Pragmatism vs. Principle
Sunday, January 13, 2008
Once upon a time, I had a world view steeped in principle. Of lines that cannot be crossed and, as silly as it sounds now, of clear rights and wrongs. Over the years, principle had given way to pragmatism. Lines blurred. And absolutes became asterisks. This is not all too surprising, as I've long taken the position that there are no absolute rights and wrongs, so whenever I drew clear lines of right and wrong, I knew that such a line was untenable and flawed, but I did it anyway because I was young, idealistic, and stupid.
As I reflected on this trend, I started to debate the general question of pragmatism versus principle, and I've come to the conclusion that it is generally better to act on pragmatism than it is to act on principle, which is certainly a controversial statement, so allow me to elaborate.
First, pragmatism can often get a bad name because what often passes as "pragmatism" is nothing more than short-term thinking and incomplete consideration. Humans are notoriously near-sighted when it comes to decision-making. This is reflected on our tendency to spend instead of save and our tendency to ignore long-term consequences for short-term gain (excessive alcohol, gambling, etc.) Expediency at the expense of ignoring long-term costs is not pragmatic if those costs outweigh whatever expediency was gained, which, if sea levels rise and displace millions of people, will be the case with pollution. Bypassing a law for the sake of expediency is not necessarily pragmatic, either, as President Bush would know (or at least, should know, assuming that he has learned anything from his mistakes). His illegal wiretapping efforts eroded the trust that people here and abroad have in the government and its integrity (this is by far the most significant cost), produced a backlash that will hinder future government activity (even if they are legitimate), and the illegality of the activity helped propel what he had hoped to keep secret into the spotlight. Taking everything into account, the illegal wiretapping wasn't pragmatic because the indirect costs so greatly outweigh what little expediency there was to be had, and thus, this was a case of incomplete consideration masquerading as pragmatism. Similarly, if a leader were to declare emergency rule (and assuming that the leader is genuinely interested in the future of the state and is not just interested in a selfish power grab), then the long-term damage that emergency rule would do to democracy and its supporting institutions and trust would mean that only the most dire emergencies would ever warrant such an act.
Second, acts of pragmatism and acts of principle do not necessarily differ. And in the vast majority of cases, properly-considered (see previous paragraph) acts of pragmatism will effectively be the same as acts based on principle. Principles, after all, often do point people in the right direction. It is only in the fringe cases where an unbending adherence to principle becomes slavishly dogmatic.
So I think we should be careful about what we consider to be pragmatic. So much of what we colloquially think of as pragmatic actually is not, and if we limit ourselves to what truly is the result of carefully considered pros and cons, then we will find that pragmatism often brings about the same conclusions as following principles, and in the more interesting fringe cases, it provides better, more sensible answers.