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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Whatever Works? Not Exactly...

Which is more important, principles or pragmatics? I often find situations that pose this question, and you probably do too. I’m not referring to simple problems where a foot of duct tape or 25 cents of loose hardware will fix a broken chair despite esthetics; we all enjoy those types of little victories. I’m writing about bigger questions of conduct at the level of the individual, the business or organization, or the nation.

“Whatever works” and "the bottom line" and “if it works, it must be right” are common expressions of day-to-day pragmatism. Perhaps they’re not what William James envisioned as a formal philosophy, but many people accept them and allow them to shape their behavior – without thinking critically. The problem with simplistic pragmatism is its ultimate destination: “the end justifies the means”... a point of view that as I grow older, I’ve come to recognize is a gateway to evil. The means may be immoral; more subtly the end may be immoral too, or at least selfish.

Rather, our lives and our institutions are based on principles: of faith (e.g. Christianity), government (e.g. the Declaration of Independence), ethics, law, corporate value statements, and so on. These principles evoke the most altruistic aspects of our personalities and illuminate a path to a better existence, what the Christian Gospels call the Kingdom of God. Without principles from a well-established tradition, people can find themselves on the mythically tragic trajectory of Tony Montana or Gordon Gecko – or worse.

Absolute dedication to principles or ideology, however, can also have unfortunate consequences. Marxism may have seemed like a great theory to many people, especially the oppressed. A hundred years have produced no evidence, however, that Marxism is a good way to structure a society and govern a nation. Beyond that, principles are sometimes inconvenient and often awkward to apply, and our grasp of them can change over time.

Another more recent ideology that's troubling is technological utopianism, or the idea that future advances in science and engineering will solve society's problems -- and not merely problems of scarcity. Technological utopianism was popular in the 1990s before the Internet bubble burst, but it's noticeable in ongoing publications like Wired.

It seems to me that applying both principles and pragmatics to the substantial questions of life is the best approach. That’s not the simplest approach; pure ideologues and pure pragmatists have it easier, at least in the short run. But personally, I identify with the Fiddler on the Roof. There are times when I behave ideologically and times when I behave pragmatically. How do you see this question – or is it a false dichotomy?