Recently I stumbled across what looked like a very succinct description of the pragmatist philosophy (or as I like to call it “the pragmatist disbelief system”). In fact, Bob Sherman’s article provides a nice summary of core concepts of the pragmatist movement. He does what at first glance appears to be an admirable job of explaining the relationship of pragmatism to “truth-claims,” emphasizing that pragmatists define the truth of any particular proposition as a) not an absolute position and b) based on the usefulness of that proposition.
The article is well worth looking over if you want to understand how those endorsing “character education” view pragmatism. It does not take long to realize that while Mr. Sherman gets some of this right, he has fundamentally misunderstood the implications of reasoning pragmatically. His mischaracterization is not unusual. I thought I might take the opportunity to clarify what is in fact the pragmatist system of thought and how it works itself out in the sphere of social and economic policy.
The main difficulty Mr. Sherman runs into is a common one-the equation of pragmatism with instrumental reason, which is itself bound up with relativism (the belief that any set of life choices is as good as any other), subjectivism (morals are not grounded in reason, but individual choices to limit behavior for no other reason than we desire it so) and the pursuit of authenticity. Mr. Sherman points to corporate America’s emphasis on profit maximization as examples of pragmatism in action:
“Any time you see business leaders, politicians, or other social leaders emphasizing their vision for the future, they are focusing on results or consequences. If they do not emphasize objective moral standards that will help determine their means of achieving those desired goals, they are likely to be adherents to the philosophy of pragmatism. For example, businesses that seek to improve their profitability may attempt to ignore worker loyalty as well as health and safety standards. This characterizes many companies that move high paying manufacturing jobs from the United States to Mexico. Northern Mexico is the home of numerous U.S. companies for which profits is most important.”
This argument is a unique one in one respect – although it comes from a proponent of the religious conservative Character Education Movement, it suggests that the marketplace is not always fair (what has conservatism come to?). Let’s set that aside and simply address the implications of the example as given. Is American pragmatism at its heart a self-centered ideology in which even the most callous and unfeeling policies can be justified as beneficial at some level (individual or organizational)? Is it a system that focuses our attention on immediate gratification regardless of larger consequence?
I doubt it.
Instrumental reason is the belief that any decision should benefit one’s own narrow self-interest. Under this definition, gratification of one’s desires (base and elevated) is the primary good, and other people exist simply as tools for achieving those ends. Thus, someone who endorses instrumental reasoning will interpret things like wedding vows (“I take thee to be mine in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad”) to their own benefit (“I take thee to be mine so long as it’s good for me”). Niccolo Machiavelli provided us with an early example of instrumental reason in his play Mandragola.
Unlike the British version of Machiavellianism, in this play everything works out for the good so long as everyone pursues their own narrow self-interest and use others as tools to achieve that selfish aim. While the play proposes an ideal philosophy for governing personal relationships (as well as political), it also demonstrates how personal relationships are narrowed and attenuated when they merely serve the purpose of achieving some self-interested goal.
At first blush, the idea of looking at results suggests the basis for a purely instrumental calculation. For example, on the surface it appears pragmatic to ask oneself if some action leads to the greatest personal benefit, and if the behavior does not, adjust one’s behavior so that what is produced achieves the goal.
This is not pragmatism.
At its heart, pragmatism is based on the idea that any belief (or disbelief) demands justification – since life is characterized by adaptation to changing circumstances, the choices we make must be based on careful evaluation of results achieved. In contrast, instrumental reason endorses the idea that no choice is based in reason-people should not be required to justify life choices using standards of reason, good or bad, or some moral principle – having to do so might warp their sense of authentic self, subjecting them to external standards (which are assumed to be by nature arbitrary). As Charles Taylor puts it, those who reason instrumentally endorse the idea that . . .
“everyone has a right to develop their own form of life, grounded on their own sense of what is really important or of value. People are called upon to be true to themselves and to seek their own self-fulfillment. What this consists of, each must, in the last instance, determine for him- or herself. No one else can or should try to dictate its content” 
Thus, the only moral groundings for instrumental reason are the axiomatic beliefs that human beings can only be fully human when they act upon unconstrained self-interest and that no one should be required to vigorously defend any life choice.
But, this is not a sufficient explanation of choice for a pragmatist because we cannot be sure that acting purely for self-fulfillment will at all times lead to full humanness, i.e., a fully developed human character, or any other measure of success (I believe it is quite natural for pragmatism to question whether this kind of self-serving “authenticity” is the only important goal). The difference between pragmatism and instrumental reason, then, turns on what is the process for determining what is “true.” As we have seen, instrumental reason is simply another form of axiomatic thinking in which central tenets for belief remain unchallenged.
There are two reasons any good pragmatist should be mortified by the notion that we can achieve full human capacity by using others as means for achieving the end of self-fulfillment. First, reasoning instrumentally violates the idea that beliefs require justification-clearly the idea that no one should be required to justify choices precludes any inquiry into whether some choice or belief is useful at all times. Second, “true” beliefs are those that are ultimately accepted as the result of strenuous and attentive inquiry by the widest possible community of sincere inquirers.
Instrumental reason negates the possibility of creating such a community bound together by the pursuit of careful inquiry and flexible enough to abandon the most closely held belief if circumstances require it. This is because community, or being in dialogue with others, is unnecessary for achieving the goal of fully developed human character, or (worse still, as noted above) can subject those who reason instrumentally to external review.
Oliver W. Holmes provides an example of the difference between reasoning instrumentally and reasoning pragmatically. In the South leading up to the Civil War, most slave owners would argue that the slave culture of the South produced considerable benefit, in particular to them, but also to the nation through the production of goods for which a slave culture was supposedly ideally suited. In other words, the cost of subjecting a race of people to slavery was more than outweighed by the economic benefit to the nation. Slavery was a means for achieving national economic greatest. How could Holmes reasonably and pragmatically oppose the institution of slavery? Yet Holmes supported the abolitionist movement (at first on moral grounds), and left Harvard University before graduating to take up a commission in the Union army. Was he being unreasonable?
Holmes returned from the Civil War with the belief that reasoning based on results could provide a better chance for averting cataclysmic events such as war than reasoning from fixed, supposedly universal principles ever could. Furthermore, anyone applying this standard (if it can be called that) would naturally agree that retaining the institution of slavery was bad. And, they would arrive at this conclusion not based on any moral consideration, but by looking at results. Leaving the devastation of the Civil War aside for the moment, slavery caused considerable social and legal turmoil in the states.
Furthermore, it was never clear that slave culture was the only, or even the best, method the South could employ for contributing to economic advancement. Holmes realized that if a society wishes to apply the most violent methods for settling disputes over social policy, it should fail to engage in careful and strenuous inquire, fail to abandon long held beliefs when demonstrated to result in harm, and a hold fast to axiomatic thinking at all times. Holmes found those who fit this bill on all sides of the dispute (let us not forget the rampages of abolitionists).