Obama's Pragmatism

Friday, March 21, 2008

Dick Morris, an excellent political handicapper, describes how the prevalent influence of the philosophy of Pragmatism on American culture might help save Barack Obama from the electoral consequences of his long association with the racist Jeremiah Wright and his own failure to make a principled stand against him:

As the controversy continues, Americans will gradually realize that Obama stuck by Wright as part of a need to get ahead. They will chalk up to pragmatism why he was so close to such a preacher. As they come to realize that Obama doesn't agree with Wright but used him to get started, they will be more forgiving. [bold added]
I am afraid that Dick Morris is on to something here....

The philosophy of Pragmatism, in a nutshell, holds that the sole criterion for deciding whether to take an action is whether it "works" in the range of the moment. This approach is severely limited in ways that Leonard Peikoff presents in The Ominous Parallels:
By itself, as a distinctive theory, the pragmatist ethics is contentless. It urges men to pursue "practicality," but refrains from specifying any "rigid" set of values that could serve to define the concept. As a result, pragmatists -- despite their repudiation of all systems of morality -- are compelled, if they are to implement their ethical approach at all, to rely on value codes formulated by other, non-pragmatist moralists. As a rule the pragmatist appropriates these codes without acknowledging them; he accepts them by a process of osmosis, eclectically absorbing the cultural deposits left by the moral theories of his predecessors -- and protesting all the while the futility of these theories. (128) [at "Pragmatism" link, search "twentieth-century" and read preceding entry]
When you reject the whole idea of a clear definition of "what works", those who do not will happily set your terms for you.

Pragmatism makes it easier for the likes of Jeremiah Wright to set the terms of political debate. Many, many people will dismiss him out of hand as a blowhard, but fail to see the importance of opposing his ideas or the danger in leaving them unchallenged. Pragmatism thus removes the dangerousness of Wright's ideas from consideration.

This means that not just those who agree with him will be influenced by his ideas, but that even some who don't see their full implications and profess disagreement with him will also be under his influence. All, including Obama (whether or not he really feels disagreement with Wright), will put these ideas into practice.

In the meantime, the proper purpose of government -- the protection of individual rights -- is too abstract a notion for a pragmatist to ever consider long enough to see as anything other than a source of short-term frustration. Acquiring power, often for professed altruistic ends, is the name of the game, and sucking up to the likes of Jeremiah Wright is an obvious, easy way to acquire it.

This short-ranged and absurd conception of "practicality" is why Obama struck his devil's bargain in the first place and why he may get away with it long enough to become President of the United States. And then he'll be in a position to show us just how "practical" not thinking in terms of principles really is when he starts showing everyone in general that he does, indeed, use those foolish enough to help him.

Under the addling influence of Pragmatism, even a question like, "If Obama will use Jeremiah Wright, what will stop him from using me?" will be quickly forgotten the moment another question arises: "How will I use Obama?"

It is only when one appreciates the objectively practical role of abstract principles in guiding one's actions that one can understand that we really have no use for men like Barack Obama or Jeremiah Wright.

-- CAV

2 comments:

Jim May said...

This means that not just those who agree with him will be influenced by his ideas, but that even some who don't see their full implications and profess disagreement with him will also be under his influence. All, including Obama (whether or not he really feels disagreement with Wright), will put these ideas into practice.

And then they will stand there amid the wreckage wailing "But I didn't mean THIS! I couldn't possibly have seen this coming! I couldn't help it!"

Gus Van Horn said...

When I contemplate such things, I am fascinated and stunned at how powerful abstract systems of ideas, such as Pragmatism -- that most people haven't even heard of -- can so profoundly alter their behavior.