Archive for the ‘Pragmatism’ Category
Normally I wouldn’t bother to quote statements by college friends of politicians. But I was struck by what a friend of Paul Ryan said. As reported in the NY Times today,
“Paul was always a politician,” said Scott Friedman, a former fraternity brother who was a year behind Mr. Ryan. “He was friendly with everybody. He was into debating the issues, and he was into talking about policy and economics.”
Conversations centered less on girls and football and more on the policy issues of the day. “I always knew that he was a conservative Republican, and I knew that he wanted to be a congressman from his college days,” Mr. Friedman said. “Typically, the discussions with him were around adultlike stuff. He would talk about trickle-down economics and why that would be a better approach to running the country’s economy.” (Emphasis added.)
The last sentence is worthy of emphasis because of how early Ryan’s views were formed and how little they seem to have changed. Whether he actually used the phrase “trickle-down economics” in discussing his views is really besides the point. His friend got it right. This is what Ryan believed and does believe. Just read his words. And unlike Obama he hasn’t become more moderate or more pragmatic with age. With regard to the economy he just digs his heals in deeper in the sterile soil of Ayn Rand and her fellow radical rightists. (Although his views on many social issues, e.g., birth control, are decidedly non-libertarian.)
Ryan clearly believes that he is on a mission. This latter can have its upsides. Passion can be a virtue, etc. But there is a point at which passion turns into ideological fanaticism and then only one’s ideas can save the world or a country. It appears that Ryan has made this turn. For example, we can point to one of Ryan’s most recent interviews. The exchange below is from the 60 Minutes interview which aired yesterday, Romney and Ryan’s first joint interview.
Bob Schieffer: Congressman, this is going to change your whole life. What did your family think about it?
Paul Ryan: Well, we’ve dedicated much of our lives to saving this country, to public service.
Ryan, at 42 years old, has dedicated much of his life not to serving the country or assisting the country through public service, but to saving it. That’s chutzpa from a 42 year old congressman. I don’t believe that even Lincoln, who could have claimed to be saving his country, would actually have ever uttered these words. Missionaries have their place but not in the White House.
If you want to know why Obama couldn’t get the House Republicans to compromise with him, you don’t have to look much further than to Paul’s passion for saving us and his belief in the miracle of the trickle-down. None of this is to say that Ryan the politician wouldn’t vote for policies that run against his libertarian economic principles if expedient. He certainly voted for measures that markedly increased the debt during the Bush years. This doesn’t make him less ideological. Paul needs to survive and thrive to fight for his principles, and this means sidestepping them if necessary in order to hold his place in the sun. This is very different from the mindset that is actually willing to compromise and debate in good faith.
One of the recurring themes of pieces on Obama at UP@NIGHT is the nature of his pragmatism, which is as much philosophical as it is purely political. With three months or so to go before the election, I thought I would collect here several links to discussions of Obama’s political thought and politics from the past few years at UP@NIGHT.
The entries most relevant to philosophical pragmatism are listed first. There are a couple of critical pieces further down the list. But I think it important that we understand with whom we are dealing as we criticize Obama or his administration. We should not fault him for seeking the possible when the more desirable was out of reach.
And for those who may still not have had enough, there is a discussion of Obama’s pragmatism and cosmopolitanism in an online (read, free) “Afterword” to my new book, Transcendence: On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism (Stanford University Press).
This is a, “I told you so” blog. I have been arguing here and in other venues that Obama is a philosophical pragmatist and not just a political one. At his press conference yesterday, in which he defended his compromise with the Republicans over taxes, he directly confronted a question about his core values. He specifically placed his values in a wider framework, one that is clearly congenial to philosophical pragmatism.
Why is this important? We need to understand the man if we are going to be able to work effectively for change. Obama has a set of values that one might call “progressive” (and other values that might be termed “moderate” or even mildly conservative). He is going to act on his (mostly) progressive views within a broader framework, which is his commitment to philosophical pragmatism. This is not a sell out. It is not a weakness in itself. It is different from what we have seen in quite some time. (This is NOT merely Bill Clinton’s political pragmatism, for example.) Listen to how Obama defends his initiatives by citing the history of social security in the clip below. There is passion here. And not the passion of someone defending a merely expedient outcome. His commitment to pragmatism may often make him appear more conservative than he actually is. For him, it’s about getting the best outcomes over the long term. This is not to say that he hasn’t made tactical errors or errors in judgment and timing. He certainly has. It’s only to place his specific values in a broader context.
For those interested in learning more about the connection between Obama and pragmatism, there is James T. Kloppenberg’s new book, Reading Obama. The Afterword to my new book, Transcendence: On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism (Stanford) is on-line. It discusses Obama’s pragmatism. There is also the web site Barack Obama’s Pragmatism.
