Sunday, January 21, 2018

Truth and justice

This is an abridged version of an essay of mine which appeared recently at The Electric Agora. My Twitter profile: @mark_english1.

It seems from a slew of documents that have made their way into the public domain over the last year or so that the FBI and the Department of Justice have become unacceptably politicized, allowing political considerations to affect internal decision-making. No doubt there always has been and always will be a degree of politicization within such agencies and departments, but this tendency does seem to have got out of hand in recent years, and it is no surprise that matters are coming to a head. Juridical and law enforcement systems need to be seen to maintain a certain degree of integrity and independence from politics if they are to operate in anything like an effective way.

Certainly, one doesn’t expect a lot of truth and justice in the broader political sphere. Politics is essentially a power game and often a very dirty one at that. So, naturally, to the extent that the legal system finds itself influenced or infiltrated by political players, it loses credibility.

Lawyers I have known have, on the whole, been pretty cynical about the law and sometimes cynical in other ways too. I was shocked as an idealistic young man by the attitude of a highly-regarded progressive lawyer I once consulted. He was not much older than me, but he confided to me in a dismissive kind of way that he had given up entirely on the sort of sincere idealism that he saw (rightly) as lying behind my preoccupations of the time. His public reputation and profile belied his real views and continued to do so as he rose to national prominence.

Idealists and well-meaning intellectuals who might seek to engage with, or who happen to find themselves caught up in, the alien world of politics – or the law, for that matter – tend not to thrive. On the other hand, though, ideologues will often find a lucrative niche in today's think-tank-infested world.

Rather than talking directly about politics, however, I just want to make a few remarks and observations about the two concepts – both fundamental to an understanding of social and political questions – which I alluded to above: truth and justice. The notions of truth and truthfulness happen to be central to my own view of things; justice not so much. Let me try to explain why.

Life, it seems to me, is deeply and irredeemably unjust, from the womb. Our attempts to “make things right” are worthy, even inspiring. But it is wishful thinking to believe that political or judicial actions can ever have more than a very modest positive effect on the scheme of things; that they can ever right more than a minuscule fraction of the countless wrongs and injustices that surround us on every side. Putting the matter less emotively, I would say that the domain of predicates such as ‘just’ or ‘fair’ is quite constrained and that related or cognate terms like ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’ have very limited applicability.

High-minded intellectuals – who, along with less high-minded intellectuals, were until a century or so ago sponsored almost exclusively by churches or religious organizations – have over the centuries worked out various schemes in which justice does prevail in very significant ways. The only trouble is, these systems – whether one is thinking of the politically-charged apocalyptic literature of Judaism and early Christianity, more sober accounts of divine judgment focused on an individual’s moral choices, or Eastern ideas of karma and reincarnation – do not correspond with reality. As I see it, unless you are committed to such or similar religious notions or at least to the implicit metaphysics of the Natural Law tradition, justice is a problematic concept. Too grand, too ambitious and (in many cases at any rate) not altogether clear.

We have certain instincts that we share with some non-human animals which entail reactions and behaviors that give the appearance of involving a basic, inbuilt sense of fairness or justice, but our developed ideas of justice are heavily mediated by culture and subject to cultural variation.

The current notion of social justice, for example, is clearly culturally determined. It has a peculiar and fascinating history which I may discuss in a future piece. It is also notoriously controversial. Friedrich Hayek rejected the concept of social justice as nonsense. Justice, as he saw it, is essentially a process and not about engineering some predetermined outcome. In general terms I go along with this but will not attempt to defend a Hayekian view here.

Of course, in cases where there is common agreement, I’m for justice rather than against it. Who wouldn’t be? But in many cases it is either impossible to clearly and uncontroversially define or, if it can be clearly defined, it is unattainable.

Truth does not have things stacked against it in quite the same way. Sure, it’s philosophically contentious. But so long as it is understood in an ordinary, everyday, lowercase kind of way, it is quite within reach and attainable much of the time.

I will try to spell this out a little. We often get things right in everyday life in the sense that the claims we make are in accordance with the relevant facts. The cat is in the kitchen. Dinner is served. The coffee is cold. You lied about where you were last night. Such claims, if they are in accordance with the relevant facts, are deemed to be correct or true (it doesn’t really matter which word we use) rather than incorrect/untrue/false. I am just talking about ordinary usage here. Someone accused of lying might deny it by saying: “That’s not true! I was at my grandma’s as I claimed.”

