Friday, September 16, 2005

A post on Pragmatism

Recently I've been having a discussion with on pragmatism. I find it a catchy word but empty and evil on a philosophical level and neither side of the political spectrum is above championing it for their own cause. So I want to do a post on the implications of pragmatism

Jim answers my calim that pragmatism is aribtrary, subjective and ussually emotive based...

"My definition of pragmatism is involving a practical approach to solving a problem. And my argument is simply, that, we cannot immediately jump to what is classically thought of as "right-wing principle" to solve a problem. It sometimes doesn't work.And I'm also not saying I believe that because one man has a car, he should not if another is homeless, that's not pragmatism either. While it's great to ensure we have a great economy, booming job creation - we have to recognize that others have to work harder than others, and those that cannot, must be helped. It's insufficient to ask somebody who is homeless to "go get a job" or to say "we all got problems"."

I answer back...

Pragmatism is not doing the practical thing. It's doing what's best at the moment with no regard to past evidence or long term implications-- a very short sighted approach to problem solving.
Pragmatism is allowing fiscal freedoms but denying social freedoms as some social conservatives have been accused of. Principled conservatives respect both economic and religous freedom-- as freedom is the higher principle.

Pragmatism is the allowance of Sharia law into the canadian court system. It's a principle that claims "one law for all people: thus protecting equality-- with the risk of offending extremists.

Pragmatism is the philosophical foundation of Canada. Pactically manifested in the constant appeasement and multitude of side deals that are tearing this country apart. A principle declares that all regions are subject to the same federal status, not allowing the short term gains of specialty status, even though they are politically benificial. It is those short term solutions that leave this country lost and without direction or guidance.

And now I want to post a more in depth essay from last year I wrote about pragmatism...

Every now and then philosophy, in spite of itself, has the ability to permeate our modern lexicon and pop culture. Some deep thinker amidst subjective dilemma finds himself spurned on to create words that describe, and are only applicable to, their specific mental angst and pretty soon every trendy intellectual can orate a vague sense of the word. Freud gave the women at the art galleries “Oedipus” and Sartre gave the middle class rebel “existentialism”. Thomas Dewey gave us today’s favorite — pragmatism. The people that can define pragmatism usually do so with one of the following statements “thinking outside of the box” or “using creative and innovative techniques to solve old problems”. It’s a term that is thought of as progressive and intellectual compared to the stagnant “dogma”, a good word that the church probably destroyed with its own type of historical propagandize. The truth is though that pragmatism is a philosophical term coined by American intellectuals William James and Thomas Dewey, and it’s a doctrine that defines truth as “that which works”, meaning to evaluate situations and solve problems without set principles or preconceived notions of what is right.

Harry Sterling, former diplomat and Ottawa based commentator is one of these people. Recently he issued an article proclaiming the virtues of pragmatic thinking compared to the “hard line”, meaning principled approach George Bush assumes when dealing with North Korea. Staying true to the idea that truth is arbitrary and bound to perceptual instances, he demonstrated three cases where pragmatic thinking has succeeded internationally. His first example is Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi offering of humanitarian assistance in exchange for “Pyonyang admit[ing] what it had long denied, that in the 1970’s and 80’s it had kidnapped 11 Japanese citizens”.

The Prime Minister eventually pertained a commitment to let the remaining Japanese leave at some undecided point in the future. Mr. Sterling presumably uses an example like this to point out that a hard line dictum that forbid humanitarian assistance to Communist dictators that kidnap citizens abroad wouldn’t have generated what was needed most in solving the conflict: introductions and the establishment of cordial relations. Even though the admission of guilt was achieved through extortion, the problem was solved, the reader remembering “the truth is that which works”.

