Pragmatism and the Reciprocity of Means and Ends

Pragmatism is the one distinctively American contribution to philosophy (think Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and more recently Richard Rorty and perhaps Hilary Putnam), but because the word "pragmatic" has both a technical/philosophical and a colloquial sense, the declaration that someone is a "pragmatist" is often more confusing than illuminating.

In law, for example, the Ur-Pragmatist was certainly Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was in fact part of the "Metaphysical Club" with the philosophical pragmatists. Yet our leading contemporary legal pragmatist, Richard Posner, sometimes invokes Holmes as an exemplar of the more prosaic notion of pragmatism as simply a rejection of core principles in favor of "muddling through" (in Charles Lindblom's phrase). That also appears to be the notion of pragmatism favored by Justice Stephen Breyer. Both espouse pragmatism as a kind of post-ideological moderation. And of course, the pragmatist du jour is the President-elect, who has been described as "ruthlessly pragmatic."

Here I won't attempt a full-scale exegesis of the points of overlap and discontinuity between philosophical pragmatism and prosaic pragmatism. Instead, I want to briefly respond, on behalf of both sorts of pragmatists, to a very common but in my view quite mistaken criticism. Pragmatists (of both the philosophical and prosaic sort) often say that they simply want to find out "what works," and do that. Anti-pragmatists then say something like this: Figuring out what works is fine when there are shared goals, but many of our most pressing issues, and certainly our politics, involve questions about what the goals should be; pragmatism is a good way to choose means to agreed ends but has nothing to say about choosing ends.

The mistake in the anti-pragmatist view is its assumption that human beings can have fixed ends except in the most abstract and thus unhelpful way. First I'll give a homey example (literally). Earlier this year, my partner and I were trying to decide where in Ithaca to live. We drew up a list of criteria: good elementary school district; walking distance to either elementary school or Cornell campus; modern plumbing and appliances; etc. We soon discovered that there was no place to live that met all of our requirements. So, like anybody would under the circumstances, we re-evaluated our goals. We would have to have a car to go shopping anyway and for half the year I could ride my bike, so maybe it wasn't crucial to live within walking distance of Cornell; the school district that had the best test scores used methods that we had seen turning one of our daughters off to homework in her previous school, so perhaps we should consider an alternative school; etc. As we found ourselves frustrated in the pursuit of our original goals, we realized that we needed to change our goals, so we did.

This is a universal phenomenon. You set a goal: To find the best Chinese restaurant near the movie theater. You locate it, but then you discover that they don't take reservations and can have long waits for tables. Maybe then you decide that you don't really want to see the movie so much after all and instead want to go to this great restaurant. Or you really do want to see the movie and realize that you'll probably eat so much popcorn there that you'll only want a salad afterwards, so you can go to a different place, that does take reservations, or isn't crowded. As you pursue an end, the means available cause you to re-evaluate that end continually.

The fancy way to put this point is that ends and means are reciprocal. If there are not good means of achieving your ends, you change your ends. And not just on trivial stuff like where to eat or on medium-level stuff like where to live, but on the most important decisions in your life like what career to pursue. You thought that getting a law degree would be a good way to give you credibility in negotiating contracts in the music business, but in law school you discover that you have a passion for criminal defense work, so you completely change your career plan. Or you start dating someone in law school who is on a student visa, and so you move to Thailand where, because of the different legal system, you're unable to practice law, so you go into business with your new father-in-law. As means unfold, ends change, often radically.

Here the anti-pragmatist objects that such adjustments are fine for an individual but that in the world of politics one is trading off the welfare of some for the welfare of others. But this is either just wrong or irrelevant. The problems real politics addresses are almost invariably very complex. As a result, pursuing any objective stated at even a medium level of abstraction--like "improving high school graduation rates"--will lead to unexpected obstacles and learning that, in turn, will lead back to re-evaluation of the goals.

What we discover is that the sorts of ends that remain fixed typically fall into one of two categories. First, some ends are fixed in a given time and place because they are not salient. Thus, "not enslaving people" is a fixed end of our domestic politics today but only because it doesn't take any effort to achieve this end. Second, some ends are fixed only because they are stated at such a high level of abstraction as to provide no guidance. "Respect individual rights" or "promote human flourishing" are examples.

Perhaps the anti-pragmatist means only that goals such as these irrelevancies and bromides must be fixed for pragmatism to get off the ground. If so, we pragmatists can concede the point without conceding anything of importance. Figuring out "what works" will still play a very substantial role in defining our ends at a level of generality that is more useful. That, at any rate, is what I mean by pragmatism.

Posted by Mike Dorf