Truth or Justice?

with 12 comments

William Faulkner famously said: “In my time I have seen truth that was anything under the sun but just, and I have seen justice using tools and instruments I wouldn’t want to touch with a ten-foot fence rail”.

So truth and justice do not overlap. This is no news for me, anyway. What is true is not necessarily just, and what is just is not necessarily true. Possible examples: it is true that children can grow up in a single-parent family – but it is (probably) not just. Again, the fact that the state should equally further the interests of all citizens pertains to justice – but it is (probably) not true that the state should accommodate the teaching of (for example) voodoo in public shools.

But if YOU would have to choose between justice and truth – what would YOU choose (suppose that there is no other option – the middle is excluded)? [Note that claiming that a value is prior to another does not imply that we cannot make a case-by-case decision] Please take one seccond of your pretious time and vote in my pool (below). Thanks!

[Note: WordPress has a problem with PollDaddy polls , so you cannot vote at the moment. But you are free to leave here a comment!]

Written by Andrei Stavilă

Octombrie 31, 2008 la 12:19 pm

Postat in Gânduri

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12 Răspunsuri

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  1. ummm, hmmmm, errrr, [cough-cough, wink-wink] it’s called a „poll”, not a „pool”.

    realatedly, i should choose either truth or justice in order to what? your question is as meaningless as it is unqualified, and whatever answers you get, they’re irrelevant. just to ruin your expectations, sometimes I‘d choose truth, at other times, justice. and i expect everybody in their right mind to do the same. for instance, is it true that truth and justice do not overlap? or is it just, perhaps? what do you choose?

    unrelatedly, you got a pool? now, in november? do you bbq often?


    Octombrie 31, 2008 at 12:59 pm

  2. You’re right. I made the necessary corrections. Thanks 🙂
    Of course the problem is not qualified. But so are many questions in many POLLS, and in many sociological studies (we talked about such studies a while ago, and – if I am remembering well – you didn’t criticize those polls too much, from this point of view). If you really want, I can restate my question: in your life, what matters more (as values): truth, or justice? It is not uncommon to have personal hierarchies – but of course, this doesn’t mean that you cannot decide differently on a case-by-case basis.


    Octombrie 31, 2008 at 1:33 pm

  3. Well, the question you take me to task for not criticizing its vagueness was not an exclusionary question. It asked „How important is religion for your life”, or something like that, so it allowed the possibility of there being other actions/sets of values/worldviews/whatever of equal or even greater importance. In this case, you ask me to choose between two values, to the exclusion of all others, and over a lifespan. Sorry, still cannot oblige, I value et pursue happiness more than either truth or justice.


    Octombrie 31, 2008 at 2:33 pm

  4. So now the problem is not vagueness anymore, but the exclusionary character? 🙂
    I may also value happiness more. But the problem is that in this hierarchy (in which happiness, say, is the first), what places do truth and justice have? Which is prior?
    Anyway, I’ve tried to modify the pool, but I don’t know why it doesn’t work anymore. I’ll try again later 🙂


    Octombrie 31, 2008 at 6:52 pm

  5. No, the vagueness is still a problem, but I was just playing along; and even if I was granting your vague question, I provided reasons for rejecting it because its unmotivated exclusionary character.

    Actually, my point was to prove that all such polls collapse in the most important one: who beats whom, Batman or Spiderman?


    Octombrie 31, 2008 at 7:40 pm

  6. Yap, but you now how it is: „there can be only one”… And that one is neither Spiderman, nor Batman. I feel sorry for you, ‘caaaaussssse…’s the Highlandeeeeeer!
    No, serious: I can accept your idea only if you prove me that the problem of the hierarchy of values is a false problem. But if it is not, then my question remains. Again: the fact that we can devise a hierachical order of values does not mean that we cannot decide on a case-by-case basis.
    An example of the importance of hierarchy of values (hence, of my question). Suppose the wife of my best friend cheats him, and I find out. Suppose further that: (a) he loves his wife very much and would be capable of doing something stupid if he finds out; (b) I am and will be the only one who knows about that love affaire; (c) his wife is a also a very good friend of mine. Should I tell him the truth? Should I choose what is just (probably non-interference in their relation), what is true (tell him the truth), or what is conducive to his happiness (say, taking him to the whores)? I don’t think I know how to solve this problem. But my intuition tells me that, even if in a loose sense, taking a decision has something to do with your own hierarchy of values. And with many other things, of course.
    Anyway, I changed the poll, so you can vote now 🙂


    Octombrie 31, 2008 at 8:04 pm

  7. Oh, I wuz going for Wolverine (he slices the Highlander in every imaginable way, you know?)

    I wasn’t trying to show that there isn’t a hierarchy of values, only that any such hierarchical judgment is particular, dependent on the context etc, and I personally find very dubious all attempts to draw a general hierarchy (I think there’s too much philosophy when it comes to practical matters, you know).

    So I accept your challenge if you mean this: „in case A [insert description], values x and y collide; which do you try to maximize?” Sure, the description should be comprehensive enough. In the last case (cheating wife), as you describe it, I’d pass judgment. BUT, if the description also contains „I also know it was a one-time mistake, highly unlikely to repeat it, she regrets it etc”, I’d choose not to interfere; OR, if it was „It wasn’t the first time, she doesn’t really regret it etc”, I’d choose the truth, and what I believe to be just for my friend. As I see it, neither case proves anything about my general inclinations to value truth or justice or happiness or beauty or whatever more than the others.

