Opinion

When Truth and Social Justice Collide, Choose Truth.

Jonathan Haidt

By Jonathan Haidt

By Jonathan Haidt

In September 2016 I gave a lecture at Duke University: “Two Incompatible Sacred Values in American Universities.” I suggested that the ancient Greek word telos was helpful for understanding the rapid cultural change going on at America’s top universities that began in the fall of 2015. Telos means “the end, goal, or purpose for which an act is done, or at which a profession or institution aims.” The telos of a knife is to cut, the telos of medicine is to heal, and the telos of a university is truth, I suggested. The word (or close cognates) appears on many university crests, and our practices and norms — some stretching back to Plato’s academy — only make sense if you see a university as an institution organized to help scholars get closer to truth using the particular methods of their field.

I said that universities can have many goals (such as fiscal health and successful sports teams) and many values (such as social justice, national service, or Christian humility), but they can have only one telos, because a telos is like a North Star. It is the end, purpose, or goal around which the institution is structured. An institution can rotate on one axis only. If it tries to elevate a second goal or value to the status of a telos, it is like trying to get a spinning top or rotating solar system to simultaneously rotate around two axes. I argued that the sudden wave of protests and changes that were sweeping through universities were attempts to elevate the value of social justice to become a second telos, which would require a massive restructuring of universities and their norms in ways that damaged their ability to find truth. 

I expanded on this argument in a blog post for Heterodox Academy where I predicted that “the conflict between truth and social justice is likely to become unmanageable … Universities that try to honor both will face increasing incoherence and internal conflict.” It’s now six years later, and I think it’s clear that this prediction has come true. It has been six years of near-constant conflict, with rising numbers of attempts to get scholars fired or punished for things they have said, and a never-ending stream of videos showing students (and sometimes professors) saying and doing things that are gifts to critics of universities and of the left. As one university president said to a friend of mine in 2019, “Universities are becoming ungovernable.” Public trust in universities has plummeted since 2015, first on the right, but later across the board. We are in trouble. 

Read the full The Chronicle of Higher Education article.
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Jonathan Haidt is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership.