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April 7, 2005

The Reasonable Man Jumps

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What is the opposite of "pragmatic"? Noah Millman suggests "principled," but that doesn't seem quite right. A person can be a principled pragmatist, emphasizing practical steps toward a goal without permitting that goal to reduce principle to a nicety.

The opposite of "pragmatic," in common usage, is "idealistic." Compromising, working the system, somebody who is pragmatic seeks efficient means toward some objective — a good that offers justification. Somebody who is idealistic, in contrast, behaves as if the objective requires only a declaration, with all obstacles simply invalid. Pragmatism describes realistic means toward an end; idealism presents a peremptory end in search of means.

This correction, though it may seem quibbling, has implications related the column by Jonah Goldberg to which Millman is responding. Although he doesn't go into great detail about the mechanism, Goldberg's central observation is that raising pragmatism to a principle — making it Pragmatism — has undesirable consequences, chief among them Relativism and overweening protection, even celebration, of the deviant willing to exist in a ridiculous reality.

Missing the mechanism, Millman interprets Goldberg's argument as saying that "Pragmatists drained us of belief in Truth, and once we stopped believing in Truth we no longer could make distinctions." Consequently, free speech has degenerated into an absolute right to deviant expression and only a conditional right to political speech because we "no longer jealously defend our ancient liberties."

That isn't the implication of Goldberg's thoughts, as I read them. He begins by describing Oliver Wendell Holmes's legal theorizing as an attempt to cut through moral superfluities in order to apply the law more efficiently. In part, this requires the discernment of an ideal or, in Holmes's words, an "external standard" personified in a "reasonable man" — a hypothetical "intelligent and prudent member of the community."

The problem, as Ben Franklin quipped around the time of our nation's founding, is that "a reasonable Creature [can] find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do." With a "reasonable man" at its head, what Goldberg calls the "collective intelligence" can concoct whatever rules it wills. A moral society requires a standard that is external to the community itself, hence the importance of moral language in the law. Pragmatism is best kept as a strategy in the service of, not a guide to, truth.

As such a guide, Millman explains, Pragmatism holds that the "meaning of any statement... is limited to the consequences of that statement in terms of action." The pragmatic truth of a stated belief, in other words, depends on what it accomplishes in the believer. Therefore, a belief that enables a person to achieve some desirable end — peace of mind, motivation, fortitude — is pragmatically true for that person.

This approach is fine, as long as we're aware of its limitations. If belief in an eternal soul increases one person's sense of purpose, while disbelief in eternal soul allows another to justify impulsive behavior, we may know what's pragmatically true for each of them, but we've no basis for coming to a conclusion about whose belief is correct. To answer the question of whether the soul is, in fact, eternal — or at least which truth society ought to prefer — would require some external criterion that this Pragmatism doesn't provide.

Pragmatism, however, smuggles in the implicit sense that there is no relevant truth beyond itself. Millman presents an example when he suggests that if the concepts of "individuals, rights, the people, the nation are real... they are only pragmatically real." The consequence of that "only" is that, if nobody behaves as if something exists, then it is not pragmatically real, and theoretically, any truth, anything conceptual, can be ignored.

Pragmatism becomes, in a word, Relativism. To the argument that the eternal soul is a reality because it acts in bringing comfort, the Pragmatist qualifies that belief therein is "only" pragmatically true. But the trick works in reverse. If not believing makes real the nonexistence of such things as eternal soul and rights, then that is "only" pragmatically true.

It begins to become apparent that Pragmatism is not pragmatically true in most cases. Being aware that one's belief in eternal soul may only be true because it brings comfort undermines the comfort. Understanding that disbelief may only be true inasmuch as it justifies impulsive behavior lessens its utility as a justification. Believing that rights are only real if we act as if they are real invites behavior that takes advantage of their underlying unreality.

As Millman admits, this presents the moral Pragmatist with a difficulty. After wading through all of the practical consequences of Pragmatism, it appears that one must resolve, having duly acknowledged it, to ignore it in order to allow perpetuation of a good end. Millman refers to an "elect" who "know that much of what we believe is... only true pragmatically, ... because it works, not because it's True in some absolute sense unrelated to human psychology." Morality keeps society functioning, so those "smart people" who realize that it's hooey pretend that it's not.

