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heterodox: the blog

Opinion Piece

Truth and Social Justice: How Universities Can Embrace Both of These Values

Patrick J. Casey December 15, 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.”

In a lecture at Duke University, the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt argued that universities must choose one of two incompatible sacred values – they could pursue truth or they could pursue social justice, but they could not do both. It is often thought that Haidt was suggesting that the two aims could never be combined and that universities must pursue one or the other. However, I want to suggest that Haidt leaves open the possibility that universities can actually pursue both, but only if they prioritize truth over social justice.

It’s important to first clarify what precisely is meant by having truth or social justice as the primary value of a university. Here’s one way of thinking about the distinction: the aim of the university which has truth as its sacred value is to figure out what reality is like – how everything “fits together.” Pursuing truth involves more than just the discovery of individual, atomized truths. In fact, in one sense, the analyses of individual disciplines take us further away from this “big picture” understanding that the pursuit of truth aims to reveal. For example, if one wants to fully understand something as complicated as a human being, one would need to combine analyses of neuroscience, psychology, biology, kinesiology, and much more. But to reduce our understanding of human beings to any one of these analyses would be a mistake. In pursuing truth, the goal is ultimately to integrate all of these analyses, much like one fits puzzle pieces together to reveal a larger, coherent whole. In this sense, truth as a sacred value is closely related to understanding (and therefore draws near to what Oliver Traldi has called “truth-plus”). Understanding what reality is like is important, in part, because it enables us to productively navigate the world.

On the other hand the aim of the university that holds social justice to be its sacred value is not to understand the world, but as Haidt says, referring to Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, to change it. Social justice is probably most charitably construed as pursuing human emancipation from various forms of oppression. Understood in this way, the goal of social justice is to disrupt or at least reform structures which dominate, marginalize, exclude, or otherwise disempower people. One of the virtues of construing social justice this way is that human emancipation is, quite obviously, a noble goal.

The question is: Can social justice be the sacred value of universities? My concern is that placing the goal of changing the world over and above that of understanding it will not reliably lead to human emancipation. On the contrary it will likely result in harming the very people we desire to help. This is not to say that universities should abandon social justice as a value or abandon all social justice initiatives. Universities can legitimately promote and foster the pursuit of social justice. However, they can only do so effectively when they prioritize the pursuit of truth over the pursuit of social justice.

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Our understanding of the relationship between truth and social justice can be enhanced by C.S. Lewis’ essay entitled “First and Second Things.” According to Lewis, if you put second things first and first things second, then you lose both, but if you keep first things first and second things second, then you can hold onto both.

Consider running and health. Of these two goods, health must take priority – in Lewis’ language, it must be the “first thing.” If a person becomes obsessive about running and prioritizes it above her health, then she may continue to run even if injured. Over time, if she continues to prioritize running over health, she will further damage her body, perhaps resulting in a permanent inability to run. On the other hand, if she prioritizes her health and keeps running in second place, then she will rest when injured and, consequently, will be able to enjoy more running in her life overall. Therefore, if one prioritizes running over health, in the end one will end up with neither, but if one puts health first, one can have both.

Truth and social justice can be viewed as having a similar relationship. If we prioritize social justice over truth we will get neither; whereas if we prioritize truth over social justice, we can get both. Why is this? In short, because acting on an inadequate understanding of what the world is like and how it works won’t reliably get you what you want. Not just that, it can actually cause harm. Take an example that is dramatized in an episode of the HBO series Band of Brothers: Suppose you happen upon a person who is starving and you want to help him. Suppose further that, because you lack understanding of medicine, you believe that the best way to help is to give him copious amounts of food. This would be a mistake. Too much food too quickly may cause death in someone who’s been depleted of nourishment for an extended period (this is called “refeeding syndrome”). Since your beliefs about the best solution were based on an inadequate understanding of the world, acting on them would result in harm. In other words, good intentions, kindness, the desire for justice – these aren’t enough. If you want to help people, you must first understand what the world is really like.

How does this connect to social justice? To take a single example, on many campuses in the US, there have been calls for increased Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programming. Surely the goal of making members of campus communities that have been historically kept on the margins feel more welcome is a laudable one. Nevertheless, the calls for increased DEI programming operate under the belief that more DEI programming of the sort that universities have adopted up until this point will make those who have been on the margins feel more welcome on campus. But will it? I can’t answer that question definitively – although the available research suggests, in fact, that standard DEI programming undermines the very goals that it seeks to obtain. My point is only that it matters if that belief is true. If it is false, then continuing to push the current kind of DEI programming may actually lead to the opposite of its stated goals. Effective social justice advocacy relies on properly understanding the world.

The same point would apply to myriad other social justice initiatives: Should we defund the police? Should we replace phonics with the whole word method for learning to read? Should we end the drug war? Should we pay reparations to the American descendants of slavery?

If successful social justice advocacy depends on truth – on accurately understanding how the world works – then it behooves us to do our level best to make sure that we understand the world before we take action. To not do so increases the likelihood that any intervention on behalf of social justice will actually harm the very people that we set out to help, thus hindering and not facilitating human emancipation.

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How do we do our level best to make sure that we understand the world? In the academy, disciplines have methods and analysis specific to their domain of inquiry. The methods of economics are not the same as those of biology or history. And sometimes there are multiple methods and multiple forms of analysis housed within the same discipline. Indeed, if  we want to understand what the world is like, we need a plurality of methods and perspectives. This means that in trying to understand a complex phenomenon, restricting ourselves to any one kind of analysis would not help us get at the truth. The pursuit of the truth depends on bringing people together who have very different ways of thinking and understanding the world in order to reason together. Open dialogue, argument, and constructive disagreement, both within disciplines and between them, are the best tools that we have for accessing the truth.

One problem with universities adopting social justice as the primary sacred value is that it privileges one kind of analysis over others for understanding complex social phenomena. In the current manifestation of social justice, various prescriptions for promoting human emancipation are predicated on an analysis that involves seeing society through an “oppressed”/“oppressor” dynamic. Consequently, universities that see social justice as their primary goal can end up reducing complex issues to one single dynamic and crowding out other kinds of analysis as somehow illegitimate or as ignoring “the real issues.” But encouraging students and faculty to understand complex social phenomena solely or even primarily through one lens will lead to an inadequate understanding of how the world works. With a deficient understanding of the world, they will be less equipped to effectively work towards human emancipation and more likely to cause harm to those that they would like to help.

In short, a diversity of perspectives combined with open dialogue is the best way to access the truth, and by extension, the best way to promote social justice. Consequently, a university that doesn’t actively and intentionally keep a space open for faculty and students to bring different kinds of analysis to bear on social problems and to produce and consider arguments for and against various policies and initiatives and instead determines in advance what the position of the university is, may think that it’s advocating for social justice, but it’s not. Such a university cannot promote social justice because it is not oriented first towards truth.

Let me be very clear: I don’t want to remove the concern for social justice or those who advocate for it from universities. Nor do I want to get rid of the kind of analysis on which contemporary versions of social justice are based. But it is important to realize that it is only one kind of analysis and that one kind of analysis cannot yield the whole truth of a complex phenomenon. It is precisely because I care about real social justice that I think we need to not mistake a piece of the puzzle for the whole puzzle.

It’s not possible to have social justice as the primary value of universities because its effective promotion is contingent upon prioritizing truth. If universities keep these values properly ordered, they can work towards both. But if universities encourage faculty, staff, and students to prioritize social justice over truth, they will end up with neither.

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