‘Whatever works’ isn’t working

Some may remember during the debate about federal government bailouts and stimuli the Obama regime made it clear that no ideology will be allowed to sway the administration.

What is important, the president said, is that the government stick to a pragmatic policy — a policy of expediency, one concerned with what works, not with what conforms to principles.

“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them,” Obama told Americans, “that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works…”

That is indeed the calling card of the pragmatist — do whatever works.

Ironically, pragmatism, the quintessentially unprincipled philosophical movement, was born in America, the one country in human history and around the globe most explicitly tied to certain basic principles of community life — the existence of unalienable, natural human rights, a tradition now widely mimicked.

Such American thinkers as William James, C. I. Lewis, John Dewey, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Willard Van Orman Quine, Richard Rorty and, right near the current White House, Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, all professed to be pragmatists. Although their specific positions are not identical, what they share most of all is they reject the idea of foundations to human thought and action. Anti-foundationalism is a prominent stance they all share, meaning that what people think and do cannot be given some kind of basic grounding in reality or thought or God or anything.

Whatever works is all that can be produced in support of what one thinks, does, supports as law and public policy. No principled support for — or opposition to — what we think and do is possible to find, so we need to abandon the myth of foundationalism.

Let’s just settle for what pans out in practice.

As many critics of this position have pointed out, it is a non-starter; it cannot be practiced at all since what works is always related to some objective or goal that one aims to achieve and if there are no principles on which to rest such goals, they remain simply a wish list of powerful, influential people, quite arbitrary in the last analysis. Most importantly, pragmatism is the foe of a society that aims to establish and maintain justice among its citizens since principles of justice are plainly unknowable so far as pragmatism goes.

It is also blatantly offensive — no basic reason can be given for opposition to torture or rape or murder?

Give me a break.