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17.12.08

Pragmatism versus idealism

I'm a bit reluctant to get involved in the pragmatism versus idealism debate, since it seems quite resistant to any progress by either side*. But it occurs to me that the pragmatism versus idealism choice -- when that's really what's at issue, rather than this debate being fallen into as a proxy for some other dispute -- is really three choices, which are conceptually distinct and can in theory be mixed and matched in any combination.

1. Moderation versus radicalism. This is a choice of what the end-goal is. Moderates only desire a small change from the current status quo. Radicals believe a major overhaul is necessary -- because the current situation is so far from ideal, and because the causes of our problems go so deep in the structure of society. The choice here is about one's real desired goal, not the goal one espouses. Choosing what goal to publicly call for is a strategic one, and one's publicly espoused goal may differ from one's privately held one by being either more moderate (to win the support of genuine moderates and because that's all the more change you believe is realistic right now) or more radical (to win the support of genuine radicals and as a high opening bid from which you can negotiate down).

2. Consequentialism versus expressivism. This choice is a matter of what the aim of one's strategies are. Consequentialism judges strategies strictly by their effects on the wider world -- does this move us closer to the desired goal? Expressivism judges strategies by their ability to keep one true to oneself, making a statement of one's position and preserving one's integrity. Nearly everyone values both consequences and expression to some degree, so this choice is a balancing act. It's further complicated by the fact that it's plausible that in some cases an outwardly expressivist strategy may in fact be the most consequentialistically effective, if it serves a "witnessing" function. Further, the identity that one is drawn to express may not be "look at how radical and uncompromising I am," but rather "look at what a normal, pragmatic, don't-rock-the-boat type of person I am."

3. Incrementalism versus revolutionism. This is a choice about how changes can occur in society. Incrementalism holds that change can -- in the strong form, can only -- occur through an accumulation of smaller steps, each building on the previous and preparing the way for the next. Revolutionism holds that change by small steps will never be effective because it is always weighed down by the existing structure, so that structure needs to be swept away and replaced wholesale. The strongest forms of radicalism hold that incremental improvements are actually detrimental to the cause of change, because they sap the motivation for overthrowing the system.

These three choices can, in theory, be mixed and matched in any combination (though strict expressivism would seem to make incrementalism versus revolutionism practically irrelevant**), and one person may hold different combinations in different situations. For example, on animal rights issues, I'd count myself a medium-radical, a strong consequentialist, and fairly incrementalist. Whereas on electoral college reform, I'm more moderate, still strongly consequentialist, and rather revolutionist.

* Which is not to say individuals don't change their positions on this question, but they mostly change them for reasons arising from changes in their situation and experiences, then look to arguments for justification, rather than being talked out of their position by sound argumentation.

** Then again, worrying about irrelevance in practice would seem to be a consequentialist concern.

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