Next Mr. Sterling points out that just last May, based on his earlier visit, “Koizumi paid another visit to North Korea and in exchange for the release of five North Korean-born offspring of kidnapped Japanese, Koizumi promised Pyongyang $10 million dollars US, plus 250, 000 tons of food aid.” Typically Mr. Sterling doesn’t exactly say what he has achieved, so I will have to speculate, that the resolution’s aim was to free the kidnapped Japanese and if aid is what was needed to achieve this, then they should do it. Never speculating that the solution legitimizes North Korea’s kidnapping of international citizens’ in the eyes of its own people and the rest of the world. The aid, along with propaganda proclaiming Kim Jong II’s benevolence and western corruption, distributed to the loyal bureaucrats of Pyongyang while the rural population, the real victims of his policies starve to death. And worse yet, based on North Korea’s own pragmatic models of thinking: If money is needed, trade hostages, if hostages run low kidnap more!
Mr. Sterling proceeds to give another example, this time of Australia’s foreign minister promising Pyongyang “substantial benefits of aid and investment if Pyongyang would abandon its nuclear program”. North Korea predictably agreed to “freeze” and “stall” their program for partial aid. And now the author has represented his greatest goal, the stalling of North Korea’s nuclear program in contrast to Bush, who has not achieved anything close to this. Once again never suspecting what North Korea might invest its financial aid in, possibly more weapon proliferation technology, and even worse Mr. Sterling never even begins to presume what will happen when North Korea next needs aid or investment again. Further contemplating his pragmatic solutions is the moral question of whether it is right for governments to loot the earned wealth of its own citizens to support corrupt dictators that starve their populations, who use the transferred wealth for building bigger, and even more dangerous militaries.

The common theme of all Mr. Sterling’s examples is that of compromise. The compromise of the earned wealth of free productive citizens for the sake of friendly relations with an unpredictable, maniacal, kidnapping despot, a despot who’s only contribution is this dangerous compromise is his admission of crimes everyone knew he already committed. What else do we receive for millions of dollars and thousands of tons of food? For his, an admitted liar’s promise of “stalling” an openly hostile nuclear program. How does this method of compromise protect us from the next irrational demand of money? And the answer is that it doesn’t, because pragmatic thinking is only concerned inherently, with the current kidnapping. As a philosophical principle, a statement which in itself is ant-pragmatic, pragmatism isn’t concerned with conceptual long range planning, as its truths are dependant on the immediate and its individual dynamics. And since the future can’t be predicted neither can the principles which will be needed to solve the problems, essentially making principles redundant and worthless.

Some other examples of pragmatic thinking was the funding of a young tyrant named Saddam Hussein to fight the spread of Shiite fundamentalism (the original suicide bombers). Only conceptual, long range, abstract thinking could have predicted that funding one dictator to fight another to a bloody stalemate was only going to create two dictators or said differently twice the problem. But Mr. Sterling would argue that if the goal was to stall Iran, and establish instant stability, then it was achieved. He admittedly wouldn’t be concerned with the fact that they, the Americans were the ones that legitimized Saddam’s power, and gave him credibility in the eyes of Iraqi citizens, all the while undermining America’s own position as an impartial foreigner.
Spain’s agreement to pull its troops out of Iraq after the destruction of a train full of its citizens solved their immediate problem of safety, but only further entrenched the idea that the best way to get results from the west is through extortion, which has endangered countless amounts of people for an immeasurable amount of time in the future.

The opposite of a pragmatic solution is one based on principles. The Canadian Oxford dictionary defines a principle as a “fundamental truth or law decided on the basis of reasoning”. Only long range planning and reasoning would have predicted that compromising with terrorists would only encourage more terrorism and legitimize terrorism in the eyes of the terrorists; exactly what has happened since the pragmatic compromises of Spain and Philippines with Islamic terrorists.

