Column on Problems with Pragmatism

Problems with Pragmatism

Tibor R. Machan

Given that on several occasions President Obama has made it clear that he is no ideologue but a pragmatist, it could be useful to consider what these terms mean. What makes someone an ideologue? What makes one a pragmatist? Ideologues are those who approach problem-solving from a general framework which they or someone they trust have found to be sound, at least in the long run. A Marxist or utilitarian or libertarian could each be an ideologue by bringing to the table certain principles that will guide the way he or she will solve problems.

Most of us are ideologues about some things—for example, we tend to believe that people have rights and when we go about solving our problems, we must not violate these rights even if it seems convenient to do so. In matters of political economy there can be ideological thinking with a certain general orientation, so that, for example, in approaching the current economic mess bailouts will be unacceptable because of a firm belief in private property rights. Or imposing equal burdens on the citizenry will be considered proper, whatever the results. And ideological thinking can sometimes degenerate into dogmatism, lack of thoughtfulness.

Let me detour for a bit here. Sometimes “ideological” means “blinded by preconceptions or presuppositions.” It could also mean being guided by ideas that hide one’s true motives. But the most common use of “ideology” means “a general viewpoint.” Now what about pragmatism? This outlook was forged by people who are very skeptical about any general viewpoint, any set of general ideas or principles, so that they embrace, instead, a flexible outlook. Thus they make it possible to do nearly anything they find appealing, no holds barred. A pragmatic politician, for example, will champion whatever policy that seems to him or her workable, practical, never mind any principles of ethics or politics that the policy might violate. An example would be someone who advocates a massive government stimulus package by which to try to solve the current economic mess regardless of whether this policy violates the notion that only those who are responsible for the mess ought to be burdened with the cost of solving it. This latter concern would show one to be bound by principles and pragmatists reject this. (Not even logic is treated as a firm system of principles in pragmatism—such pragmatist philosophers as C. I. Lewis, for instance, argued that logic is a mere inventi on the rules of which we may bend when we like.)

In the current political climate to be pragmatic is often seen as a mark of sophistication because unlike ideological thinking it looks open-minded, flexible, and freewheeling (unconstrained by notions laid out in a written document such as the U. S. Constitution). Pragmatists generally consider such loyalty a mark of laziness when contrasted with their open-mindedness. But pragmatism also has serious liabilities. It is, to begin with, very difficult to apply and can make it fairly easy to rationalize bad conduct and public policies. That’s because no one can tell ahead of time what will work to solve the problems at hand, thus allowing for any option whatever. Why should we exclude theft, for example, if no principles are defensible, or torture? If principles are excluded as valid means for guiding conduct, why would even the most dastardly policies be objectionable? Only principles, based on past experience and careful reflection, can give us sensible guidance.

So, in fact, pragmatists rarely if ever stick to their pragmatism. Instead they tend to cherry pick their principles. In our time we see this with how righteously friends of the Obama administration criticize the Bush administration’s use of water boarding, of torture, as a means to try to achieve the worthwhile goal of gathering important information. In this case, it seems, some principles would be binding on us all. In other words, what being pragmatic makes easier is to switch principles in mid course. Professing to be pragmatic liberates one from the limitations of personal integrity–when principles serve one’s purpose, then let’s use them, but when they stand in one’s way, toss them.

Unfortunately some of those who are invoking pragmatism in their thinking and public posturing are well enough educated so as to gain the upper hand in debating the issue of what approach is most appropriate when it comes to governing. Few folks can handle the cleverness of Mr. Obama and Co., when they claim to be pragmatic while also opposing torture, for example, on principle! In fact, however, these clever moves are mostly ways to escape responsibility for one’s ideas and policies. They cover up fundamental confusions in one’s thinking and in how one sets out to govern, instead of making governing sensible and coherent.

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