Compromise is at the heart of American politics; yield in order to gain. Politicians and citizens compromise because self-interest demands that they do so. But at times they also compromise because they come to see the other person’s point of view. Or as Obama likes to put it, they stand inside the other guy’s shoes. This doesn’t necessarily mean, as Bill Clinton was so fond of saying, that I feel your pain. We don’t have to go this far to see the other person’s point of view, although sometimes we might. We just have to be willing to engage in an imaginative act that allows us to step outside of our comfort zone. Functioning democracies depend on this ability. Without it they descend into gridlock, civil strife, and even civil war.
However, sometimes we can’t empathize with others. Not, for example, because they are hardened criminals whose ways are simply unacceptable, but because the ways in which other people understand and experience the world are beyond our powers of imaginative reconstruction. Our failure here is not due to a lack of good will. It relates to a distinction that the philosopher William James makes in his essay, “A Will to Believe,” between two kinds of hypotheses: living and dead. That the earth is round is a living hypothesis for most every American in 2010. That the earth is flat is a dead one. This was not always true. For much of human history the opposite was the case. Today there are those for whom God is a living hypothesis, and the Deity is a vital and accepted feature of their experience. But others, convinced atheists, can make no connection with this hypothesis. They do not experience God as a living hypothesis and no amount of arguing or cajoling will change their minds. Agnostics on the other hand experience God as a living hypothesis, but they also experience the notion that there is no God in a similar fashion. They have what James calls an option: a choice between two living hypothesis, although it is possible that they may never choose.
How then does this relate to Obama and health care? Obama is a savvy politician, who is both politically and philosophically pragmatic. This doesn’t mean that he is without values. It means that he thinks about their realization in terms of what will work. And this may mean modifying his goals, compromising if necessary on his goals, in order to create some reform. Obama is also a storyteller, one who understands that storytelling requires being able to see different points of view. As a storyteller he appreciates the importance of empathy in the go of human life. It wasn’t accidental that he spoke of it when he nominated Judge Sotomayor. And he has also spoken about empathy as a lesson that he learned from his mother. That he can listen and stand inside the other guy’s shoes is one of his strengths as a storyteller and as a politician. Empathy, no doubt, can be an important tool in a politician’s toolkit. But it can also be an Achilles heal.
Obama made several tactical judgments on how best to pass health care legislation. One of them, however, was not actually a tactical judgment, although it could be read this way. It was actually an assumption. He believed (at times) that his use of empathy would be reciprocated by the opposition. Obama has an unusual ability to empathize with others. It is natural for him to take the perspective of others. He assumed too much, or had too much faith, in the opposition possessing a comparable skill. Although he certainly understood that powerful special interests would be aligned against him, he appears to have forgotten how James’s notion of live and dead hypothesis could come into play.
There are forces out there, forces for whom the idea that the federal government can be a force for good is a dead hypothesis. The birthers and teabaggers fall into such a camp. It is not that they merely have firm convictions or values. It is that the hypothesis that the federal government can be a force for good is simply not a part of their repertoire. It is a dead hypothesis. There are Republicans in Congress who believe this. And there are also Republicans in Congress who need to pretend to believe it so that they can get reelected. A fatal brew for a reformist president whose natural inclination is to try to compromise with the opposition, and who was once convinced that a cooperative bipartisan approach to health care would carry the day.
So where does this leave Obama? Of course he knew that his initiatives would give raise to strong opposition. But there is a difference between strong opposition and folks like the teabaggers. There will be no compromising with those for whom health care reform is part of the dead hypothesis of “the good federal government.” Resurrecting the federal government for them is like resurrecting God for the confirmed atheist. And there will be no compromising with those who have been captured by them or their ilk. They will hold their ground on every new initiative, and they will carry along the entire GOP, unless the self-interest of (some) Republicans leads the party in another direction. (Pay attention here to how Brown handles himself in Massachusetts.)
It’s not that Obama doesn’t know this. Yet he has been hesitant to acknowledge the limits of empathy and compromise, not just intellectually but perhaps more importantly emotionally. The paradox here is that recognizing the limits of empathy and compromise may very well lead to substantial movement on legislation that Obama supports. The savvy politician in him knows this. It’s going to have to bring the storyteller along, at least for now. There will always be times for tales.
Most Americans generally shy away from absolutes. They don’t like to think of themselves as driven by dead hypothesis. Most Americans are more like agnostics than atheists or the religious when it comes to the federal government, ready to shift one way or the other depending on circumstance. They will become (temporary) believers if they are given something that they believe will work. Give them a reason to believe that the federal government can be an active and helpful feature of their lives and they will take it. Give them a reason to believe the opposite, and they will, at least for the time being. Regarding health care, Obama’s rhetorical task is clear. He must help make (temporary) believers of the agnostics with regard to the federal government.
There appears to be a growing cottage industry that is addressing whether Obama is merely a pragmatist, in the narrow sense of the term–that is, one who places strategic considerations first–or whether he is philosophical pragmatist. In my view, Obama is indeed a philosophical pragmatist. If you are interested in understanding what makes Obama tick and how he might maneuver politically, this question is worth your time. And for your convenience, there is now a site dedicated to discussing the issue of Obama’s pragmatism. (See “Barack Obama’s Pragmatism.”)
