Posts tagged pragmatism

On Having to Fund Immoral Policies

Having to Fund Immoral Policies

Tibor R. Machan

At the outset I am talking about what someone considers immoral, not what is objectively immoral. Nonetheless, millions are coerced by governments, backed by other millions, to work and pay for what they consider morally wrong. Is that right? Is it avoidable in a democracy?

Back during the Vietnam war a great many opponents of that disastrous policy wanted to withhold their taxes, or the portion of it that went to fund the war. They were mostly from the Left but that doesn’t matter. The point is that such people argued that it is unjust to make them do this. And there is something to this: why would it be OK to require something to contribute resources he or she has produced and owns to a policy deemed to be morally wrong?

Granted requiring someone to make contributions to anything is objectionable but isn’t it more so if the policy is objected to by the victim of such coercion on moral grounds? Suppose the sources of the moral objection is one’s religion. Wouldn’t that contradict the idea of freedom of religion? You are supposed to be free to choose what faith you accept and practice but then you are forced to give up portions of your life for some other faith! Isn’t that inconsistent? You are both free to choose as well as not free to choose!

Doesn’t democracy amount to such this kind of confusion? Well, not if it’s property limited, as limited government champions have insisted it should be. All this stuff about funding or not funding contraceptives would be off the table, not up for the vote.

Today we have President Obama and his minions insisting that forcing Catholics, their churches and such, provide contraceptives and the like to people who want it from them is just fine. But Roman Catholics consider contraceptives an instrument for evil, like pacifists might guns. Would it be OK to demand that pacifists hand out lethal weapons to people who want it from them?

I proposed that this is no different from forcing people to fund a war in which they do not believe, which they regard unjust. I wrote this in a comment at The New York Times on line where one can contribute comments to columnists’ views and where these comments can be further commented on by others. Well, my comment received a bunch of bizarre follow-up comments claiming that there is a world of difference between wanting to withhold support for a war and wanting to do the same for government distributing contraceptives, a policy some consider unjust. But, in fact, the former is simply a different instance of the latter but it’s exactly the same kind of thing.

It reminds me of when people who often embrace democracy whole hog but then when the vote goes against them, cry foul! But if the democratic method is accepted as a valid approach to settling disputed issue, one has no business protesting the outcome. It is rank duplicity, even hypocrisy.

But here is the rub: Mr. Obama and his ideological cohorts are pragmatists and what is so convenient about pragmatism is that you can insist on some policy here, but reject it there, embrace it one hour and then denounce it the next. Because, you see, at least the type of pragmatism that Mr. Obama has often stated is his philosophy rejects principles from the git go. Yes, there are sophisticated pragmatists who defend their unprincipled viewpoint on grounds that principles are really impossible! Principled thinking is mere ideology, not based on reality, so they hold, since reality is too chaotic, too illogical to yield sound principles that can be used in guiding conduct and criticism. But Mr. Obama hasn’t bothered to provide a defense of his unprincipled stand on a great variety of issues, like undeclared wars, deficit spending, abortion, etc.

But then what is there if reason is passe? What would political campaigns be if candidates could not look for inconsistencies in their opponents? Well, then they would be what they have become, shouting matches, throwing dirt at one another, name calling, besmirching and such, that’s what. Because once logic is abandoned, once consistency is ruled out as a criterion of admissible thought and discourse as proposed by pragmatists, we are back just a step away from the jungle where reason has no place and force rules. As that famous painting of Goya says, “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters.”

Column on the Tenacity of Nihilists

The Tenacity of the Nihilists

Tibor R. Machan

In the book Reading Obama (Princeton, 2010), James T. Kloppenberg makes a case for how the kind of approach President Obama takes to public policy is now widely preferred, to put it paradoxically, on principle at the most prestigious universities. Obama’s rejection of general principles, the kind of we find stated in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, is in sync with what has come to be mainstream philosophy in America.

Mind you this is no novel insight about American intellectual life. Pragmatism is, after all, America’s homegrown school of philosophy, one that on principle rejects the value of principled thinking! Now pragmatism has several versions but the one that has become fashionable is what such people as Paul Krugman ridicule by calling principled thinkers “fundamentalists” as if they were dogmatic, mindless, and doctrinaire.

Principled thinkers, such as the American founders, are nothing like this. The principles they found valid for governing a free society were learned from extensive studies of history, by philosophical education and reflection, and by reading a lot of others who embarked on inquiries about human affairs.

