Truth & Justice

In a previous post, I promised to discuss two great ideas—truth and justice. A lifetime of study wouldn’t suffice to properly discuss these two ideas, but I wanted to offer something.

There are many great ideas. The philosophical popularizer of last century, Mortimer Adler, wrote a massive tome two-volume work entitled:The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon – I (Angel To Love) and THE GREAT IDEAS: A SYNTOPICON – II, (MAN TO WORLD). It contained 102 great ideas which Adler later paired down to six in his book, Six Great Ideas (1981)

Those six were: truth, beauty, goodness, liberty, equality, and justice. Adler distinguished these in triads: truth, beauty, and goodness are ideas we judge by; liberty, equality, and justice are ideas we act on. I think the organization of the triads is illuminating.

1. Truth

Adler holds that truth is the sovereign idea by which we judge. He believes that beauty is a special kind of goodness, which is itself a special kind of truth. He also holds that truth—by distinguishing certain from doubtful judgments, and by differentiating matters of taste and matters of truth—provides the ground for understanding beauty and goodness. Whether this is true or not I’ll leave for the reader to consider. 

Yet there is something intuitively plausible in this analysis. If we know what’s true, we would know what was good and beautiful. (This depends on the Adler’s acceptance of philosophical realism and a correspondence theory of truth.) But knowing what’s good or beautiful does not seem to entail that we know what’s true—the relationship is not symmetrical. Thus truth seemingly regulates our thinking about goodness and beauty; it is the one to which the other two are subordinate. And, as I’ve stated many times, if the truth isn’t important, then nothing much else matters. Truth is surely one of the greatest ideas.

2. Justice

As for the ideas we act on, justice reigns supreme. Here I find Adler’s argument especially compelling. He argues that justice is an unlimited good, while liberty and equality are limited goods. The distinction comes from Aristotle. We can have too much of limited goods, while we cannot have too much of an unlimited good. Societies can have too much liberty or equality, but not too much justice.

The argument is straightforward. For political libertarians, liberty is the highest value and they seek to maximize liberty at the expense of equality. They want near unlimited liberty even if the result is irremediable inequality, and even if large portions of society suffer serious deprivations. They may favor equality of opportunity, knowing that those with superior endowments or (more likely) favorable circumstances will beat their fellows in the race of life. The resulting vast inequality doesn’t deter them, for in their view trying to achieve equality will result in the loss of the higher value, liberty. On the other hand, egalitarians regard equality as the highest value and willingly infringe upon liberty to bring about equality of outcomes. In their view, equality of opportunity will not suffice since that will still result in vast inequality, the supreme virtue in their eyes.

The solution recognizes that liberty and equality are both subservient to justice. Individuals should not have so much freedom of action that they injure others, deprive them of their freedom, or cause them serious deprivations. One should only have as much freedom as justice allows. Analogously, should a society try to achieve equality of outcomes even if that entails serious deprivations of human freedom? Should we ignore the fact that individuals are unequal in their endowments and achievements? No says Adler to both questions. We should only have as much equality as justice allows.

Regarding liberty, justice places limits on the amount allowed; regarding equality, justice places limits on the kind and degree it allows. Thus justice places limits on the subordinate values of liberty and equality. Too much of either liberty or equality results in an unjust society. I agree with Adler, justice is the ultimate idea of moral and political philosophy and truth is the ultimate idea in metaphysics and epistemology.

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3 thoughts on “Truth & Justice

  1. Who could find fault with the six ‘Truths’ Mortimer Adler identified, they recognize and celebrate the attitudes good people ‘everywhere’ strive to live by! Even those who have never heard of Mortimer Adler, although this takes nothing away from him, as He beautifully codified these eternal truths.
    I’m sure he was a very nice and gracious man!

  2. I’m a futurist, not a philosopher. Frankly, it appears truth, equality, goodness, and justice are not what we can know in the future.
    Whereas beauty and liberty can be attainted; goodness (virtue), truth, justice and equality are anthropic notions.
    Of the four, only justice is not outdated in people’s minds. Most today secretly think old-fashioned virtue (goodness) is no longer attainable in the high tech 21st century.
    Equality ended when Communism ended, three decades ago, as did ideology.
    Truth is increasingly considered relative/subjective. “The whole truth and nothing but the truth” is widely, secretly thought of as outmoded. Especially when the coda is “so help me God.”
    Justice? Such is for someone with a higher IQ (no false modesty) than me. Justice is a broad subject, to say the least: for starters, there exist both philosophical and legal justice.

  3. Good news is:
    in cyberspace one can have all the positives Adler promoted.
    However in the outside world, we are as fat bunny rabbits surrounded by wolves.

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