Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Pragmatic Argument

<o often we put aside our disagreements because we think we hold so-called unchangeable philosophical differences. If you watched any of the Health Care Summit at Blair House last week you were sure to hear President Obama cite these differences as irreconcilable, preferring to focus discussion on the areas of reform on which the two parties agree. And while perhaps in a discussion like last week’s, looking for consensus rather than widening philosophical chasms was the right approach, at some point Obama needs to confront these political assumptions and ideologies head-on.

Although he was criticized for these comments afterwards, when Obama showed admiration during the campaign for Ronald Reagan as a revolutionary and transformative figure, he was largely right. He does not seem to be drawing upon, however, the means Reagan used so effectively to fundamentally alter American culture and mentality: Reagan made strong philosophical arguments for conservatism in ways that people could easily understand. In doing this, he not only cemented the country as a center-right nation for more than a generation, but he implanted in the back of America’s psyche an even stronger distrust of government. On one hand, he shifted responsibility to deal with America’s public problems from the federal government to state and local governments, as well as nonprofits, businesses and individuals.  On the other hand, however, Americans became much more vulnerable to ideological fear mongering about Government takeovers.

If Barack Obama is going to restore the country’s faith in institutions and also its ability to conduct open-minded and thoughtful political discourse, he needs to make a stronger philosophical argument for his approach. It is not enough to simply say ‘well, I think if you keep making the rational and thoughtful argument, the American people will eventually respond.’ The problem is that although this might be true in the long run, I worry that his political tenure cannot survive long enough to see the approach through. Although he talks about pragmatism—how there is no such thing as a Democratic or Republican idea, just a good or bad idea—he needs to make a stronger statement to explain why the ideologies of the right and left bases are ineffective governing models. In other words, it is not enough to make the argument for pragmatism; he needs to make it in direct contrast to other ideological approaches.  Moreover, he needs to anchor pragmatism in a framework of fundamental and already shared American values.

In our culture, there is a taboo about questioning others’ beliefs. If you ever want to get out of a tough conversation, you can just say, ‘well that’s just what I believe in.’  That’s a sure way to get someone to accede to fundamental philosophical differences. We seem to operate as if when someone believes something, they cannot be questioned, that the assumptions of one’s moral absolutes are so innate or divine that questioning them would be personally insulting. The presence of this idea, however, speaks volumes about the way our country sacrifices thought and intellectual debate on behalf of “respect” for individual opinion.

Philosophies and beliefs, many would argue, are those feelings you just feel in your gut. After pondering an issue, landing on one side of it just feels right, and questioning one’s intuition would be as grave as questioning one’s very sanity. This does not have to be the case though, and the belief argument is usually nothing more than a cop-out.

Real philosophy and debate requires enormous amounts of energy, working through lines and lines of logic, struggling with what assumptions and conclusions to make, living with uncertainty. What does one need to be able to conduct a self-aware and questioning activity such as this? Humility. A humble and thoughtful people would be able to accept that there are mysteries and very few truths in life—that decisions about philosophy and belief should be based, like all decisions, on the information present. Inherent in this experimental and open-minded approach, furthermore, is the willingness to consider new information in the future that may make a convincing argument counter to one’s earlier conclusions.

If Obama wants to ensure national patience in his agenda, he must throw out the idea that philosophical differences cannot be bridged, that to question one’s beliefs and moral assumptions is culturally unacceptable and personally insulting. Explaining to both the left and right, who are both increasingly antsy and discontent with him, why they should accept the vitality of pragmatic governance would go a long way towards making the country more thoughtful, less polarized, and less vulnerable to destructive fear mongering tactics. Bringing each side’s underlying philosophical assumptions to light, and publically questioning and critiquing them, would be an incredibly interesting and educational exercise for this country. This approach would be an enormous display of leadership. It would require getting people to grapple with their underlying values, assumptions, and for many issues, contradictions. But if we are going to be capable of solving the big problems with which this country is faced, people need to be able to look in the mirror and question what they see.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *