Hating on Pragmatic Idealism

One rarely knows what is good for us and what is bad. Therefore if we knowingly put ourselves in the hands of Almighty, whatever happens must be deemed good. And I try literally to follow that precept. – Gandhi

As one who has often been labeled as an idealist, where the implication was clear that it is a negative attribute, this quote resonated with me. It’s not not because the assessment isn’t true, I am pretty idealistic, it’s that the judgement is both hypocritical and arrogant.

That comes off as overly defensive maybe, but allow me unpack it. The underlying assumption and attitude is that it is better to be pragmatic. So, when I say that the critique of idealism is hypocritical I mean that the brand of pragmatism that criticizes idealism is itself an ideal. If by ideal we mean that which is the best way of doing things, or determining what are the best things to do, then pragmatism is simply a particular one that says we ought to determine our actions based on what (we guess) will produce the best outcome. Pragmatism seems to be a peculiar sub-species of utilitarianism. Unfortunately as part of being ‘realistic’ they often attempt to bypass meaningful debate by labeling so called idealists as having their heads in the clouds, or up their butts or something.

The arrogance of the pragmatist lies in the assumption that we have either sufficient knowledge or reliable methodologies for concluding what is ‘best’. There are clues for that sort of thing. Patterns of cause and effect. I don’t mean to say wisdom isn’t important. Being pragmatic isn’t all bad. It can be a highly beneficial thing when given the proper role or emphasis. It becomes bad when we are willing to sacrifice principles on its behalf. I think this happens to often. However, I don’t see people jumping at the chance to cave on issues they care about. Rather than consciously capitulating, I notice people making the sacrifice in the name of pragmatics preemptively by avoiding or refusing to see any given issue as one where principles apply.


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