Pragmatism: The Least Pragmatic Thing

Pictured: A photo of Charles Sanders Peirce, a pragmatic philosopher.

Today I want to discuss pragmatism. You find it especially in modern times in politics and in law, as well as institutional regulation. Pragmatism refers to what is often the default mode of reasoning when you are in a relationship with an antagonistic authority. It is almost like the conformity of non-conformists.

And it’s fascinating how pragmatism has shaped the reasoning of a lot of people, by constantly regulating pragmatic impulses. Pragmatism generally favours a kind of false realism wherein life is fundamentally built on compromise. It is a kind of confused stance against idealism.

Because it is true, idealism is quite rare. Only way to accomplish idealism is to have very attainable ideals. We probably never will live in an ideal society, but it might be possible to figure out the formula by which to cook an ideal sandwich.

But that does not mean you compromise either. Compromising with your ideals is to limit yourself by your own expectations and imagination, hence false realism. Instead of imagining the perfect outcome, you imagine a perfect failure, both exist in the realm of imagination. One is not more realistic than the other.

Rather, the trick to idealism is simple, instead of pre-emptively compromising with the impossible, you just fail. Failing in your pursuit towards an ideal is still to make a lot of progress. It is precisely so that you find out precisely what is possible, and learn why it is limited, and this is really a fundamental scientific principle. In science, every failure is a success, because even failures define our circumstances.

A good example of pragmatism is often when people vote for something they don’t want. They come up with some compromise in their minds as to why it is pragmatic to do so. Problem is however that the people they vote for cannot read their minds, so there is no compromise, they have not negotiated. All they’ve done is to fully concede to every point, and only had the negotiation process occur in their minds.

At least that’s what dignified pragmatists do. The really tedious kind will fill your ear about it as though you were the prime minister or something.

And when you see something you don’t like, have a make believe negotiation about your grievances, and then accept the thing you don’t like, pragmatists call this process of behavior “Voting smart.”

If pragmatists tell you to vote smart, then take the smart part with a pinch of salt.

And in other situations this becomes obvious. Take muggers for example. A mugger is an expert at pragmatic negotiation. The mugger gives you two options, you can either lose your wallet, or, you can die and lose your wallet. You decide to pick the first one (presumably.)

Imagine this situation, except the mugger doesn’t have a weapon. Instead the mugger is a politician. You can just leave. You can just say “This is ridiculous.” and choose neither. Does this mean someone else will choose on your behalf?

Yes, but that happens either way. The choice has already been rigged. The politician chose on your behalf already. At least now you can stop thinking about it, and spend your time in more productive ways. Now you don’t need to come up with constant mental gymnastics as to why the mugger will for some convoluted reason, at some point, show up at your doorstep and help you paint your living room. It’s not going to happen.

Especially since, in the pragmatic world, there is no choice. The bad thing happens now, but since you’ve made the compromise, the greater evil this election will be the lesser evil next election.

And the same is true about lots of other things. Especially in the workplace. The pragmatist will smile through demeaning treatment from the boss, the pragmatist will be a doormat in the face of unpaid overtime or some assignment that’s not in their job description. The pragmatist will always say “Yes.” in some presumption that saying yes will reward them some time along the line.

But I ask: Why would people who take advantage of you give you a reward? That would defeat the purpose of treating you like a doormat. The assumption is based on a fairness for which there is no evidence.

So how does one avoid being pragmatic? How do you actually get what you want? Truth is, you don’t, we covered idealism. You probably won’t get what you want. But the question is, how do you fail to get what you want in the best way possible? And the answer is that more often than not, doing the unpragmatic thing will be rewarding.

If a politician, or an employer for that matter treats you like a doormat, like a piece of garbage they can take advantage of, then you won’t get anything out of appeasement. Either they will make you suffer with your consent, or they will do it without it. So why not choose the suffering that doesn’t cost you your own self-respect? Why not choose the option they don’t want you to take?

After all, pragmatism is premised on the idea that these people are fair and honest and that their judgement is entirely in line with your own self-interest. So if they tell you to not take option B, then I suspect option B is better. Otherwise they wouldn’t be coercing you in the first place.

Pragmatism is sadly a scheme invented by manipulative people in order to take advantage of you. It doesn’t exist in nature. All they do is give you a bad option and a worse option, and tell you to compromise. So don’t, opt out. Do nothing. Pick the third option that they’re too afraid to even mention.

That third option is the option of principles and self respect. It might still cause problems, but you won’t be the only one left having to carry the burden.

And whether it’s a lack of representation in democracy, or your boss being horrible, the answer is still probably to join a union. Labour unions are the strongest force of democratic demands, and was the only reason people got the right to vote in the first place. Why settle for less?

I leave you with a fun little lecture on why pragmatism is a myth made up to justify declining democracy:

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