Issues in Pragmatism:

Principles and Consequences

by Paul O'Brien

Of all philosophy's various branches, ethics is probably of the greatest concern to people in general. While formal philosophy debates meta-ethical questions of theory and form in the classroom, your average thinker on the street seem less interested in this intellectualism and more concerned with detailed, everyday cases. My goal with this article and ones that follow is to connect meta- ethical ideas with very specific questions and realistic concerns, specifically by applying the philosophy that I find to be the most viable of all options: pragmatism. What pragmatism means and is about will be played out as I bounce it off tough, specific cases.. . after all, that is the true test of any ethical and philosophical system. All the while, I hope you will come to see how wonderfully pragmatic ideas treat our real, human thoughts and emotions without overintellectualizing them. To start this larger discussion, I would like to start generally with philosophical ethics.

If it's possible to divide philosophical ethics down the middle, the best method would probably be to separate the deontologists from the consequentialists. Deontologists assert that there are such things as goods in themselves, actions and principles that ought to be heeded no matter what the consequences may be. Immanual Kant's categorical imperative exemplifies this notion, and it can be summed up as that principle which can be universalized --that is, every human being could universally obey it and society wouldn't be wrecked as a result. In its simpler forms, though, we commonly hear about something that is good or right "no matter what" and "just because," notions which basically fall under the umbrella of deontology. Since there are such principles, deontologists assert, then it is our duty to obey them.

So says the traditionalist, I suppose, but it doesn't take much to poke holes through these ideas. As individuals who each have a limited view of the full range of realistic situations, how can any of us really consider a principle always right, no matter what? At best we could estimate or generalize, but that is hardly convincing grounds to base a "universal imperative" upon. Such principles by their very definitions do not allow exceptional cases, either. After all, to admit any exceptions is to admit that certain contexts determine whether the principle's right or wrong, which is clearly the opposite sentiment behind these so called consequentially unconcerned ethical rules.

And stepping back, there's always the question of why do the right thing? To say, "because it's right" is not explaining anything. We are not forced or automatically compelled to do the right thing... in fact, we seem to have strong compulsions to eat and have sex than to do the right thing. Is "the right thing" good because it helps people live better lives? Is it because principles satisfy us as civilized human beings? I hate to say it, but these are all very basic consequences, ones that trump the principles that act as their means. "Right" things and "good" actions only work because they fulfill expectations and desires of ours.

Consequentialists believe that what is "right" depends upon such consequences. Killing an innocent citizen is wrong, for example, but killing someone about to murder your family seems pretty acceptable. Such a system admits exceptions, and as a result, tends to address specific demands of ethical issues that deontological principles overgeneralize. Of course, consequentialism can become rather complex when you consider all the factors and varieties of consequences any given person must weigh before determining the best course of action. But otherwise, there's something more basically grounded and realistic about a system that is open for greater possibilities and finer shades of cases.

Nonetheless, here are two reasons why principles seem better than consequentialistic considerations. One is the fact that once principles are formed and accepted, they allow people to make instant judgement calls because they motivate the right course of action more immediately. As a boy is drowning nearby in a raging river, for instance, the consequentialist may be wasting valuable time determining a myriad of factors: will diving in the river risk my life? Is saving this person from drowning really the best thing to do? Who knows... maybe the report of the girl drowning will inspire others to be more careful, saving more lives in the long run. Meanwhile, the boy is drowning. The deontologist, on the other hand, who perhaps has the principle "human life is valuable and should be saved at all costs" has already taken the plunge and is rushing to save the young man's life. Immediacy is a real issue in ethical cases that demand quick thinking, and this may seem to make consequentialism look terribly luggish.

Here's a second objection to consequentialism. Besides immediacy, we all seem to have strong attitudes about certain issues of right and wrong that mean more than the consequences of a given act. The scenario is this: A man in a small community has been arrested for the murder of a young woman. While being held in jail, the local sheriff investigates the crime and finds evidence that unequivocally acquits the suspect. Unfortunately, the case isn't scheduled until the next day. That night, a mob of angry citizens --who wrongfully believe that the suspect really is the murderer-- assembles outside the jailhouse. The sheriff is unsuccessful in breaking the crowd up, and they won't listen to reason by seeing the evidence that would sway them. They demand to have the suspect released so they can lynch him, something the sheriff finds personally reprehensible. But at the same time, the sheriff is certain many more innocents will die in the riot that will ensue if the prisoner isn't released.

It's a pretty clear-cut case for the deontologist because the principle of the matter wins out, no matter what riots or senseless deaths occur. The consequentialist, on the other hand, is put in the uncomfortable position of weighing one innocent death --the suspect's- - against many countless ones. At first glance, it seems the sheriff ought to release the suspect to the mob according to consequentialism. .. yet that seems morally abhorrent nonetheless. How can consequentialism be resolved in this scenario?

I believe there are very simple responses to both concerns, responses that establish that consequentialism is concerned with greater subtleties and more of the "big picture" than critics may realize. About the first case concerning the advantage of principles when time is short, consequentialists can not only appreciate the immediacy of deontology's effectiveness, but adopt it as their own. After all, consequences determine everything and one of the consequences of having to judge every single case like it's a clean slate is that you need time. For situations in which time is not available, consequentialists can have ready-made ideas and principles to guide quick action. Such principles can be very general assessments of what the right or wrong thing to do is, and though they may overlook essential details because they are so general, that's the price for an even more essential speed. Consequentialists, therefore, are free to have the best of both worlds: They can judge cases by carefully weighing its conse uences, or when time is limited, rely upon general principles that are useful for their quick applicability.

The second case employs a similar line of thinking. Granted, releasing an innocent suspect to an otherwise murderous mob would seem to yield fewer deaths, but there are broader consequences to that decision that merely this. After all, consequentialists are not simply concerned with short term consequences but long term ones too. To sacrifice the credibility of a generally effective legal institution and judicial system, to violate one's oath to protect the innocent and uphold justice, and to succumb to mob mentality merely to appease their immediate desires would obviously create far worse consequences in the community over time despite however many lives it saves that night. Citizens would be unable to trust in a fair trial, people would consider private justice more effective and compelling than formal law, and the sheriff would lose precious stature. Therefore, a truly careful consequentialist would know better than to release the suspect. Though consequences are the most important factors in any given ase, certain principles need to maintained because of their worthwhile consequences.

Speaking as a moral pragmatist, I find that consequentialism is more effective, humanly realistic, and morally defensible than deontology. There are many subtle issues that need to be addressed, however, especially with cases like the two I presented here. I would like to treat a selection of such concerns in a series of articles called "Issues in Pragmatism" with the hope that you, the reader, will consider pragmatism's viability as an ethical, philosophical, and personal system. If I can offer my own pragmatic responses and thoughts about problematic questions, then perhaps we can both come to understand whether pragmatism really works or not.

And when it comes down to it, the pragmatic concern is precisely about what works and what doesn't. Given the wide spectrum of elements in human existence, there are a lot of factors to consider, factors that are deeper and more personal than formal philosophy. If I can keep one hand linked to rational-minded treatments without in any way letting go of humanism, realism, or anything less than my most honest beliefs, then I hope this on-going discussion can be as fruitful and relevant as it is interesting to at least attempt to write upon.

If you have any criticisms or ideas about what I've written so far, please simply e-mail me anytime, and I will try to incorporate your feedback into future articles. Thanks!