Saturday, 10 September 2011

Truth, Integrity and Justice

I see truth and justice as inextricably linked, and not only in a court of law.  Let me explain : if I lie or withhold the truth I perpetrate an injustice of some kind.  The injustice might be only to myself, to my own integrity, but it could be an injustice towards another person in the form of misrepresentation, betrayal or denial.  

To start with a seemingly trivial example, the detective story.  We are encouraged to follow clues in order to seek out the facts (or the"evidence") and the "motive".  Where a denouement comes as a surprise it is usually because we have missed the clues, and we admire the writer's skill.  If the facts or the motive have been withheld until the last chapter we often feel cheated.  Although it is "only a story" we seem to have some expectation of the integrity of the contract between reader and writer: "I agree to suspend my disbelief if you agree to puzzle me but neither to deceive me nor to withhold information".  I expect the puzzle to be solvable by me, even if I cannot solve it.

A serious example is the recent experience of examination candidates who encountered questions that had no solutions and who spent precious time trying to work out the answers.  The response of the students and the schools' representatives showed the disbelief and anger that follows a betrayal of contractual integrity.  Attempts by the examining bodies to make redress by adjusting the marking in no way do justice to those students.  Someone at the exam board should have been more vigilant.  The examination papers were not fit for purpose nor were they true to their claims.  They failed on every practical and moral ground..

"Practical truth" an Aristotlean concept, is examined rigorously by Anthony Kenny in "From Empedocles to Wittengstein".  There is even doubt cast as to whether the idea was Aristotle's at all.  There is much examination of what practical truth means.  I enjoyed reading the chapter but I persist in my child-like and personal interpretation: that my reason will tell me which facts add up and that my need for a morally satisfactory (or ethical) conclusion will help me to reach the best judgement.  "The best judgement" is my interpretation of "practical truth".  If I read Anthony Kenny correctly he seems to interpret practical truth as "the resolution of an inner debate in accordance with the right desire".  In that case I would claim that "the resolution" equals "the best judgement".

So, if practical truth is the best judgement that can be made on the basis of the known facts and on the desire for an outcome that is morally satisfactory, ethical or virtuous (to use Aristotle's own word) then justice will be as well-served as is humanly possible i.e.

Reasoning + Ethics = Best Judgement  (Practical Truth) -> Practical Justice.

I use the term "practical justice" rather than "justice according to the law" because the law does not embody all the facts of life in the world today and the law is open to interpretation.  (This is not an argument for rapid changes in the law, as the rapidity often leads to a violation of both the reasoning and the ethical parts of the argument for truth and justice).  Also justice is a not just a legal matter.

Some events force us to examine concepts of truth and justice and integrity.  Some people say, "9/11 changed the world". Certainly our perception of the world as we know it has had to accommodate these events. Also we have had to accommodate into our awareness events such as the imprisoning of people without trial at Guantanamo Bay and the phenomenon of "Extraordinary Rendition".

I am sickened by arguments about where and when Human Rights Law or The Geneva Convention applies, which arguments are used to fudge the issues of detention and rendition.  I am sickened by arguments about the meaning of the word "torture" or of the phrase "cruel or unusual punishment" which are used to fudge the issue of maltreatment of prisoners.  Yet, in this volatile world, we must have these arguments and we must have them out in the open in order to establish a practical truth, to make the best judgements, to maintain the integrity of the law and to achieve justice.

We must not be squeamish and turn away.  We must not settle for less than the best.  We must hold people to account.  We must be vigilant.  We must try to make the best judgements.  We must speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves. 


  1. Howard, who used to be in our class, has sent me some thoughts on Truth to share with you – too long to write out here, but he included some words from Buddha:

    Believe nothing because a so-called wise man said it.
    Believe nothing because a belief is generally held.
    Believe nothing because it is written in ancient books.
    Believe nothing because it is said to be of divine origin.
    Believe nothing because someone else believes it.
    Believe only what you yourself judge to be true.

  2. Thanks for this Judith, and to Howard. Wise words indeed.

    Hope you both enjoy the next blog.