Truth or Justice?


My friend Pablo Policzer, hearing of my interest in questioning the priority of truth in politics (and, indeed, elsewhere) sends me a link to a talk by Jonathan Haidt: “Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice”. And he asks me “Have you gone conservative?”

Now, Haidt claims that there are two competing “teloi” in the modern university: truth and social justice. He makes Mill the flagbearer of the cause of truth, and Marx the inspiration for calls for justice. He argues that right now the movement towards social justice is increasing, and that at some point universities will have to make a decision: “I believe that the conflict between truth and social justice is likely to become unmanageable. Universities will have to choose, and be explicit about their choice, so that potential students and faculty recruits can make an informed choice.”

In fact, of course, for Haidt this is no choice at all: he sees social justice as contaminating the historic mission of higher education, not least because (in his view) it leads to increasing homogenization and decreasing diversity. Social justice, he tell us, is “incompatible with political diversity, since many conservative ideas and speakers are labeled as threatening and banned from campus and the curriculum.”

Now, as it happens myself I don’t think that the raison d’être of the university is either truth or justice, though both are better than the neoliberal logic that has entrenched itself in much of higher education. (And let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that Haidt seems compelled to add the qualifier “social” to justice as though that already delegitimated it; or that his complaints reek to high heaven of bad faith.) But let us say Haidt were right: if we had to choose between truth and justice, is there any real reason not to choose the latter?