concerns, say, white supremacy, or the patriarchy, does not think such constructs are false or misleading; they think they’re the best available descriptions of some facet of social life. They may engage in activism fueled by this kind of conviction, but that does not make it any less of a conviction. Or take the gender wage gap. Even if economists like Harvard’s Claudia Goldin are correct in arguing that “the pay gap arises not because men and women are paid differently for the same work, but because the labor market incentivizes them to work differently,” this doesn’t mean that researchers who would argue otherwise are searching for something other than truth in order to buttress their activism. Rather, there exist two sides of a disagreement; each of them may or may not be reasonable, but both are convinced of their view, and neither is being mendacious.

In light of this, we should think of the university’s telos as being attaining knowledge, developing understanding, or providing explanation. Philosophers often take all three, knowledge, understanding, and explanation to be factive – that is, they think that if one knows, understands, or has explained something, then that thing is true. So these are all more demanding goals than truth; aiming for them would mean going above and beyond rather than abandoning the goal of truth. These goals also better help the HxA partisan (like me) respond to some counterarguments.

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Let’s start with knowledge. Generally, philosophers take it to be the case that for me to know something, I must believe that thing and that thing must be true. But there is also a third condition on knowledge: There must be the right kind of connection between the fact that I believe the thing and the fact that the thing is true. Under one popular theory, the belief must be justified in the right way; under another, the belief must have been formed by the right kind of process.

At least some of the time, beliefs that are fundamental for political movements popular among people who attend and teach at universities do not constitute knowledge for those people, and that is apart from whether or not they’re true. That’s because such beliefs are often justified in the wrong way, or arise through the wrong kind of process. Bad processes might include coming to believe things “by osmosis” or by social pressure, or coming to believe things because they’re politically convenient. Bad justifications might include poor arguments, misleading data, experiments that don’t replicate, and theories that don’t make any sense. If an institution becomes axiomatically committed to these beliefs, then it will cease to be able to come into contact with counterarguments, better interpretations of data, attempts at replication, and theoretical objections. Then, even if they’re true, these beliefs will no longer count as knowledge among the members of the community who hold them. Anything taught in a workshop or training rather than a classroom presents this danger. For instance, the motto that some category like race or sex or gender is a social construct may well be true, but if it is considered unnecessary to actually give reasons favoring it and verboten to consider reasons that might be given against it, it is hard to see how the university could be helping students form justified beliefs about it.

There are many divergent philosophical traditions concerning understanding and explanation, but one common view is that both understanding and explaining some truth involve having a grasp on what it is that makes it true: either its causes, or the general laws or mechanisms underlying it, or (for a logical or mathematical truth) the axioms from which it can be proven and the nature of the proof. We can see that, just as with knowledge, it’s common for people who arrive at their beliefs for political reasons to fail to be able to understand or explain them – or at least to fail to understand or explain them in the right way. Indeed, this is the very complaint we often make about deplatforming speakers with noxious views: Simply getting rid of them is no intellectual achievement; the ideal in the university is to find the right arguments against them.

Say there is some view which almost everyone agrees is abhorrent. And say there are ten or twelve arguments against this view. There might nevertheless be no consensus about which of these arguments is compelling. In fact, it might be the case for each one of these arguments that a majority of experts think it’s quite bad. In this situation, it might be true that the view is wrong, and we might even know that the view is wrong (under some views of knowledge and its component parts), but we might not understand or be able to explain why the view is wrong. In my opinion, this would mean that, as far as the telos of the university is concerned, we wouldn’t have achieved our goal. We’re only really done when we get it: this is why we do experiments in science classes and go through proofs in math classes instead of rote learning scientific and mathematical facts.

Above I mentioned the idea of an “intellectual achievement.” Some philosophers think that some types of reasons for believing something are the right kinds of reasons and some types of reasons are the wrong kinds of reasons. A HxA partisan, like myself, needn’t believe that there are right and wrong kinds of reasons for belief (though I do), only that some kinds of reasons produce intellectual achievements and some kinds of reasons don’t. (The philosopher Jonathan Kvanvig is known for writing on these and similar themes.)

