Truth and/or Justice

Disclaimer: This post is obscure in places. I apologise for that. Reasons.

Everyone likes to think they’re the protagonist of their own story. And as a hero, we need a cause. On the left and those morally aligned with the left, that can often roughly be summed up as “Truth and Justice” (we generally leave The American Way to people who wear their underpants on the outside).

(Some people are more honest, or less moral, and instead are fighting for survival, or for self-interest. This post is not about those people. Some people are less morally aligned with the left and fight for things like purity and respect for authority too. As a devout moral relativist, I acknowledge the validity of this position, but I still struggle to take it seriously. If this is you, you may get less out of this post but the broad strokes should still apply).

Unfortunately, you can’t optimise for more than one thing. Truth and Justice is not a thing you can fight for. You can fight for truth, you can fight for justice, you can fight for a weighted sum of truth and justice, but you cannot reliably improve both at once.

Often we can ignore this problem. Truth and Justice frequently work very well together. But at some point (hopefully metaphorically) the murderer is going to turn up at your door and you’re going to have to decide whether or not to lie to them. Unless you’re prepared to go full Kant and argue that lying to protect another is unjust as well as untrue, you’ll have to make a trade off.

So what’s it going to be? Truth or Justice?

It’s not an absolute choice of course – depending on the circumstances and the results of a local cost/benefit analysis, almost all of us will sometimes choose truth, sometimes justice. and sometimes we’ll make a half-arsed compromise between the two which leaves both truth and justice grumbling but mostly unbloodied.

But I think most of us have a strong bias one way or the other. This may not be inherent – it’s probably in large part driven by factionalisation of the discourse space – but certainly among my main intellectual and political influences there’s at least one group who heavily prioritises truth and another who heavily prioritises justice.

That’s not to say we don’t care about the other. Caring about justice doesn’t make you a liar, caring about truth doesn’t make you heartless. It’s just that we care about both, but we care about one more.

Personally, I tend to flip flop on it. I find myself naturally aligned with truth (I hate lying, both being lied to and lying myself), but I think I’ve historically chosen to align myself with people who prefer justice, usually by denying that the trade-off exists.

But recently I’ve been feeling the pendulum swing the other way a bit. If you’ve wondered why I’ve gone quiet on a bunch of subjects, that’s part of what’s been going on.

One of the reasons I think about this a bunch is in the context of labelling.

A long time ago now I wrote “You Are Not Your Labels“, about the problem of fuzzy boundaries and how we tend to pick a particular region in the space of possibility that includes us, use a label for that region, and then defend the boundaries of that label zealously.

I still broadly stand by this. You are not your labels. I’m certainly not my labels.

But we might be.

One of the places where truth and justice play off against each other is when you’re being attacked. If you’re under fire, now is not really the time to go “Well the reality is super complicated and I don’t really understand it but I’m pretty sure that what you’re saying is not true”. Instead, we pick an approximation we can live with for now and double down on it with a high degree of confidence.

There probably isn’t “really” such a thing as a bisexual (I’m not even wholly convinced there’s such a thing as a monosexual) – there’s a continuous multi-dimensional space in which everyone lies, and we find it operationally useful to have words that describe where we are relative to some of the boundary points in that space that almost nobody experiences perfectly.

There are as many distinct experiences of being bisexual as there are bisexuals (though, as I keep finding out, being extremely confused and annoyed by this fact seems to be a pretty common experience for us), but it sure is difficult to have an “It’s Complicated” visibility day, and it seems surprisingly easy for people to forget we exist without regular reminders.

The approximation isn’t just useful for communicating infinite complexity in a finite amount of time, it’s useful because we build solidarity around those approximations.

(This is literally why I use the label bisexual incidentally. I’m much happier with just saying “It’s complicated and unlikely to impact your life either way and when it does I would be happy to give you a detailed explanation of my preferences” but that is less useful to both me and everyone else, so I no longer do)

Another truth/justice trade off in the LGBT space is “Born this way”. I am at this point confident of precisely two things about gender and sexuality:

  • They are probably the byproduct of some extremely complicated set of nature/nurture interactions like literally everything else in the human experience.
  • Anyone who currently expresses confidence that they know how those play out in practice might be right for the n=1 sample of themself (I am generally very skeptical of people’s claims that they understand what features are natural things they were born with and what are part of their upbringing. I present the entire feminist literature on privilege as evidence in defence of my skepticism, but I also don’t find it useful or polite to have arguments with people about their personal lived experiences), but are almost certainly wrong, or at least unsupported in their claim that this holds in generality.

I would be very surprised to learn that nobody was born this way, and I have an n=1 personal data point that there are bisexuals who would probably have been perfectly able to go through life considering themselves to be straight if they hadn’t noticed that other options were available. I think it likely that there’s a spectrum of variability in between, I just don’t know.

I think among ourselves most LGBT people are more than happy to admit that this stuff is complicated and we don’t understand it, but when confronted with people who just want us to be straight and cis and consider us deviants if we dare to differ on this point, born this way is very useful – it makes homophobia less a demand to conform to societal expectations (which would still be wrong, but is harder to convince people of) and more a call for genocide. The only way to stop LGBT being LGBT is to stop us existing, and that’s not what you mean, right?

(Historically there have been many cases where that was exactly what they meant, but these days it’s harder to get away with saying so even if you think it).

Even before the latest round of fake news we’ve had in the last couple of years, demanding perfect truth in politics seems like a great way to ensure that political change belongs to those less scrupulous than you. At the absolute minimum we need this sort of lies-to-normies to take complex issues and make them politically useful if we want the world to get better.

So: Truth or Justice?

To be honest, I still don’t know. My heart says truth, but my head says justice, which I’m almost certain is hilariously backwards and not how it’s supposed to work at all, but there you go. This is complicated, and maybe “Truth or Justice” is another of those labelling things that don’t really work for me. Hoisted by my own petard.

My suspicion though is that the world is a better place if not everyone is picking the exact same trade off – different people are differently placed for improving each, and it’s not all that useful to insist that someone inclined towards one should be strongly prioritising the other. It is useful to have both people for whom justice is their top priority, and people for whom truth is their top priority, and a world where we acknowledge only one point on the spectrum as valid is probably one that ends up with less truth and less justice than one where a wider variety is pursued. Monocultures just generally work less well in the long run, even by the standards of the monoculture.

Given that, it seems like a shame that right now most of the justice prioritising people seem to think the truth prioritising people are literally Hitler and vice versa.

(To be fair, the truth prioritising people probably think the justice prioritising people are figuratively Hitler).

Calls for “Why can’t we get along?” never go well, so I won’t make one here even though you could obviously ready into this article that that’s what I want even if I didn’t include this sentence as disclaimer, so instead I’ll end with a different call to action.

I wish we would all be better about acknowledging that this trade-off exists, and notice when we are making it, regardless of what we end up deciding about the people who have chosen a different trade-off.

If you’re justice-prioritising you might not feel able to do that in public because it would detract from your goals. That’s fine. Do it in private – with a couple close friends in the same sphere to start with. I’ve found people are generally much more receptive to it than you might think.

If you’re truth-prioritising, you have no excuse. Start talking about this in public more (some of you already are, I know). If what can be destroyed by the truth should be, there is no cost to acknowledging that the truth is sometimes harmful to others and that this is a trade-off you’re deliberately making.

Regardless of what we think the optimal trade-off between truth and justice is, I’m pretty sure a world that is better on both axes than the current one is possible. I’m significantly less sure that we’re on anything resembling a path to it, and I don’t know how to fix that, but I’d like to at least make sure we’re framing the problem correctly.