In several blogs on UP@NIGHT and on other sites, I have mentioned that Obama’s mother studied with the granddaughter of John Dewey, perhaps the most famous pragmatist of the twentieth century. Of course one would not want to make too much of this connection. On the other hand, it is not meaningless, especially when Alice Dewey addresses Obama’s pragmatism in the context of his idealism. The passages below are from an article in the Star Bulletin (Hawaii), “Strong Women Lead Obama.”
At his homecoming rally Friday, Barack Obama paid tribute to his late mother, a single mom who sacrificed to ensure he received the best education. His next stop was to visit his 85-year-old grandmother.
These two strong women each were pioneers in their fields and helped shape the presidential candidate’s outlook on life. “Like his mother, Barry is a pragmatic idealist,” said Alice Dewey, an emeritus professor at the University of Hawaii and family friend. “If you have ideals and want to accomplish things, you’ve got to be pragmatic about it.”
…. “Ann’s work was almost entirely in villages,” said Dewey, her friend and thesis adviser. “Barry found his feet in the streets of Chicago. It was urban, but it was the same thing, get out there to talk to people, listen to their needs and try to put together something that will work. Like Ann, he was thinking, how do you help the folks who need it?”
If these statements were coming from someone other than the granddaughter of John Dewey, and from someone who was not academically trained, I would be inclined to equate “pragmatic” with “strategic,” and to view the phrase, “try to put together something that will work,” in the same light. And surely this is part of their meaning. But given that Alice Dewey knew that she was being interviewed for a newspaper article and not an academic audience, and that she used the phrase “pragmatic idealist,” which sounds like an oxymoron to most of those unaware of the tradition of philosophical pragmatism, I suspect that this was her way of telegraphing that Obama is not merely a strategic pragmatist. He is something more. Perhaps a philosophical pragmatist. (Yes, she could have meant that he was merely a smart idealist, but the passage discussing what “works” counters this interpretation.)
Ultimately the evidence for Obama’s philosophical pragmatism will have to come from his words and deeds. For those interested in pursuing this connection, check out the web page on Obama mentioned above and click “links.”
P.S. For those who read Spanish, you may be interested in a piece that appeared recently in the most important paper in Lima, Peru on Obama, pragmatism, and John Dewey. “Obama contextualiza decisiones” by Gregory Pappas.
In declaring his criteria for a Supreme Court nominee when Justice Souter announced his departure, Obama mentioned empathy and real world experience, in addition to a deep knowledge of the law. At the time, right wing ideologues started screeching about how the term “empathy” was merely a code word for a liberal activist judge. The fact that Obama has emphasized the importance of empathy in numerous contexts, not just with regard to the Court, was ignored. Since empathy must equal “activism,” these ever so sharp right wing talking heads were prepared to shout in unison, “gotcha.”
Sonia Sotomajor may be a left leaning centrist, but she is certainly no left wing radical. The reasons Obama gave for choosing her fall right in line with his version philosophical pragmatism, which is related to his insistence that empathy is a legitimate criterion for selecting a member of the Supreme Court. Failure to understand that Obama is a philosophical pragmatist, as opposed to simply a political one, explains much of the confusion about his approach to selecting nominees and advisers. When Obama talks about the importance of experience, when he talks about consequences (as opposed to abstract principles), when he talks about fallibilism, when he talks about consultation and cooperation, and when he talks about what works, he is using well known catch phrases of this tradition. And he knows it. Unfortunately, political commentators, left, right and center, don’t.
Obama’s commitment to philosophical pragmatism was highlighted this week when he invoked the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in announcing his selection of Sotomajor. Obama and Holmes are on the same wave length in how they understand the role of law in society (and society in law). And Holmes was deeply indebted to the pragmatist tradition and counted among his closest friends the leading pragmatists of his day. ( See, “Obama: Conservative, Liberal, or Ruthless Pragmatist?”) Holmes’s most famous statement about the law is indicative of his pragmatism, and Obama cited it in order to help explain one of the most important decisions of his presidency.
So I don’t take this decision lightly. I’ve made it only after deep reflection and careful deliberation. While there are many qualities that I admire in judges across the spectrum of judicial philosophy, and that I seek in my own nominee, there are few that stand out that I just want to mention.
First and foremost is a rigorous intellect — a mastery of the law, an ability to hone in on the key issues and provide clear answers to complex legal questions. Second is a recognition of the limits of the judicial role, an understanding that a judge’s job is to interpret, not make, law; to approach decisions without any particular ideology or agenda, but rather a commitment to impartial justice; a respect for precedent and a determination to faithfully apply the law to the facts at hand.
