Rebirth of Reason


Accusations of Pragmatism
by Joseph Rowlands

When someone brings up the costs and benefits of making a choice with moral implications, it is common to have some people make the accusation of pragmatism. The thought seems to be that the act of considering costs and benefit means that they are not being guided by moral principles and are just doing what's practical. There are several interesting points connected to this line of thinking and accusation.

The first point worth bringing up is that the philosophy of Objectivism does not create an artificial distinction between the moral and the practical. The two are supposed to be synonymous. So accusations that someone is trying to be practical, as opposed to moral, would seem to require that they introduce some moral element that divides the two again. What is that element?

The usual case is that a moral rule is introduced. A moral rule tells you how to behave, or what actions are acceptable or unacceptable. Once a moral rule is introduced, the decision-making process no longer focuses on the expected consequences of the choice. Instead, the focus shifts to adherence to the moral rule. Instead of saying your actions will lead to worse results, they say you're actions are immoral. The moral rule becomes an end in itself.

This explains whey the practical and the moral are suddenly split again. If the moral rule requires adherence in all cases, then consequences don't matter. You must obey the rule in order to be moral. A focus on consequences in the face of such a rule would be a dismissal of the rule.

This is why moral rules are problematic in a consequentialist morality. If results are what matters, then results should be the focus and the final criteria for the decision-making. In any debate over what is the moral choice, the consequences should trump every other concern. To add moral rules as additional constraints is to elevate them above the consequences.

So that brings us to the second point. The accusation of pragmatism is based on the concern that those talking about costs and benefits are rejecting moral principles. Pragmatism is known for rejecting principles and doing "whatever is practical". So does that mean a cost-benefit analysis is inherently pragmatic?

No, it isn't. This all revolves around what people think moral principles are. A common view of moral principles is that they are requirements for being moral. You have to obey the moral principles. So a moral principle might be that you should not lie to people. Someone who ignores this requirement and instead decides to compares costs and benefits would be seen as rejecting the principle, and possibly rejecting principles in general. This would seem to fit the description of pragmatism.

But there's another way to view principles. Instead of telling you how to behave, principle can tell you the likely consequences of your actions. Instead of declaring a moral policy, they are just the recognition of a causal relationship that has wide-reaching effects on our lives. So while you may have a moral policy of never lying, you could also just recognize the numerous effects that result from lying.

In this view, a cost-benefit analysis is perfectly compatible with moral principles. In order to determine the costs and benefits, you need to forecast the likely consequences of your alternatives so you can weight them and make a choice. Principles like honesty are used to determine the likely outcomes, so your choices can be more informed and rational.

Note that pragmatism rejects this form of principle as well. It is against the idea that you can rationally expect certain outcomes in new and untried situations. Just because it failed in one situations, doesn't mean it'll fail in this one. It's view of practical is a view that only practice can determine what works.

These two views of principles are very different. I prefer to call the first one moral policies, although in practice they are simply moral rules. They demand obedience. A moral principle is like any other principle. It is a wide-reaching generalization that is useful in determining consequences.

The moral rules/policies create a divide between the moral and the practical by demanding obedience to the policy no matter the consequence. It acts as an additional constraint on your choices, which can lead to negative consequences in some circumstances.

Those who accept Objectivism may try to avoid this conflict by claiming that moral policies are rationally derived from the standard of life, and so they can't actually conflict. There are problems with this belief, though. The first is that it would limit these moral policies to situations where it is literally impossible to ever prefer a different course of action. Honesty would be out. Independence would be out. Justice would be out. The only thing that might survive is rationality, because even if you don't practice what you think, it is still important to think correctly. This would severely limit the number of these policies.

A second problem with the view that moral policies can be consistently rational is that degrees matter. How much justice should you seek? How independent should you be? How benevolent? How much time should you spend thinking about problems in order to be rational? Is there ever an amount where you spent too much time thinking about it instead of doing it?

