Column on Another Pitch for Pragmatism

Another Pitch for Pragmatism

Tibor R. Machan

This article surprised me a bit because I have been reading The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof for a long time and he never appeared to me an unprincipled person. Yet in an essay for The New York Review of Books, titled "On Isaiah Berlin," he pushes for unabashed pragmatism, which is the philosophy of expediency, of "anything that works."

Kristof’s essay is about the late philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin, most famous for his essay "Two Concepts of Liberty." In that essay Berlin laid out and clarified a notion that had been making the philosophical rounds for about a century if not more–for example, in the writings of the English idealist philosopher, T. H. Green–namely that in politics two ideas of human freedom are prominent, negative and positive. Basically negative freedom or liberty amounts to not intruding on someone, leaving him or her be. This is the liberty endorse by John Locke and by the American Founders.

The other type of freedom is positive, meaning one gets to be supported by other people so as to have the ability–freedom–to advance in one’s life, for example, the freedom to get health care or insurance or public housing or whatever is produced, via coercion, for those who need it by those who can. If others are forced to provide (foregoing some of their values), then they will be free to pursue the values they need and want to have.

Berlin never thought this distinction is all-encompassing but he believed it covers a good deal of what goes on in contemporary welfare states where both types of freedom are supposedly being secured by governments. And he embraced a very controversial view about morality, ethics and politics, namely, that we can have values–ideas of what is right and wrong, good and bad or evil–that are in conflict, that it is false that "there must somewhere be a true answer to the deepest questions that preoccupy mankind." While he noted that great minds throughout human history had assumed this, the idea is nevertheless false!

Kristof thinks he knows why Berlin held to this belief–he gives a typical psycho-historical explanation based on Berlin’s early life and later experiences with totalitarianism and what Berlin liked to call "unbridled monism" (the idea that the universe hangs together seamlessly and although we rarely know how it does so, in principle we could; this is pretty much what is assumed in all the sciences other than, perhaps, in chaos theory, so Berlin’s helter-skelter account of the world would seem to be the odd one, not that offered by those who seek, even if they cannot find, a comprehensive account).

But what stands out most in Kristof’s essay is how he attempts to enlist Berlin to support pragmatism. As he puts it, "What exactly is Berlin’s legacy in philosophy? To me, it is his emphasis on the ‘pluralism of values,’ a concept that suggests a nonideological, pragmatic way of navigating an untidy world." He does this without bothering to explain how Berlin’s (or indeed anyone’s) version of pragmatism could give support to Kristof’s own favorite causes, including rescuing women who are oppressed across the globe. Can a pragmatist really object if someone replies, "Well it is very useful to oppress women (or whoever else), at least to us here in this country or region"?

Never mind. Barack Obama has declared himself a loyal pragmatist, at least in economic policy, so his cheerleaders, among them Nicholas Kristof, are doing whatever they can to make this a respectable outlook. Is it? Or is it a rationalization for unprincipled personal conduct and public policy? I suspect it is the latter. The more one can shore up the credibility and respectability of shooting from the hip, never mind justification and, more importantly, justice, the more unchecked power one can claim is necessary to do one’s work. Dangerous stuff, I’d say.

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