Monday, September 26, 2011

Moralism, pragmatism, and politics

"I can't stand it when someone tries to put one over on me," a friend of mine exclaimed. She was an upper-middle-class professional, probably making about $100K per year; she was talking about some of her relatives, who were living on welfare. My friend worked hard, spent wisely, avoided debt, and saved for her retirement. Her relatives were — or she painted them as — lazy, imprudent and irresponsible. Her testimony is plausible: there are those who strive to fulfill all the good middle-class virtues and yet remain poor, but there are indeed those poor who cannot or choose not to uphold these virtues. Are they because of their vices thus deserving of not only poverty but starvation? If we do not allow them to starve, are they "putting one over" on us?

To me, of course, welfare is an economic triviality. Excluding Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid (providing pensions and medical care for old people who have worked for decades is hardly welfare), we spend a tiny fraction of our Gross Domestic Product on welfare. I really don't care whether welfare recipients are "deserving"; I'm pleased that for just pennies we can at least ensure no one freezes nor starves, regardless of their virtues or vices. No one can "put one over" on me in this sense: because there's nothing I expect in return, no one can fail to deliver it.

In political science as well as popularly, political "ideology" is usually described along the axes of freedom and equality. I think these are poor axes. Both words describe concepts that are complex and operate at many layers of abstraction. Freedom, for example, sounds good, but freedom to do what? I don't want people to be free to hurt or kill me; I don't want people to walk off with the stuff I need to survive and operate effectively in the world. Do I want the freedom to eat broccoli, or the more abstract freedom to eat what I choose? More directly, do I want to have — and allow others to have — the freedom to do anything I want economically, even to economically exploiting others? Equality is a little better: we can measure certain kinds of equality (such as equality of nominal wealth or income), but no one, I think, wants (or would admit to wanting) a Harrison Bergeron model of everyone being the same. Evaluating ideology on these axes seems to shed little light on how people actually think about underlying political issues.

Based on my conversation with my friend, and many other conversations, I think there is a better axis to label political philosophy, which I'll arbitrarily term moralism vs. pragmatism. Terms in ethical and political philosophy can have widely divergent definitions, so let me be explicit about what I mean. Moralism means the notion that there is some intrinsically good way of living, or at minimum some intrinsically bad ways of living. To the moralist, the proper function of the state* is to reinforce the intrinsically correct way of living and to suppress the intrinsically incorrect ways of living. In contrast, pragmatism is not concerned with the intrinsic ways of living, but with outcomes: a way of living is good or bad only to the extent that it produces a good or bad outcome. To the pragmatist, the proper function of the state is to produce a good outcome. Both of these paradigms entail making moral judgments: the moralist must (somehow) judge which ways of living are good or bad; the pragmatist must (somehow) judge which outcomes are good or bad.

*In the canonical sense of the state as the institutions that hold and exercise a monopoly on the use of violence.

One interesting result of evaluating political ideology on this axis is the observation that most ideologies are mixed: almost all ideologies contain moralist and pragmatic elements. Even so, we can generally observe that "right" ideologies are more strongly moralistic; "left" ideologies are more strongly pragmatic. In the example at the start of this post, we can see that my friend is more strongly moralistic: she is concerned that people not "put one over" on her, regardless of the outcome. In contrast, I'm more pragmatic: I can ensure with little personal cost that a person on welfare does not starve or freeze. Pragmatism does not mean "amoral": I am still making the moral judgment that starving and freezing are bad outcomes.

7 comments:

  1. "Moralism means the notion that there is some intrinsically good way of living, or at minimum some intrinsically bad ways of living. To the moralist, the proper function of the state* is to reinforce the intrinsically correct way of living and to suppress the intrinsically incorrect ways of living. In contrast, pragmatism is not concerned with the intrinsic ways of living, but with outcomes: a way of living is good or bad only to the extent that it produces a good or bad outcome. To the pragmatist, the proper function of the state is to produce a good outcome."

    I understand the context is political science but I wonder if you need a Y axis with ‘Individualistic’ and ‘Communitarian’, and an X axis with moralistic and pragmatic ?

    Take virtue ethics. A supporter of this ethical theory might agree with your definition of moralism "that there is some intrinsically good way of living, or at minimum some intrinsically bad ways of living" (Virtue or Vice). A moralistic/communitarian who follows virtue ethics might agree with "the proper function of the state is to reinforce the intrinsically correct way of living and to suppress the intrinsically incorrect ways of living", while a moralistic/individualistic might disagree because virtue ethics focuses on individual character building while still maintaining an universal aspect. eg laziness is always vice, industry is a virtue unless taken to extreme. A moralistic/individualistic may believe the state should have no role in reinforcing the correct way of living.

    On pragmatism : "pragmatism is not concerned with the intrinsic ways of living, but with outcomes: a way of living is good or bad only to the extent that it produces a good or bad outcome.".

    The question is: Good or bad outcome for whom ? The individual or society? Wikipedia informs me pragmatism is generally focused on the society but I don't see why this should necessarily be the case.

