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Jon Elster gives talk

Columbia University’s Jon Elster, a renowned scholar in rational choice theory, delivered the René Cassin Lecture in the Faculty of Law on Thursday entitled “Justice, Truth, and Peace.” In a discussion attended mainly by Law professors and students, Elster argued that most of the time, justice, truth, and peace don’t go together.

Elster is the latest in a line of respected scholars to give the lecture. Named after the 1968 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, the lecture series hopes to attract renowned speakers to discuss a growing need for human rights education and engagement beyond the university.

As Dean of Law Daniel Jutras noted, Elster’s “research includes a range of political philosophy, including the rational choice theory, the theory of distributive justice, and history of social thought.”

In his lecture, Elster pointed out that two good things might not always work well together. For example, profits and community benefits are both good things individually, but they can clash in certain situations.

Even in profit-sharing schemes, such a system is inefficient. “When transferring wealth from a rich person to a poor person, some wealth is often destroyed or not created,” Elster said.

Elster argued that the same principles can be applied to truth, justice, and peace, even if this seems somewhat counterintuitive. Conflict resolution, he says. comes in three steps. First, there must be justice in the forms of punishment for the wrongdoers and reparation for victims. Second, truth commissions are set up to uncover and document the wrongdoings that took place. Finally, the establishment of a durable peace is of overwhelming importance.

In his lecture, Elster discussed the link between justice and truth. For example, the justice system may serve the goal of truth “when truth is produced as a byproduct of the ordinary workings of the justice system,” he said.  

“The Nuremberg trials served this function as the public trial exposed the wrongdoing of the wrongdoers,” he added.

Truth may also serve the goal of justice, such as when publication of the names of wrongdoers exposes them to public contempt. Additionally, truth may also provide justice to victims by laying down the factual groundwork for reparations.

“There is also a link between truth and peace,” Elster said. “Truth commissions, for example, can help preserve the peace.

“Truth commissions prevent resurgence of armed conflict, by making it impossible to deny the massive wrongdoings that took place,” Elster said.

The framework breaks down however, when the three things are brought together, like in the case of public apologies. Official apologies occur when regimes acknowledge their past wrongdoings. Often, these apologies do not go hand in hand with compensation.

The dangers of apologies come at a time when politicians around the world have expressed regret and remorse for what their predecessors did at various times in the past.

Elster argued that often these public apologies become meaningless.  

“Sometimes they have used moral impersonal language, as when deploring these past actions or acknowledging that they were wrong,” he said. “The moral status of these statements is highly ambiguous. Often, they are nothing short of meaningless. To apologize for what dead individuals did to other dead individuals is absurd on metaphysical grounds.”

Some, though, have questioned his controversial opinion.

“I found the concept that public apologies have no real meaning is interesting if debatable,” said Siddharth Mishra, U1 economics. “On a rational standpoint, his arguments make sense in terms of pure utility. But there is a lot of criticism of that particular framework is too narrow, and too encapsulate political actions.”

Regardless, the scholarly lecture presented and shared new ideas.

“It was interesting; it brought a whole new perspective,” Mishra said. “And that is what it is all about, sharing ideas.”

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