| Here we see a contrast between idealism and pragmatism. With theism we start with ideals given from above, and with humanism we start with ourselves and our experiences. We have standards-based ethics (deontology) versus results-based ethics.
Pragmatism is a doctrine that defines truth by its practical consequences. This doctrine applies to ethics and to all fields of study. It makes truth relative to what works for us.
Charles Pierce gave a basic understanding of pragmatism in 1878 when he pointed out that our beliefs are really rules for action. Thus, to develop a thought’s meaning we need only to look at the conduct to which it leads us; that conduct is to us its sole significance. The meaning of any thought is in the action to which it points.
John Stuart Mill applied pragmatism to ethics and developed a system, known as utilitarianism. He said, “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals utility, or the greatest happiness principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By ‘happiness’ is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by ‘unhappiness,’ pain, and the privation of pleasure.”
Pragmatism does have some universal appeal; everyone wants ethics to be practical. I don’t know of any ethicists that openly push for impractical ethics. I don’t know of any moral system explicitly intended to produce pain and misery. The book of Proverbs describes practical benefits to following God’s law.
William James, the best-known proponent of pragmatism, claimed that pragmatism could aid us in theology. He said, “In short, she [pragmatism] widens the field of search for God. . . Pragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow logic or the senses and to count the humblest and most personal experiences. She will count mystical experiences if they have practical consequences. She will take a God who lives in the very dirt of private fact – if that should seem a likely place to find him.” Here the pragmatist redefines God as another tool to satisfy our practical purposes. The god of pragmatism is a servant of mankind, but God, if he is truly God, put us here to serve his purposes. Pragmatism cannot help us “find” God, because it is not seeking him. Romans 1 says that God has made himself known, and Romans 3 says that no one is seeking.
I agree that an idea leads to action. That is the primary point of this book; we live according to the value we perceive. I would also agree that the best idea shows itself true through actions and outcomes, the final outcome being the judgement day. However, to say that an idea serves the purpose of a result seems backward to me. I would say that a result serves the purpose of the idea. If I decide to build a house, my idea preceeds and gives meaning to the actual structure.
As logical as pragmatists are in seeking practical solutions, they have a fatal flaw at the start; they do not really deal with ethics at all. Their primary goal is not to make things right in a moral sense but rather to achieve happiness. In their eyes, the human condition is not moral. Here we are; let’s see what we can do with what we have. While claiming to address morality, utilitarianism really seeks a way around it.
With pragmatism, the end justifies the means. It doesn’t matter how we do it as long as we get it done. We take away God’s rules and we determine new rules according to our desires.
Idealism wins over pragmatism, because the ideals govern the practicals. Think about it. How do we determine what “works?” We go according to how something makes us feel, and feelings depend on our beliefs and desires. Pragmatism then is really a kind of idealism. My dictionary calls it an ideology. Pragmatism identifies us as the ideal and then seeks to make us happy.
Everyone is an idealist, even the most utilitarian pragmatist. The difference is that the pragmatist tries to be his own ideal. With humanism, we are the standard. “Whatever works” depends on our desires. “Good” is whatever suits us, an arbitrary concept subject to the whim of the moment. Morality is imaginary. “Truth” changes with the mood.
Pragmatists fight a losing battle, because people won’t be happy seeking pleasure and avoiding pain without an explanation for right and wrong. We can muffle the conscience, but we can’t remove it. The conscience stands, pointing us to eternal things. Pragmatism doesn’t work.
Morality does work. Morality produces the happiest, most fulfilled society, because it upholds the value of life.
|* William James, Pragmatism (book), copyright 1949. He mentions the article by Charles Pierce, How to Make Our Ideas Clear, in Popular Science Monthly, Jan 1878.
Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill. Pg. 16