For Pragmatism to deserve its capital-P, however, its adherents must believe it to contain Truth. Goldberg quotes Charles Beard as saying that "the means can make the ends." For Pragmatism to be pragmatically true, it must have a practical outcome, so what truth does it make?

Since Pragmatism challenges the objectivity of any principle that's coupled with a rational goal, it devolves into an idealism of whim. It is, itself, Pragmatically true only for causes that don't require willful belief, for impulses. Providing, as Millman applauds, "warrant for... reasoning to a premise from a conclusion," it is an efficient philosophy for achieving irrational desire. This is why a pragmatic approach to law wound up allowing profanities, but disallowing political speech. It wasn't that "Pragmatism drained us of belief in Truth," as Millman suggests; rather, it was that Pragmatism makes Truth out of whatever an individual or a political cohort wants, whether that means kinky sex or unthreatened power.

The importance that Holmes placed on the "marketplace of ideas" ceases to be a matter of Truth, and other points of view can be dismissed. Insisting that the ideal must be pragmatically correct, its advocates turn their blame on others for not being sufficiently true believers. An undesired outcome (e.g., men's disproportion in mathematics departments) is taken as conclusive proof of the suspected and invalid cause (sexism). Conflicting speech is invalid because it hinders the new ideal. That seems to be Jonah's argument: that Pragmatism leads to Relativism in a perpetual cycle of corrupt idealism. Pragmatism is a razor that cuts clear through to mushy primal impulses.

Of course, we've learned to the detriment of generations that human beings can behave as if things that are True are not — for a time. Jumping off a cliff, one can deny gravity for a brief moment and then deny that falling indicates moving toward something until... well, splat.

Posted by Justin Katz at April 7, 2005 6:25 AM
Culture
Comments

Great post!

Millman refers to an "elect" who "know that much of what we believe is... only true pragmatically, ... because it works, not because it's True in some absolute sense unrelated to human psychology." Morality keeps society functioning, so those "smart people" who realize that it's hooey pretend that it's not.

This has always bothered me about various people on the right who hold these views, or whom I suspect hold them (William Kristol, George Will, Robert Bork). There seems to be a strange disconnect there - how can they think that a lie is necessary for the proper functioning of society? I don't see how one can claim that such a situation is tenable over the long haul.

The truth will out eventually. Either the massess will eventually realize that "it's" hooey, in which case the "smart people" are merely postponing the inevitable, or "it's" not hooey, in which case the "smart people" aren't so smart.

Of course, we've learned to the detriment of generations that human beings can behave as if things that are True are not — for a time. Jumping off a cliff, one can deny gravity for a brief moment and then deny that falling indicates moving toward something until... well, splat.

This post from the Belmont Club makes a related point (regarding Europe): "What a sad condition. To have remembered everything and to have learned nothing."

Posted by: Mike S. at April 7, 2005 11:21 AM

Millman refers to an "elect" who "know that much of what we believe is... only true pragmatically, ... because it works, not because it's True in some absolute sense...

Maybe some of them take a belief's practical efficacy as evidence that it is in fact True. After all, you need some kind of yardstick to pick out the True beliefs from the false ones -- what yardstick can you use if not the worldly consequences of the beliefs?

Is that Pragmatism or something else?

Posted by: Matt Taylor at April 7, 2005 11:59 AM

"Is that Pragmatism or something else?"

I think you've inverted things: for a Pragmatist, something that works is "True" by definition. That is, the standard of truth is what works; what works is not in accordance with some external Truth.

Posted by: Mike S. at April 7, 2005 12:43 PM

... for a Pragmatist, something that works is "True" by definition.

Then maybe not all of Millman's "elect" are Pragmatists. Some of them might be the inverse -- believing that what's True works, therefore what doesn't work must be false.

Posted by: Matt Taylor at April 7, 2005 1:23 PM

Great post, Justin. I don't have enough time to really digest it right now, but here's a small thought on it:

The degeneration of pragmatism comes about through shortsightedness. If you're going to calculate an action's harms and benefits, then you must pick some time scale on which to calculate them. The calculation becomes more difficult the farther out you go, as the effects become more subtle but often more widespread. Human nature pushes us to overemphasize the immediate effects and ignore or minimize the more distant ones.

The problem with Pragmatism is that it fails to account for this defect in human nature. It treats us all as if each of us can perform these calculations in all situations, when we obviously can't. We are only rarely in a state of mind that can properly consider and balance the long term against the short term.

A cheesy Reader's Digest story comes to mind: A man brings his son to a miniature golf course. The price structure gives a sharp discount for children under seven. The ticket vendor asks the boy's age. The father replies, "Seven."

"Mister," the vendor points out, "why did you tell me he's seven. You could have told me he was six saved some money. I never would have known the difference."

"Yes," replies the father. "But my son would have known."

The father faces a moral dilemma: save a few bucks today, but at the cost of modeling dishonesty for his son. It’s easy to see the benefit. It’s hard to see the cost.

The father can’t predict with any accuracy any specific behavior by the son that might come about because of this one instance of dishonesty. Researchers could study the effect on children of occasional parental dishonesty, and they probably won’t come up with much. The father’s dishonesty could have a positive effect, in that the son may be disgusted by his father and reject the dishonesty to become super-honest.

Yet we all know (I think) that this is an easy moral dilemma. To most parents, a child’s moral integrity is an enormous concern that shouldn’t be put in jeopardy to save a few bucks. We don’t base that knowledge on studies. We know that the future effects are uncertain. And yet we take those effects very seriously. We still account for them, at least when playing armchair philosopher.

Yet you might make the wrong choice if you’re hot and tired, feeling broke, and not thinking too hard about long-term moral effects. That’s the weakness of Pragmatism: If you leave the moral calculation until the last minute, then you’ll ignore the long term effects—which is why, no doubt, many parents do lie in front of their children to save money.

My suggestion is to take seriously our mental limitations and human frailties. Like Odysseus at the mast, we recognize that we will encounter future temptations and likely moral error, so we bind ourselves to moral rules in moments of clear and calm reflection. When temptation strikes, we don’t attempt to perform an on-the-spot moral analysis, because we know that we can’t do a good job of it. Instead, we adhere to our rules. Those rules occasionally don’t provide the best answer as compared to the one that some theoretical all-knowing philosopher-king might produce. But that’s an impossible standard. We aren’t all philosopher-kings, sitting cross-legged holding a flower. We must make moral decisions with our imperfect minds, subject to transient passions. The best way to do that is with inflexible rules.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at April 7, 2005 2:25 PM

Yeah, what he said. Personally, i work from within a very strong set of idealistic, black and white, right and wrong rules. Within that framework, i try to be as ruthlessly pragmatic as possible, lest i end up sweating the small stuff.

Posted by: Marty at April 7, 2005 2:46 PM

Ben, you can be my philosopher-king any day... (or maybe I'll have Justin as my philosopher-king, and you can be his advisor.)

;)

Posted by: Mike S. at April 7, 2005 3:16 PM

I don't know. I think I'd rather be advisor than king. Is there an opening for philosopher jester? Or laureate?

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 7, 2005 7:14 PM

Who do I have to dis to get to be village idiot?

Posted by: smmtheory at April 7, 2005 10:49 PM

I consider morality and pragatism to be the same. My view is that morals developed in ancient cultures as people discovered what rules were necessary for people to live together without ending up killing each other. The ancient communities that survived and prospered in the long term are those that devopled successful rules. Those communities and their rules evolved into the modern culture & morals we have today.

However, as cultures and techbology develops, what was pragmatically moral then may not be so pragmatic now. For example, I understand the Old Testiment says that if a man dies, the man's brother should marry the widow. This may have been pragmatic in ancient Judea, but in the modern age of life insurance, employment opportunities for women, and opportunities for second marraiges, this rule is no longer pragmatic.

Also, ancient cultures did not have to confront issues like persistant vegitative states, embryonic stem cell research or downloading copywrited music and movies from the Internet. Modern cultures have to decide what is most pragmatic from a long-term societal view, and that becomes part of our morality.

But some things don't change. Murder as a means to settle disputes and theivery always have and continue to be disruptive to smoothly running human communities, so they continue to be both immoral and non-pragmatic from the community persepctive.

I've often heard that people who lie, cheat, steal, abuse drugs and cheat on their partners are taking the "easy path." I disagree. It may be easy in the immediate momment, but it makes life more difficult. These people end up living in fear of and dealing with consequences of being fired from jobs, jail terms, broken relationships and increased health problems. I think my life is easier because I don't worry about these things so much. For me, that's both pragmatic and moral.

Posted by: Dancar at April 8, 2005 11:28 AM

Dancar,

"I consider morality and pragatism to be the same."

Does that mean you are a Pragmatist?

When you say,

But some things don't change. Murder as a means to settle disputes and theivery always have and continue to be disruptive to smoothly running human communities, so they continue to be both immoral and non-pragmatic from the community persepctive.

Are you being redundant by saying that murder and theivery are "both immoral and non-pragmatic"? Do you thin there is some external standard by which murder and theivery are immoral, or are they immoral solely due to the fact that they are "disruptive to ... communities"?

Pragmatism, however, smuggles in the implicit sense that there is no relevant truth beyond itself. Millman presents an example when he suggests that if the concepts of "individuals, rights, the people, the nation are real... they are only pragmatically real." The consequence of that "only" is that, if nobody behaves as if something exists, then it is not pragmatically real, and theoretically, any truth, anything conceptual, can be ignored.
Posted by: Mike S. at April 8, 2005 11:37 AM

Dancar: I consider morality and pragatism to be the same. My view is that morals developed in ancient cultures as people discovered what rules were necessary for people to live together without ending up killing each other. The ancient communities that survived and prospered in the long term are those that devopled successful rules.

Some ancient communities prospered by conquering and exterminating their enemies, which we all would find immoral. That a belief enables the beliver to prosper (whether an individual or a group) is not sufficient to show that the belief is ultimately good.

Posted by: Matt Taylor at April 8, 2005 11:51 AM

I'll have to agree with Milman. I don't beleive in an external standard. Instead, every society determines their own standard. The reason I wrote "murder as a means to settle disputes" instead of just "killing" is because I don't know of any place in the world where it is legal to kill your neighbor because he sold you a bushel of rotten apples. The killing of people on the other hand, is done legally in capital punishment and in wars. Each society decides for itself when killing a person is morally justified or not morally justified.

As for thievery, different cultures have different business pratices and laws, so what is a legal business practice in one culture can be considered thievery somewhere else.

If external standards really existed, then there would be agreement over exactly what they are.

Posted by: Dancar at April 8, 2005 11:53 AM

If external standards really existed, then there would be agreement over exactly what they are.

Not necessarily. All the different moral frameworks in the world could just be flawed approximations of the True morality, which none of us imperfect humans has yet fully understood. That our moral systems are so different just reflects how poorly we have approximated the truth.

Posted by: Matt Taylor at April 8, 2005 12:09 PM
I consider morality and pragatism to be the same.

Uncountable are the corpses resulting from precisely that mindset. Sadly, it would seem that they're not long to be left a closed group.

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 8, 2005 12:20 PM

"Each society decides for itself when killing a person is morally justified or not morally justified."

How does one go about this process? How do you balance the rights or needs of the individual with the rights or needs of the state? Do you believe that we are all "endowed ... with unalienable rights"?

Posted by: Mike S. at April 8, 2005 1:13 PM

So to a Pragmatist, a conscience would in essence be a sensitive regard to what is practical or expedient instead of to what is fair or just. I even see the possibility that the Pragmatist may shift the meaning of fairness and justice to be practicality and expediency. Therefore, to a Pragmatist, it would have been moral to withdraw Terri Schiavo's feeding tube because it was the practical thing to do. To a Pragmatist, it may be more practical to deal with the consequence (and from a Pragmatic view, if any) of one's actions rather than exercising caution to begin with. Hence, they would find it more expedient to have an abortion than exercise self-control. They would find it more pragmatic to scold our government for human rights abuses than any other government, except when that human rights abuse is to be pragmatic toward the cognitively disabled.

Posted by: smmtheory at April 8, 2005 1:37 PM

Morality is intended to accomplish some goal. It isn’t just a jumble of random rules that fell from the sky. That’s the kernel of truth in Pragmatism: Once you know what your goal is, you should pursue it as pragmatically as possible. But from that starting point, Pragmatists almost always make predictable errors.

Saying that morality serves a purpose is not the same as saying that any random group can and should decide for itself what that purpose is. For morality to be meaningful, the purpose of morality must be fixed independently of our opinion, even though the best means to accomplish that purpose may change according to circumstances, and we may argue over it.

This confusion is what draws people into relativism. They see perpetual uncertainty over how to accomplish morality’s goal, then turn that into uncertainty about the goal itself. Relativists claim that anyone can choose their own purpose for morality, which ultimately leads them to deny the very idea of morality.

