Friday, January 23, 2009

Pragmatism's Problems

Pragmatism is usually accepted as an unquestionable virtue. It contains, however, some potential problems.
  1. Pragmatism can be a convenient cloak for opportunism. The self-described pragmatist may easily shift principles in the guise of necessity. Doing whatever it takes to get the job done can mean precisely that, even if ethical values need to be bulldozed in the process. During the Kennedy administration, a bastion of pragmatism that produced more than its share of problems, even the Peace Corps director had a sign on his desk declaring "Good Guys Don't Win Ball Games."
  2. Pragmatism can lower performance standards. The pragmatist seeks whatever works, not what is the best. In this sense, pragmatism can be fast and clever and yet harmful over the long run. The pragmatist does not wish to look very far in the distance. Doing so takes time.
  3. Pragmatism can encourage a "can do" attitude that sacrifices action for thought. Rushed decisions may appear to be bold and yet in retrospect, it would have been better of someone had adopted former Secretary of State George Shultz's dictum of "Don't just do something, stand there."
  4. Pragmatism can be tiring. The rushed nature of pragmatism can be exhausting. Decisions are often made on the run instead of being carefully vetted and processed. This can draw decisions upward that should have been made at a lower level. After a while, the key decision maker can be worn out by the number of decisions; a victim of upward delegation.
  5. Pragmatism can encourage hubris. Matters do not appear to be that difficult because they've been inadequately researched. Their ramifications have not been clearly identified. Dissent is regarded as a failure of will.


Wally Bock said...

Great post, Michael. I think pragmatism can also be an excuse for not doing the right thing. During the time when apartheid was the law in South Africa, many churches in the US opposed it and called on corporations to cease doing business there and to sever ties with other companies, the government or parastatal organizations to apply pressure that would bring down the apartheid system. But almost all of those churches kept their clergy pension funds invested in companies that did business in South Africa. The rationale was usually that "we have to be practical."

Michael Wade said...


Thanks. I've seen pragmatism used as a dodge. It can be a favorite tool of the "Everybody does it" crowd.