For some time I have dubbed myself a ‘theoretical idealist, but a practical realist’. But at the same time, I am a very staunch denouncer of pragmatism. I was thinking more on the differences between ‘practical realism’ and ‘pragmatism’ lately and finally hit on a succinct way to describe the difference.
When I say that of myself, what I mean is that I can conceive of the ‘best’ course of action or the ‘best’ possible result in any circumstance, but that I also understand the nature of reality. Reality is such that not only are some results not possible, but in some cases, some courses of action are either not available or not worth pursuing when faced with the potential for success.
When I refer to pragmatism, specifically in my condemnations of it, what I refer to is the practice of placing the most worthiness or value in courses of action that are the likeliest to succeed and/or to produce a desired result. More often than not, ‘likeliest’ also entails, the ‘easiest’ course or the one requiring the least effort to accomplish. It materializes through cliches such as “the ends justifies the means” and “picking the lesser of two evils” and is often referred to as ‘acting out of expedience’. Pragmatism is rampant in both the behaviors of our politicians and in the votes of those electing them, so it is often a subject for me when speaking on politics, as well as many other areas of life where it appears.
The reason I find a problem with pragmatism is that most people oversimplify situations. The term ‘lesser of two evils’ is a prime example of this. In most cases where this phrase is applied, two alternatives do not constitute the entire pool of choices. Instead, the ‘two’ refers to the ‘two’ pragmatic, or most-likely/easiest choices. The less likely choices are disregarded out of expedience, and often become a self-fulfilling prophecy since the pragmatic never pursue them in the first place — especially in populist arenas like democratic elections or assemblies.
The main and most outstanding difference between this form of pragmatism and what I refer to as ‘practical realism’ is that realism requires taking all possible or available options into account. Acting in this way, one might use pragmatic-like criteria to determine their actions (picking the lesser evil from a given list of alternatives) but ONLY when no other alternatives exist. In contrast, the pragmatist ignores or otherwise disregards the difficult or unlikely choices in favor of the easy or likely ones.
Besides being bad philosophy, this pragmatic approach to decision making is lazy, cowardly and irresponsible. If a better alternative exists, you should pursue the better alternative in ALL CASES. This does not mean that some aspects of pragmatic thinking might help you determine what is the ‘best’ alternative, but it means that you must rank likeliness as secondary to what is proper, good and right whenever considering a course of action.
“If you have standards that you wish to live by, by all means live up to them and demand the same from others around you. To do otherwise is to be disingenuous to yourself, to others and to those standards you hold.” – Scott Webster Wood