These two qualities are essential, I believe, for anyone who would sit on our nation’s highest court. And yet, these qualities alone are insufficient. We need something more. For as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” Experience being tested by obstacles and barriers, by hardship and misfortune; experience insisting, persisting, and ultimately overcoming those barriers. It is experience that can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion; an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live. And that is why it is a necessary ingredient in the kind of justice we need on the Supreme Court. New York Times, May 26, 2009 (empahasis added)
“How ordinary people live,” this too has been a great concern of pragmatists, which brings us back to empathy. There is a misunderstanding about the term that stands behind many of the misguided attacks. It has two major components, and they have been conflated in the MSM. The first is the ability to, shall we say, stand in the shoes of the other guy. Obama often speaks about empathy in this way. George Herbert Mead, an important pragmatist of the early 20th Century, spoke about the importance of taking the perspective or role of the other. To function as social beings we must be able to see the world through the eyes of others. (Mead was close friends with John Dewey, perhaps the leading pragmatist of the 20th Century. Dewey’s granddaughter was Obama’s mother’s graduate school adviser.) Usually when we think of standing in the shoes of the other guy, we also think about being compassionate. This is the second component of the term. But these two aspects of empathy are not identical. We sometimes find ourselves standing in the shoes of the other guy and still not feeling very compassionate about his or her actions. But to understand this person, to make certain kinds of evaluations, which may even be negative (he’s a cold-blooded killer, and that’s what it feels like standing in his shoes), we must be able to take the perspective of this person. Yes, doing so often leads to compassion, but it doesn’t have to.
I am convinced that Obama is a sophisticated enough thinker to understand these basic features of empathy. He is not confusing justice and mercy, as several conservative pundits have claimed, when he invokes empathy as a criterion. He is not eliminating (judicious) judgment in favor of some sort of political correctness. (He specifically mentioned “impartial justice” in his remarks.) Obama has a view of the law that respects its internal “logic,” but understands that this so-called logic requires interpretive skills and a historical sensibility. It is not a transhistorical logic. In other words, there is no view from the mounatintop when dealing with human creations such as the law. Justice requires a rich understanding of legal precedent, of legal argument, but also of people and of people’s current circumstances, and for the latter, we must be able to stand in their shoes. Justice is a balancing act. It requires judgment, not simply deduction from set principles. That’s why we call those who interpret the law judges and not deducers.
For Obama, empathy and experience go hand in hand, because experience entails social interaction, and social interaction devoid of empathy is, well, inhuman, in both senses of the term (not human, not humane). The kind of justice who will best serve us on the Supreme Court is one who understands that the life of the law is not logic but experience, which in turn entails empathy.
The young Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the young John Dewey, Obama at Harvard Law
There it was in black and white, splashed across five columns of last Sunday’s (May, 3, 2009) New York Times, “As a Professor, a Pragmatist About the Supreme Court.” Standing above the headline is Obama, facing a law school class at the University of Chicago, hands spread wide across his desk, with the words, Bush, Gore and Voting clearly visible on the white board behind him. In terms of a nominee to the Court, the article warns that we should not expect, “a larger-than-life liberal to counter the conservative pyrotechniques of Antonin Scalia, but a careful pragmatist with a limited view of the role of courts.” Its author, Jodi Cantor, appears determined to help reinforce a developing consensus: Obama is not your standard liberal. And perhaps even more frightening for principled liberals (and conservatives) are Obama’s words in The New York Times Magazine, “I mean, the truth is that what I’ve been constantly searching for is a ruthless pragmatism when it comes to economic policy” (May 3, 2009, emphasis added).
The poverty of American discourse about politics–oh, let’s say back to the 1960′s or maybe since the 1930′s–is becoming increasingly transparent with every passing attempt to squeeze Obama’s views into one of the currently accepted categories: conservative, liberal, or moderate. Of course when these fail, we can always hurl an epithet: pragmatist. There is more than one reason that we have slid into this set of boxes, not least of which is that constituencies believe that they are served by them. But Obama and friends are here to tell us that the party is over. His decision about a Supreme Court nominee will provide further clues as to why the festivities are coming to an end, and I want to return to this topic shortly. First, some general comments about the state or our political reference points.
Obama has appeared mysterious and unpredictable in part because we have become used to an unforgiving dichotomy in popular political discourse. On the one hand, liberals, in their quest to help transform the world for the better, are viewed by conservatives as a-historical and unwilling to accept the lessons of the past. On the other hand, while conservatives view themselves as guardians of the past, who understand that change cannot simply come from above, liberals see them as having buried their heads, like the proverbial Ostrich, in the sands of what has been.
Are these caricatures? Of course, but not entirely. Liberals have often spoken as if law and policy could trump custom and habit. Instead of arguing that law and policy can help to ameliorate egregious states, while acknowledging that the work of change is going to require political activity on the ground, Washington liberals (for lack of a better label) have at times been top down folks. And conservatives have at times certainly sounded as if every program to remedy inequities somehow violates the gods of history. (Yes, of course this is a gloss, but bear with me, it will do for the purposes at hand.)
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that many liberals haven’t been sufficiently historically minded. Conservatives, on the other hand, no longer present a coherent political philosophy. Traditional conservatives, those who emphasize the power of the past and obligations to preserve traditions, have become a modest wing of the conservative party, that is, the Republican Party. The term conservative has been co-opted in the past few decades to stand for a set of values that is anything but historical, namely, religious or quasi-religious values that claim to be God given, beyond the narrative of human history. I refer here to the presence of the religious right in Republican circles. Hence, the deep divisions you are seeing in conservative land between ideologues and religious right on the one hand, and historicists, for example, David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan, on the other.