    So the poll still doesn’t do for me. Which case of collision should I consider? Any of those that happened to me? All the possible cases that could happen to me or my counterparts from other metaphysically possible worlds?


    Noiembrie 1, 2008 at 12:40 pm

  8. I told you that I accept that the judgment must be on a case-by-case basis. But take the following example. You say that „if the description also contains “I also know it was a one-time mistake, highly unlikely to repeat it, she regrets it etc”, I’d choose not to interfere”. But some individual X would surely choose to interfere (being sincerely driven to act by his own best intentions). And I don’t think we have a God’s Eye View to decide who’s taking the best decision. In my mind the problem is that, in this case, you and X both act according to your personal believes regarding what prior values your action should be based on.
    Of course there are such hierarchies. Example: intuitively, I believe that, generally, the value of being a good person overrides economical values; again, I believe that sometimes, as a value, liberty overrides the value of living a peaceful life. And so on.


    Noiembrie 1, 2008 at 1:37 pm

  9. Andruska, I agree with you on both examples you give in the last comment, re: being good/economy and liberty/peaceful life. Yet I think I cannot generalize the truth-and-justice cases in the same manner. I cannot offer a philosophical justification for it, and I rather think there should be no such justification. When it concerns others, I tend to be a particularist.


    Noiembrie 1, 2008 at 4:07 pm

  10. I know, Stefan. Rationally, I should be a particularist, too. But I’m a bit nostalgic about universalism and I cannot help myself 🙂 Moreover, particularism has its own shortcomings; in political philosophy, at least, it has disastruous consequences (e.g.: if individual rights are not universal, then how can we morally judge those states which infringe them?)


    Noiembrie 1, 2008 at 4:29 pm

  11. So we seem to understand each other (somethin’ fishy… hmmm… is it true? is it just? or is it just plain beautiful? [and makes everyone happy])

    What I don’t accept is that moral & political philosophy should guide our moral and political life in an absolute manner. Yes, I think we’d better declare individual rights universal (my favorite justification for this being our universal biological makeup -> universal capacity for suffering harm -> universal need for protection against harm; you might recognize Rorty’s Contingency etc here). I still don’t think that this results in universal principles for justice colliding with universal principles for truth (although it will collide with some other universal principles – which makes the latter injust). Justice collides with truth only sometimes, and only in particular matters, so I don’t see how this affects the human activity called science (which aims for the general and universal truths). More specifically, in the examples you’ve given, justice collides with particular truths, truths about states of affairs involving individual people. But that is something outside the reach of the sciences (even social sciences). And it doesn’t mean that we can generalize away.

    I know you’re gathering data to support your „epistemic abstinence” theory (or whatever you call it this month), but it just doesn’t work :p. I suggest you lay your cards on the table, and then I’ll tell you why. (how about we read that Dworkin paper we’ve been talking about?)


    Noiembrie 2, 2008 at 1:28 pm

  12. „What I don’t accept is that moral & political philosophy should guide our moral and political life in an absolute manner” – is there any sane person who claims this?

    Unfortunately, your justification for the universality of individual rights doesn’t work. Three quick reasons:
    a) pure fact cannot create value (you cannot derive an „ought” from an „is”)
    b) some crucial basic rights cannot be based on our capacity for suffering harm (e.g.: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc.)
    c) if you ground universal rights on the capacity for suffering harm, you will have to grant the same rights to many animals (unfortunately, I don’t think we are prepared to do this)

    Why do you suppose that I was alluding to science? I wasn’t, really – not all of us are obsessed with science, you know – nor with its wars against religion 🙂

    The „epistemic abstinece” theory is not mine. It is Rawls’s. I’m only trying to assess it in its most reasonable picture.

    „I suggest you lay your cards on the table” – not quite sure what you mean. I do hope I’m always doing this. Really, the scope of my poll was far beyond the political subject I am interested in (that’s because I’m not obsessed with it). Remember that Faulkner’s saying is Dilema Veche Magazine’s motto. Do you thing they had my (political-philosophical) problem in mind? 🙂

    My theory DOES work. In short: (a) my definition of the state: „a fair system of cooperation between free and equal persons with the goal of equally furthering the interests of all”; (b) suppose in a state 51% percent of the population vote for the teaching of Vedanta mathematics in public schools (your example); (c) the state (if it is liberal and democratic) must implement this decision, but (d) even if those 51% also want real science out of the textbooks, the state cannot grant them this; the reason is that (e) it must equally further the interests of all (including the interests of the other 49%); (f) the state can justify its decision by the doctrine of „epistemic abstinence”, according to which the state’s job is not to implement a comprehensive doctrine of the good (the scientific worldview; the Vedanta worldview) but to offer equal opportunities for all citizens to live and learn according to their own perspective.
    If you want to deny my doctrine, you either have to change my definition, or you have to explain me why, given the definition and the democratic-liberal character of the state, the state is justified in enforcing science (or Vedanta; or whatever).


    Noiembrie 2, 2008 at 10:16 pm

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