Posts tagged principles
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.
Among classical liberals and libertarians there has been a pretty vehement debate about whether liberty is best shown to be of primary value in society via utilitarian or practical or by means of normative arguments. Utilitarian arguments work mostly with historical evidence: free institutions, markets, legal systems and such have been productive of much happiness or value in the past and this is why we should embrace them now and in the future. Every proposal for limiting liberty needs to be tested against the history of similar proposals of the past; the most persuasive way to show that liberty is of the highest importance in human community life is to keep producing comparative studies that show this. Those stressing the normative case do not disparage the utilitarian’s contribution to an understanding of freedom but claim that it isn’t decisive since there is always the response that the next time, perhaps, a bit of interference, rights-violation, bullying, nudging, etc., might work and it isn’t possible for these (historical, empirical) studies to show otherwise. On those occasions when there is doubt about the efficacy of free institutions, something else needs to be tried; after all, no one can prove that the principle of liberty–natural rights, etc.–is true (by empirical methods). Yet, the normative defender of the free system can argue, first, that over the pretty long span of human history, including, especially, regarding how best to manage scarce resources, the principles of the free market have proven to be superior to alternative principles (e.g., fascism, welfare statism, socialism, communitarianism). Second, when we consider a system of public policies or a constitution, we need to think in terms of principles, not scattered programs. And, third, it’s demonstrable that as political economic systems stack up against each other, those promoting human liberty are more respectful toward people than the alternatives. Finally, as a fifth consideration and a most important one from a normative perspective, without liberty there can be no morality or ethics; only free men and women are in a position to make significant moral decisions, of their own free will. And the debate goes on.
Tibor R. Machan
Yes, it sounds paradoxical because by “pragmatic” is usually meant “practical, workable, functional.” So when President Obama made it clear last year that he is a loyal pragmatist when it comes to economic policy, he received praise from some, especially those who denounce ideology or ideological thinking.
Yet this is not a sound approach to life or public policy because telling where one should be pragmatic and where one should hold on to one’s principles no matter what is impossible. If, say, one is ideological about a woman’s right to choose whether to continue her pregnancy beyond a certain point, or, alternatively, whether to preserve the life of a budding human being no matter what, is that all to the good or not? Or if one opposes rape under any and all circumstances, is one being ideological, dogmatic, a fundamentalist in the bad sense meant by the likes of Professor Paul Krugman who think that market fundamentalism is something really, really bad? What about parents who insist that their children tell the truth and not lie, ever? Are they dogmatic, mindless people and is their child rearing seriously flawed?
Yet when it comes to confiscating the resources of people for various supposedly public purposes, as per the U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 2005 in Kelo v. City of New London Connecticut, serious legal scholars claim 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 all than the principle of the integrity of a woman’s body? Why are these same 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 these folks find it convenient, to their and their preferred people’s advantage, to downplay the principles of private property rights? That is surely what one would think about anyone who would counsel flexibility about matters such as rape or child abuse. There is no excuse to abandon principled thinking and conduct about such practices but for some reason it is OK to accept stealing a bit here, robbing a bit there and dogmatism or ideological to oppose that attitude?
The bottom line is that pragmatism is fatally flawed. No champion of it can identify where it is permissible or acceptable to be pragmatic and where pragmatism would be something odious and intolerable. In the case of President Obama and his public policy cheerleaders they, too, have no clue when principled thinking and conduct are required and when it is dogmatic or ideological to strictly adhere to principles. No clue at all, which then gives them carte blanche about how they should carry on with public policies or even personal conduct. Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods then can cry out, but why are they condemning us for breaking our marriage wows when they break all sorts of principles? And, worse, supporters of water boarding or even more Draconian forms of torture can invoke pragmatism, saying well it works sometimes, so given the importance of getting information from the victims it would be dogmatic or ideological to forbid it. 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?
