Pragmatism, Social Justice, and the Failure of Conservatism

In an upcoming May edition of The Weekly Standard, Peter Berkowitz discusses the nature of pragmatism as practised by Barack Obama and his administration. Berkowitz does a good job of describing how Obama operates, and relates it to the pervasive pragmatism that has infected academics and law, among other fields.

He correctly defines the anti-philosophical nature of pragmatism, and then explains how people like Richard Rorty brought the ideas into the academic mainstream and tweaked them to push a leftist agenda.
At its most extreme, philosophical pragmatism denies the very existence of objective truth, arguing that opinions we declare true are merely those that have proved useful to one interest or another.

In the 1980s and 1990s, philosophy professor Richard Rorty... infused pragmatism with a decidedly partisan meaning. Or perhaps, as Rorty suggested, he brought out the original pragmatism's latent partisanship. His synthesis proved popular in philosophy departments, among political theorists, and in law schools. While Obama may never have read a word Rorty wrote, the new pragmatism permeated the atmosphere of the university world Obama inhabited. It proclaimed that philosophical questions were subordinate to political questions, and that the proper political question in America is how to promote progressive ends. [bold added]
Berkowitz then discusses the nature of the "new pragmatism" and how well it describes Obama's actions.
To realize its utopian dreams, the new pragmatism makes use of a fundamental deception. Purporting to focus on practical consequences, it equates what works with what works to increase government's responsibility to promote social justice in America. Although it reduces morality to interest and dismisses the distinction between true and false as a delusive vestige of an obsolete metaphysics, it treats the progressive interpretation of America as, in effect, good and true. Under the guise of inclusiveness, it denigrates and excludes rival moral and political opinions.

So too it seems for Obama's pragmatism: It appears to be another name for achieving progressive ends; flexibility is confined to the means. ... Judging by his conduct--as pragmatism officially instructs--Obama appears to have concluded that the best way to maintain public support for progressive programs is to divert attention from the full range of their consequences and, where possible, to refrain from making progressive principles too explicit. [bold added]
This is spot on concerning the diversionary tactics employed to misdirect public attention away from the real causes and effects of the administration's actions. It's like institutionalized evasion. But what I found especially interesting was the Rortian concept of employing pragmatism to systematically promote leftist goals. "Purporting to focus on practical consequences, it equates what works with what works to increase government's responsibility to promote social justice in America." That is a powerful identification, and should be remembered every time anyone in government or the media speaks glowing of Obama's pragmatism.

When a reporter on NPR speaks of foreign policy shifts and praises them for their pragmatic nature, recall that Obama's pragmatism has a distinct nature designed to foster a social justice agenda. Instead of just "finding something that works," his administration's pragmatism is focused on finding what works to promote progressive goals, using a method laid out by philosophers like Rorty.

This, of course, follows the progression of pragmatism from the original meaning of dispensing with standards and principles and just doing what works, to what Ayn Rand termed "Kantian Pragmatism."
A later school of more Kantian Pragmatists amended this philosophy as follows. If there is no such thing as an objective reality, men’s metaphysical choice is whether the selfish, dictatorial whims of an individual or the democratic whims of a collective are to shape that plastic goo which the ignorant call “reality,” therefore this school decided that objectivity consists of collective subjectivism—that knowledge is to be gained by means of public polls among special elites of “competent investigators” who can “predict and control” reality—that whatever people wish to be true, is true, whatever people wish to exist, does exist, and anyone who holds any firm convictions of his own is an arbitrary, mystic dogmatist, since reality is indeterminate and people determine its actual nature. - "For the New Intellectual" via ARL.
Our current administration, and the leftist academics they sprang from, see themselves as the "special elites... who can 'predict and control' reality," and are applying these techniques to the political realm to control our freedoms, using evasive and "soft" nudges.

Despite the insightful commentary about the nature of this "new" pragmatism, there are some real problems with Berkowitz's article. There is a decidedly Christian conservative bent to it, for one thing. For instance, Berkowitz uses as an example of the negative effects of Obama's pragmatism, the lifting of the ban on embryonic stem cell research on the grounds of Christian morality.

But the biggest problem with Berkowitz is that he never condemns pragmatism directly, but only the Rorty-inspired new pragmatism that pushes social justice. He mistakenly claims that "A truly postpartisan pragmatist--or a pragmatist in the ordinary, everyday sense--would pay attention to the long-term economic consequences of massive government costs and expansion." On what basis would a pragmatist judge long-term consequences? One needs reason and principle to do such a thing, and Berkowitz has already conceded that pragmatism purposefully tosses those out the window. Perhaps he should go back and read the first half of his piece, and decide if it squares with his conclusions.

In a classic conservative move, Berkowitz undercuts the force of his original argument by pandering to the philosophical base of the Left. And despite the fact that he had correctly identified the anti-philosophical qualities of pragmatism earlier, he shows that he seriously misunderstands its true destructive nature.
The problem is not partisanship, but a deceptive form of pragmatism, where pretending to be nonpartisan is a pragmatic strategy for imposing far-reaching progressive policies on an unwary public. This pragmatism is unpragmatic because it suppresses inconvenient consequences, and disrespectful of citizens because it obscures its governing principles and ultimate intentions. [all emphasis added]
Because pragmatism denies the existence any objective truth, this sounds as if Berkowitz is simply upset that the ideology being pushed by this "flavor" of pragmatism is not the ideology he wants pushed. He doesn't argue in favor of the objective nature of individual rights and thus against policies that violate them, but instead that Obama is using a "deceptive form of pragmatism" to promote social justice, presumably instead of the religious conservatism he favors.

Still, despite the shortcomings of his article, it is an interesting read. Most importantly, it serves to highlight the destructive nature of pragmatism, the sneaky political machinations of the Left, and the crippling philosophic ineptitude of conservatism.


Kyle Haight said...

Some time ago I commented at the New Clarion to the effect that whenever we hear talk about something "working" we should always ask "work for whom, and for what?" The whole tactic depends on people assuming that "working" means the same thing to all parties in the discussion when in fact it does not. This kind of manipulative pragmatist doesn't want that question asked. So ask it -- politely and repeatedly.

C. August said...

Good point. Challenging the hidden premises is a very important way to shed light onto what the ultimate goals are.

When reading media reports, the task of such philosophical detection can become difficult -- or at least, tiring -- especially when words like "practical," "pragmatic," and "working" are thrown around so much. That's one of the reasons why I liked what Berkowitz wrote about the specific manifestation of pragmatism in Obama's administration.

It is such that one can almost reduce to automatic that when he hears someone speak of a policy as one that works without being hamstrung by principle, it invariably means "what works to increase government's responsibility to promote social justice in America." It brings the abstract down to the concrete, in easily recalled form.

If the administrations actions are being praised as "doing what works," you can immediately know what goals they are working toward.