It’s important to have principle because men are fallible. Men may be fooled on a perceptual level some of the time, but most men are not fooled on a perceptual level consistently. Countless bad decisions have been made on the whims and strivings of individuals thus we develop agreed upon principles. We call these agreed on principles the constitution. Constitutions are meant to give our hardest and most conflicting problems paradigms for solution. The American constitution was devised on the principle of protecting individual rights against the intrusion of government or other men. Thus laws were formulated on the predication or guideline of protecting individual rights. Laws devised contrary to the protection of rights were deemed unconstitutional and avoided. Principles take into account what the consequences of various solutions might be, in that giving men philosophical guidelines when making emotionally charged complex decisions, so that they’re not blinded by the immediate and short term. It would be a principle that declares “we do not deal with terrorists”, making hostages useless politically, it’s pragmatic thinking that declares “we deal with terrorist some of the time so try us!”

The worst part about principally based nations using pragmatic means to arrive at solutions is that they undermine their very own philosophical foundations of being a nation that has principles in the first place. Pragmatism, by its very nature makes truth arbitrary. It says that there is no universal truth, that having values is wrong. Using pragmatic solutions to solve some problems logically extends to denouncing the use of principles in all situations. It says the key to solving problems is by dealing with each one problem as an individual entity, ignoring all similar problems, previous models, and possible consequences, as each situation is immensely complicated and dynamic, so generalizations and dogma are useless. Ignoring the fact that the very idea that contemporary problems are so complicated leaves them even more vulnerable to the irresponsible or faulty indiscretion of one person or any small group of peoples faced with conflicting perceptual messages.

Principles can be reached objectively from an emotional distance, decided upon by debate, and judged with reason, so we won’t be dependent on instincts and whims when we’re in desperate and uncertain moral predicaments.

I know it's a long p[ost but I welcome all comments

-Angry Roughneck


At 4:05 AM, Blogger Albertanicus said...

The difference in political discussion in Canada seems to be centered around this issue: Who is the most( or least) pragmatic?

As you point out, having strong principles but using pragmatic means to acheive them undercuts the very principles held forth.

The CPC and the NDP continue to have the trappings of principle, yet both are too pragmatic. The Liberal party rarely has had principles (Trudeau's elitist engineering is an exception) and thrives on all-out pragmatism.

This short-term thinking has gotten Canada in the fix it is in today.

Great post.

At 4:46 AM, Blogger Clinton P. Desveaux said...

The answer to your question is Yes. I'm an objectivist.

Your have an excellent blog by the way!

At 8:30 AM, Anonymous stageleft said...

Pragmatism is in fact doing the practical or rational thing based on *knowns* - doing (what is preceived at the time as) "the right thing" at any given time may, or may not, be pragmatic.

You state that "Pragmatism is the philosophical foundation of Canada" - it's not, otherwise we would have laws and processes that are "practical" but not necessarily "the right thing".

At 5:51 PM, Blogger angryroughneck said...

Stageleft, by your defenition-- pragmatism is doing the "right" thing, which by default make having principles doing the "wrong" thing.
You wouldn't even win a highschool debate with that type of logic... maybe you should run for parliament.

At 8:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

prag·ma·tism ( P ) Pronunciation Key (prgm-tzm)

1. Philosophy. A movement consisting of varying but associated theories, originally developed by Charles S. Peirce and William James and distinguished by the doctrine that the meaning of an idea or a proposition lies in its observable practical consequences.
2. A practical, matter-of-fact way of approaching or assessing situations or of solving problems.

Please try again without inventing your own definitions.

At 9:09 PM, Blogger angryroughneck said...

fool; one that lacks critical thinking abilities

i studied philosophy for four years at the university and know exactly what pragmatism is. Your webster dictionary forgot Thomas Dewey. And if you think I put words in people mouths you should read some contemporary Pragmatist lit-- starting with Richard Rorty (the most well known and respected pragmatist in academic circles. His book has chapters titled; truth without correspondence to reality and ethics without principles) Dewey, James and the whole lot of them are opposed to principle and my point is that long range vision is dependent on principle, which make pragmatism range of the moment thinking which is dependent on whims and feelings. Anybody can copy out of a dictionary it takes an individual to think. Also linguists are not philosophers.


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