Justice Is Impossible Without Truth

COMMENTARY: The goods that we desire cannot be obtained without choosing the predecessors upon which they are built.

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It is written in the nature of things that if you want anything that is worthwhile you must first choose that upon which it depends. If you want to pass the course, you must study. Cheating is impermissible. If you want to make money, you must earn it. Stealing is reprehensible. If you want to excel in sports, you must train. Laziness is indefensible.

And so, just as we must defend life in order to insure peace, we must defend truth in order to secure justice.

There is no point in trying to achieve the blessings of life the easy way. In fact, there is no easy way. Cheating, stealing and laziness may be tempting, but in the final analysis, they are unproductive.

Now, many people find this natural arrangement disagreeable. Nonetheless, it is a law that is written in stone, and we might as well face up to it, roll up our sleeves and go to work. The goods that we desire cannot be obtained without choosing the predecessors upon which they are built.

Dietrich von Hildebrand, in his 1953 book The New Tower of Babel, includes a chapter entitled, “The Dethronement of Truth.” He points out that although the rejection of truth was a political requirement under Nazism and communism, it is nonetheless commonplace in democratic countries.

In saying this, von Hildebrand seems contemporary. In a democracy, everyone has a voice, but these various voices do not necessarily represent the truth.

Nevertheless, it is not unusual for people to say, “We all have our opinions, and mine is no better or worse than yours. Therefore, let us be tolerant and not attempt to impose our opinions on each other. Is it not undemocratic to assume that one opinion is any better than another?”

For von Hildebrand, this attitude is pernicious, since it eliminates truth as “the norm for the value of an opinion.” How else can a person evaluate the importance of an opinion apart from its relationship to truth?

Betting on sports seems to be a national addiction. Predictions as to the outcome of baseball, basketball and football scores, in addition to the outcome of horse races, represent a wide variety of opinions. What would a bettor be willing to give if he could only obtain the next day’s newspapers, where all opinions will have surrendered to truth?

Of course, there is no point in betting if no truth eventuates. People bet on things that may become true, not on things that cannot be true. This is an easy enough point to understand. But what remains a challenge to our capacity to understand is why so many people deny that we can categorically know truth.

One clue to solving this conundrum has to do with human vanity. If a person is too attached to his opinion, he might reject the notion that he is ever in error. If there is no truth to embarrass him, he can retain the illusion that his opinions cannot be refuted. He can go on merrily believing that his opinions are invincible and can flatter himself by thinking that he is broadminded because he does not impose them on anyone else.

Nonetheless, he remains deprived of the light of truth.

In his City of God, St. Augustine, a master of the telling phrase, wrote, Interficere errorem; diligere errantem (“Kill the error; love the person who is in error”). We are not just to our neighbor if we honor his errors as a matter of courtesy. It is really an act of love to lead him to truth since it is the truth, not his erroneous opinion, which fulfills him. Love the opinion and be indifferent to the one who holds the opinion is not an example of fraternal charity.

Truth vindicates itself on the level of logic. Those who deny either the reality of truth or our ability to attain it imply that the truth of the matter is that truth is undiscoverable. But we cannot avoid truth, even when we attempt to deny it. It is like a boomerang that returns to hit us in the head.

Why does justice rest on truth? In German, the judge is called der richter, which means “the one who is right.” The point here is not to suggest that the judge is always right, but that it is his business to do everything he can to ensure that he is right. That is the very objective of the judge. If there is no truth to indicate that he is right, there is no point in being a judge.

The existence of judges indicates the presence of truth, difficult as it may be in certain circumstance to be attained. Furthermore, the judge (or the jury) renders a “verdict,” a beautiful and revealing word whose etymology means verum dicere (“tell the truth”). When the judge is right, it is because he has told the truth. Justice is impossible with truth.

The truth, as we have been told, sets us free (John 8:32). It frees us from the shackles of ignorance and frees us to embrace what is truly good for us. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things,” as Philippians 4:8 reminds us.

To deny truth is like sitting down to a sumptuous meal and denying the existence of food. Truth both surrounds and nourishes us. It is also indispensable for justice.

Truth may be difficult to achieve, but it remains as a beacon of light.

Martin Luther King Jr. refused to abandon the saving graces of truth, a courageous attitude that served him, his people and his country well.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war,” he once said, “that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. ... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Let us, therefore, strive for justice by defending truth. For as Polish priest Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko — defender of truth amid Soviet communism — said, “God instilled in man the desire for truth. This is why man thirsts for the truth and despises falsehoods. Truth, like Justice, is connected to love and love has a price.”

Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of St. Jerome’s University, in Waterloo, Canada,

and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.

His latest book is Notes From the Underground: Dialogue With a World in Disarray (Scholars’ Press).