Column on Pragmatism vs. Principles vz. the Mosque Affair

Column on Principles vs. Pragmatism viz. the Mosque

Tibor R. Machan

It’s not my preference to beat a dead horse but this topic goes to the heart of certain features of our current political and legal climate.

When one is in some doubt about what to do–and there can be many situations that one isn’t well prepared for–a way to act is to consider one’s basic principles. Take someone married who is suddenly strongly attracted to someone other than a spouse. It happens but if those marriage vows matter at all, such a situation would be when they would come in most clearly. One is pulled toward breaching an oath but since it is an oath, presumably taken in earnest, one will refuse to yield to the temptation. Or if one is tempted to do a bit of shoplifting or prevaricating. This is when one’s principles come into play, however strongly one may feel like circumventing them.

If it is true that men and women in human communities ought not to intrude on their fellow citizens’ liberties, then that idea would come in full strength just when it is most tempting to butt in. So, given how strongly millions of Americans feel that those planning to build a Mosque near Ground Zero are misguided, the upright thing for them to do is to refuse to yield to such a feeling and go with the principle that everyone has a right to freedom of religion even when that religion leads one astray. Yes, it is difficult and very tempting to toss such a principle and ban the plan but so are numerous other principles very difficult to abide by. That’s just what makes them principles–they must not be treated lightly, they must apply even when one is really tempted to ignore them.

Now all this applies when one sees human beings guided by moral and political principles but not if one sees them as pragmatists for whom principles do not apply. As the joke goes with traffic lights, if they are only suggestions, not firm rules of the road, then by all means dodge them as you wish, if you can get away with doing so.

The famous American pragmatist philosopher and psychologist William James argued once that if breaching the truth gives one serious satisfaction, then one should breach it. As he put it in his famous essay, “The Meaning of Truth,” “The suspicion is in the air nowadays that the superiority of one of our formulas to another may not consist so much in its literal ‘objectivity,’ as in subjective qualities like its usefulness, its ‘elegance,’ or its congruity with our residual beliefs” (p. 41). So it isn’t what’s objectively true that counts for us but what is subjectively useful. When it comes to dealing with such matters as whether to incarcerate Japanese Americans, regardless of whether they have been proven guilty of anything, or to ban a mosque near Ground Zero, never mind that no one has shown that anyone’s rights are being violated, the pragmatist can always go around the principle and say, but do it if it feels good.

I am not here going to attempt to show the superiority of the principled as distinct from the pragmatic approach to human conduct or public policies in a human community. What I want to call attention to is how addressing issues pragmatically differs from how someone with principles would address them. Pragmatists distrust principles, thinking them to be a result of loose, ideological, and dogmatic thinking, while those who stress principles insist that what they rely upon for guidance has gone through centuries of trial and error and by now deserve to be heeded even when they appear to be inconvenient.

Most of the American founders were convinced that certain well considered principles apply to how a human community must be governed, how citizens ought to deal with one another, no matter what. Many today seem to scoff at such an attitude. Of course they usually make exceptions, for example, when they oppose torture or rape or child molestation, and it is unclear how can they square these exceptions with their avowed pragmatism in other areas. But they do try. We are witnessing how this drama plays out about something many Americans feel strongly about.

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