Obama is a historicist, a progressive, and a pragmatist. Wait, you say. How is this possible? A pragmatist cares little for the past. He or she cares about consequences, which can be altered by our current decisions. Didn’t Obama affirm that he is searching for a “ruthless pragmatism?” How can one be a historicist and a (ruthless) pragmatist? But this question, as I have argued elsewhere, is due to a confusion between philosophical pragmatism and the pragmatism of the used-car salesman or legislator, whose goal is to cut a deal. Sometimes Obama uses the term in this fashion. But there is a coherent philosophical and political position that can join these seeming opposites (historicism and progressivism) together, and this is often what Obama means by pragmatism.
If political discourse wasn’t so distorted by ideological glosses of the right and left, and the MSM, we would be able to see that our categories have left us in a muddle, unable to comprehend perfectly plausible alternatives to the familiar. For example, philosophical pragmatism has been consistently respectful of habit and custom. This is why pragmatists have not been revolutionaries but ameliorationists or gradualists. Habit, as William James said, is the great flywheel of society. In addition, like many traditional conservatives, pragmatists have emphasized the importance of the social. To change society, customs must change. For pragmatists, for example, John Dewey and Obama, this does not mean that we are merely passive recipients of what has been handed to us by history. We are not merely recipients because we have the capacity to ask how society can be improved and then to examine, with the help of science, the possible ramifications of the actions that we might take to foster improvement. However, as fallibilists we acknowledge that we do not know with certainty what the outcomes of our actions are going to be. We must be prepared to engage in trial and error. We must be willing to see what works. We place our faith on a bet, that is, cooperative and intelligent investigation of the natural and social worlds can yield insights into how to go about transforming the world, which by definition is a world that has been shaped by customs and habits. And attempts at change must take the latter into consideration.
Returning to the Court and the Times article, Jodi Cantor deserves credit for highlighting important points about Obama’s position on a nominee. But she appears to have little knowledge of the larger context within which Obama is working. Here are some of her key claims.
Former students and colleagues describe Mr. Obama as a minimalist (skeptical of court-led efforts at social change) and a structuralist (interested in how the law metes out power in society). And more than anything else, he is a pragmatist who urged those around him to be more keenly attuned to the real-life impact of decisions. This may be his distinguishing quality as a legal thinker: an unwillingness to deal in abstraction, a constant desire to know how court decisions affect people’s lives.
Yes, as a philosophical pragmatism, Obama would be more concerned with the “real-life impact of decisions,” and he would show a concern for how decisions affect people’s lives. So too would traditional liberals. Further,
And he asked constant questions about consequences of laws: What would happen if a mother’s welfare grant did not increase with the birth of additional children? As a state legislator, how much could he be influenced by a donor’s contribution?
This too is the mark of a pragmatist, as well as many liberals. What then separates Obama from the traditional liberal?
Though Mr. Obama rarely spoke of his own views, students say they sensed his disdain for formalism, the idea — often espoused by Justices Scalia and Clarence Thomas, but sometimes by liberals as well — that law can be decided independent of the political and social context in which it is applied. To make his point, Mr. Obama, then a state senator, took students with him to Springfield, Ill., the capital, to watch hearings and see him hash out legislation.
This passage recognizes Obama’s sensitivity to political and social context, which he shares with traditional conservatives. But as in many articles about Obama’s views, the reader walks away with the impression that Obama has cobbled together a bunch of personally appealing views that are best understood as revolving around his pragmatic temperament, as opposed to the fact that there is actually a well-developed philosophical tradition that orients his arguments. For an example of how clueless the author of the Times article appears to be about this, consider this invocation of Judge Richard Posner’s name.
Mr. Obama often expressed concern that “democracy could be dangerous,” Mr. Stone said, that the majority can be “unempathetic — that’s a word that Barack has used — about the concerns of outsiders and minorities.”
But when a student asked Mr. Obama to name the circuit judge he would most like to argue in front of, he named Richard Posner, a conservative. Judge Posner was smart enough to know when you were right, Mr. Obama told the class.
Why Posner? Surely there are other judges who are smart enough to know when a lawyer is right. Posner’s economic views and values are in many respects close to the right wing of the Republican Party. Obama may not be a traditional liberal, but surely he isn’t a conservative of this sort. Why not recommend arguing before a more progressive judge who knows when you are right? The fact is that Posner is an avowed pragmatist. (Yes, there can be conservative ones. Pragmatism provides a scaffolding for a host of values, as well as some non-negotiables, such as fallibilism.) The nature of Posner’s pragmatism has been debated by those interested in this school of thought, but there is little question that Posner thinks of himself in these terms and defends his decisions by appealing to pragmatic considerations. In spite of Obama’s comments, no doubt the reason that he would like to argue a case in front of Posner is because he has a good sense of the kinds of arguments that would appeal to Posner as a (philosophical or legal) pragmatist.
