The Resurrection of Trust in American Law and Public Discourse

By Bruce Ledewitz, Professor of Law

When Time Magazine asked on its April 3, 2017, cover Is Truth Dead?, the story pointed to President Trump’s ability to get away with telling lies. And that is one way that we describe the death of truth in America: truth has lost its power to bind.

Shakespeare wrote “truth will out.” John Milton wrote that the truth would win any free and open encounter.[1] But Americans today cannot agree on the truth of the simplest, most factual matters. We even get our news from different sources. In America today, a lie is as likely to be accepted as the truth.

How did the death of truth come about? After all, it’s no harder to know the truth today than it was when Walter Cronkite could confidently end a newscast “And that’s the way it is” and know that America would listen.

Some will say, “It’s obvious how truth died.” Donald Trump got elected President. Trump’s supporters are ignorant deplorables. You can’t convince those people.

Sure, except that millions of Americans believe that Hillary Clinton is as big a liar as Donald Trump. And Clinton’s supporters were unreasonable. Voting was not hacked, but they made her join a recount anyway.

And much of the media had it in for President Trump from the beginning, which is not their job. Why was it news that Trump’s inauguration crowd was smaller than that of Barack Obama? That story was just to make Trump look bad.

We all believe we are reasonable and our opponents are not. Unfortunately, they believe the same thing. And we are both right.

To find the source of the death of truth, we have to look at something other than epistemology and deeper than the bad character of our opponents.

To see what’s really happening, consider the June New York Times story about a high school teacher in Wellston, Ohio, Trump country, where, the headline said, students were stubbornly rejecting the facts of climate change.

Except that’s not what the story showed. By the end of the story, the students acknowledged that humans were changing the planet’s climate and that something had to be done about it. Their skepticism about global warming represented resistance to a narrative that would undermine local industry.

Those students knew that it was not going to be people in New York City who paid the price of fighting climate change. It was going to be their community that paid that price.

The story really showed that those students did not trust that climate change proponents would consider their interests.

President Trump told Time Magazine, in that same issue, “the country believes me.” But that is not really the case. Plenty of Trump supporters don’t believe his impossible promises. They trust Trump to do the best for them that he can and they really don’t trust his critics.

A Trump supporter, Al Ameling, perfectly illustrated this distrust in another article in the New York Times, when he stated in terms of the media criticism of President-elect Trump, “The way it is nowadays, unless I see positive proof, it’s all a lie.”[2]

And that is how truth dies. If we don’t trust, then when we encounter ideas we don’t agree with there is never enough proof to convince us.

It was not the Al Amelings of America who first erected this attitude of skepticism. It was elite opinion. And this skepticism first surfaced as a mass phenomenon in the attacks on traditional religion. When a nonbelievers group writes on its website, “we promote rational thinking as a preferable alternative to blind faith,”[3] they are the direct precursors to the skepticism now rampant in American life.

If we don’t trust, then when we encounter ideas we don’t agree with there is never enough proof to convince us.

To see the damage that skepticism has done, imagine that New Atheist Sam Harris’ famous book, The End of Faith, had been entitled instead, The End of Trust. For that was what it proclaimed.

Faith versus reason was always a misleading formulation. As the Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan reminds us, the scientist does not recheck every prior experiment. In the absence of some specific problem, the scientist trusts what has gone before. You can call that, scientific faith.

We all live by faith. I am not a climate scientist. How do I know that greenhouses gasses are warming the planet? Sure, I can see that it is warmer, but how do I know it is not a 50-year natural cycle? I simply trust the scientific community’s consensus. The same way I trust when I am told that there may be liquid water under the surface of one of Saturn’s moons.

Without trust, truth is impossible. That is why Dr. Antony spoke last night of her trusted sources. Trust is in decline.

The roots of distrust in the West are very deep. Distrust did not arise because of lying politicians, but because of the felt untrustworthiness of reality itself. In 1641 Rene Descartes imagined an evil demon who could create the illusion of an outside world. For Descartes, only God could guarantee that we were not fooled about reality.

But then that God died.