    With the Y axis, you could clarify this. A pragmatic/communitarian would fit into the category of : "To the pragmatist, the proper function of the state is to produce a good outcome", while a pragmatic/individualist is concerned with the good outcome for the individual moral agent (eg character building) within the overall goal of living a good life.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I understand the context is political science but I wonder if you need a Y axis with ‘Individualistic’ and ‘Communitarian’, and an X axis with moralistic and pragmatic ?

    I definitely think we need more than one axis. I'll be examining individualism and communitarianism specifically in a later post: I don't think it's the precisely correct distinction to capture.

    A moralistic/individualistic may believe the state should have no role in reinforcing the correct way of living.

    Precisely what would a "moralistic/individualistic" hold as the proper function of the state, then?

    The question is: Good or bad outcome for whom ? The individual or society? Wikipedia informs me pragmatism is generally focused on the society but I don't see why this should necessarily be the case.

    An excellent question... to which I don't yet want to offer an answer.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Precisely what would a "moralistic/individualistic" hold as the proper function of the state, then?

    I see it 'moralistic/individualistic' as essentially an Edmund Burke style conservative position which was shaped by reaction against the violence the French revolution. For Burke and his supporters, the revolution and subsequent Napoleonic wars, were prime examples of the misery caused by an overbearing state in the hands of men with well-meaning ideas.

    Precise role of the state : Conservativism of existing tried-and-tested institutions, free trade, protection for citizens and very little else. Burke supported 'little platoons' : local institutions and voluntary charities - local controlled schools, local charity, local control.

    Moralistic/individualistic are mainly religious people who believe the state is dangerous and whose ideal is local communities built around church and family teaching Christian morality.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "Conservativism of existing tried-and-tested institutions..."

    Ah, there's the rub: what precisely constitutes "tried-and-tested"? Is an institution tried-and-tested because it upholds an intrinsic moral value (moralism) or because it brings happiness and alleviates suffering? Remember, Burke was (IIRC) trying to justify the aristocracy in terms of "popular" sovereignty.

    The concept of trivial conservatism - if it works, don't fix it - does not, I think, form an interesting political axis. The crux of the biscuit is how you determine what works.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "Ah, there's the rub: what precisely constitutes "tried-and-tested"? Is an institution tried-and-tested because it upholds an intrinsic moral value (moralism) or because it brings happiness and alleviates suffering? Remember, Burke was (IIRC) trying to justify the aristocracy in terms of "popular" sovereignty.

    The concept of trivial conservatism - if it works, don't fix it - does not, I think, form an interesting political axis. The crux of the biscuit is how you determine what works."


    By definition, the institution (in this context) always exists so the burden is on those who wish to change the state institution because they must motivate others to make/enforce the change. So (for an attempted defence of my Y-axis suggestion), we don't need to worry about an epistemological 'how' but rather 'what' arguments are proposed for-and-against change and where they fall on the grid.

    But maybe a Y-axis with Isaac Berlins concepts of positive & negative freedom is more fitting than 'Individualistic’ and ‘Communitarian’ to capture the role of the state ?

    So :
    1) Positive Moralism : The notion that there is some intrinsically good way of living, or at minimum some intrinsically bad ways of living. State/Community should reinforce the intrinsically correct way of living for the good of the individual and the community. eg. Christianity :- Communities flourish or wither depending on their adherence to God moral laws and these laws are intrinsically good (because God says so).

    2) Negative Moralism : The notion that there is some intrinsically good way of living, or at minimum some intrinsically bad ways of living. The state should not limit individual choices except in cases harm can be established. eg. Liberal Christianity :- Homosexuality is intrinsically wrong because it violates God Natural law. However it is the individual that is judged. States need not interfere.

    3) Positive Pragmatism: Concerned with outcomes: a way of living is good or bad only to the extent that it produces a good or bad outcome. State/Community should encourage/force decisions which lead to the good outcome for the individual and the community eg the greater good; Rousseau :- The greater community is always correct. Individuals who disagree should be forced to comply because they are wrong so it is actually for their own good.

    4) Negative Pragmatism: Concerned with outcomes: a way of living is good or bad only to the extent that it produces a good or bad outcome. The state should not limit individual choices except in cases where the outcome results in harm to another individual. eg classic Mill liberalism.

    ReplyDelete
  6. By definition, the institution (in this context) always exists so the burden is on those who wish to change the state institution because they must motivate others to make/enforce the change.

    But this is just common sense; it's not a fundamental difference in political philosophy. The question is not whether one has the burden of proof to change an institution (the opposite is just stupid), but on what basis one meets that burden, a pragmatic or moralistic basis.

    (Of course, the idea that an institution is good because it is traditional is strongly moralistic.)

    Negative Pragmatism: Concerned with outcomes: ... The state should not limit individual choices except in cases...

    To call this "pragmatism" is not accurate; this is an essentially moralistic stance: outside of the exception, the state should not limit individual choices even if such a limitation would produce a better outcome.

    ReplyDelete
  7. We might discover that when the state takes positive action (in some sense), we typically get an inferior outcome, but that's a matter for rational analysis; it's not a fundamental philosophical difference.

    ReplyDelete

Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.