Unlike virtually all of the presidents of the second half of the 20th century, Obama is well tutored in matters of law. While I am not prepared to say here just who has most influenced Obama in his study of law, he certainly seems to be hovering in the ambit of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., whose orientation to the common law is informed by pragmatism. So let me end this already too long blog with a quotation from a recent book on Holmes, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Legal Theory, and Judicial Restraint, by Frederic R. Kellogg. As you read Kellogg’s words about Holmes, consider the claims about Obama in the New York Times piece and the kind of Supreme Court judge that he is seeking. And then consider just how big a playing field Obama is planning to open for our amusement and edification.
Yet there are broad aspects of [Holmes] that remain relevant, in particular the ideas of common law method as case-specific inquiry, of the tentative and experimental nature of legal thinking and common law rule making, of the skepticism of abstraction, and of the importance of and respect for community practice and participation in the court-room law making process. These ideas may sound unrealistic in light of current legal culture, but Holmes offered them as part of the Anglo-American legal tradition. They contribute to the particular image or ideal of a judge that may yet be valuable and worth preserving, especially given the extreme politicization of judicial selection that prevails at the federal level. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 19, emphasis added)
Adam Smith, on the left, looks through Brooks, while Hegel, on the right, can only think, “Oy.”
Poor David Brooks. You just never know when he is going to get in over his head, and neither does he. One can only marvel at some of the “out of left” field claims and arguments that he has made, while continuing to present himself as the most reasonable man on the planet. Don’t get me wrong. It’s hard to dislike the guy, with his schoolboy enthusiasms and his deferential comments about the brains (specifically, the high SAT scores) of the members of the new administration. And you have to prefer him to Rush.
But sometimes in his desire to show off and create a splash he goes too far. Yesterday, April 7, 2009, was just such a day. Brooks entitled his column in the NY Times, “The End of Philosophy.” If that wasn’t pretentious enough, he then proceeded to tell us how philosophers have spent 2,500 years barking up the wrong tree because scientists have now discovered connections between morality and emotion. (As if this is not an old topic, even in Ethics 101.)
Well, I couldn’t resist a quick response, and it appears that neither could hundreds of others. I am reproducing my comments here (unedited) because it seems that they were recommended by good number of readers, and well, you know, one can never pass up an opportunity to knock David’s books out of his hands, figuratively speaking, that is. His article, The End of Philosophy, is a wonderful example of what happens when one goes into the water before one knows how to swim, believing that one doesn’t have to learn. (Just act naturally.) I recommend it to instructors of philosophy (and writing) as a useful classroom tool. Don’t do as David does, or else…. I recommended it to everyone else as a rewarding screamer.
Oy. I think that we need to talk. I am afraid that you are practicing philosophy without a license, which is okay, up to a point. (First rule: do no harm.) What is striking is how consistent you have been over the years in basically holding to a view of morality that Adam Smith and his followers would fine congenial, especially on cooperation. And then presenting from time to time “new insights” that support this position. (The notion that sympathy is the foundation of our moral sensibilities is certainly a feature of this school.) The one place where this School would have let you down in the past (that is, before you discovered emotion) was your desire to believe that Reason (with a capital R) can be depended on for moral guidance. (More on this below.)
I hope that you will not be offended if I say, your piece needs a bit more work. It is not entirely consistent and cogent, for example, in the way that it leans on emotions and then suddenly takes a turn toward “responsibility” at the end, without any sort of explanation for how the latter relates to the former. (And how are we to understand the development of the responsibility?)
But it also contains some rather bizarre claims, for example,
“Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.”
Are you really claiming the babies make moral judgments? Is any sort of emotional response to be understood as a moral judgment? Is the fact that we can’t explain why we think something is wrong always a failure of reason or a failure to appreciate the ways in which habits and judgments get built up over time? (Not all failures in understanding are failures of reason. I am afraid that you suffer a bit from the jilted lover of reason syndrome. You were a believer and now Reason hasn’t lived up to its billing. So, we jump from Reason to Emotion.)
Much to be said here. But this is only a space for quick comments. I have a suggestion. You might want to take a look a classical American Pragmatism, for it tries to grapple with morality in terms of values without relying on a “traditional” notion of reason. (This may be especially interesting to you, since it can be argued that Obama is a philosophical pragmatist, a topic I have written about, if I can engage in a bit of germane self-promotion.)
— Mitchell Aboulafia, NY
[This piece was originally posted on December 14, 2008. It also appeared in Talking Points Memo on December 17, 2008. I am reposting it now because of continuing interest. You can find the original with comments by selecting "December" from the calendar at right.]
Here is a prediction: the culture wars will be left by the wayside as we enter a seemingly new land, the land of the tactically minded chief executive, whose tactics are the tip of a philosophical iceberg. The executive is Obama and the iceberg is Pragmatism.