Saying that morality serves a purpose does not mean that each of us should try to perform our own moral calculations on the fly. I posted earlier in this thread about that.

Saying that the purpose of morality is fixed independently of our opinion doesn’t mean that opinions won’t differ on how to accomplish that purpose. We can all agree on what we should be trying to accomplish, yet disagree on how best to accomplish it. That doesn’t mean that our goal is a matter of opinion. It merely means that we have limited intelligence and knowledge about the consequences of our actions.

Suppose that you and a friend are in a hurry to reach some destination across town, and you disagree about what route to take. You want to take the direct route, even though that means thicker traffic and more lights. Your friend wants to take a more circuitous route that has fewer lights and less traffic. You could debate for a long time about which route is faster, considering day of the week, time of day, likelihood of a traffic-clogging wreck, etc. Such a calculation can be as complex as you want it to be, and neither of you will ever really be sure that you took the fastest route. But the following facts are objective and not subject to anyone’s opinion:

1) You both want to reach the stated destination as quickly as possible.

2) One route or another was in fact better at that moment for reaching that destination, even though you may never be certain which one it was.

This is a very common confusion in moral philosophy. Undergraduates learning about Mill’s utilitarianism like to tie themselves up in knots trying to calculate the effect of any given action upon the world’s sum of happiness. But Mill himself, as I recall, didn’t spend a lot of time on those kinds of math games. The real heart of his philosophy was the claim that the purpose of morality was human happiness. (I think he was wrong on that; I think that the purpose of morality is life, with considerable detail on what life consists of.)

So don’t make the same error that students of Mill always make. Distinguish the goal from the methods for achieving the goal. Opinions will always differ on the methods, but they need not differ on the goal itself.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at April 8, 2005 4:04 PM

Matt:
Some ancient communities prospered by conquering and exterminating their enemies, which we all would find immoral. That a belief enables the beliver to prosper (whether an individual or a group) is not sufficient to show that the belief is ultimately good.

That may have worked for some cultures in the past, but in the past 100 years the technology of warfare has become so efficient that whole nations can be innihated, and there is no 100 percent defense against an enemy that wants to destroy you. The last major power to use this model was Nazi Gernamy, and the world responded and destroyed them.


Justin:
Uncountable are the corpses resulting from precisely that mindset.

And what became of countries that created large numbers of corpses, like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia? Not very pragmatic.

Dancar:"Each society decides for itself when killing a person is morally justified or not morally justified."

Mikes: How does one go about this process? How do you balance the rights or needs of the individual with the rights or needs of the state? Do you believe that we are all "endowed ... with unalienable rights"?

The Bill of Rights goes into great detail on balancing the needs of individuals with the needs of the State.

No, I don't believe the Creator endowed us with unalienable rights. The Bill of Rights is not in the Bible, and I don't believe that ultimately the Universe cares one way or another if we live in freedom or totalitarianism, or if we blow ourselves up.

That's why it is very important to protect the Constitution and its ideals, as long as that's how we want to live.

SMMTheory:So to a Pragmatist, a conscience would in essence be a sensitive regard to what is practical or expedient instead of to what is fair or just. I even see the possibility that the Pragmatist may shift the meaning of fairness and justice to be practicality and expediency

I strongly disagree that pragmatism is about expedience or whims. Maybe short term pragmatism is, but when one thinks about his or her long term and the long-term for his or her children (which I believe we are genetically programmed to care about), the most pragmatic action in the long-term action may be different the short term action.

For example, if you own a business and you cheat your customers, you may make more money in the short term, but your business will earn a bad reputation and fail. If you treat customers fairly, then you will earn more money in the long term.

You can also apply pragmatism in a bigger view.
If I find a lost wallet containing cash as well as the name & contact info of the owner, it may be pragmatic in the short term to spend the money on myself. But if I return the wallet, that may inspire the owner to return a lost wallet he or she may find, and in a small way increase the chances that if I lost a wallet, it would be returned to me. You don't need to believe in an external "truth" to justfy denying an immediate need or desire to serve a long-term or societal goal.

Posted by: Dancar at April 8, 2005 4:29 PM
And what became of countries that created large numbers of corpses, like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia? Not very pragmatic.

