Politics & Policy

Being Pragmatic

Beware sweeping generalizations.

Sometimes I start to write a blog post for The Corner and it gets too long and I think to myself, “this would make a good column.” And, so, sometimes I make it into a column. Other times I think to myself, “this would make a good column.” But then I think, “I would like to eat a sandwich.” And I leave to do that and never return to the subject at hand.

The other day in The Corner, John Miller mentioned a piece he wrote on Herman Kahn. This reminded me of just such a post-column killed in its infancy by the siren song of a superior sandwich. I bring this up solely because John’s post provides the only news peg available to me.

A while back Louis Menand wrote an article for The New Yorker on Kahn. Generally, I thought it was good and informative, if a bit too harsh on Kahn. Kahn, you may need to be reminded, was the fellow who tried to figure out how to “win” a nuclear war, even if that meant losing tens of millions of lives (He was a major influence on the film “Dr. Strangelove“). But something about the piece bothered me. Menand writes:

Critics… complained that what is missing from Kahn’s work is a moral sense. Kahn had a reply to this objection, which was that the insistence that nuclear war is immoral will never prevent nuclear war. What is missing from his analysis is not morality; it’s reality. The reason his scenarios are fantastic to the point, almost, of risibility is that they deliberately ignore all the elements–beliefs, customs, ideas, politics–that actual wars are fought about, and that operate as a drag on decision-making at every point.

I think this is a very good criticism. Analysts of the Left and Right alike tend to boil down issues to a single mode of analysis. In a nuclear war, it is absurd to imagine that static line projections of human behavior are going to be reliable. That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t plan, of course. But plans which don’t take some account of the human factor are either useless or they are the sort of experiments and enterprises which don’t, in fact, involve humans. Sending a robot to the moon doesn’t have to take into account such things as human panic or self-esteem.

This also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak in generalizations. That a generalization can be contradicted by a counter-example does not mean that a generalization is useless or untrue. All complex phenomena have contrary evidence which can be cited. If they didn’t, we’d call them “simple phenomena.” When critics charged that Samuel Huntington was speaking too broadly in his Clash of Civilizations thesis he responded: “When people think seriously, they think abstractly; they conjure up simplified pictures of reality called concepts, theories, models, paradigms. Without such intellectual constructs, there is, William James said, only ‘a bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion.’” The reference to William James is useful here, because James was the founder of the American philosophical school we call Pragmatism and Louis Menand wrote a wonderful history of that founding called The Metaphysical Club. The book is very, very sympathetic to Pragmatism and its founders and Menand is quite eloquent in his defense of the philosophy.

Which brings me to my objection to Menand’s article. One of the benefits of pragmatism, Menand tells us, is that it employs a philosophical “razor” which trims the fat around philosophical notions. Here’s how he puts it in a discussion of Charles Peirce’s views (Peirce actually coined the word “pragmatism”):

A great deal of philosophical language, on a pragmatist view, is incantation. The chicken that makes a special cluck every time it pushes the lever and opens the door may “believe” the cluck is an indispensable element in the sequence of actions producing the desired outcome, but to the human observer the cluck is meaningless and belief in its efficacy is a superstition. [Charles] Peirce and James wanted to put philosophy to the same test. This is how, to use, again, Peirce’s term, they propose to make ideas “clear.” This is the pragmatist razor: it is designed to strip problems of metaphysical irrelevancies.

Am I crazy for seeing a conflict between these two views? Menand values the “realism” of Pragmatism which strips away metaphysical irrelevancies while he criticizes Kahn for failing to take into account the rich variety of moral, political, and cultural factors which prevent us from being able to predict how people will react in a calamity like nuclear war. I have no doubt that Kahn considered himself to be a surgeon with the pragmatist’s razor, slicing and dicing away the moral objections–or “metaphysical irrelevancies”–with brilliant precision.

One objection Menand might offer is that the project James, Peirce, and John Dewey set out upon is different than the one Kahn set out upon. Calculating deaths by the millions versus taking an Xacto-knife to John Locke or Rousseau is a real apples-and-oranges affair. True enough. But the problem is that the Pragmatists’ influence went far, far, far outside faculty lounges. Under the influence of Dewey, the Pragmatists championed “experimentalism” which sought to treat every human endeavor like a laboratory experiment. Dewey transformed American education entirely and we live with the results today. The New Deal was founded on the shoulders of Pragmatism. FDR’s call for “bold, persistent experimentation” was an echo of what the Pragmatists had been teaching for a generation.

And FDR (like Woodrow Wilson before him) made the same mistake Kahn made and for much the same reasons. The Progressives and liberals failed to take into account the animal spirits of the society, the motives, desires, customs, traditions, faiths, convictions of a vast people. It may be absurd to reduce nuclear war to a mathematical equation, but it’s absurd to reduce all sorts of things down to a mathematical equation, including welfare, Social Security, rent control, agricultural subsidies, and all the other legacies of FDR’s experimentation. Social planning almost always results in unintended consequences, because social planning almost always operates on generalizations which leave out important factors too complicated to include. They might be small things, but over time they build up like mineral deposits in the piping of the welfare state. Indeed, the core of what we call welfare itself was originally intended to help the widows of poor coal miners but it became something very different over time: an incentive for women to have children out of wedlock. Rent control was a temporary war measure. I grew up in a rent-controlled apartment which, I know, wasn’t FDR’s or Wilson’s original plan. The pragmatist’s razor is great for cutting, but it is useless at preventing complications or the build-up of scar tissue.

At a deeper level, the problem with the practice of stripping away metaphysical irrelevancies is that in the real world you don’t know they are metaphysical irrelevancies until you’ve cut them out. And sometimes, you’ve yanked away something pretty useful. Not every notion is a useless appendix even if it looks like one at first, particularly to an atheistic sophisticate with no time for concepts of the supernatural. And while the chicken may be stupid to believe his clucking causes the door to open, human beings are more complex and what may appear to be mere clucks may in fact be very important and useful organizing principles or symbolic concepts that hold civilization together. John Dewey certainly believed that traditional religion was a useless metaphysical irrelevancy. But only a fool–or, it sometimes seems, Dewey–would argue that yanking away traditional religion would have only benign or predictable repercussions for society.

That Menand may not see all this may simply be further evidence that sweeping generalizations often leave out items best taken account of.

Anyway, I just wanted to get that off my chest. Now, it’s time for a sandwich. If you’d like to read more rambling along these lines, click here or here.

See ya in The Corner.


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