The Pragmatic Case Against Pragmatism

You may have noticed that I started blogging from a pragmatic secular perspective, reached some conclusions and promptly converted to Christianity. My experience, though idiosyncratic, suggests a claim: On sufficient reflection, pragmatic moral analysis rejects itself.

In principle, a pragmatic approach to morality is optimal. Find your terminal values, determine the optimal instrumental actions and execute. In practice, none of this works. We don’t know our true values – possibly can’t know as they may be in constant flux. Even if we did, determining the right actions would require a deep understanding of the complex interactions and unintended consequences that inevitably crop up in the real world. It can take generations to see the full consequences of what seemed like a good idea at the time, and the much easier task of noticing the connection after the fact is still difficult.

A sufficiently informed thinker may be able to figure it out well enough, at least to the point where he knows to seek wisdom greater than his own. Unfortunately no one is born that wise and many never get that far. Some pursue their selfish short-term interest even when they know better. Guidance, firm if necessary, must be the default for those unable or unwilling to choose wisely for themselves.

As a guiding principle, pragmatism is terrible. “Do what works” only works if you know what you are doing and want to get it right. Too many people don’t.

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