In a way those alleged fundamentalists whom at least the more vulgar type of pragmatists try to marginalize are like medical scientists. They learn about the criteria of good health and physical condition from their study of human life, a study that comes up with certain reasonably stable notions about what can be done to achieve and maintain good health. These notions are not Platonic forms, fixed in heaven forever and incapable of being modified and updated. But they aren’t the infinitely flexible ones that are preferred by those who scoff at principled thinking. Engineers, farmers, gardeners, pharmacists and others who take the findings of the various sciences and translate and apply them to problem solving aren’t doctrinaire or dogmatic for being guided by generalizations, principles that come out of those sciences and the experimentation that is part and parcel of them.

Indeed, all disciplines are comprised of more or less fundamental notions that come out of the studies being done in them and the practical implementation of the results of those studies. It is like a pyramid, with some very basic propositions that, to use a phrase the Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made prominent, “stand fast for us,” as well as ones that are less and less well established and more subject to revisions.

Instead of denying that there are fundamentals in fields like political economy and political science, embracing a vast Heraclitian flux that leaves everything indeterminate, ambiguous and open to infinite interpretation, depending upon the personal preferences of those concerned with a discipline, a better, contextual approach is warranted. Even pragmatists tip their hats to this when they for example refuse to be flexible about the viciousness of rape or murder. They know that some things do stand fast for us, including the value of human life, maybe even of human liberty!

However, those spending reams of paper apologizing for Barack Obama’s wobbly political economic decisions and policies act as if this abyss of pragmatically invented ideas could really guide public policy reasonably, productively. (Check out Sam Tanenhaus’s “Will the Tea Get Cold?” in the March 8, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books as a good example!) They ought to check with those who study and practice such fields as medicine, engineering, farming, or auto mechanics and see if anything could be dealt with successfully without general principles, with well founded theories in them. They would find that none of these vital areas of concern can bear fruit without principled thought. And thus they could also realize that neither can the discipline of political economy.

To put the matter bluntly, so called market fundamentalists–as Krugman likes to call people who hold that the best economic arrangements in societies should rely on the free choices of economic agents–are on solid footing; it is sheer laziness not to seek out firm economic principles and theories and proceed by mere intuition, by, literally, nothing at all. Such nihilism hasn’t advanced any of the fields of study, research and reflection that human beings have relied upon to steer them toward a more and more successful way of living, including of organizing their communities.

And let us no kid ourselves: One reason the nihilist’s stance is attractive is that it supports the policy of arbitrary governing, governing that need not give any account of itself, governing that is, ultimately, autocratic and a matter of pure will. Yes, there are some authentic pragmatists and even nihilists but mostly these positions give aid and comfort to corrupt leaders and their cheerleaders in the academy.

Column on How To Use the Constitution

How to Use the Constitution

Tibor R. Machan

Many in the just seated House of Representatives have been clamoring for a return to the Constitution. This is what appears to underlie to planned challenge to Obama care, the massive piece of legislation that President Obama has been eager to make a part of the law of the land, legislation that contains provisions that toe many in the new House appear to be in violation of the U. S. Constitution. In particular, objections have been raised against forcing citizens to buy insurance, something that clearly goes against several principles associated with the American political tradition, such as freedom of contract, freedom of trade, etc. Some of these principles have found a way into the Constitution but it isn’t always crystal clear just where in the Constitution they appear–the fifth, the fourth, the ninth, the first or which amendment or which ruling that contains precedents should constitutional watchdogs rely as they to issue the proclamation: “Unconstitutional.”

The plain fact of the matter is that while the U. S. Constitution–specifically the Bill of Rights–contains some very laudable provisions, all of them require a fairly nuanced interpretation and application to contemporary issues (such as government coercing people buy health insurance). While for some citizens this is all a piece of cake, no problem at all, for others it isn’t a slam dunk by a long shot. That’s because these folks focus on the fact that the principles incorporated in the Bill of Rights are stated in terms that had a slightly different meaning back when the Constitution was ratified from how we understand them today.

Such development in the meaning of terms is often used as an excuse for evading constitutional principles but it could also be legitimate. Terms do change their meaning, more or less drastically or radically, even in the physical science–the term “atom” as used today doesn’t mean what it had been used to mean a hundred years ago. The more people involved in the study of those matters for which such terms were coined come to know–the more information comes to light about the surrounding facts–the more likely some alteration of meaning is probable.