It seems that champions of pragmatism like President Obama and his intellectual supporters have a problem here and if they think that a president should lead by example, they could be guilty of providing an impossible example for others to follow. Indeed, it is an interesting question just what Mr. and Mrs. Obama teach their own children about principles–may they be tossed whenever they become inconvenient, wherever they stand in the way of pursuing certain desired objectives like bailing out banks and auto companies with other peoples’ money?
Looks like pragmatism is not at all practical, the very thing for which it is often praised. It cannot be practiced consistently, coherently, in either personal or public affairs.
Tibor R. Machan
There are fewer fallacies as widely used as those captured by the saying, “Hard cases make bad law.” This includes all the types mentioned by those who would sanction the systematic violation of individual rights just because they can imagine and maybe even find some instance in which strict respect for these rights is pretty much impossible. Even John Locke, the greatest theorist of natural individual human rights in the history of modern political philosophy acknowledged that one may need to disregard rights when “politics is impossible.” Such as in the middle of an earthquake or on a raft in the ocean.
The most frequently deployed emergency case involves people who are in dire straits through no fault of their own and only if they gain provisions from others who have them can they survive and flourish, at least for a time. In my career as an academic philosopher these kinds of cases have dominated the political discussions I’ve had, both in the journals and at conferences, with those who reject the principles of the free society in favor of the welfare state or even more draconian regimes that violate individual rights galore. It is always some nearly unthinkable cases, since the actual ones people face or know about are mainly explainable by the very violation of individual rights that are meant to be undermined by them.
Why are so many people in dire straits? Mostly because other people have oppressed or subjugated them, made them into slaves, subjected them to involuntary servitude or serfdom or otherwise refused to respect their rights to their lives, liberty and property. In the modern welfare states which are mainly given philosophical support by reference to such extreme, emergency cases, the major culprit in producing poverty is, you guessed it, government’s immense appetite for people’s resources, taken from them by way of taxation and by the expenses they need to incur from having to deal with government regulations and other interferences in their lives they have no earned at all. And, of course, no matter how long the welfare states have existed (because, supposedly, they are necessary to give support to those in dire straits), the homeless and indigent and unemployed and all others who cannot fend for themselves keep not disappearing, not escaping their bad circumstances.
One reason, of course, is that the administrators of the welfare state are not at all shy about taking their cut from the taxes they collect before they let any of it go to those in whose name the taxes are levied. And as the economists who conceived of public choice theory have demonstrated, these administrators are more likely to devote the resources they take from citizens to advance some agenda of their own than they are to support those who need help. (Needless to say, one reason is that they probably haven’t a clue as to what really would help, what program might actually eliminate poverty and indigence and such! So they just do what they know, which amounts to pursuing projects of their own.)
Now rules, principles and such are discovered to help understand the way things behave normally, or how we ought to carry on in normal circumstances. This is true in medicine, fitness, nutrition, driving, raising children, gardening and anywhere where people need some stable, dependable means for pursuing worthy goals. And obviously, for all rules there are some exceptions–extreme, yet unheard of or similar cases the rules do not cover. But this does not mean the rules are unsound, only that reality is not some geometrical system where no borderline cases, anomalies, or emergencies can be found. Yet, one does not act wisely by abandoning the rules so as to accommodate the rare exceptions, especially when these exceptions can best be understood as the regrettable consequences of violating the rules or principles in the first place.
This is why I am not very responsive when I am told that in some cases may someone’s right to private property may need to be disregarded, even violated, so as to remedy matters. So what? It doesn’t follow from this that well established, tried and true principles should be tossed into the dustbin of bad ideas, that s system governed by them should be abandoned. And since much of the time advocating tossing generally sound principles of liberty goes hand in hand with entrusting certain people with special powers over other people, I am naturally skeptical about what is being advocated. But, yes, now and then these principles may not hold–as when once in a rare while initiating a bit of physical assault against an innocent party can solve a problem (say, of someone who is being hysterical). We aren’t dealing with principles of pure, formal logic, more likely with those of biology and psychology.
So I suggest not to get bent out of shape if someone finds some obscure counterexample to a swell principle of ethics, politics or law. As Aristotle is supposed to have put the point, one swallow does not a springtime make.