Pragmatism Cannot Work in Practice

The title of this article appears paradoxical because ‘pragmatic’ usually means ‘practical, workable, functional’. As such, when one claims to be a pragmatist when it comes to, say, economic policy, one is likely to receive praise from those who are critical of ‘ideology’ or ‘ideological thinking’ – by which they mean ethical thinking that involves basic principles or axioms which pragmatists believe aren’t available to us in any field.

 

pragmatism-john-smithPragmatism”, by J. Smith

 

Yet arguably ethical pragmatism is not a sound approach to life, including to public policy, because the use of principles to guide individual conduct and public affairs is both plausible and pervasive. Just consider as examples the strict insistence on honesty by parents as they raise their children, the condemnation of any kind of rape or child abuse, as well as the use of due process in criminal law, the widespread public opposition to torture in the fight against terrorists, the strong defense of either the pro-life or pro-choice stance in the debate about abortion, and more generally, the prominence of the virtue of integrity.

Given these evidently not pragmatic ways of thinking and conduct, pragmatic approaches would have to be selective – applicable to, say, economic public policy, but not to criminal law. Yet then the problem arises as to when one should be pragmatic, and when one should hold on to one’s principles, no matter what.

To take the abortion issue, is it justified to be ‘ideological’ (i.e., principled) about a woman’s right to choose whether to continue her pregnancy, or, alternatively, about whether to preserve the life of a budding human being? And if one opposes rape under any and all circumstances, is one being ideological, dogmatic, and a fundamentalist (in the objectionable sense)? What about parents who insist that their children tell the truth and not lie, ever? Are they dogmatic, thoughtless people, and is their child-rearing therefore seriously flawed?

Yet when it comes to, say, confiscating the resources of people for various supposedly public purposes (as per the US Supreme Court’s ruling in 2005 in Kelo v. City of New London, Connecticut), some serious legal scholars claim that this is ‘wise pragmatism’ – a sensible rejection of ‘mindless market fundamentalism’ or ‘ideological thinking’. Why is the principle of private property rights less binding on us in such cases than the principle of the integrity of a woman’s body or that which requires abstaining from torture even in the midst of war?

 

dino2The T-Rex discovers pragmatism …

 

Or to turn the point around, why are certain philosophers and intellectuals not being pragmatic about torture or child molestation? Why don’t they condemn those who insist that under no circumstances may anyone commit statutory rape as ‘crass dogmatists’? Could it be that pragmatists find it convenient to their an their cohorts’ advantage to downplay certain principles, such as that of private property rights, or rights to a fair trial, while they think other principles are worth championing?

Or is philosophical consistency – logic – itself a victim of pragmatism? (Interestingly enough, it was C.I. Lewis, a pragmatist, who, in his 1929 book Mind and the World Order, argued that logic is something we have invented and may dispense with if we choose.) There is supposedly no excuse for abandoning principled thinking and conduct about rape or child abuse; but for some reason it is supposedly okay to accept the violation of economic or property rights, or of personal liberty in cases of terrorist arrests, for example, and thus dogmatic or ideological to oppose such violations.

 

c.i._lewisClarence Irving Lewis, the founder of “conceptual pragmatism” and author of “Mind and the World Order

Photo credit: stanford.edu

 

Inconsistent Principles

The bottom line may well be that pragmatism is fatally flawed. No champion of it can identify when it is permissible or acceptable to be pragmatic, and when pragmatism would be morally odious and intolerable. In the case of the many proudly pragmatic politicians and public policy wonks, they give no indication when principled thinking and conduct are required, and when it is ‘dogmatic’ or ‘ideological’ to strictly adhere to such principles.

This then gives them carte blanche about how they should carry on with public policies or even personal conduct. Former President Bill Clinton and golf champion Tiger Woods then can cry out, “But why are they condemning us for breaking our marriage vows when they break all sorts of principles?” And worse, supporters of waterboarding or even more Draconian forms of torture can invoke pragmatism, saying, “Well it works sometimes, so given the importance of getting information from the suspects, it would be dogmatic or ideological to forbid it.”

 

macchiThe bible of “political pragmatism” for autocratic rulers: Niccolo Machiavelli’s Il Principe (The Prince)

 

Again, where is the line between conduct that may follow the pragmatic approach and conduct that may not? Where is principled conduct expendable, and why there and not someplace else? Indeed, it is an interesting question just what politicians and other pragmatists teach their own children about principles – may they be tossed aside whenever they become inconvenient, wherever they stand in the way of pursuing certain desired objectives like keeping one’s pot smoking secret or bailing out banks and auto companies with other peoples’ money?