God died not in the sense that there are no longer any religious believers who live in perfect trust. God died in the sense that the culture as a whole, including many religious believers, could no longer relax in the unselfconscious certainty that love and goodness lie at the heart of reality and that there is a point to all this. The universe was no longer beneficent and caring.

Every culture lives from a story. For America, it was originally the biblical story of God’s intervention in Creation to bring salvation. Then for a long time, it was the echo of the biblical story, with democracy and constitutional self-government substituting for the City of God. But no longer.

Our default story today is of an accidental universe of uncaring forces. That story cannot sustain a civilization. It cannot promote trust.

What effect does an untrustworthy universe have on political life? Years ago, Martin Luther King Jr., said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. But just recently, Rich Cohen wrote in Vanity Fair, no it doesn’t.

King believed that the good, the beautiful and the true were real and that the universe could be trusted over time to move gradually in their direction. But today, even Supreme Court Justices say that all values are merely subjective human constructs.

If there is to be a resurrection of truth, it will have to begin with a resurrection of trust in reality. A new story. And it will have to begin with each of us.

Lonergan put the question very simply:

Is the universe on our side, or are we just gamblers and, if we are gamblers, are we not perhaps fools, individually struggling for authenticity and collectively endeavoring to snatch progress from the ever mounting welter of decline? . . . Does there or does there not necessarily exist a transcendent, intelligent ground of the universe?[4]

Most of us today answer either that the universe is not on our side or that we cannot know or that the question makes no sense, because the universe is not the kind of thing that can be on somebody’s side. Very few of us wholeheartedly answer, yes, the universe is on our side.

Restoring trust and thus truth requires another look at Lonergan’s question. There is plenty of evidence in nature that the universe is on our side. The big bang shows us there is a tendency toward being. The early galaxies show us there is a tendency toward order. Life shows us there is a tendency in matter toward self-organization. Consciousness shows us there is a tendency toward intellect. Evolution shows us that, with higher intellect, there is a tendency toward tenderness, generosity and care. And history shows that Martin Luther King, Jr., was right—that the arc of the moral universe really does bend toward justice and that yes, it actually has happened that black and white children play together in peace. Of course, racism with all its attendant evils has not been banished, but you would have to be blind not to see moral progress among humanity. Even the Black Lives Matter movement shows our progress. Police shootings now provoke a national response that was never present before. And, when President Trump invited a harsher police response in a July 2017 speech, police forces across the country said, “No thank you. Those days are over.”

There are many non-supernatural sources of trust.

One such secular source is the late philosopher Hilary Putnam, who spent his life charting a middle course between the God’s eye view of traditional theism, on the one hand, and the forces of despair—nihilism, materialism and relativism—on the other. Putnam admitted that there could not be one true account of reality, but he said there could be accounts that are in parts truer than others. In other words, we have to actively inquire toward truth.

And when we do genuinely inquire, we find support for trust. A character in E.L. Doctorow’s novel City of God, says that the essence of humanity is the sense that what we do matters: we all pursue a teleology that “has given us only the one substantive indication of itself—that we, as human beings, live in moral consequence.”

This claim that human beings experience a destiny sounds like an unprovable tenet of organized religion.

But Doctorow’s claim is not religious or aspirational. It is actual, universal and foundational. Not just Gandhi, but Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot—all lived in moral consequence. We all have the sense that what we do matters.

An atheist like Christopher Hitchens, who denies ultimate meaning, shouts out his atheism so that his fellow human beings are not taken in by the lie of God. A postmodernist like Stanley Fish, who says there is no text here, proclaims that with exactitude and wants to be understood. Both try to live in the truth although they think they deny truth.

Even the skeptical scientist who dismisses the sacred as misplaced pattern recognition and an illusionary search for human significance must ultimately declare that human beings engage in scientific discovery “because it matters what’s true.” Not just matters to us. But actually matters.

