Impractical Pragmatism

Tibor Machan argues that pragmatism cannot work in practice.

The title of this article appears paradoxical because ‘pragmatic’ usually means ‘practical, workable, functional’. As such, when one claims to be a pragmatist when it comes to, say, economic policy, one is likely to receive praise from those who are critical of ‘ideology’ or ‘ideological thinking’ – by which they mean ethical thinking that involves basic principles or axioms which pragmatists believe aren’t available to us in any field.

Yet arguably ethical pragmatism is not a sound approach to life, including to public policy, because the use of principles to guide individual conduct and public affairs is both plausible and pervasive. Just consider as examples the strict insistence on honesty by parents as they raise their children, the condemnation of any kind of rape or child abuse, as well as the use of due process in criminal law, the widespread public opposition to torture in the fight against terrorists, the strong defense of either the pro-life or pro-choice stance in the debate about abortion, and more generally, the prominence of the virtue of integrity. Given these evidently not pragmatic ways of thinking and conduct, pragmatic approaches would have to be selective – applicable to, say, economic public policy, but not to criminal law.

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