Friday, December 12, 2008

Pragmatism Questioned

Tibor R. Machan

One of the standard features of ethics is that one ought to stick to principles or standards of right conduct even when it is difficult, when there is strong temptation not to. Being principled is generally thought to be a plus for a human being. It works toward reducing wrongdoing because such a person does what’s right regardless--or at least there are very, very circumstances when breaking those principles would be proper, justified. Such an individual is also said to have integrity.

Since the latter part of the 19th century, however, a powerful movement in philosophy, including ethics and politics, disputes all this. The name of this movement, often considered home grown in America, is pragmatism. Pragmatists dispute that basic principles or standards can be found in any area of human concern, be this the most basic one of metaphysics or the more practical one of ethics or politics. Every alleged basic principle, the pragmatist argues, can be successfully challenged and so it is not really a basic principle at all. At most it would be a heuristic policy or rule of thumb--be honest (when you can or it isn’t to troublesome); be courageous (unless its too dangerous); respect people’s rights (unless it costs you too much), etc.

Today this pragmatic attitude is widely associated with successful politicians such as Barack Obama and Tony Blair. Instead of being what is pejoratively called “an ideologue,” namely someone who upholds certain basic principles even against great pressure to cave in, president-elect Obama and many who admire and would emulate him claim to be pragmatists.

In the current political economic fiasco this comes out as not minding stepping on various economic principles or laws when it’s deemed something possibly workable not to do so. Prudence? Forget about it. Thrifty? Another idea up for sale! Private property rights? Never mind those, especially. The integrity of money? You old fuddy-duddy, don’t go there. Certainly the principles of the free market economy--which include that businesses quit that cannot keep solvent while answering to customers’ needs--are dispensable.

Now it isn’t always clear just how far pragmatists like Barack Obama will go to jettison morality and political justice but perhaps the governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich who apparently was willing to breach his oath of office right and left, didn’t realize that pragmatism has it own limits. Or he didn’t know what they are.

Most pragmatists will not go so far as to claim that the prohibition of, say, rape is provisional or situational and may be overlooked under certain circumstances, say when the rapist is terribly eager or important. Or murder. And, I am sure, most of those who admire Barack Obama’s pragmatism would not claim that we ought to have a pragmatic attitude toward torture.

But why not? Why are some principles exempted from the pragmatic rule that all principles are subject to violation in cases where upholding them is difficult or complicated?

The reason is that pragmatism is rarely fully accepted by those who profess it. Their own values, what they regard is truly worthy, may not be abandoned but those that others embrace, well they are OK to violate. So the principles of the free market economy are by no means something to fret a lot about when millions of voters ask for bailouts, never mind how economically and otherwise unwise and wrong this is. On the other hand, however, the right to have an abortion, that is inviolate, pragmatism or no pragmatism! And the prohibition of torturing suspected terrorists--no pragmatism about that!

Bottom line is that pragmatism is unworkable as any guide to human action or public policy. To do whatever works begs the question. It fails to inform us about the principles or standards by which to figure out what we ought to strive for and use to determine whether some conduct or policy works. (Works for what?) Remember, pragmatists deny there are stable, firm lasting principles or standards of ethics and politics--they are flexible about such matters (unless the flexibility doesn’t suit them).

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