Does Donald Trump’s ‘Pragmatism’ Mean Pragmatism Is Incoherent?

A devastating accusation is making the rounds in America: Donald Trump is a pragmatist; therefore pragmatism is an incoherent ethical and political philosophy. This breathtakingly simple argument establishes its solitary premise by making note of Trump’s assertions that he will do what it takes to fix America’s problems. His supposed inconstancy–his curious admixture of populism, authoritarianism, the occasional progressive standpoint–furnishes the best possible proof: Trump is no ideologue, committed to a rigid manifesto; there are no sacred cows; all is at play when it comes to devising solutions for whatever ails America. (This claim underwrites assessments by Joe Dan Gorman, Mychal Massie, P. M. Carpenter, John Porter, and achieves its condemnatory form in a Washington Post article by Christopher Scalia.)

The picture of pragmatism that is implicit here is that of a toolkit of solutions geared to solving problems. So far, so good. Things get terrible, as Scalia seems to assert, when those means and ends are divorced from values:

Ultimately what sets pragmatists apart from traditional conservatives or liberals is not their faith in the effectiveness of their ideas, it’s their originality — the whatever, not the works….there’s nothing in the Pragmatist’s Playbook that forbids mocking a rival’s face, height, footwear, eating habits, energy level or spouse, or even encouraging supporters to physically assault protesters. And although it’s certainly reprehensible to promote absurd conspiracy theories — like Trump’s suggestion that my father, Justice Antonin Scalia, was assassinated — it’s not necessarily unpragmatic.

The condemnation of pragmatism now immediately follows: because there are no abiding values to guide the pragmatist–all is up for contestation and revision–the pragmatist is as likely to flirt with fascist principles as he is with socialist democratic ones. The pragmatist is at heart unprincipled, committed to a brutally reductive and desiccated means-ends cost-benefit, outcomes-oriented analysis.

You say that like it’s such a bad thing.

This critique of pragmatism glibly commits two fallacies. First, it assumes that such an outcome oriented analysis is devoid of values; but au contraire, the choice of ends–which guides the choice of solutions–is very much informed by values. For instance: Which ends should we concentrate on first? Which ones are most ‘important’ for us? Which ones can we ‘afford’ to ignore for now? Ends are not so easily divorced from values.

Second, the critic of pragmatism assumes that he or she has at hand a set of values which will ‘correctly’ guide the supposedly amoral, purely instrumentalist pragmatist in problem-solving; moreover, these values will be the ‘right ones’ to set the offending pragmatist back on the path of moral rectitude. Add some values–the ones I have in mind–and all will be well. The problem is that disagreement about values is the most interesting part of being evaluative and normative; what if the value-guided non-pragmatist happens to be inspired by ‘wrong’ values like racism or sexism?

Pragmatism did not aim to banish values from ethical and moral discourse; it only bid us examine ours more closely to see why we hold them, and under what circumstances we would be willing to relinquish them. Our values reflect our ends, and our ends reflect our values; this is the inseparability that lies at the heart of pragmatism, and which the facile claims and critiques above all too easily elide.

Donald Trump might be a pragmatist, but that does not mean he escapes normative political critique; that option remains as open for the pragmatist as it does for anyone else.

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