Cold Cuts—Aphorisms, Philosophy, Politics, Progressivism

Vulgar vs. Philosophical Pragmatism

From an essay that I’m working on:

Simply put, pragmatism as a philosophy does not reduce to “doing what is pragmatic.” James Kloppenberg recently distinguished such “vulgar pragmatism” from “philosophical pragmatism” in this way: philosophical pragmatism “emphasizes experimentation on principle as a way of testing provisional truths, from a vulgar pragmatism that bends before every breeze and has no principles to compromise. Philosophical pragmatists admit uncertainty, proclaim fallibilism, and welcome diverse points of view.”

The freest political system may not be the most efficient, and the most equal may not be the most just, and so on and so forth. The hard work of democratic decision-making consists in weighing available options for their benefits and balancing these against their costs. We must choose between these goods, but we always do so cautiously. There is no place for the certainty of genocidal crusades in such an approach to politics. Pragmatists are too self-skeptical for this.

The upshot: pragmatism doesn’t fall into justifying any political means by desired political ends. Pragmatists are not National Socialists (crazy, right?). Skepticism and moral uncertainty aren’t the source of political violence…moral certitude is. People don’t go crusading on a hunch or a maybe.

About CPW

Conor P. Williams writes and teaches in Washington, D.C. Find him on Facebook or Twitter. Here’s his email. Here are his credentials.

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