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Truth, Social Justice, and the ‘Telos’ of a University

Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard

By Lachlan Forrow, Contributing Opinion Writer
Dr. Lachlan Forrow is Senior Fellow at the Harvard Medical School Center for Bioethics, lecturer on global health and social medicine at HMS, and President Emeritus of The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship.

Insisting that the primary “telos,” or aim, of a university can be “truth”, or “social justice,” but cannot be both, Jonathan D. Haidt has eloquently argued on behalf of “truth.”

Haidt’s richly thoughtful critique of ways in which a specific conception of “social justice” – one that emphasizes the equality of outcomes – can be harmful as a “telos” includes valuable insights. But positing “truth” and “social justice” as competing alternatives is a false and tragically oversimplified dichotomy.

The Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard’s statement on “The Freedoms of a University” offers a more complex vision for Harvard: “A university has two great obligations to society: to foster the discovery and dissemination of knowledge and understanding, and to prepare students for lives of meaning, purpose, and service.” While seemingly distinct, these two goals are deeply interdependent.

“Truth” – the holy grail of “knowledge and understanding” – is a seductively simple yet deceptively complex word, difficult to define and dangerously easy to invoke and even weaponize, as Christopher Winship explains in his companion article in today’s column.

For truth-seeking in science, I find comments from Neil deGrasse Tyson ’80 helpful: “The good thing about Science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

An exemplar of the importance and limits of truth-seeking is Albert Schweitzer, a renowned New Testament scholar and leading scholar and interpreter of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. For Schweitzer, truth – both about the world and about ourselves – was the crucial prerequisite to answering the most fundamental question each of us must answer: How should I live?

Learning about “the crimes that have been committed under the pretext of justice” by Europeans in Africa, in which “people robbed native inhabitants of their land, made slaves of them,” and “let loose the scum of mankind upon them,” while also reflecting deeply on his own place in that world, Schweitzer felt compelled to leave his academic careers to study medicine and work as a doctor alleviating suffering in Africa. As he explained, “I have made my life my argument,” committing himself to show by example what he believed was required to begin redressing and healing crimes of the past.

Although Schweitzer championed truth, even writing that “reverence for truth must be exalted over all else,” the outbreak of World War I, in which advances in science facilitated the mass slaughter of human beings on an unprecedented scale, proved to Schweitzer not only the dangers of truth-seeking unguided by other moral values, but also the impotence of western European “ethics” to mitigate that slaughter. Schweitzer began searching across human history and diverse civilizations (from ancient Greece to ancient China and India), and then critically assessing ways of thinking about “ethics” that might more effectively foster both individual and social flourishing, thinking that eventually culminated in his “Philosophy of Civilization.”

As he later wrote,“The highest honor one can show to a system of thought is to test it ruthlessly with a view to discovering how much truth it contains, just as steel is assayed to try its strength.”

A more contemporary truth-seeking exemplar is Harvard’s own Paul E. Farmer, who committed his voluminous scholarship to understanding and exposing what he referred to as “pernicious myths and half-truths, especially those serving to explain inaction” in the face of human suffering.

As former Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow expressed eloquently of Farmer, “Nothing could have prepared me to hear him speak in person. His searing and vivid descriptions of reality, his impassioned yet measured aspirations for humanity, opened my eyes more fully. His devotion — to every person — opened my heart more fully.”

Farmer himself deeply appreciated the difference between knowing “about” a person and understanding them, and how morally irresponsible it is to criticize without first understanding. While treasuring the intellectual knowledge he gained from his voracious reading and wide-ranging scholarship, Farmer credited his most important understanding not to books, but to his interpersonal engagements. He considered the people of Haiti his most important teacher, enabling him to see and understand truths not adequately expressed in any books.

For both Farmer and Schweitzer, any truth about the world was not a “telos,” but just a starting point. Their intense discomfort in discovering truths deeply incompatible with their society’s truths and their own professed values forced them to imagine different possible truths that did not (yet) exist.

But their vivid moral imagination was the opposite of “imaginary”; it was a powerfully real driving force, fueling their own moral power. And in committing themselves to creating a world in which others can more fully flourish, they found their own greatest flourishing, through lives of rich “meaning, purpose, and service.”

Schweitzer and Farmer offer important lessons for all of us at Harvard, showing us the potential power of a Harvard united in committing to inclusive excellence, to becoming “a place where everyone can thrive.” Uncompromising truth-seeking can fuel our determination to change deeply discomforting current truths about Harvard and our world.

Lachlan Forrow is senior fellow at the Harvard Medical School Center for Bioethics, lecturer on global health and social medicine at HMS, and president emeritus of the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship.

His piece is part of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard’s column, which runs bi-weekly on Mondays and pairs faculty members to write contrasting perspectives on a single theme. Read the companion to Forrow’s piece here.

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