Friday, April 13, 2007

Pragmatism is an Ideal

Here is one to file under the category of paradox. Pragmatism is an ideal.

Occasionally I come across extremely empassioned pleas for people to cast their ideals aside and to follow the pragmatic course of action.

For example, the Bush administration had an impassioned plea for the United States to throw aside the ideals of the Powell Doctrine and the ideals of the United Nations to directly confront radical Islam by invading Iraq.

The problem, of course, is that pragmatism itself is an ideal. Even worse, it is an ideal that, from its inception, has nullified itself through resort to paradox.

When you look at modern history, I think you will find that many of the worst atrocities have come from the hands of people claiming themselves to be pragmatists.

Look at Western History: We adopted slavery because it was a way to get things done. The feudal order was based on pragmatic notion that a hierarchical order was the way to get things done. In US history, Andrew Jackson, Armstrong Custer led us in extermination wars with the Native Americans as pragmatic ways to get things done.

Further on the left: Stalin and Mao appeared as the great pragmatic leaders of the people. Breaking eggs (that is genocide) was the pragmatic step towards a peoples' paradise. Hitler considered himself a pragmatist. He and his band of rogues got into power as they were the ones willing to take the ugly pragmatic steps to get the job done.

In the cold war, the United States developed an unpleasant pattern of casting aside American ideals and supporting dictatorships simply because that was the pragmatic way to get things done.

Pragmatism is an ideology just like all of the ideologies that pragmists despise. Just as blind adherence to ideologies leads to folly, blind adherence to pragmatism led to great suffering.

The seduction of pragmatism is its paradoxical nature. People love to think in paradox. Unfortunately, since "pragmatism" is founded on paradox, it is one of the most dangerous ideals. You never know which direction it will take. In most all cases, the pragmatic man of action declares pragmatism simply because he wants to take us in directions that we are ill advised to follow.


Charles D said...

1. Pragmatism is not in the eye of the beholder. There is evidence after awhile to prove that one's idea works or fails.

2. No one advocates slavery or genocide as pragmatic methods because they are morally wrong and they don't work. That's simply a bogus argument.

3. What exactly is your counter to pragmatism in politics? Do you have one, or do you just like to twist other people's ideas?

(Just doing my other job of correcting other people's blogs.)

y-intercept said...

Morality is based on defined ideals.

Genocide works. When the genocide is done, your enemies are all dead. The spoils of war are yours to redistribute.

Genocide only fails when you judge it against the ideals of civilization.

To be able to judge what works or fails, you have to have a set of ideals in place to judge the outcome.

Pragmatism as an ideology is seductive because it nullifies itself. When you make the self-referential paradox the center of your thinking, you develop the illusion that you have a short cut to a promising future when you really have little more than an intellectual mush that lets you justify your desire while bowling over inconvenient truths.

Unfortunately, the alternative takes a lot effort to work through. To work on the alternative view, you have to understand what ideals are, you have to understand logic and you have to be willing to accept that the path people want to follow to power may not be the best path to follow. The classical liberal tradition was on this path. The modern tradition threw us off course.

Charles D said...

Genocide is never moral. It may work sometimes, but it is never moral. I agree that one needs moral values, but they do not have to be a rigid ideology. I do not advocate pragmatism as an ideology, but as a method to test the effectiveness of an ideology at solving the problems it purports to solve within the moral framework claimed by its proponents.

y-intercept said...

BTW, this post was inspired by an empassioned plea to pragmatism from a neocon who favored skirting the ideals of international law for a unilateral invasion of Iraq.

It is this idiotic ideal that results matter more than ideals that the administration keeps doing things like supporting torture, landmine production and other idiocies.

The point of my post is that one cannot position pragmatism as an alternative to ideals. Positioning pragmatism as an alternative to ideals ends up creating a nihilistic ideology.

Being pragmatic in the the definition of our ideals and judging the affects of our actions against reality is the height of reason.

The classical liberal tradition has a very good notion of the role ideals play in society. The modern liberal tradition (Marxism and beyond) has the whole thing muddled.

Charles D said...

You appear to be fighting a battle of your own invention.

The neocon invasion of Iraq has nothing whatever to do with pragmatism, it has to do with imperialism - that's the ideal of the neocons that they pursue in spite of the all facts to the contrary and the failure of their efforts to produce the results they want.

Scott Hinrichs said...

It's always easy to win an argument when you tell your opponents what they think.

y-intercept said...

DL, the neocon articles were using the term "pragmatic" and "practicality" and not the word "pragmatism." The articles have the long rant against ideology; then end with statements about how we must be pragmatic.

My guess is that the neocons want to disassociate their philosophy from John Dewey.

The central theme of Dewey is that you do and say whatever is expedient to get into power, then go from there. Switching from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party was the path to power in the late 70s and 80s. Now that the tides have turned, it will be interesting to see how many of them switch back.

The University Channel has a massive 10 hour podcast on the Public Interest. These people say neoconservativism is primarily about social policy and not foreign policy. They also tend to claim that they were taking the middle, pragmatic road. All the neoncon's I've known personally called themselves pragmatists.