Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice

Jonathan Haidt has a very interesting article up at Heterodox Academy by this title.

The article itself is really just the bare outline of a talk he has given on this topic. You can watch a video of the whole talk, all 66 minutes of it, there if you like. I'm going to make time soon to do that.

Here is the introduction:

Aristotle often evaluated a thing with respect to its “telos” – its purpose, end, or goal. The telos of a knife is to cut. The telos of a physician is health or healing. What is the telos of university?

The most obvious answer is “truth” –- the word appears on so many university crests. But increasingly, many of America’s top universities are embracing social justice as their telos, or as a second and equal telos. But can any institution or profession have two teloses (or teloi)? What happens if they conflict?

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.

He follows this with an 8-point argument showing why universities must choose one telos.

UPDATE: The video is excellent. He is giving a talk at Duke University and argues that a university having more than one telos is harmful to everyone at the university, including those who are focused on social justice. I don't think I have ever seen a better presentation of conservative arguments to a progressive audience.

Also, if you are interested in recent changes at our universities or their future, I highly recommend it.


Anonymous said...

I have observed that when the modifier "social" is added to the term "justice," the result is not justice.


Grim said...

Aristotle thought justice was a combination of fairness and lawfulness, where the law was designed to make you behave as if you were virtuous. Even in that sense, though, you'd sometimes have to decide between what was fair and what was true. At least you could tell the truth about why you were being unfair.

Tom said...

Valerie, in the video he actually takes the term "social justice" apart and explains when it is justice and when it is injustice. He's good at this.

Eric Blair said...

Meh. They certainly don't have to choose one. They can be as self-contradicting as they wanna be. Kinda obvious that's what's going on.

Tom said...

Obviously, no one is going to force them to choose. In the video, Haidt explains why not choosing is harmful for everyone, so "must" here is a conditional expression: If universities want to be able to achieve their telos, they must choose one.

In the video, he strongly endorses choosing truth, by the way. That's the whole point of his Heterodox Academy. However, he says that if a university prefers social justice as its telos, it would be better to be open about it.