Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Principle And Pragmatism

I’d intended to continue from the Moving Lips essay on to various psychological and tactical considerations relevant to political deceit, but this essay by Dr. Ben Carson has diverted my thoughts. Here’s why:
I was asked recently how I could possibly endorse the U.S. Senate candidacy of Monica Wehby, who is running as a Republican from Oregon. She is pro-choice, which in the opinion of many makes her unacceptable as a conservative.

I called her to query her about her stance on this issue. She stated that personally, she is very pro-life, but she feels the government has no business interfering with the relationship between the mother, the baby, the doctor and God. I feel differently, because if abolitionists had taken a similar hands-off approach, I might not have been free to write this column. As someone who has spent a lifetime trying to save the lives of children, even with intrauterine surgery, it is probably not difficult to imagine why I am extremely oriented toward efforts to preserve human life, especially innocent human life that has yet to experience the extrauterine world.

Given this pro-life propensity, one might ask, how could I endorse someone who is pro-choice? The answer is this: I’m not an ideologue who determines a person’s worthiness with a litmus test. I have known Dr. Wehby as a friend and colleague for many years, and she is extremely intelligent and knows how to make decisions based on evidence versus ideology. Also, in a state like Oregon, which is left-leaning, she would not be a viable candidate if she maintained a pro-life stance….

If the ship is about to suffer massive destruction by sailing over Niagara Falls, why devote energy scraping the barnacles off the bottom? There will be plenty of time for that once the ship is saved. Worrying about the barnacles before reversing course detracts from critical action. Enough said.

This rationale will anger some who feel that their important issue, be it homosexual marriage, abortion, illegal immigration or Second Amendment rights should never be anywhere except front and center. I sympathize with those sentiments, but as a pragmatist, I realize that if conservatives continue to be fragmented over issues on which there will never be unanimous agreement, they will never get the chance to address these issues down the road. Principles are very important, but so are wisdom and savvy when building consensus with people with different kinds of principles.

There are two serious problems with Dr. Carson’s thesis. First, a principle isn’t just something which one feels very strongly about; it’s a fundamental rule about right and wrong. Therefore, any compromise on principle is inherently a betrayal of one’s moral-ethical convictions. Second, one cannot evaluate a course as pragmatic -- practical – without first stating what end one hopes to achieve with it and demonstrating, via logic and evidence, that it’s a plausible means toward that end.

In discoursing about such things to a college class, I used the example of the pocket calculator. In the mid-Seventies, when they first became available, they were very expensive: the cheap ones were over $100. By the mid-Eighties, they were very cheap indeed: $10 for a basic unit, and rarely as much as $100 for a highly programmable device with graphic and printing capabilities. I asked the class, “Does that strike you as progress?” The answer was unanimously yes.

Then I threw them a curve ball: “What if the reduction in the cost of a calculator had been achieved by enslaving a million workers to make them at no pay?” The cries of outrage nearly deafened me. “It might be practical, if your whole end were to make calculators cheaper, but would it be progress?” The answer was unanimously no.

Progress is the improvement of the human condition -- the “practical” end to be achieved -- without violating moral-ethical principles. The most glorious imaginable end cannot justify an immoral or unethical means. First, that would completely vitiate what we mean by a principle; second, all too often, the end we seek is unattainable by the means we’ve chosen…or by any other.

Imagine – it will take some effort – that poverty worldwide could be eliminated forever by the simple expedient of once each year, killing every tenth person on Earth, the honorees to be selected by lot, with no exemptions nor deferments. I think we can all agree that the end in view is a good one, but what about the means? How beautiful would a “practical” end have to be to justify mass murder? Could any imaginable end do so? Worse, should the method fail to produce the desired results, what would we say to the souls of those slaughtered? To their relatives? To God?

Some claim that “a woman’s right to choose” is a matter of principle. Others – I’m one – claim that a human being’s right to life, including that of the unborn child, is a matter of principle. There is no way to “chart a course” between those two poles. Nor will any end persuade someone attached to either position as a principle that violating it can be justified.