This distinction is particularly important when philosophers consider whether there are moral, political, or otherwise non-intellectual reasons to believe things. Imagine someone credibly offers me a billion dollars if I can believe that the Earth is round. This gives me, in some sense, a very good reason to believe that the Earth is round. I could keep the money and benefit myself immensely, or I could donate it and effect a great number of good outcomes in the world. But if I believe the Earth is round on the basis of this reason, then I have not achieved anything intellectually, because the reason is not an intellectual reason. So it is enough for the HxA partisan to insist on something like the following: the characteristic achievements of a university, the ones that come in line with its telos or fundamental goal, are intellectual achievements, not achievements of morality, politics, or self-interest.

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Whichever of these specific versions of the “truth-plus” telos of the university we adopt, we’ll be better able to respond to some objections that are often made to the HxA accounts of academic freedom and open inquiry. One is that social justice and truth simply aren’t competing values, and thus  Haidt has presented a kind of false dichotomy. As I noted above, people who are part of social justice movements do not think the claims those movements are based on are false. However, even someone who agrees with every foundational idea of a political movement might still allow that members of that movement are not equipped to do a good job of justifying, understanding, or explaining those ideas. By distinguishing between what’s true and what counts as an intellectual achievement, we make it clear that the concerns of someone like that are compatible with the HxA’s mission.

Another kind of objection goes like this. All sorts of ideas are out of bounds, even on the most open university campus. A university shouldn’t host a flat-earther or some other sort of conspiracy theorist, and it shouldn’t host someone who argues for some ludicrous and offensive proposition – no university should give a platform to someone speaking in favor of reinstating slavery, for instance. The truth-plus telos helps us see why some ideas that are ludicrous and offensive could be “out of bounds” while some ideas that are ludicrous and offensive could remain “on the table” even if pretty much everyone agrees that they are false: for some such ideas our belief that they are false is very well-justified, or the fact that they are false is very well-understood or very well-explained, while for other such ideas, while we are right that they are false, we aren’t fully justified in thinking so, or we fail to understand why. As we said above, in the context of intellectual work, we should only really be satisfied once we have hit upon an intellectual achievement. To draw on a prior example, while it might be good to believe something is a social construct if it in fact is, it would be a genuine achievement to be able to construct or at least understand a compelling argument in favor of this view.

Putting the telos in terms of knowledge, understanding, explanation, or some other kind of intellectual achievement also removes some potential awkwardness in making the case for HxA. For while some who are attracted to the HxA’s critique of the university as it currently works think that some or another particular idea which has become commonplace on college campuses is actually false, still others have only a sort of vague feeling that when they observe the way in which students’, professors’, and administrators’ beliefs on politically relevant issues are formed, they have seen something going wrong. They might think some political views are accepted without justification or without understanding, or through an unreliable process; or they might think that when pressed, students, professors, and administrators who believe these things wouldn’t be able to explain why those views are correct. Thus the “truth-plus” way of conceiving of the telos of the university also gives organizations like HxA the opportunity to build a “big tent” by explicitly welcoming those who might think something is going wrong with academia’s ability to fulfill its mission despite agreeing with the vast majority of views that are mainstream on contemporary college campuses.

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Haidt’s idea of the truth telos gets something crucial correct about the mission of the university, which is that that mission is fundamentally an intellectual one. But by implying that finding the truth is enough to fulfill that intellectual mission, it falls a bit short. I suspect many HxA members think that many of the precepts of social justice movements that have become dogma on college campuses are in fact true. But the truth is not enough. The university’s purpose is not simply to state the truth as though it’s a comforting lullaby, but to house researchers who argue for and explain truths about the world, and to teach students how to justify and understand true beliefs. It is this push for intellectual achievement that is fundamentally at odds with a telos of activism, which seeks instead to persuade by whatever means are most efficient, non-intellectual as well as intellectual, and to protect politically useful beliefs, whether they’re false or whether they are in fact true, from the call for further and better reasoning which characterizes the academic mission.

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