Comments regarding Obama’s pragmatism constitute something of a cottage industry. These discussions usually involve contrasting Obama’s pragmatism, for example, in choosing his cabinet, with the ideological approach of Bush and the neo-cons. Here the term pragmatism is meant to denote political flexibility, comfort with the expedient, and a willingness to compromise. For critics it is meant to suggest an unprincipled orientation toward questions of great moment. Given Obama’s willingness to label himself a pragmatist, many have been mystified by his commitment to specific values, finding him not only unclassifiable in accepted political categories, but mystifying as a person. For example, in a recent article in Harpers, “The American Void,” Simon Critchley treats Obama as, well, a void. He just can’t figure the guy out. In fact, as I have noted elsewhere (PBS site), there is nothing strange about Obama’s political views for those who are familiar with the American philosophical tradition of Pragmatism or the Social Gospel Movement. Interestingly, Critchley makes much of Obama’s mother being an anthropologist, but what he fails to mention is that Ann Dunham’s thesis director was Alice G. Dewey, John Dewey’s granddaughter. (John Dewey was perhaps the most famous Pragmatist of the twentieth century.) This is no accident. Obama’s thought and practice can be located in the tradition of American Pragmatism (pragmatism with a capital P) and in the liberal Social Gospel Movement that was influential in Chicago during the early part of the 20th century. The latter is still influential in some Chicago churches and community groups, especially those that would have most engaged Obama’s attention as a community organizer.
One of the few commentators who has begun to tease out the differences between Obama’s pragmatisms is Chris Hayes. He writes in The Nation, “Pragmatism in common usage may mean simply a practical approach to problems and affairs. But it’s also the name of the uniquely American school of philosophy whose doctrine is that truth is pre-eminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief. What unites the two senses of the word is a shared skepticism toward certainties derived from abstractions–one that is welcome and bracing after eight years of a failed, faith-based presidency. . . . And if there’s a silver thread woven into the pragmatist mantle Obama claims, it has its origins in this school of thought. Obama could do worse than to look to John Dewey….For him, the crux of pragmatism, and indeed democracy, was a rejection of the knowability of foreordained truths in favor of ‘variability, initiative, innovation, departure from routine, experimentation.’ ” The Nation, Dec 10, 2008
Hayes is moving in the right direction. I would take his claims a step further. There is no understanding of Obama without an understanding of Pragmatism. Take for instance the question of whether one can have principles and still be a pragmatist. From the vantage point of philosophical Pragmatism, the question is non-starter. The use of principles to address philosophical and political issues extends back to Plato and Aristotle, and migrates through Kant’s deontological ethics into the twentieth century. But the Pragmatist wants to bypass this mode of thinking, one that requires us to believe that affirming values requires a principled affirmation of values. Principles are in fact problematic and counterproductive. Dewey, for example, railed against Kant during WWI, claiming that the rigidity of his ethics of principled imperatives was reflected in the dictatorial and undemocratic mindset of the German regime. People who believe in democracy should be suspicious of permanent truths and principles. As Hannah Arendt argues, debate is at the heart of political life, and Truth (with a capital “T”) kills debate. (Obama’s father was a man of principle to the point of stubbornness. He had a failed career and a led a troubled life. It is hard to read Dreams of My Father and not conclude that Obama came away from his “journey” with a lasting distaste for principles. His mother, on the other hand, was the epitome of a Deweyan in her love of experience, experimentation, novelty, change, and belief in the transformational power of education.)
In the “Epilogue” to Dreams of My Father, Obama reports a conversation that he and his sister, Auma, had with Dr. Rukia Odero, a professor of history. A central question in the discussion: how should Africans adapt to the values that Westerners have brought to Africa? That Obama chose to report the conversation is telling. Rukia, I would argue, is meant to give voice to Obama’s views. She states, “I suspect that we can’t pretend that the contradictions of our situation don’t exist. All we can do is choose.” And after discussing the complexities of the issue of female circumcision, she goes on to say, “You cannot have rule of law and then exempt certain members of your clan. What to do? Again you choose. If you make the wrong choice, then you learn from your mistakes. You see what works.” (Dreams from My Father, New York: Crown, 2004, p. 434) “Seeing what works” is indeed the mantra of Pragmatism. Yet as in existentialism, this doesn’t mean that one doesn’t feel the weight of moral and political decisions. It means that one can’t appeal to principles in advance to justify one’s decisions or “what works.”
But doesn’t being a pragmatist, in both senses of the term, just make Obama a relativist? No doubt for the ideologically committed, those who fear a leader without a moral compass, this would be a central concern. But once again this is to frame the issue in the wrong fashion. Relativism is a problem for moral absolutists. Without a lasting commitment to absolutes, there isn’t a problem of relativism. Instead there is the problem of deciding what values to hold. To frame the discussion in terms of absolutism versus relativism is already to accept the framework of the religious right, which is what the Republicans have been notoriously successful in doing for two generations. However, the choice is not between absolutism and relativism. It is between different values. Commitments to values arise from numerous sources, including thoughtful deliberation and prudential considerations. And it is in the realm of “prudence” that one finds a symmetry between upper and lower case pragmatism. For the Pragmatist prudential considerations do not always trump other values, but sometimes they do, because prudence or tactical maneuvering may be required to realize successfully a greater good. As a matter of fact, a thoughtful political agent doesn’t make dogmatic, read absolutistic, decisions in advance regarding what values and tactics may be the most vital and relevant.