That's a lesson of approach, not of premise. Any ideology that privileges pragmatism uber alles will be more likely to include human life within the alles. So, get rid of the concentration camps and nationalism and avoid the rigidity of Soviet communism — exchange them for, say, tolerance (for deviancy), diversity (of anything but beliefs), and a right to choose (whatever is convenient to the powerful party), and the corpses can begin to mount again.

By the way, I think your punchline would have been better served by an ellipsis, as follows:

That's why it is very important to protect the Constitution and its ideals... as long as that's how we want to live.

And also by the way, I'm not going to let it pass that you've relied on an external force from pragmatic considerations, here:

Maybe short term pragmatism is, but when one thinks about his or her long term and the long-term for his or her children (which I believe we are genetically programmed to care about), the most pragmatic action in the long-term action may be different the short term action.

Genetics as destiny. Yes, one can hear the howls of the future's cleansing already.

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 8, 2005 4:44 PM

The good news - you'll be rid of me next week.

Very interesting stuff.

I don't see how one can say that "I consider morality and pragmatism to be the same.". There are numerous examples where one is pragmatic at the expense of even one's own morality - not to mention other's.

I agree with most of what Ben wrote - but the big question is ... how do we allow for variances in what is moral. It isn't universally defined. And even if it is - as some say it is - in a free country such as ours, how do we draw that line ? It seems to me that the law sometimes has to be based on pragmatism because it cannot meet the moral definitions for everyone. That has long term consequences too - as pragmatism always does. But so does defining what is legal based on someone's moral codes - which may not be the same as everyone elses. Freedom has negative consequnces.

That does not mean that we should ignore morality in the legislative process, absolutely not.

It only means that - you (i.e.: the law) can't please everyone. Hence the continued debate about the balance between morality and pragmatism as it applies to law and culture.

I will say one thing - even I think that the judiciary is basing their recent decisions more on pragmatism rather than constitutionality. And their role is to uphold the constitution, not be pragmatic.

Posted by: Mark Miller at April 8, 2005 4:49 PM

Mikes: How does one go about this process? How do you balance the rights or needs of the individual with the rights or needs of the state? Do you believe that we are all "endowed ... with unalienable rights"?

The Bill of Rights goes into great detail on balancing the needs of individuals with the needs of the State.

You didn't answer my question - I said "how do you go about the process", not "pick an example where someone else already went through the process". How would you go about it if you were charged with writing a Bill of Rights?

Posted by: Mike S. at April 8, 2005 5:37 PM

Pragmatism is a bad way to construct a full system of morality, but why should we expect laws of a republic to be anything but pragmatic? The legislative process is virtually a pragmatism factory -- designed to select laws that deliver the most value to the most voters. If a lawmaker makes an unpopular vote in defense of moral principles, he will lose his job.

A benevolent monarchy would probably deliver a more idealistic, less pragmatic code of laws. But then nobody has figured out how to ensure a monarch's benevolence -- hence our messy, morally muddled system of checks and balances.

Posted by: Matt Taylor at April 8, 2005 6:34 PM

Sorry, Matt, but I think you've got things completely backwards. The main advantage of a legislative system is its utter lack of pragmatism — as indicated by your calling it "messy, morally muddled system." Things move very slowly, circuitously even, thwarting pragmatism (see the text of my post and Goldberg's essay regarding the importance of that counter-pragmatic moral language).

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 8, 2005 6:49 PM

There seems to be a misunderstanding that pragmatism means serving one's self-interest wihtout regard for the interests of anyone else. That's not what it means at all. It is not just serving one's self interest - it includes serving the goal of creating the society in which we want to live. That's why I used my example of pragmatic reasons to return a lost wallet.

You didn't answer my question - I said "how do you go about the process", not "pick an example where someone else already went through the process". How would you go about it if you were charged with writing a Bill of Rights?

Re-inventing the wheel when a pretty good wheel has already been invented is more than I want to go through right now, but with regard to when it is or is not OK to kill people, if you set a standard where it is very easy to legally kill people, then people's natural survival instinct will drive them to avoid being killed by any means necessary, including killing. This is not conducive to a stable society and economy.

Also pragmatism mean you can't have principals.

Posted by: Dancar at April 8, 2005 7:26 PM

"Also pragmatism mean you can't have principals."