In other words, there is no way for a human being to live a life of meaninglessness. And, since this very universe gave birth to beings like us, for whom truth is so important, we can conclude that this universe deserves our trust. If the physicist Werner Heisenberg could speak of the “‘consciousness’” of the universe,[5] then we can assert that the universe wants our truth. As Carl Sagan once put it, humans are “a way for the cosmos to know itself.”[6]

All of this is the answer to the weary question, is this all there is? Yes, this is all there is, but there is more to this than meets the eye.

But if a new story of trust can be discovered, why are we in the mess we are in? How could truth have died?

The answer is that truth did not die, we just lost our way. But it will be hell to find our way back. We have to stop telling a habitual, destructive story of accident and chance. We need the social imagination to tell a new story of the universe and rebuild institutions of trust.

Lonergan called the thing we need, Cosmopolis. Cosmopolis is not a single place or institution. It is a loose formation of persons of good will who understand the source of our decline as bad habits of mind and have the self-discipline to embody social health in community.

We defeat distrust by building communities of trust.

Where should we begin? We have to start in the communities in which we are already situated. Duquesne School of Law has helped me begin by hosting this very symposium. And I think in general law schools, because of their intense involvement with social problems, and their mix of action and thought, are very good candidates for a kind of proto-Cosmopolis. After all, in a constitutional democracy, where else should the people look for hope but to their schools of law?

There are three guidelines for building Cosmopolis.

We defeat distrust by building communities of trust.

First, Cosmopolis does not promote a political/economic/social program. Policy prescriptions are not how decline is arrested. Law professors must stop taking positions on important issues and cases as our primary role. Partisanship is so prevalent today that all such activity is suspect.

Second, Cosmopolis is a place for the kind of open inquiry championed by John Dewey. If you trust the universe, you don’t need to fear ideas. There cannot be shibboleths, taboos, or preconceptions of any kind. And the only way to ensure such transparency is through genuine diversity, not only of race and gender, but of viewpoints: conservatives, liberals, capitalists, anarchists, communists—and even religious believers. Only in this way will Cosmopolis itself be trusted.

Third, there must be care for language. There can be no clichés, no habitual tropes. Every word must express truth; every gesture, reverence; every prayer, hope.

And what is our ultimate goal? To restore American democracy.

The deepest description I know of what a law school can be is from the legal thinker Roberto Unger, who saw lawyers as the ones who reintroduce a healthy politics. He famously wrote that the debate over how humans should live has disappeared from general discourse and now goes on indirectly in specialized disciplines like law. Unger said it was our task to bring that debate back to society.

We can do Unger one better. Law School as Cosmopolis can be the place where a new form of politics is practiced—a politics of trust that aims at discovering and implementing a science of human flourishing in a benevolent universe through the medium of reverent language.

We law professors and our students must become that new polis in the very ways we inquire and debate. No holds barred, but no one harmed. Even our disagreements will constitute starting points for community. Our model will then be seen and emulated.

There is a kind of historical precedent for this. It is said that the reason the early church spread within the Roman Empire is because pagans looked on the early church communities and they were amazed at how humane and loving they were. Nothing like these churches existed.

That is how we have to be. A community that lives the truth. That is how truth is resurrected. And that is how democracy is restored.

 

Prof. Ledewitz’s remarks were originally presented during Panel One of the symposium “Resurrecting Truth in American Law and Public Discourse: Shall These Bones Live?” Full coverage of the event may be found here.

 

Sources


[1] Areopagitica (1644), quoted in Jesse H. Choper, et al, Constitutional Law, 650 (12th ed. 2015).

[2] Trip Gabriel, In Iowa, Trump Voters Are Unfazed by Controversies, N.Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/12/us/donald-trump-iowa-conservatives.html [https://perma.cc/FFG6-T38U].

[3] CMU Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics, https://thebridge.cmu.edu/organization/aha.

[4] Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology, 102-103 (1972).

[5] Quoted in Bruce Ledewitz, Church, State and the Crisis in American Secularism, 225 (2011).

[6] Jonathan Cott, The Cosmos: An Interview With Carl Sagan, Rolling Stone (Dec. 25, 1980), http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/the-cosmos-19801225 [https://perma.cc/67BM-T5T2].

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