It seems that champions of pragmatism have a problem. It looks like pragmatism is not at all practical – the very thing for which it is often praised – since it cannot be practiced consistently or coherently in either personal or public affairs.

 

Image captions by PT
This article appeared originally in Philosophy Now, March/April 2013

 

Dr. Tibor R. Machan has recently been appointed senior fellow at the Heartland Institute (Arlington Heights, IL) and has worked as a Hoover Institution research fellow, is Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, Auburn University, Alabama, and has held the R. C. Hoiles Endowed Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University from 1997 to 2014.

 

 

 

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4 Responses to “Impractical Pragmatism”

  • Mark Humphrey:

    Thanks for this interesting essay by Tibor Machan.

    Donald Trump’s “eclectic” approach to ethics–no different from the unprincipled behavior of other politicians, but perhaps more blatant–got me to thinking again about the philosophy of pragmatism recently. Most people are believers in “pragmatism” today, whatever the few principles they happen to hold to about which they feel strongly. But in other areas, outside their pet principles, they’ll behave in ways that simply advance their narrowly defined (and often misconceived) self interest, principles be cursed.

    As an aside, the popularity among republicans of Trump reveals the true beliefs of his supporters, including among those who describe themselves as conservative. They want to shut out immigrants–illegal and legal–because they’re natavists and resent competition for jobs. So today’s conservatives are statists, rent seekers, and jingoists: true pragmatists to the core of their ideology.

    Trump’s run for office has been an exercise in “values clarification” for the republican party.

  • anto:

    That painting is of the Napoleon House in The French Quarter in New Orleans isn’t it? That’s 3 blocks from my apartment

  • Crysangle:

    Ideally there would be no need for pragmatism , as pragmatism implies a resolution to a problem , the most basic of those being questions of survival , through to comfort , and ending, maybe , in a state of being that we seem to be forever searching for . The next best thing to the individual, might be to charge another with the practicalities , and responsibilities , of action perceived as necessary to a result , but that is already pragmatism at work , and complicity being what it is there is no escaping from any participation , no matter how little, or tacit it might be .
    Now pragmatism , or a ” philosophical movement or system having various forms, but generally stressing practical consequences as constituting the essential criterion in determining meaning, truth, or value” , as a philosophy already fails . There is no honest way to judge the truth or meaning from a practical consequence , and much less so if a third party is the (maybe unfortunate) recipient of the result , at least without moral or ethic – ideals .
    A practical consequence , in itself , implies action is taken for a certain objective , that motive necessarily being given priority over non-action , yet there is no way we have to compare given real world results in exactly the same circumstance under the different choices , there is simply no way .
    In fact, to stretch the argument further, all we tend to call ‘knowledge’ is based on previous observation , and we apply it to our thinking and actions almost religiously , we are all ‘guilty’ of that , and for good reason , or so we are lead to believe – we would not be here (or not for very long) if we did not take into account the nature of the world around us and our needs within it . However, there is a slight difference between those two realities just described, under the pragmatic approach the given result is seen as the best possible result under the circumstance , and that may or may not include besides for ourselves , but is left to our own judgement all the same , with all its possible bias . Under an idealistic approach however , no matter that we stick to the same ‘dogma’ of cause and effect , of knowledge , we place an ethical priority as guardian to our actions and expect the world around us to react to that (in fact it does as we have decided that is our effect on it).
    To me the latter is a leap of faith beyond the mechanical praxis of a programmed approach , it recognizes , when the subject involves others or society , the ability of understanding and reorganization in those , it recognizes others as capable of responding and of making a mutually beneficial adjustment , of actually being as sentient and deserving as yourself . This is not charity , but a necessary form of evolution so that any community may function better .
    So the very lowest ideals we should aim for are ones where individual choice in matters concerning themselves is recognized , and that we might therefore assume means not harming other people wherever possible (meaning as a priority) , as otherwise we end up creating the problems we only imagined , and there is nothing pragmatic at all in that but to learn from our mistake .

  • therooster:

    Idealism and being prismatic cross paths when debt-free liquidity is fully scaleable and moves in real-time….. and is also governed by market laws.

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