The term “justice” stands pretty well on its own. But attempts to add a qualifying adjective to “justice” can prove problematic. A recent speech at Duke University helped highlight the injustice associated with one of the most popular qualifiers.

Jonathan Haidt, professor of business ethics at New York University, argued in an Oct. 6 Hayek Lecture at Duke that universities ought to choose one of two courses. They can adopt the traditional university telos — end, purpose, or goal — of pursuing truth. Or they can adopt a competing goal: “social” justice.

Over the course of an hour, Haidt explained why he believes the two goals are incompatible. “No university can pursue both,” he argued. “Individuals can in their own lives, but a university needs to have a central mission, and it has to be either truth or social justice. It can’t be both.”

The entire presentation is worth your time, but the portion that deserves particular attention involves Haidt’s attempt to define “social justice” itself.

A brief aside before turning to Haidt’s definition: Terms such as “social justice” and “racial justice” raise red flags for this observer. An action can be just. It can be unjust. Or it can have nothing to do with justice.

By definition, a “just” act must be good for society, hence it’s socially just. The same should be true for all races. Advocates of a particular “brand” of justice seem to suggest that their preferred qualifiers — “social,” “racial” — can transform an act from just to unjust or vice versa.

Haidt’s lecture explores that theme. “It’s very hard to understand exactly what the definition of ‘social justice’ is, but I think there are two parts to it,” he said while addressing the Duke audience. “Social justice activists are very focused on disparate treatment of individuals. That is a subtype of justice. That is good. Everybody should agree that is a thing to focus on.”

Treat people differently “because they are black or gay or female,” and you have acted unjustly, Haidt said. “That is wrong. That is an outrage. That should stop.”

Social justice would not cause concerns if the definition ended at that point, Haidt suggested. “But there is another part of social justice,” he explained. “It is not mostly about disparate treatment. It is mostly about disparate outcomes. And when social justice is focused on achieving equal outcomes for all groups, then it is no longer a subset of justice. Part of it is justice. Part of it is outside of justice.”

To explain that statement, Haidt reminded his audience of a 2014 edict from the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights. The office had “noticed that punishment rates are very disparate by race,” Haidt said. Since federal law bans discrimination based on race, the office sent a letter nationwide “warning schools, ‘You better even the rates out, or we’re coming after you.’”

In response, the school system serving students in Minneapolis, Minn., came up with a plan “that’s going to make it much more difficult to suspend children of color, and, of course, they’re going to try to crack down on white and Asian kids because they’ve got to get those rates equal,” Haidt said.

“We know that the black and Latino violation rate is higher, not just from the corresponding crime rates outside of school, but just from the fact that boys raised without marriage — boys raised with men cycling through the home — have many more behavior problems,” Haidt said. “So we know that the rates are different. And so if the goal is to equalize the rates of punishment, is that fair?”

The answer is clear to Haidt. “This is an abomination from the point of view of fairness or justice to do that.”

Hence the concern about “social justice” as practiced today in the United States. “When social justice demands equal treatment, it is justice,” Haidt said. “It is right. It is good.”

“And when it demands equal outcomes without concern for inputs or differences, it is unjust,” he added. “And the only way to achieve those equal outcomes is through injustice.”

Haidt confined his comments to education, but the implications are clear for other areas in which the pursuit of social justice butts up against the pursuit of truth. Those of us outside academia would be wise to make our own choices between the two incompatible goals.

Mitch Kokai is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.