What about school superintendants? ;)

Posted by: Mike S. at April 8, 2005 7:46 PM

Justin: The main advantage of a legislative system is its utter lack of pragmatism — as indicated by your calling it "messy, morally muddled system." Things move very slowly, circuitously even, thwarting pragmatism

What you describe as a "lack of pragmatism" sounds to me more like "lack of efficiency". I thought Pragmatism, in the sense you and Goldberg use it, was defined by a defect of motivation, not of execution. How does the slow progress of a bill through the legislature ensure that it is built on a True moral foundation rather than on Pragmatism? I've read Goldberg's column and your post, and I don't see the connection.

Posted by: Matt Taylor at April 8, 2005 10:44 PM

"How does the slow progress of a bill through the legislature ensure that it is built on a True moral foundation rather than on Pragmatism?"

In day-to-day personal moral decisions, the cost of deliberation is very high compared to the benefit of the extra knowledge or insight gained from deliberation. But with legislation, the smallest defect can wreak havoc with the lives of thousands. So it's important to get legislation right---precisely right.

Slow-moving legislation isn't inefficient. The extra time spent considering a given bill may produce only a little extra information or insight on it. But the cost of that extra time is usually trivial compared to the benefit of discovering and eliminating hidden flaws in legislation---or even merely having the chance of doing so.

This confusion illustrates the key point about pragmatism: It isn't a bad idea in itself, but it's routinely misapplied. In considering a moral dilemma, it's very, very easy to use too small of a perspective, and thereby ignore all the costs and benefits. It's called the Law of Unintended Consequences.

For example, suppose that you decide that too many people are running red lights, but you learn that people will avoid running red lights in places where they know that they are likely to get tickets. So many cities have installed cameras at intersections, to take pictures of those who run red lights and automatically send them tickets. As a result, the evil will be punished, and everyone should benefit from safer streets.

It's appealing moral reasoning. You could even call it pragmatic. But it's too limited in scope. There are more things to consider than whether people run red lights. For example, those cameras have tempted some cities to shorten yellow lights as a measure to increase revenue.

And now some studies have shown that intersections with cameras have higher accident rates. It seems that the drivers have learned their lesson, and do everything they can to stop dutifully at the lights with cameras. The result: more rear-end collisions because of people stopping suddenly at yellow lights.

Pragmatism is a great moral theory, except that people are nearly always too imperfect to use it. Our minds aren't big enough. Even the wisest cannot see all ends. So we're usually better off sticking with the things that we know will work, while making changes only after much deliberation, and even then very slowly.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at April 9, 2005 2:24 AM

It seems part of the difficulty is separating pragmatism and Pragmatism. Legislation certainly requires the former; a concession in an unrelated area is a pragmatic way to gain support for a bill, for example. But the legislative process also often results in laws that are not "true" for anybody, by the time everybody has added their little piece to it.

It begins with an end, but it is often a means toward countless other ends, all of them imperfectly acheived. Moreover, the process necessarily incorporates all sorts of unpragmatic requirements; a constituency might oppose a bill entirely for moral reasons.

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 9, 2005 7:21 AM

Ben: Slow-moving legislation isn't inefficient. The extra time spent considering a given bill may produce only a little extra information or insight on it.

Do we really think bills move slowly because legislators take time to carefully examine their conscience? More likely it's because each legislator is trying to cram in his own pork barrel project or special interest amendment, and all the deal-making required to make that happen takes time.

Posted by: Matt Taylor at April 9, 2005 7:55 AM

Matt,

I don't think Ben was suggesting that the legislators themselves spent the extra time measuring moral weights. Simply, the slow process allows others to consider, write about, discuss a bill, as well as constituents to weigh issues' priority with respect to other issues. In that process, "extra information or insight" sifts through the deliberation.

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 9, 2005 8:13 AM

Justin: a concession in an unrelated area is a pragmatic way to gain support for a bill, for example. But the legislative process also often results in laws that are not "true" for anybody, by the time everybody has added their little piece to it.

Just because we draw an artificial box around 1,001 pragmatic decisions and call it a "law" doesn't make the motivations behind it any less pragmatic. It just obscures the pragmatism.

a constituency might oppose a bill entirely for moral reasons.

