Change it into what? And on what grounds?

I had spent the first 30 years of my life under communist rule and I’ve witnessed, first hand, the debacle produced by a bunch of people trying to transform the world according to their own liking. And it’s not only that they had brought a lot of misery to an awful lot of people but they also brought it upon their own heads. They, and their families, have been indeed living a lot better than the rest of the people but a lot worse than the ordinary people living in the free world. Not to mention the fact that many of them ended up really bad, some of them at the hands of their own insatiable, Minotaur-like, leaders and some others during and immediately after the regime change.

I’m writing this post after watching Jon Haidt’s excellent lecture “Two incompatible sacred values in American universities“, delivered at Duke’s Departement of Political Science on October 6, 2016.

The point of Haidt’s conference being that each university should clearly declare its ‘telos’ as belonging to one of these two clear cut options:


Don’t bother to search the quote attributed to John Stuart Mill.

It is only an interpretation belonging to Haidt himself, who had inferred it from one of Mill’s famous quotes excerpted from  “On Liberty”:


So, what should it be?

Change or Truth?

Before proceeding any further I strongly suggest that you take some time and listen to Haidt’s excellent arguments.

Now I’d like to discuss a little about ‘Change’ and ‘Truth’.

What both Marx and Haidt have in mind when they speak about ‘change’ is both ‘purposeful’ and ‘centralized’.
When they say ‘change’ they mean an ‘effort towards increased social justice’, effort whose parameters would be determined by the wise men (and women) delving in the depths of the University’s libraries and which would be implemented without fail, preferably with a sanction from the higher authority.

I had already mentioned, at the beginning of my post, where such ‘change’ would lead anyone  attempting to put it into practice.
And Haidt gives us an excellent explanation for why anybody who will ever attempt such a thing would eventually fail. (I told you to watch his conference…It may be long but every minute of it is packed with very interesting things!)

So why is Haidt challenging us to make this choice instead of giving us a clearer piece of advice?

Well… maybe you should ask him that… I’d hate to believe that he, in his own words, ‘has become afraid of that too many of his students might feel that he is so distanced from what is generally accepted that too few of them would follow him’.

So what should we do?
Some of us should embark on a ‘sterile’ search for the (absolute) truth and then, after eventually finding it, nurse it quietly in our lap but refrain from an even minutely more drastic action while others should attempt to implement change based on already ‘over the hill’ principles?

I’m afraid that would be a dangerous road to follow.

There is no such thing as an ‘absolute’ truth that might be nursed in our lap and even if there was such a thing we are not able to find it – individually or even as a group. There’s plenty evidence about that in Haidt’s discourse.
And then what would be the use of the whole enterprise if we are not planning to use the results of our quest, whatever those might be?

And here lies the crux of the matter.

I’m sure Haidt knows what I’m going to tell you now and I’m very sorry that most of your teachers have never mentioned at class this very interesting story.

Marx was not the first revolutionary thinker of his time.
OK, you already know that. There were a certain number of French intellectuals whose writings have set the stage for the 1789 Revolution.
What is less known is that John Stuart Mill himself had been groomed by his father “as the future leader of this radical movement”, whose aim was supposed to be “social reform based on utilitarianism” with the goal of attaining “the greatest happiness of the greatest number“.

The only difference between James Mill (the father) and Karl Marx being that Mill didn’t advocate the the forceful confiscation of the ‘means of production’.
Otherwise both were faithfully following Plato’s dictum:
Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils, –nor the human race, as I believe, –and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day. Such was the thought, my dear Glaucon, which I would fain have uttered if it had not seemed too extravagant; for to be convinced that in no other State can there be happiness private or public is indeed a hard thing“.

Well, the problem with this line of thought is that it doesn’t work.
Again, Haidt has already presented a solid case about this and I’m not going to re-count his arguments.

So, since there is no such thing as an absolute truth to be discovered, one way or another, and no priest-kings on any white stallions that might come to our rescue, what shall we do?

Follow Haidt’s, and John Stuart Mill’s, advice and take it one small step further.

The point of a university is to understand the world because only if you commit to truth, I believe, can you actually achieve justice.

We need to understand, and accept, two things:
Change has to be allowed to come naturally, not pushed forward simply because we are momentarily convinced that ‘The Truth’ had downed on us,
And that (social)justice is a process which has to be implemented on an ‘as needed’ basis, not an independent goal?

In fact Mill’s personal destiny is eloquent enough for what happens when somebody tries to breed a ‘perfect’ Priest-King.
“But in 1826, Mill began to suffer from a severe depression, which he attributed to his excessive analytical training and the resulting impairment of his emotional capacities. Reading the romantic poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge helped Mill to overcome this mental crisis. It also inspired him to form a more complex view on human flourishing than the Benthamite utilitarianism of his father’s generation, with its dogmatic rationalism and unidimensional concept of pleasure.”

And this is why Haidt is absolutely right when he tells us that we need to expose ourselves to a lot more than what we are already familiar, and comfortable, with.
And this is why Heidegger kept warning us that truth as conformity between our words, or even our understanding, and the reality of the fact that we try to understand, and describe to others, is a Fata Morgana which consistently eludes us and that the only way to get any closer to her is ‘unhidennes’.

In this sense there is nothing better than an open mind, both towards our innermost thoughts and to the people living, and thinking, around us.

A mind open enough as to be able to simultaneously attempt to implement whatever changes become necessary in the light of the newly discovered truths AND accept the possibility that those ‘newly discovered truths’ might be incomplete or even altogether false.

Does all this seem rather schizophrenic?

Then let me rephrase the question I started with.

What’s the use of ever trying to understand anything if we’re not going, ever, to change our behavior as a consequence of anything we might come to figure out and on what basis is anyone to attempt any change if he never tried to understand anything above what he already knew long before he even started to think about any change?

As I was ready to close this post I stumbled upon the thought that maybe Haidt meant to apply in the academic world a principle that has been proved invaluable in the political life.

‘Separation of powers’.

Some universities would busy themselves with finding ‘the truth’ while others would attempt to find ways to put ‘it’ into practice.

Leaving aside the fact that this would smack too much of Marxism for my taste I’ll have to remind you that the separation of powers has become necessary in the political realm only because the government has an effective monopoly on power and we need to make it so that it cannot abuse this situation.

No university has any monopoly on truth and/or change.
Furthermore, not even the Academia, as a system, has been able to implement such a monopoly. Not for lack of trying, but that’s another subject.

So, instead of acquiescing to such efforts – by accepting certain universities as official ‘truth seekers’ and others as ‘path finders’/’change implementers’, we’d better ask each and all of them to clean up their acts.

And open up their collective minds.