truth or justice

Recently, Jonathan Haidt argued, in a lecture he gave at SUNY New Paltz, that American universities should adopt one and only one telos, or purpose. Historically, the telos of the university has been to seek the truth. But for many schools, their mission has increasingly become superseded by the aim of social justice, and while he contends that both truth and justice are vital to democracy, the problem arises when the objective of one begins to obstruct, rather than compliment, the other. Haidt believes that by separating truth centered schools from social justice centered schools, each will be able to more fully recognize its telos, and society will benefit as a result. In spirit, I agree with Haidt, however, I’m skeptical as to how this will work in practice. But his concerns are legitimate, and he gives a couple of quotes from Marx, who represents Social Justice U., as I will call it here, and Mill, who represents Truth U., to demonstrate the difference in their philosophies. But I’d like to add one additional quote of my own, from Saul Alinsky, in Rules for Radicals, to illustrate why there is such a disconnect between truth and justice:

With very rare exceptions, the right things are done for the wrong reasons. It is futile to demand that men do the right thing for the right reason. This is a fight with a windmill. The organizer should know and accept that the right reason is only introduced as a moral rationalization after the right end has been achieved. Although it may have been achieved for the wrong reason. Therefore, you should search for and use the wrong reasons to achieve the right goals. He should be able with skill and calculation to use irrationality in his attempts to progress toward a rational world.

In other words, Alinksy prioritizes just outcomes regardless of the truth. How he is supposed to arrive at just outcomes through such sloppy tactics is anyone’s guess. But I think this mindset is everything that is wrong with today’s social justice warrior, and perfectly demonstrates why we need to separate, as much as possible, truth from justice in university life.

One of the main areas where Truth U. and Social Justice U. bump up against one another is as it pertains to group differences and how we define equality. From the standpoint of Social Justice U., the moral principle that all groups should be treated as equals under the law, for example, necessitates that we must then blithely accept that groups are interchangeable and thus equal in all parts, despite resounding evidence to the contrary. The reasoning goes that any differences must then only be the result of exogenous forces, such as poverty, privilege (and lack thereof), language, culture, media portrayals, massive group conspiracies, discrimination and/or oppression.

But what if the theory that disparate outcomes are always a result of disparate treatment is wrong? As of now, Social Justice U. is tied to those dogmas, and actively tries to prevent Truth U. from considering all the possible variables that influence human outcomes, since by doing so some of their pet causes may be called into question. And there are many reasons to believe that group differences are more than the sum of their oppressions. But the argument that there are no differences between groups besides what’s been caused by discrimination is convenient because, as Brian Boutwell, Associate Professor of Criminology at Saint Louis University, has pointed out in a recent essay on the biological reality of race, “Although the argument that racial categories are fictitious and useless is ostensibly a scientific one, it has been promulgated by progressives to combat racial bigotry. After all, if race is an illusion, then racism is as unreasonable as the fear of ghosts. This would allow researchers and intellectuals not only to denounce racism, but also to mock racists for their basic misunderstanding of biology.” The same more or less can be said about the biological reality of sex differences, too.

Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate, elucidates on moral claims about equality, and how we can still make them even if we concede that large groups of millions, or even billions, of people produce group average differences unrelated to oppression or discrimination. He says, “Equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group.” The focus on the individual is important, because virtually all group average differences produce significant overlap, so it’s impossible to know with any certainty about where an individual lies along the continuum just by looking at their group (for example, people of all types of personalities, ability levels, and predilections can be found in just about any large enough human group). But the obsessive desire to suppress any assertions about the potential for group differences on any number of measurements is just one way that the telos of Social Justice U. has begun to encroach on the telos of Truth U., presumably because the truth about differences poses some great risk to the quest for justice (I find such a claim to be dubious at best).

But this desire to obstruct the truth has more to say about our own individual hubris and naturally competitive spirit, and the importance those qualities place on our affiliation to groups, than it does say anything about any great calamity that might befall us if scientists were to start inquiring about group differences more openly (which is not to say that no scientists do that already, but the area of difference research is highly political and any variance outside of the mainstream dogma can quickly land one in hot water). In fact, there is every reason to believe that such analysis will facilitate an improvement in our understanding of our common humanity, and produce solutions to our common problems, than will it be hijacked to justify a backwards lurch in our moral progress. For one, most of the discussion around group differences that could result in nefarious interpretations already exists in abundance on alternative news sites and right wing message boards, so it’s unlikely that bringing such conversations to mainstream academia will result in any more harm than has already been caused. Furthermore, by discussing group differences more openly and honestly, it allows for a proper ethics to develop around how we handle the truth about them in public discourse, sans the usual obfuscating tactics that exist today. As of now, the “difference denialism” approach hasn’t fooled anyone, but it certainly impedes our ability to make progress in a number of ways.

Ultimately, scientists at Truth U. need to be free to inquire about sometimes contentious issues if we genuinely want to make progress on a host of topics. Researchers and philosophers can work together, along with Social Justice U., to come up with proper messaging, but restricting academics from asking those difficult questions that make us uncomfortable–such as how genes might play a role in antisocial behavior–simply because we’re afraid of how some people might use the information, is not a sufficient basis for censoring them. And no group averages are immutable, so the fear that admitting to genetic links between this or that, for example, means that there is some fixed group hierarchy is totally unfounded. Difference does not imply better or worse. Also, it’s important to note that within group variation is usually greater than between group variation. What that means is that just because a group possesses some individuals with a trait, it doesn’t mean that all of that group’s members also carry the essence of that trait. In other words, it’s the same argument that we often here today on any number of topics where “not all x are y” or not all “b have c”. This is important especially for the ethics of group difference, since average outcome differences might be skewed by only a small minority of a group’s members. Measuring large populations by their averages is necessarily imperfect in this way, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be useful to science and policy. Furthermore, there are a number of methods that can be used to nudge the already moving averages in the direction we want them, regardless of why they are caused (and even if they are partly genetic), but if we can’t discuss group difference more intelligently, then it’s possible that we may miss out on tremendous progress. I’ll let Haidt sum it up:

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.

Which is why it is time for us to separate Social Justice U. from Truth U.