The culture wars have depended on disagreements over specific values and the belief that principles are central to morality. Or at least this is the way that the religious right has sought to frame the controversy, a perception that neo-cons have used to reinforce their political agendas. When Obama speaks of being post-ideological, of being a pragmatist, I read him as trying to address logjams over values by avoiding divisive discourses based on principles. How does one accomplish this? Well, one way is to sound as if one is not ideological, for example, by showing flexibility on specific moral and political questions. By so doing Obama is not simply maneuvering. He is not being disingenuous. He is behaving as if he is a committed Pragmatist, and as such he is seeking to change the ground rules for political discourse.
Obama may very well succeed with a little help from his (several million) friends, and realities on the ground, namely, a serious financial crisis that suddenly has life-long, dogmatic free-marketers running for cover. He may also succeed because he is attuned to something very basic about the American psyche. It is no accident that Pragmatism is the most significant philosophy that America has produced. There is something deeply American about it. But is it Left, Right, or Center? Once again, this is to ask a misleading question. Its tent is large enough to contain persons from across the American political spectrum, if one judges political commitments by specific values. Yet in an American context Obama’s Pragmatism presents a much greater challenge to the ideological Right than to the ideological Left. How so? If the conversation is shifted away from absolutes, the Right in America will lose the ground from which it has hurled its most potent missiles. Some on the Right are beginning to recognize the threat that Obama poses. Some still believe that they can bring back the days of the culture wars. The latter, however, are predicated on the “principled versus pragmatist” distinction, one that is becoming less consequential with each passing day. So, I wish the dogmatic Right lots of luck. They will need it. As for the non-dogmatic Right, if debate is crucial to a thriving democracy, I wish them well, and so does the Pragmatist Obama.
Obama on pragmatism (with a small p) and the dangers of certainty (which relates to philosophical Pragmatism).
UPDATE, January 5, 2010: I discovered through a reader’s comment that this video is no longer available. I don’t know when it was made unavailable or why its presence on YouTube constitutes a use violation. I assume that NBC must have pulled it. It was a nice clip because it showed the kind of fallibilist sensibility that one finds in Pragmatism.
RockefellerJ.P. Morgan in action
Obama’s budget is smart and far-sighted. I wish I could say the same about the bank bailout. We are certainly not out of the woods on this one.
On April 1st, the New York Times ran an Op-Ed piece by the noble winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz. (There is an excerpt and link below.) It’s about as clear a presentation of the issues involved as I have seen (in a short piece). And it lays out why we should be concerned about the plan, which is no doubt the work of Geithner and Summers. I worry, as many do, that the red-herring rhetoric of “nationalizing” the banks will prevent us from properly addressing the situation. I worry that Geithner and co., for all of their good intentions, are too close to Wall Street not to be sucked into the myth that “nationalizing” must mean socialism or the appearance of socialism. (The irony here is that this is precisely the rhetoric that the right has used so successfully in the past to prevent such needed programs as universal medical insurance.) I worry that this plan is viewed as a shrewd move to get the Wall Street/banking crowd on board by Geithner and co., but will end up providing the banks only a temporary boost in liquidity, yielding “profits” that will once again allow them to laugh all the way to their own banks.
J.P Morgan headquarters
My hope is that if the plan doesn’t work, the Administration will quickly turn around and say, we tried, and move on to a solution more appropriate to the problem. I am confident that Obama the pragmatist would make such a move. The question at hand: how hard will his own soft ideologues fight to avoid the appearance of “nationalizing” the banks?
Obama’s Ersatz Capitalism (excerpt)
by JOSEPH E. STIGLITZ
THE Obama administration’s $500 billion or more proposal to deal with America’s ailing banks has been described by some in the financial markets as a win-win-win proposal. Actually, it is a win-win-lose proposal: the banks win, investors win — and taxpayers lose.
Treasury hopes to get us out of the mess by replicating the flawed system that the private sector used to bring the world crashing down, with a proposal marked by overleveraging in the public sector, excessive complexity, poor incentives and a lack of transparency. . . .
What the Obama administration is doing is far worse than nationalization: it is ersatz capitalism, the privatizing of gains and the socializing of losses. It is a “partnership” in which one partner robs the other. And such partnerships — with the private sector in control — have perverse incentives, worse even than the ones that got us into the mess.
So what is the appeal of a proposal like this? Perhaps it’s the kind of Rube Goldberg device that Wall Street loves — clever, complex and nontransparent, allowing huge transfers of wealth to the financial markets. It has allowed the administration to avoid going back to Congress to ask for the money needed to fix our banks, and it provided a way to avoid nationalization.