These problems don't go away by simply claiming that the policies are rationally derived. To act optimally, you need to take into account your context, how important various factors are, what consequences are likely, what needs are most important in your life, and ultimately how the consequences benefit or hurt your life, and by how much. An attempt to derive a policy that can be followed blindly, in spite of all of these variables, is one that is either vacuous or flawed.

Contrast that with the moral principles as I've described them. They are not attempts at overriding your judgment. They are factual recognitions that you can use to improve your judgment. They do not create a layer of "moral" that is distinct from the "practical". A person who uses these principles of understanding, these recognition of causal relationships, is not a pragmatist in any sense.

And this brings us to a third aspect of the pragmatism accusation. Pragmatism can be understood as a response to a different kind of philosophical approach. It can be though of as a response to moral idealism, as in "I'm just an idealist".

The moral idealist views morality in terms of a set of ideal actions or behaviors. The idealist is recognized as someone who has lofty ideas about how the world works, but those ideas are not actually compatible with the real world. An idealist might claim that we should all try to love everyone equally, and when confronted with evil people, will claim that the ideal is still true, even if it is difficult to practice.

Idealists will describe their ideals as moral principles too. But they don't mean a recognition of reality. They mean a set of moral policies that should be followed despite the consequences.

Pragmatism and this moral idealism can be though of as opposites, but they are in fact a false dichotomy. They are though of as opposites because idealists claim obedience to their "principles" while pragmatists reject principles and go for the practical. One elevates ideals over practice, while the other elevates practice over ideals.

But it is a false dichotomy. The kinds of principles promoted by idealists are flawed, and that's what creates the difference between their view of the moral and the practical. Pragmatism doesn't simply reject bad principles. It rejects principles entirely. The dichotomy is false for two reasons. First, both positions have an irrational view of principles, and just treat them differently. And second, the two positions are not exhaustive. It is possible to have a rational morality and moral principles.

If we go back to the accusation of pragmatism, we see another problem with it. The accusation of pragmatism comes from the other side of the false dichotomy. It comes from the idealist perspective, and its flawed view of principles. It suggests that a cost-benefit analysis will lead to a conclusion different from the moral policies, and it concludes that the policies should be accepted anyway.

This is the moral idealism position. It upholds impractical moral rules, which it calls principles but which are actually policies, it demands an obedience to those policies despite the consequences, and it views any focus on the real consequences as a betrayal of the principles and morality. The accusation of pragmatism is made through accepting the other side of the false dichotomy.

Determining the costs and benefits of your alternatives is not immoral or a sign of a lack of principles. It uses principles to determine the likely consequences so that it can compare the expected consequences by the standard of you life. This is how moral decisions should be made. There is no abandoning of principle.

Even those who mistakenly view moral policies as rational believe they are the embodiment of a causal relationship and its impact on your life. Those moral policies claim to have a shortcut where you can think once and apply blindly forever after, but that's an unrelated point. What's important is that the alleged justification of those policies is based on how certain actions are expected to achieve certain consequences through the recognized causal relationship.

In other words, the moral policies are not adding some new ingredient that is missing from a cost-benefit analysis informed by moral principles. There's nothing it has that the cost-benefit approach doesn't have. There's no new insight or new information. And consequently, there's no grounds for arguing that a cost-benefit analysis is in any way worse.

The opposite can't be said, though. Moral policies are at best a shortcut, which means that when they are used, you aren't analyzing the choice as well as you otherwise would. If you rule out an option because its dishonest, and you have a policy to never be dishonest, you are not determining the expected results and making moral comparisons. You are shortcutting the process. And for the reasons stated earlier, this can and will lead to poorer choices. In this case, you are leaving something out. You're leaving a lot out.

The accusation of pragmatism comes with the implication that there is something flawed in your approach, that you are not utilizing principles, and that you are rejecting morality. But in fact, the opposite is true. Looking at costs and benefits, utilizing your principles to determine expected consequences, and making a rational comparison is the best you can do. Taking moral shortcuts is the flawed approach. The accusation says you are rejecting morality for practicality, but in actuality the accuser is rejecting practicality for a distorted morality.

There is no moral-practical dichotomy, and those claiming you chose the wrong side are the guilty ones.
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