Column on the Impracticality of Pragmatism

Impractical Pragmatism?

Tibor R. Machan

Yes, it sounds paradoxical because by "pragmatic" is usually meant "practical, workable, functional." So when President Obama made it clear last year that he is a loyal pragmatist when it comes to economic policy, he received praise from some, especially those who denounce ideology or ideological thinking.

Yet this is not a sound approach to life or public policy because telling where one should be pragmatic and where one should hold on to one’s principles no matter what is impossible. If, say, one is ideological about a woman’s right to choose whether to continue her pregnancy beyond a certain point, or, alternatively, whether to preserve the life of a budding human being no matter what, is that all to the good or not? Or if one opposes rape under any and all circumstances, is one being ideological, dogmatic, a fundamentalist in the bad sense meant by the likes of Professor Paul Krugman who think that market fundamentalism is something really, really bad? What about parents who insist that their children tell the truth and not lie, ever? Are they dogmatic, mindless people and is their child rearing seriously flawed?

Yet when it comes to confiscating the resources of people for various supposedly public purposes, as per the U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 2005 in Kelo v. City of New London Connecticut, serious legal scholars claim 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 all than the principle of the integrity of a woman’s body? Why are these same 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 these folks find it convenient, to their and their preferred people’s advantage, to downplay the principles of private property rights? That is surely what one would think about anyone who would counsel flexibility about matters such as rape or child abuse. There is no excuse to abandon principled thinking and conduct about such practices but for some reason it is OK to accept stealing a bit here, robbing a bit there and dogmatism or ideological to oppose that attitude?

The bottom line is that pragmatism is fatally flawed. No champion of it can identify where it is permissible or acceptable to be pragmatic and where pragmatism would be something odious and intolerable. In the case of President Obama and his public policy cheerleaders they, too, have no clue when principled thinking and conduct are required and when it is dogmatic or ideological to strictly adhere to principles. No clue at all, which then gives them carte blanche about how they should carry on with public policies or even personal conduct. Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods then can cry out, but why are they condemning us for breaking our marriage wows when they break all sorts of principles? And, worse, supporters of water boarding or even more Draconian forms of torture can invoke pragmatism, saying well it works sometimes, so given the importance of getting information from the victims it would be dogmatic or ideological to forbid it. 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?

It seems that champions of pragmatism like President Obama and his intellectual supporters have a problem here and if they think that a president should lead by example, they could be guilty of providing an impossible example for others to follow. Indeed, it is an interesting question just what Mr. and Mrs. Obama teach their own children about principles–may they be tossed whenever they become inconvenient, wherever they stand in the way of pursuing certain desired objectives like bailing out banks and auto companies with other peoples’ money?

Looks like pragmatism is not at all practical, the very thing for which it is often praised. It cannot be practiced consistently, coherently, in either personal or public affairs.

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5 Responses to Column on the Impracticality of Pragmatism

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