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The Idealism-Pragmatism Dichotomy
"I'm just an idealist."
"He's just being an idealist."
It's very telling. The word 'just' implies that you may be one thing, but you're not something else, and something worth mentioning. 'Just an idealist' means that you're not practical. In fact, the term 'idealist' seems to convey that just as well these days. Someone who's an idealist is someone who has his pet theories about how the world should be, and acts on them, despite the fact that they're completely useless in practice.
There's a very real phenomenon going on here that the term is trying to convey. When people have ridiculous moral beliefs that are completely impractical, but stick with them anyway, they are properly viewed as foolish. These are people who are impervious to reason and reality, and stand by their arbitrary beliefs no matter how much damage they do to themselves. These are people who uphold the idea of being 'principled' as morally good, outside of the context of any particular set of principles.
And of course, the more ridiculous the ideals, the more strength of character they claim to have in living up to them. It's bad enough when people practice bad ideas, but when they try to make it a virtue to practice bad ideas, then they start looking insane. And they do. As I noted in my article "Altruism and Integrity", integrity is often seen as a symbol of moral strength, and the harder a moral ideal is to follow, the more integrity that's required. And thus you get socialists praising communists, religious people praising Mother Teresa, and vegetarians praising vegans. And so they go from wacky, to insane. And the further down that path you go, the more 'principled' and 'idealistic' you are.
Now like all great false dichotomies, it starts with a rejection of such a crazy idea. Pragmatism is supposed to be the philosophical opposite of the idealism. By rejecting the crazy notion of living by 'principles' that just get in the way of living, pragmatism jumps down the opposite sewer. It says that principles are impractical, and you should just do what's practical. How do you know what's practical? Just do it, and see if it works!
Why would a pragmatist throw out all ideals and moral principles? It's easy enough to see, given the standard view of what morality is. The least controversial ethics, the one that's been around and dominant for ages, is altruism. Yes, altruism. That lovely system that uphold self-sacrifice for the good of others. When even the most bread-and-butter ethics is a disaster in practice, why not throw it all away and try to get by without moral principles?
And so this false dichotomy has its roots in the more specific false dichotomy, the theory/practice dichotomy. This is the belief that theory and practice are disjointed and opposed. What's good in theory is not necessarily good in practice. In other words, you don't judge an action based on whether the theory supports it, but how it works in reality. That might sound okay at first, since reality is our ultimate arbiter of the truth. But it really means that abstract thinking, principles, and logical reasoning are no longer to be applied to actions. Which means you can't use your understanding of reality as a guide to choosing your actions. Theory is unreliable. You can't be sure of anything until after you've tried it.
So there you have the idealism/pragmatism dichotomy, and it's not hard to see why the two views can be accepted. On the one hand, you have mindless following of insane rules. On the other hand, you have mindless actions, following the rule "Thou shalt not think!" Isn't there a better way?
Of course. Objectivism holds that you can understand reality, and that moral principles are not arbitrary demands on your life, but guides toward gaining real values. The moral is the practical. The theory is true and that makes it practical. The principles guide you towards your values, and your principles are judged by how well they work in practice.
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