Civil Society at a Crossroads—Truth and Justice

 I have always believed truth to be the basis of justice, for how can you have justice without truth? So far so good perhaps, but then the questions inevitably arise—which truth, whose truth? There are at least 11 theories of truth, plus a few including mathematical truth. Just for the sake of illustrating the difficulty of defining truth, the major theories are: Correspondence, Coherence, Constructivist, Consensus, Pragmatic or Minimalist, Deflationary, Performative, Redundancy, Disquotational, Pluralist and Semantic. There are others as well, but these are the biggies. You could spend a lot of time working your way through these ideas and still, in my opinion, not come up with a better everyday working definition than “conforming to reality.” As Aquinas said: “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to reality.”  This is the definition I would suppose and hope parents teach their children.

I’ve put the following question to lawyers: “Is it winning or justice you seek in court?” So far I haven’t received a take-away answer. This leads me to believe we are dealing with a conundrum, a question for which I had naively expected there would be a ready or, at the least, facile answer. After all lawyers are professionals who appear before judges and juries to represent … what? Are lawyers merely hired guns who do or say whatever it takes to win their case? If so, what does this say about the very idea of justice? How does the society arrive at justice if everyone is telling a truth designed to serve their own purposes? How can a society believe in justice when there is no truth serving justice? From the most primitive to the most sophisticated societies, social contracts are underwritten by truth and justice. These are the foundation stones of the social contract. Consequently, when the contest is between winning and justice, the ultimate victim is the social contract.

In addition to the many truths posited, philosophers also argue there are many realities. Obviously, this makes getting to an absolute truth even more of a crap-shoot. If that doesn’t make for a shaky social contract what does? We have my truth, your truth, the Supreme Court’s truth, a billionaire’s truth, a plaintiff’s truth, a defendant’s truth, and of course, an insurance company’s lawyer’s truth. Whoa! “Did you throw a stone through the neighbor’s window?” Yes or No? That’s easy, isn’t it? When a man spends 30 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, was the prosecutor seeking justice or a conviction? Of course if truth is as fungible as indicated by the lack of one definitive statement of it, that would, I believe, indicate there can be no absolute justice either, could there? So, it would seem then that the multiplicity of these realities gives rise to many possibilities and a great many of them troubling.

If there is no absolute truth and thus no absolute justice, what do we mean when we talk about a just society, a just social contract? What if justice is merely an illusion promoted for purposes of one form of social control or another? What happens when people wake up to the charade? How do they manage? In Central Europe, when the illusion of Communism’s truths dissolved, so too did the social contract, and it is now wearing thin in China. Religion and democracy have the same problem as politics in matching promise to actuality. Consensual truth has led to all manner of belief systems, from religious to social, but when experience didn’t add up to the promise, consensus had a limited life span, as did the social contract. When life as it is lived doesn’t add up to the promise, change is inevitable.

It is said all men are created equal before the law. If you take that statement at face value then you must also believe in the Easter bunny. We all know that in life, as it is lived, not all people are treated equally before the law, but we choose to believe otherwise—we live with the contradiction, indeed we need to live with it. The statement is patently and demonstrably not true but is repeated mantra-like as though it were, and why is that? One reason is that as a society we need it to believe it true—we need to believe it is true because if it isn’t true the believed social contract is on shaky ground.

All societies are built on a foundation of “truths” and beliefs, many of which are illusory. Equal justice is, as we have seen, questionable, so too are equality of economic opportunity, educational opportunity, and others as well. Each illusion serves a particular purpose and polity. Each has its own dynamic, and each needs to be publicly examined and discussed. This I believe; while philosophers chew on these questions the rest of us need workaday answers, otherwise the social contract cannot otherwise function. Illusory or not, ultimately the social contract becomes no longer viable—destroyed by those sworn to uphold it, and those who profit from it in one way or another, but in every case a betrayal of unimaginable proportions.


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