Now this doesn’t mean the ridiculous idea that nothing is constant in the world, nothing stands still, nothing is stable and dependable, only that one needs to be sure what is and what isn’t. Some constitutional scholarship would track just such developments–have the crucial terms of the constitution kept the meaning they had back at the time of ratification or did they change a bit or a lot? The changes wouldn’t be arbitrary, with the result that anything goes–which is the result some of the avid skeptics about the Constitution would try to make us all believe. They hold to the doctrine originally ascribed to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus who held that everything is always in flux–he is famously held to have said “You cannot step into the same river twice” because, well, the river is always changing. And if all of reality were like the river, we could never count on anything to be stable or solid, certainly not principles that are supposed to govern human community life.

But the American Founders and Framers disagreed and had spelled out some–few?–principles that do apply to human community life precisely because it is, after all, human communities that are at issue, not communities of ants or birds or cows. And these beings, human ones, are not all that changeable even over the time span of centuries. We know this from anthropology, archeology, history, philology, and other disciplines that study various aspects of humanity’s past and make pretty good progress understanding them.

So there could well be certain invariable principles, ones that need to be considered in dealing with or governing people and once these make it into a constitution, that document could come in very handy in figuring out public policies and plans. But none of this would be happening automatically, not certainly from simply reading the Constitution, not by a long shot. Honest constitutional study and understanding would be needed. Only then would the imperative to pay heed to the Constitution come to something valuable, important.

The reason that objecting to Obama care would appear to be not just constitutionally misguided but a misguided way of dealing with citizens is that people are the kind of beings in the world who may not be pushed around by other people–they must have their sovereignty or rights to life and liberty well respected and protected. Unfortunately this idea is so often and widely violated around the globe and, of course, throughout human history, that it is difficult for anyone to be loyal to it.

Many people are bent on pushing other people around–always, of course, for lofty purposes–and so bringing up a constitutional objection to their doing so would be annoying for them, even undermine their philosophy of life and their aspirations to be influential in the world. So they will then commit to the philosophy of Heraclitus, a philosophy that gives them carte blanche about how to interpret the U. S. Constitution or any other document containing principles by which communities must be governed. It’s a living document, you see, which can be taken to mean whatever one wants it to me, pragmatically and not according to common reason.

Yes, it is good to refer to the Constitution but it is even more important to keep in mind the underlying philosophical clashes and to make sure which side is right.

Column on The Times’ Phony Integrity

The Times’ Phony Integrity

Tibor R. Machan

In its October 6, 2010, editorial, “Lamentable Speech,” The New York Times stood up for a hard line stance on the right to free speech. As the editors wrote, “To the American Nazi Party, Hustler Magazine, and other odious figures in Supreme Court history, add the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. and the members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Their antigay protests at the funeral of a soldier slain in Iraq were deeply repugnant but protected by the First Amendment. All of the sympathy in the case of Snyder v. Phelps, which was argued on Wednesday at the Supreme Court, goes to the family of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, the fallen Marine. But as the appeals court in the case observed, using words of Justice Felix Frankfurter, ‘It is a fair summary of history to say that the safeguards of liberty have often been forged in controversies involving not very nice people’.”

OK, so far so good except, as one comment on the editorial pointed out, where has The New York Times been when hate speech laws were being passed? Why didn’t it defend the right of those uttering hateful opinions about blacks? Well, one can only suppose that those folks do not deserve the same protection that was provided to the American Nazi Party or, in this case, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. and the members of the Westboro Baptists Church. It would have been politically incorrect or, to use the old fashioned term, impolitic to argue for that.

Even more obvious is The Time’s very partial support of constitutional integrity when one thinks where it stands on the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment which suffered a major blow from the U. S. Supreme Court back in July of 2005, in the case of Kelo v. City of New London Connecticut, when it supported the confiscation of private property for the purpose of bolstering the City’s tax based by approving its taking of private property to be given to a private firm that was to develop it and then pay big bucks to the city in taxes. (BTW, to this day the property hasn’t been developed!) So while it is OK for the court to insist on the full protection of the free speech rights of a group of nasty bigots, it isn’t OK for it to insist on the full protection of the equally vital constitutional principle private property rights against the intrusiveness of city governments. Not a sign of true integrity, me thinks; more a matter of the philosophy of “a living constitution”!

So what is it with The Times and others who appear to hold that the right of freedom of speech is vital–well, except when hate speech is involved–but the right to private property, which actually supports the former right (because, after all, unless property rights are secure, freedom of speech or religion isn’t either), can be dispensed with? I hazard to guess that the cherry picking of rights is in the spirit of The Times’ pragmatic philosophy, one that actually has no respect for basic principles in any sphere of reality. To pragmatists everything is negotiable. And that doesn’t preclude posturing as defenders of principle now and then, when some agenda one is favoring may benefit from it.