They might also oppose a bill for practical or selfish reasons, or out of ignorance, who can say? The point is that, for purposes of the law, a republic defines right and wrong operationally, not on the basis of fundamental truths. The Declaration of Independence hints at the truths the founders had in mind when writing the Constitution, but it is not a formal part of the law. What's "right" is what the citizen's vote for, all the way up to the Constitution itself -- there is no part of the law that cannot be rewritten at the whim of the people.

Posted by: Matt Taylor at April 9, 2005 8:13 AM

Well, if your point is that the law is Pragmatic in that it is only "true" in the sense that it is "true for the nation," then I'd say you're correctly identifying something in the nature of the law. But I don't see any real distinction vis-à-vis the process by which the law originates, whether a dictator or a democracy. A dictator's law's may only be "true" for the dictator, but in the same sense, a democracy's laws may only be "true" for a thin majority.

The point that I've been trying to make is that our system seeks to frustrate Pragmatism at every turn. (Although the modern primacy of the judiciary is a disturbing crack in the system in this respect as in many others.) The laws that are passed aren't necessarily "true" for anybody. Indeed, the legislature can pass laws that the executive refuses to honor or that the judiciary declares invalid. Representatives can pass laws that the voters don't desire. The electoral college (theoretically) can appoint a president whom the people didn't elect. All of the checks and balances don't serve to reach the most broadly applicable "truth," satisfying a maximal number of citizens, but to prevent any given truth from being pursued too thoroughly and too strongly.

That includes the weight we give to logic as well as intuitive morality. Part of Goldberg's point about Pragmatism was the premise of making the law into a logical machine. That isn't how our governing system operates — or should operate.

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 9, 2005 8:32 AM

Justin: Well, if your point is that the law is Pragmatic in that it is only "true" in the sense that it is "true for the nation," then I'd say you're correctly identifying something in the nature of the law. But I don't see any real distinction vis-ŕ-vis the process by which the law originates, whether a dictator or a democracy.

A republic is fundamentally Pragmatic in that it postulates no basis for the rightness of laws other than the approval of citizens. Some dictatorships, such as rule by a warlord or military junta, are also Pragmatic since the basis of law is its utility to the dictator. In both cases, the only acknowledged moral truth is internal to the society.

Monarchy is different in that the monarch is believed appointed by God, an instrument of His will. The monarch's duty is to ensure that the law not only serves the people, but also that it conforms to a higher, divine law. The same is true of a dictatorship ostensibly based on some ideology such as Communism or Fascism -- the ideology takes the place of divine will as the source of external moral truth.

Posted by: Matt Taylor at April 9, 2005 12:05 PM

Matt Taylor:

"A republic is fundamentally Pragmatic in that it postulates no basis for the rightness of laws other than the approval of citizens. Some dictatorships, such as rule by a warlord or military junta, are also Pragmatic since the basis of law is its utility to the dictator. In both cases, the only acknowledged moral truth is internal to the society."

France is a good example of what you are talking about in the first sentence. The People's Republic of China is a good example of the second sentence. This is why our founding fathers set up a Constitutional Republic type of government. The Constitution is the foundation that postulates that the rightness of laws is external to society. It invites and solicits the guidance of God and sets the three branches of our government at odds to allow time for God's guidance to work. If we people as a group were more cognizant of God and the rightness He sets forth, then it wouldn't be necessary to even put laws into writing. Does that mean we always get it right the first time? No. As it is, it takes time for this group of people we call a nation to respond to God's will. It just means that eventually, we will get it right. It requires all of our minds to seek out and define all of the possible ramifications of any given action. Not just a select group. Sure pragmatic thinking is included and should be included. But Pragmatism - pragmatic thinking for the sake of pragmatic ends - cannot be allowed to take over. As small as the world is becoming, nobody can afford this nation failing.

Posted by: smmtheory at April 9, 2005 2:51 PM

SMMTheory: The Constitution is the foundation that postulates that the rightness of laws is external to society. It invites and solicits the guidance of God and sets the three branches of our government at odds to allow time for God's guidance to work.

Yes, there is language in the preamble to support your assertion. However, there are no explicit mechanisms for appeal to absolute moral principles in the workings of our government.

Posted by: Matt Taylor at April 9, 2005 3:13 PM

Matt Taylor,
They would be too restrictive and difficult to enforce now wouldn't they? Not to mention that detailing every iota of government with every mechanism imagined to be necessary would bog down the machinery past working order.

Posted by: smmtheory at April 9, 2005 3:39 PM