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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. Yet then the problem arises as to when one should be pragmatic, and when one should hold on to one’s principles, no matter what. To take the abortion issue, is it justified to be ‘ideological’ (i.e., principled) about a woman’s right to choose whether to continue her pregnancy, or, alternatively, about whether to preserve the life of a budding human being? And if one opposes rape under any and all circumstances, is one being ideological, dogmatic, and a fundamentalist (in the objectionable sense)? What about parents who insist that their children tell the truth and not lie, ever? Are they dogmatic, thoughtless people, and is their child-rearing therefore seriously flawed?

Yet when it comes to, say, confiscating the resources of people for various supposedly public purposes (as per the US Supreme Court’s ruling in 2005 in Kelo v. City of New London, Connecticut), some serious legal scholars claim that 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 in such cases than the principle of the integrity of a woman’s body or that which requires abstaining from torture even in the midst of war? Or to turn the point around, why are certain philosophers and 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 pragmatists find it convenient to their and their cohorts’ advantage to downplay certain principles, such as private property rights, or rights to a fair trial, while they think other principles are worth championing? Or is philosophical consistency – logic – itself a victim of pragmatism? (Interestingly enough, it was C.I. Lewis, a pragmatist, who, in his 1929 book Mind and the World Order, argued that logic is something we have invented and may dispense with if we choose.) There is supposedly no excuse for abandoning principled thinking and conduct about rape or child abuse; but for some reason it is supposedly okay to accept the violation of economic or property rights, or of personal liberty in cases of terrorist arrests, for example, and thus dogmatic or ideological to oppose such violations.

Inconsistent Principles

The bottom line may well be that pragmatism is fatally flawed. No champion of it can identify when it is permissible or acceptable to be pragmatic, and when pragmatism would be morally odious and intolerable. In the case of the many proudly pragmatic politicians and public policy wonks, they give no indication when principled thinking and conduct are required, and when it is ‘dogmatic’ or ‘ideological’ to strictly adhere to such principles. This then gives them carte blanche about how they should carry on with public policies or even personal conduct. Former President Bill Clinton and golf champion Tiger Woods then can cry out, “But why are they condemning us for breaking our marriage vows when they break all sorts of principles?” And worse, supporters of waterboarding or even more Draconian forms of torture can invoke pragmatism, saying, “Well it works sometimes, so given the importance of getting information from the suspects, it would be dogmatic or ideological to forbid it.” Again, 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? Indeed, it is an interesting question just what politicians and other pragmatists teach their own children about principles – may they be tossed aside whenever they become inconvenient, wherever they stand in the way of pursuing certain desired objectives like keeping one’s pot smoking secret or bailing out banks and auto companies with other peoples’ money?

It seems that champions of pragmatism have a problem. It looks like pragmatism is not at all practical – the very thing for which it is often praised – since it cannot be practiced consistently or coherently in either personal or public affairs.

© Prof. Tibor Machan 2013

Tibor Machan holds the R.C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at Chapman University in California, and is Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of The Promise of Liberty (Lexington Books, 2009).

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