What agenda might be served by insisting on upholding the principle of the right to freedom of speech in this case? Well, what pops to mind is that perhaps those soldiers and their families who are being harangued by Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. and the members of the Westboro Baptists Church aren’t fighting in a war that The Times approves of. Another might be that The Times is not very fond of the US Military in general. Yet another might be that freedom of speech is only of special interest to The Times–after all, it mostly operates under the protection of the First Amendment as it editorializes and opines about innumerable subjects. (But to come out and defend hate speech would be too much–The Times is too committed to the special interests of certain groups at which such speech is often aimed.)

No, I do not for a moment believe that The New York Times has come to see the significance of principled adherence to the Bill of Rights no matter how readily its editorial quotes Justice Felix Frankfurter. Pragmatism does not forbid making use of principles when it serves the special purpose to which a pragmatist is devoted, just as Communists and Nazis have no trouble making use of the US Constitution as they defend those principles that make it possible for them to attack the very political system that’s founded on them.

One needs to be careful not to be taken in by the phony parading of principles by those who really, in the end, care not a whit for principles, for whom integrity is deep down but a sign of naive fundamentalism–consider how defending free market capitalism is ridiculed as “market fundamentalism” by one of the favorite columnists of The Times even though most who stand up for that system do so as a matter of their commitment to principle!

Column on Principles vs. Pragmatism vz. the Mosque

Column on Principles vs. Pragmatism viz. the Mosque

Tibor R. Machan

It’s not my preference to beat a dead horse but this topic goes to the heart of certain features of our current political and legal climate.

When one is in some doubt about what to do–and there can be many situations that one isn’t well prepared for–a way to act is to consider one’s basic principles. Take someone married who is suddenly strongly attracted to someone other than a spouse. It happens but if those marriage vows matter at all, such a situation would be when they would come in most clearly. One is pulled toward breaching an oath but since it is an oath, presumably taken in earnest, one will refuse to yield to the temptation. Or if one is tempted to do a bit of shoplifting or prevaricating. This is when one’s principles come into play, however strongly one may feel like circumventing them.

If it is true that men and women in human communities ought not to intrude on their fellow citizens’ liberties, then that idea would come in full strength just when it is most tempting to butt in. So, given how strongly millions of Americans feel that those planning to build a Mosque near Ground Zero are misguided, the upright thing for them to do is to refuse to yield to such a feeling and go with the principle that everyone has a right to freedom of religion even when that religion leads one astray. Yes, it is difficult and very tempting to toss such a principle and ban the plan but so are numerous other principles very difficult to abide by. That’s just what makes them principles–they must not be treated lightly, they must apply even when one is really tempted to ignore them.

Now all this applies when one sees human beings guided by moral and political principles but not if one sees them as pragmatists for whom principles do not apply. As the joke goes with traffic lights, if they are only suggestions, not firm rules of the road, then by all means dodge them as you wish, if you can get away with doing so.

The famous American pragmatist philosopher and psychologist William James argued once that if breaching the truth gives one serious satisfaction, then one should breach it. As he put it in his famous essay, “The Meaning of Truth,” “The suspicion is in the air nowadays that the superiority of one of our formulas to another may not consist so much in its literal ‘objectivity,’ as in subjective qualities like its usefulness, its ‘elegance,’ or its congruity with our residual beliefs” (p. 41). So it isn’t what’s objectively true that counts for us but what is subjectively useful. When it comes to dealing with such matters as whether to incarcerate Japanese Americans, regardless of whether they have been proven guilty of anything, or to ban a mosque near Ground Zero, never mind that no one has shown that anyone’s rights are being violated, the pragmatist can always go around the principle and say, but do it if it feels good.

I am not here going to attempt to show the superiority of the principled as distinct from the pragmatic approach to human conduct or public policies in a human community. What I want to call attention to is how addressing issues pragmatically differs from how someone with principles would address them. Pragmatists distrust principles, thinking them to be a result of loose, ideological, and dogmatic thinking, while those who stress principles insist that what they rely upon for guidance has gone through centuries of trial and error and by now deserve to be heeded even when they appear to be inconvenient.

Most of the American founders were convinced that certain well considered principles apply to how a human community must be governed, how citizens ought to deal with one another, no matter what. Many today seem to scoff at such an attitude. Of course they usually make exceptions, for example, when they oppose torture or rape or child molestation, and it is unclear how can they square these exceptions with their avowed pragmatism in other areas. But they do try. We are witnessing how this drama plays out about something many Americans feel strongly about.