Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Truth, Or Social Justice: Pick One

For universities and churches, to choose anything over Truth is to corrupt and destroy

Philosopher Elaine Scarry, from her book On Beauty And Being Just:

This willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky. The arts and sciences, like Platon’s dialogues, have at their center the drive to confer greater clarity on what already has clear discernibility, as well as to confer initial clarity on what originally has none. They are a key mechanism in what Diotima called begetting and what Tocqueville called distribution. By perpetuating beauty, institutions of education help incite the will toward continual creation. Sometimes their institutional gravity and awkwardness can seem tonally out of register with beauty, which, like a small bird, has an aura of fragility, as when Simone Weil, in Waiting for God writes:

The love of the beauty of the world … involves … the love of all the truly precious things that bad fortune can destroy. The truly precious things are those forming ladders reaching toward the beauty of the world, openings onto it.

But Weil’s list of precious things, openings into the world, begins not with a flight of a bird but with education: “Numbered among them are the pure and authentic achievements of art and sciences.” To misstate, or even merely understate, the relation of the universities to beauty is one kind of error that can be made. A university is among the precious things that can be destroyed.

It’s hard to read this without thinking of Jonathan Haidt’s recent essay stating that universities must choose one telos: Truth, or Social Justice. (Telos is the Greek word for “goal”.) They can have both, but they cannot have both equally.  Excerpts:

As a social psychologist who studies morality, I have watched these two teloses come into conflict increasingly often during my 30 years in the academy. The conflicts seemed manageable in the 1990s. But the intensity of conflict has grown since then, at the same time as the political diversity of the professoriate was plummeting, and at the same time as American cross-partisan hostility was rising. I believe the conflict reached its boiling point in the fall of 2015 when student protesters at 80 universities demanded that their universities make much greater and more explicit commitments to social justice, often including mandatory courses and training for everyone in social justice perspectives and content.

Now that many university presidents have agreed to implement many of the demands, 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. Universities that try to honor both will face increasing incoherence and internal conflict.


Marx is the patron saint of what I’ll call “Social Justice U,” which is oriented around changing the world in part by overthrowing power structures and privilege. It sees political diversity as an obstacle to action. Mill is the patron saint of what I’ll call “Truth U,” which sees truth as a process in which flawed individuals challenge each other’s biased and incomplete reasoning. In the process, all become smarter. Truth U dies when it becomes intellectually uniform or politically orthodox.


  1. Sacredness

Humanity evolved for tribal conflict. Along the way we evolved a neat trick: Our ability to forge a team by circling around sacred objects & principles. In the academy we traditionally circled around truth (at least in the 20th century, and not perfectly).  But in the 21st century we increasingly circle around a few victim groups. We want to protect them and help them and wipe out prejudice against them. We want to change the world with our scholarship. This is an admirable goal, but this new secular form of “worship” of victims has intersected with other sociological trends to give rise to a “culture of victimhood” on many campuses, particularly those that are the most egalitarian and politically uniform. Victimhood culture breeds “moral dependency” in the very students it is trying to help – students learn to appeal to 3rd parties (administrators) to resolve their conflicts rather than learning to handle conflicts on their own.

  1. Anti-Fragility

“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Nietzsche was right, and Nasim Taleb’s book “Antifragile” explains why. Kids need thousands of hours of unsupervised play and thousands of conflicts and challenges that they resolve without adult help, in order to become independently functioning adults. But because of changes in American childrearing that began in the 1980s, and especially because of the helicopter parenting that took off in the 1990s for middle class and wealthy kids, they no longer get those experiences.

Instead they are enmeshed in a “safety culture” that begins when they are young and that is now carried all the way through college. Books and words and visiting speakers are seen as “dangerous” and even as forms of “violence.” Trigger warnings and safe spaces are necessary to protect fragile young people from danger and violence. But such a culture is incompatible with political diversity, since many conservative ideas and speakers are labeled as threatening and banned from campus and the curriculum. Students who question the dominant political ethos are worn down by hostile reactions in the classroom. This is one of the core reasons why universities must choose one telos. Any institution that embraces safety culture cannot have the kind of viewpoint diversity that Mill advocated as essential in the search for truth.

Read the whole thing. It’s short, and to the point — and extremely clarifying.

It is clear that SJWs — not only militant students, but also, and especially, their fellow travelers on faculties and in administrations — are destroying the university as we know it. They may not mean to be, but that’s exactly what they are doing — and professors who try to split the difference between Truth and Social Justice are aiding and abetting the tearing down.

Re-read Elaine Scarry’s remarks. Beauty, like truth and goodness, is never something we can possess in its entirety, but we can prepare ourselves to see it clearly when it presents itself. Or we can prepare ourselves to be blind to its presence. Social Justice (such as it is) can be by-product of the search for Truth, but it can never be a substitute. If it is pursued as such, it will become an idol, and make it much harder to see truth, goodness, and beauty. This is largely what the Commedia is about.

Haidt’s is not a religious vs. secular argument. I would a thousand times rather my Christian children attend a secular college that claims Truth as its telos than attend a Christian college that makes Social Justice its telos, or that fails to make Truth its exclusive telos.

But Haidt’s insight is also true for churches today. If we diligently seek Truth, and seek to conform our lives as much as possible around what we believe to be True, then we will inevitably achieve a form of Social Justice. But there can be no Justice, social or otherwise, without Truth. And Truth can never be what serves a pre-determined goal — the Revolution, the party, equality, the nation, the family, the temporal interests of the Church, nothing.

Those contemporary churches that put anything above the fearless pursuit of Truth, and living in Truth, will die, because they have no way of protecting their vision of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful — which is to say, God. They subordinate it to worldly, temporal concerns, and destroy their only mechanism (so to speak) for perceiving God clearly. To be clear, it is impossible for any church to see the entire Truth, and in any case, for Christians, Truth is not merely a set of propositions, but is a Person, Jesus Christ. This has profound implications that we can’t really get into in this post. My point is, churches, like universities, that place politics, culture, or any other goal over Truth are signing their own death warrants.

It is important that people see this now, and make plans accordingly. It is a time of winnowing. Universities and churches are precious things that can be destroyed, and are being destroyed at this very minute. Ideas have consequences, and so do choices.