Truthfulness is quite distinct from truth, of course. It is synonymous with honesty and relates to one’s communicative intentions. One is being truthful if one tells it as one sees it, without trying to deceive one’s interlocutor in any way. The facts may be wrong, but it is the intention that counts here. Truthfulness and fallibility are quite compatible.

Truthfulness is inextricably bound up with intellectual integrity. The scientist or historian who fudges her data or distorts the facts is not a real scientist or a real historian. The intellectual or writer who presents the work of others as his own is a fraud and is rightly ostracized.

I have argued that it certainly does make sense to talk of the truth or otherwise of specific claims in the course of everyday life. But truth in its grander or more scientific or scholarly manifestations may be something of an illusion.

Although facts of various kinds may be verified by observation, experimentation, documentation or plausible testimony, how we conceive of facts in the context of scientific research is often determined to a greater or lesser extent by the theoretical framework. Cats and kitchens and coffee and grandmothers are givens within the framework of ordinary natural-language-based conversations. We are using ordinary words in ordinary ways. But when the framework is, say, a scientific theory, and we are moving beyond the normal social framework for which natural language evolved, we need to be more circumspect both in our claims and how we express them. The facts in the context of a scientific theory may be expressed in terms of the theory itself, and so become dependent on that particular conceptual framework (more or less as ordinary facts are dependent on the framework of natural language, social interaction and ordinary life). Do the English words ‘true’ and ‘truth’ carry over into a scientific context? Perhaps. But I don’t think it ever really makes sense to talk of a complex theory as true.

There is a website with the unfortunate name, Why Evolution is True. This just sounds wrong to me, a poor use of English. If ‘evolution’ is taken to refer to a process, then obviously the predicates ‘true’ and ‘false’ cannot apply. They can only apply to claims, beliefs, etc.. Even if the term ‘evolution’ is taken as shorthand for ‘the theory of evolution’ we still have problems. A theory is not a claim; nor is it merely a set of claims. It is a framework within which various claims are made and tested. Can a theory be true? This sort of statement doesn’t really make sense to me. A theory can be good or sound or well-established. Scientific theories are complex objects and they are not set in stone. There will always be modifications in the offing, of one kind or another.

Just as scientific theories are open to being shown to be incomplete or inadequate, so complex narratives purporting to be true accounts may be rejected as such if they are shown to be fictions, i.e. not in accord with certain known facts. But I think it is appropriate to be skeptical about all complex narratives. Inevitably, many quite different stories can be told which fit the known facts, and many more which fit some of the facts.

Much of our social and personal lives is driven by justificatory narratives of one kind or another. Political narratives could be seen as a subset of these: specifically as those justificatory, secular narratives which are shared (or which are designed to be shared) by large numbers of people.

I want to finish up with a few random observations on how antonyms and negation play into this discussion of justice and truth.

Just as the positive rights implicit in social justice are more controversial and contested than negative rights (like liberty), so the concept of justice is (I would suggest) more problematic than the concept of injustice or of a miscarriage of justice. You could argue about whether a person guilty of a crime, for example, ought to be punished in this way or that or punished at all or even blamed. (There might have been extenuating circumstances.) But there would be no disagreement at all about the wrongness of a miscarriage of justice, where a person innocent of a particular crime was convicted for it; or with respect to cases of a broadly similar kind but which do not involve the court system (so that the term miscarriage of justice would not apply). With respect to the latter, I am thinking of situations – not hard to find, it must be said – in which a person is disadvantaged or penalized in some significant way for what is generally accepted as honest and exemplary behavior.

Note that the two concepts, truth and justice, are not symmetrically related. Truth relates directly to justice. The legal process is designed to uncover the truth of what happened, and perjury is a serious offense. One talks of someone being falsely accused. But justice doesn’t relate directly to questions of truth and falsity. Claims are true or false according entirely to non-justice-related criteria. Justice (or injustice) just doesn’t come into it.


One example I have come across of truth being presented as being more problematic than its opposite is a literary one. No doubt there are countless possible examples one could give. This just happens to be one which stuck in my memory.

It comes from the author’s preface to a very controversial book by the literary academic and cinema historian, Maurice Bardèche, Nuremberg ou La terre promise. The book was published in 1948. The épuration légale was still underway. The execution of his friend and brother-in-law, the journalist Robert Brasillach, had politicized Bardèche. But my point here is logical and rhetorical and any discussion of the politics involved will be left for another time.

“I do not know if truth exists,” Bardèche wrote. “Many people have tried by subtle arguments to prove to me that it doesn’t. But I know that lies exist. I know that the systematic distortion of facts is a reality."

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