Pragmatism’s Problems*

Tibor R. Machan

It has now become something of a badge of honor to be a pragmatist, especially in public policy matters. Being pragmatic means promoting policies that work, being practical or even expedient.

President Obama has often made mention of his own pragmatism. So have some of his most avid supporters, such as Paul Krugman and Cass Sunstein. But not only those favoring the substantially Keynesian approach to macroeconomic policies swear allegiance to pragmatism. The very prominent jurist Richard Posner, of the University of Chicago School of Law, one of the most prolific and widely respected public philosophers in our time, has been unabashed about his championing of pragmatism.

So what makes someone a pragmatist? In these contexts, pragmatic suggests mainly an attitude of realism and flexibility, lack of firm principles or foundations–i.e., eschewing dogmatism or ideology–on which one’s policy recommendations are based. Here is a good sample of the pragmatic approach:

“Defenders of Chicago-style law and economics want to be seen not as ideologues, but as realists. [Richard] Posner [put it this way]: ‘We ask not whether the economic approach to law is adequately grounded’ in any particular ethical system, ‘but whether it is the best approach for the contemporary American legal system to follow.’” Peter Coy, “Opening Remarks,” Bloomberg Businessweek, 6/11-6/17, 2012, p. 10. (“And how can one tell what’s “the best approach” if it’s all purely subjective or relative?)

Even more extremely put, Posner has written as follows:

“It was right to try the Nazi leaders [at Nuremburg] rather than to shoot them out of hand in a paroxysm of disgust…. But it was not right because a trial could produce proof that the Nazis really were immoralists; they were, but according to our lights, not theirs.” “Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory,” 111, Harvard Law Review, 1998, 1644-45.

In what is commonly taken as the pragmatic turn, Posner illustrates that when it comes to morals and politics, no truth is available to us. Objectively speaking, neither the Nazis nor those who condemned them could be said to have had it right (nor indeed those proposing that it’s all subjective)! According to our lights they were vicious but according to theirs they were not–and there is simply no way to adjudicate between them and us. There is then no truth of the matter.

This approach has the fatal problem of being hoisted on its own petard. For it follows from it that saying it is subjective or relative is, well, also subjective or relative; in other words, no truth of the matter in any respect is possible. (It recalls the ancient Greek sophist, Cratylus, who ended up indicating what he meant by wagging his fingers and even that couldn’t do the trick.)

Why is any of this significant? For one, pragmatism of this sort gives carte blanche to those who select which policies a government should follow: whichever they prefer, since none is any better than any other, not objectively speaking. It also concedes virtual absolute authority to those who happen to hold power. They need not justify what they want. Just wanting it is enough. No one can do better, so what is the fuss? That is just how fascists view public affairs since the authority of the ruler is decisive and incontestable. See how one day Mr. Obama claims to follow the US Constitution, the next he maintains he may circumvent it, that his judgment rules!

In the end all intelligent discussion of how people ought to carry on, in or out of government or public life, is pointless. The only thing that counts is who has the power, a very convenient point of view for those who like to lord it over others without having to be accountable for what they do.

Pragmatism has numerous versions and not every version is so outlandish as what we see here, coming from one of the most influential jurists in contemporary America. Just for one example, Professor Susan Haack has been very critical of this kind of pragmatism, which in philosophy is associated with the late Professor Richard Rorty. But sadly in our day it is the most extreme of the pragmatists who wield influence throughout our culture.

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