Haidt’s Telos Choice – Either Truth or Social Justice

… a core term in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

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Concept description

Jonathan Haidt claims (link to article on right and to video of lecture below) that the pursuit of truth and the pursuit of social justice are two incompatible values in universities.

Telos and motivated reasoning

Haidt asserts that each profession or field has its telos (ultimate object or aim). He says:

“Fields interact constructively when members of one field use their skills to help members of another field achieve their telos. …But fields can also interact destructively when they inject their telos into other fields. Example: Business infects medicine when doctors become businesspeople who view patients as opportunities for profit. I will argue that social justice sometimes injects its telos of achieving racial equality (and other kinds) into other professions, and when it does, those professionals betray their telos.”

Haidt describes a consistent finding about human reasoning:

“If we WANT to believe X, we ask ourselves: Can-I-Believe-It?” But when we DON’T want to believe a proposition, we ask: Must-I-Believe-It?” This holds for scholars too, with these results:

  • Scholarship undertaken to support a political agenda almost always “succeeds.”
  • A scholar rarely believes she was biased.
  • Motivated scholarship often propagates pleasing falsehoods that cannot be removed from circulation, even after they are debunked.
  • Damage is contained if we can count on “institutionalized disconfirmation” – the certainty that other scholars, who do not share our motives, will do us the favor of trying to disconfirm our claims.
Sacredness, victimhood culture, and blasphemy

Haidt says that humanity evolved for tribal conflict:

“Along the way we evolved a neat trick: Our ability to forge a team by circling around sacred objects and 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.”

Haidt says that a “safety culture” that continues from K-12 into university leads to a situation where:

“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.

Haidt says that in a university with truth as its telos, “there is no such thing as blasphemy. Bad ideas get refuted, not punished.” In contrast, at a university with social justice as its telos, “there are many blasphemy laws – there are ideas, theories, facts, and authors that one cannot use.”

“This makes it difficult to do good social science about politically valenced topics. Social science is hard enough as it is, with big complicated problems resulting from many interacting causal forces. But at [such a university], many of the most powerful tools are simply banned.”

See also Victimhood Culture and Haidt’s 6 Innate Moral Foundations.

Disparate outcomes vs. disparate treatment

Haidt notes that all social scientists know that correlation does not imply causation.

“But what if there is a correlation between a demographic category (e.g., race or gender) and a real world outcome (e.g., employment in tech companies, or on the faculty of STEM departments)? At [a social-justice-as-telos university], they teach you to infer causality: systemic racism or sexism. … At [a truth-as-telos university], in contrast, they teach you that “disparate outcomes do not imply disparate treatment.” (Disparate outcomes are an invitation to look closely for disparate treatment, which is sometimes the cause of the disparity).

“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.”

Haidt’s distinction is illustrated in the image on the screen from the lecture below:

Click for video of lecture, 66 minutes

Click for video of lecture, 66 minutes

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Diversity, Identity, and Rights (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Jonathan Haidt (2016), Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice, Heterodox Academy, 21 October 2016, at http://heterodoxacademy.org/2016/10/21/one-telos-truth-or-social-justice/, accessed 23 October 2016.

Jonathan Haidt (2016), “Two incompatible sacred values in American universities” Jon Haidt, Hayek Lecture Series, 6 October 2016, 66-minute YouTube video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gatn5ameRr8, accessed 23 October 2016.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 6 November 2016.

Images: From the sources noted above, accessed 9 October 2016.