Compromise is always about means: unless we agree on the end to be sought, we cannot compromise. Stronger still: unless we agree that the means suggested as a compromise is morally acceptable, one or the other of us will rule it out no matter how promising it appears “practically.” When recommending this or that course as “practical” and endeavoring to persuade those opposed to it on principle, I hope Dr. Carson will keep that in mind.


Peter said...

This illustrates the fundamental problem at the root of most of our evils today: the fact that we cannot agree on principles.

I hold similar principles to yourself, but I live and work among people who don't believe in or accept them at all. If I were to try to impose my principles upon them (e.g. the right to life, no abortion, etc.) some of them would literally be willing to shoot me, because I was forcing my 'opinions' on them. If I were in their shoes, I'd probably feel the same, because I already feel that way about a US government that wants to take my tax dollars and use them for policies (e.g. abortion) to which I'm unalterably opposed.

It boils down to St. Francis of Assissi's wise counsel: "Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words." We can't possibly 'win' by imposing our beliefs, principles and perspectives on others - only by converting them to what we believe to be the truth. The way to do that is by example, not speech - and certainly not by 'politics as usual'.

I'm afraid the churches are obstacles to this, because they so often abandon their rightful focus on faith to stray into areas far beyond their competence or calling. Unless and until they obey the cobbler's dictum and 'stick to their last', such efforts make them just another voice lost in the tumult and shouting. What sets us apart is faith; and that can't be conveyed by words. Marxists have 'faith' too. They've done a good job of preaching it over the last century.

I don't see any other way to succeed, quite frankly.

lelnet said...

Trouble is, that's a mighty stringent definition of "principle", to apply to standards by which one is necessarily (necessary even if only because one lives in a nation where the unremitted slaughter of the innocent by the hundreds of thousands annually is not merely incidentally legal, but effectively a secular sacrament for half the population, and further one lives in a region of that nation where even if the federal preemption of Roe were eventually overturned, the practice would still carry on locally with the overwhelming support of the local population) not living.

The logical consequences of this run to the truly perverse. (It could, for example, be argued that a pro-abortion person who has procured multiple abortions for themselves and/or others is acting in a more "principled" fashion than any anti-abortion person not presently incarcerated. I trust that the absurdity of this conclusion is obvious to you. Yet if willingness to compromise with pragmatism on one's principles disqualifies them as principles, then such a conclusion is inevitable.)

I would argue that given "principles" which in actual reality cannot be achieved in the present environment, it is entirely reasonable to engage in conversation about which trade-offs are likely to yield the most preferable outcome, and why.

I am fortunate, to live (and vote) in a district where I have the option of insisting that a candidate I support must concur with my own beliefs in a fairly wide range of subjects of great importance to me. If I lived in Oregon, or New York, or Illinois...well, the range of achievable options would be much narrower.

Supporting any politician is an exercise in compromise. There are effectively none of them that a morally upright person would be proud to have as friends...not even the ones in districts so conservative that a person who believes as we do has a fighting chance to win an election. The best one can hope for, from anyone in such a distasteful profession, is movement of the status quo in one's generally-preferred direction.

Tim Turner said...

I wanted to make the point lelnet made, but wouldn't have said it as well.

Xealot said...

I'd prefer to take the middle route here. I get what Mr. Carson is saying, truly I do. And I understand your perspective as well, Francis. However, some issues can be safely tabled for later debate in favor of more pressing matters, even if they are based on solid principles. This is not because the principles themselves are up for negotiation -- they most assuredly are not -- it is because even principles have priority.

For sake of argument, let us say a man has two principles: 1. Abortion is evil, thus he opposes it and 2. Government micromanagement of the economy is wrong and ineffectual, and thus he opposes that too. This man may still deem principle #2 to be of more immediate importance because without a functional economy the nation would collapse and enforcement of the Abortion principle would become impossible. Therefore he may enter into temporary alliance with those who share principle #2 but not principle #1. So long as it is clearly understood that such alliances are temporary and merely matters of prioritization, I see no problem with them, nor any violation of principle. He still wishes to end abortion and will work toward that end.