I know that everyone is sated with political talk at this point in the election cycle, but I cannot get away from it. You have probably guessed where I will come down on Election Day; my choice of Obama is completely clear to me. I have many points in my path to this choice, but let me focus on just one, one that is tightly bound to my concerns for sustainability. Obama has been called a pragmatist before and since he became President in both a positive and pejorative sense. For me, this descriptor is both positive and essential. The pluses of operating from a pragmatic, rather than an ideological platform are many. In a recent NYTimes [column](, philosopher Harvey Cormier sums up the case for Obama, based on a pragmatic point-of-view.
> Obama challenged both parties to leave behind their ideological boilerplate and develop something new, something that all Americans can come to believe in.… Obviously we are not there yet. But there is still potential in the pragmatist’s belief in beliefs. That meta-belief treats our ideas, faiths, beliefs, and principles as an evolving set of tools for coping with changing circumstances. Ideally it will, if we adopt it, provide us with two simple but crucial benefits: encouragement and flexibility. We, just like the ideologues, will be inspired by our beliefs and principles to fight—even to kill and die, if we have to—to make things better; but we will also be willing to stop and reconsider our principles every so often, looking hard at the world of practical life and asking whether our principles are really getting us what we want, whatever that may be. We will have faith, but we will also be ready to develop new faiths for new times.
> Should we, then, support the pragmatic president, despite the many disappointments of the past four years? Obama has indeed come out with some surprising half-loaves — the pullout from Iraq, Obamacare, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, some mild re-regulation of the banks, some incipient consumer protections, a Supreme Court that is not full of ultra-conservatives. Is this enough? Or should we snort in disgust at these comparatively small concrete accomplishments and go ideological, either hard left or hard right?
> The voters will have to decide. But pragmatism, which looks at the way the world really works, seeks cooperation (sometimes to little or no avail), and takes experimental chances, is, at least, not something we should hold against Obama. As a computer programmer might say, pragmatism is not a bug: it’s a feature.
Ideologies do work sometimes to solve the problems we face, especially for the small, recurring ones. In a sense, the habits we embody to cope with these problems are ideological, fixed response to a familiar, but problematic situations. The key here is the regularity of the kind of problems that ideologies enable us to solve. But ideologies are ineffective when we face big or new problems. Their ideological origins have been rooted either in a dogmatic source divorced from reality or from experience in the distant past where the context of the problems were strikingly different from the context in which they appear today. In an ancient world where science had yet to explain the phenomena experienced by early cultures, supernatural causes were invoked to calm the natural curiosity and fears. Some of these arguments have survived even to the present, held in place by power in some form or another. The ever-present role of power in maintaining ideologies is often overlooked, but it is always there. Paraphrasing my favorite biologist, Humberto Maturana—any claim of knowledge, based on ideological grounds, is a demand for obedience. It would be extremely hard to come up with a truer description of dominating power.
Pragmatic frameworks for understanding the world and for solving the problematic situations we encounter within it are fundamentally different for those coming from an objective, ideological basis. Pragmatism makes no claims about some fundamental Truth, and, indeed, argues that all beliefs we hold are fallible, subject to revision based on what we learn from the results of applying them to our problems. This system of thinking and acting (acting is a key element in pragmatism) avoids dealing with complex situations as individual thinkers, arguing that “truths” emerge from an inquiry of a group of committed, interested parties. Pragmatism is fundamentally melioristic, a belief that the world can be improved by our interventions. But not all at once; pragmatically-derived solutions push the system in the desired direction, but are unlikely to make the problems disappear forever. Ideologies promise, wrongly, a “permanent” solution to every problem.
Our Presidents are expected to act as meliorists nudging us toward a better place and avoiding the pitfalls that send us backwards. If they take on this role, some do, some do not, they will have something like sustainability as their vision, getting to a place where all of the qualities of the vision of good life will start to flow. But the world seen from the White House is always complex and forever changing—the paradigm case for a pragmatic framework. Ideological solutions cannot work effectively. When applied to a system as complex as the world seen from the President’s office, the best outcome of ideological “solutions” might be likened to a balloon with a weak spot protruding, where pressure to push back the misbehaving bulge results in another spouting at a different, unpredictable spot.
When I speak of sustainability, it is always in the context of creating flourishing. I am frequently asked to define flourishing in some numerical sense. I avoid doing that, because it is impossible to capture the meaning of flourishing in numbers. I can talk about its aspects, but always only in qualitative terms. Flourishing can be observed through one’s sense of fulfillment, satisfaction, beliefs that one’s care’s are being cared for, a consciousness of peacefulness and the cessation for urgency, a condition of what psychologists call “flow, or “self-actualization, another term from psychology, and so on. And when I am asked what five or some other number of steps to take to get there, I demur, often resulting in a dismissive response from the questioner. People want to know exactly how to create a sustainable world. If we knew, I would expect we would be a lot closer than we are today. But it is clear that we do not, given the the actions of the global human population is propelling the planet in the wrong direction.
Only a pragmatic framework has the possibility to shift this trajectory and begin the march toward sustainability. I think I understand the root causes of our problems and consequently the targets of our efforts, but I do not know what actions will be most effective. The inquiry to determine the starting point has yet to take place. Pragmatic solutions, momentary truths to apply, come from a community of inquirers. Such a community seeking sustainability as flourishing has yet to form. The term has been taken over by a large community finding ways to reduce the present negative impact of our collective activities. Their solutions may be successful in this endeavor, but it will not and cannot create flourishing. Although pragmatism is sometimes equated with incrementalism, there is nothing in the system that argues against radical moves, if they have emerged from a competent inquiry. Addressing the sustainability problematic at its roots requires both radical and incremental elements.
Our election focuses on a similar situation, the desire to realize and sustain the “American Dream.” Our leaders have an veritable insurmountable barrier standing in the way of getting there. The idea of a dream, unlike that of flourishing has no content whatsoever. And rather than hold a vision of a qualitative, but tangible state like flourishing, it is empty. It’s emptiness is filled with materialistic stuff, like a home or simply wealth. Or promises of freedom, but freedom of several varieties that if taken at face value are incompatible. This is the situation we elect a President to cope with. No ideological solution can work. Those that oppose Obama call him a pragmatist, but in a pejorative and misleading sense. They argue, from a common misreading of William James, that for pragmatists, that any idea that works is true and the existence of objective, eternal truths is doubtful.
That’s an error. What James and other pragmatists said is that anything that works to produce satisfactory results works to produce satisfactory results, and is worthy of being named a kind of truth to be held in individual or collective memories to apply to the next similar situation. Pragmatists are skeptical of ideologies and of the danger of the hubristic solutions they tend to produce. Pragmatists involve other concerned people in a meaningful inquiry on the way to find a solution. The framers of the Constitution may have believed in a balance of powers with all sorts of safeguards to prevent political mischief, but they surely intended that all the branches of government would work together to come up with missing solutions for the common good. Obstructionism is absolutely antithetical to the process of finding pragmatic solutions to complex problems.
So back to the Cormier’s column I quoted at the beginning. We need a pragmatist in the White House more today than ever. If simple solutions, like cutting taxes ever worked (I doubt it), they certainly cannot solve our messy problems today. That Obama has not completely done what he may have promised or even what each of us hoped he would is not a sign of failure. It is simply evidence of the successes of a pragmatic thinker and operator, and is very positive for all of us. Our governmental system effectively bars radical solutions for good reasons, but for reasons not relevant to the nature of our current unsustainability crises. So we are stuck with incremental treatments only, when it is critical that our initiatives be based on pragmatic inquiries, not ideological assertions.

2 Replies to “Sustainability, Politics, and Pragmatism”

  1. hi John,
    I enjoy your columns and especially those when you explicitly bring in pragmatism. One point here that is worth mentioning:
    You write “Only a pragmatic framework has the possibility to shift this trajectory…”. A pragmatist would insist that this sentence is open to scrutiny and that, in a world characterised by non-foundational belief, this equates to “pragmatism is Truth”.
    We should always leave ourselves open to the understanding that pragmatism is fallible and open to revision by experimentation and validation against an idea of “what is good”.

  2. Mike,
    Earlier in the post, I did write about fallibility, always associated with any belief derived from a pragmatic attitude and stance. Your point about the importance of cautiously accepting new “truths” is something always to remember. In the part you quoted, I was arguing from a more general position contrasting pragmatism with all forms of idealism and the dangers of taking an ideological stance. Even so, I do not know of another broad frame for thinking and acting that can formally create workable, but fallible, propositions. Perhaps there are others, but I would expect to discover that they embody pragmatism at their roots.

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