My Philosophy? Principled Pragmatism

A Philosophy That Works
A Philosophy That Works

As I talk to people from around the world, I see many floundering around in moral outrage. Moral outrage is a good thing-it motivates us to do better. Moral outrage seeks the villain-communists, socialists, capitalists, Russians, Republicans-somebody to punish. But it is often misinformed and misdirected with disastrous results. I debate these things with Libertarians, communists and Free Marketeers among others and finally one asked me: “Ok, so what is YOUR philosophy?”

He had me there. I knew I had one, but it was un-named and unexplained. Nothing exists for us until it is named so here it is: Principled Pragmatism. You must have both principles (is it right?) and pragmatism (will it work?), because pragmatism by itself can lead to all sorts of horrors. Pragmatism is the basis of our foreign policy. It can be used to justify overthrowing elected leaders and bombing the crap out of other countries because they don’t follow policies that protect U.S. national interest. Why other countries should protect U.S. national interest instead of their own is left out of the equation. Pragmatism asks only: Is it do-able? Does it pass the cost/benefit analysis? With the mightiest military the world has ever seen, what is do-able is very broad.

Mere pragmatism is not enough. It is pragmatic; it is utilitarian ala Jeremy Bentham-for a nation, or an individual for that matter, to do whatever is in their own best interest. This selfishness has actually been promoted as a valid philosophy by the likes of Ayn Rand. When Hitler killed the “useless eaters”, i.e., the mentally and physically disabled, it was both pragmatic and utilitarian. Why should society spend resources on people who were then and who were going to remain-unproductive? It is in the best interest of the most people to get rid of them. It is in the best interest of America to kill off its baby-boomers before they start getting sick and draining the economy through Medicare. Sure, they once produced, but they are no longer doing so. Soylent Green is both pragmatic and utilitarian. Why waste the protein?

Then again the pragmatic question: “Is it do-able?” is valid. Anything not do-able should be abandoned at the starting line. Is a totally free market do-able? The only free market is the flea market. Markets are subsidized, tariffs are imposed, monopolies form and big business wants it that way. The US had high tariffs for a very long time to protect and grow its “infant industries.” This “government interference” worked quite well for America, as it had previously for Great Britain. Is a purely capitalist, dog-eat dog world do-able? Yes, if we are willing to let fellow citizens die on the streets. Thankfully, we are not.

I’m a sociable nature-lover. Is turning the nation into an agrarian commune do-able? How about 50 self-governing city states? How about no government at all? Is that do-able? Has it been done before? With what result? History demonstrates that centrally organized states are simply stronger than decentralized states. The more organized simply goes in and takes over the less organized. No government at all means tribal warfare and lawlessness in which only the strongest survive-until someone more organized goes in and takes over.


1)    Is it do-able?

  1. Has it been done before?
  2. With what results?


While explaining Principled Pragmatism recently to a very intelligent guy, he objected, “Yeah, but what principles? No can agree on what is right.” Actually, that is not true. Although customs, rules and details vary from culture to culture there are also universals as anthropologist Donald Brown pointed out. For example, generosity is universally admired, rape is universally proscribed. The concept of fairness is universally recognized. Brown lists 197 more human universals.

To keep this to the bare minimum, what is right is what is fair. Even two year-olds know when something is not fair and they will tell you so. That is, they know when it is not fair to them. Grownups know this, too. It’s simple really, what is not fair when it happens to you is not fair when it happens to someone else. All the major religions have some version of, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” Is it right? If you were in the others person’s place, would you say it was right?

John Rawls wrote a brilliant book titled “A Theory of Justice.” He didn’t delve into utilitarianism or Kant’s categorical imperative or any theories of natural rights. He simply said imagine this:

You are going to design policies for your society, but you don’t know where you will exist in that society. You may be on top of the socio-economic ladder, in the middle or on the bottom. Now write your policy. You won’t write policies that destroy the guy on top, hurt the guy in the middle or kill the guy on the bottom, because you might end up being him. Rawls simply offered a thought experiment in empathy for the empathy-challenged.


1). Is it right?

a. Who does it affect?

b. How would I like it if I were them?

Principled Pragmatism: Bumper Sticker Version

If it is both do-able and right, GO.

Otherwise, NO.

1 Comment

  1. Wow. Nicely done. Jesus explained the relationship of rules to morality in the “Great Commandment” in Matthew 22:37-40. I think the humanist translation is something like this, “Love good. And love it for others as well as you love it for yourself. All other rules derive from these two.” The lawyer in the story was asking about ethics, but Jesus responded that ethics (rules) serve morality (the intent to achieve the best possible good for everyone).

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