Pragmatist objections to radical ideas.

There are a few ways by which people can just dismiss radical ideas and go on with their lives without bothering to think about them. One way is to simply dismiss radical ideas as being unpopular, and therefore not worthy of consideration. This is, of course, a simple argument from popularity. How popular an idea is has nothing to do with whether it’s true or not. It just makes it easier to ignore. This is not really an argument, just an emotional appeal (an appeal to our desire to be part of the group, part of the gang, not be an outcast).

There is, however, a further argument which is based on this. There are people who believe that truth should be judged based on its utility, and who call themselves pragmatists or concerned with practicality. This has nothing to do with pragmatism as it was formulated in philosophy, but has been a common straw man about it. Either way, their strategy consists of something like the following:

1. Radical ideas are unpopular and will never be implemented.
2. Ideas which cannot be implemented are not practical.
3. There is no point in holding as true something that is not practical.
4. Therefore, there is no point in holding radical ideas as true.

Some will even so far as to say that radical ideas are actually false because of this, but I have given a charitable version of the argument here.

There is a sense in which this argument is somewhat valid: if you think there’s no point in believing something, then don’t believe it. However, it is not clear why our standard should be “whether it’s practical.” Many of our fundamental ethical principles are not very practical, but we adopt them anyway. For instance, many people happen to believe that people shouldn’t be treated as means to an end, or that we should not initiate harm, or things of the sort. From what we know of human history and current events, this is supremely impractical, but that doesn’t make these principles any less valid. Indeed, if you agree with the idea that morality and ethics only arise because of our disappointment with the world, then the whole point of ethical ideas is to point to something better than what we have now, so they must be impractical almost by definition.

It seems that “practical” can be more or less equated to “whatever we have now,” because whatever we have now is already implemented. And indeed this sort of argument is often used to defend the status quo: we know the status quo can be implemented because that’s what we have right now, while ideas for changing it are inherently uncertain and therefore not practical. While this argument is more complex than the popularity fallacy, it does to some extent reduce itself to popularity as well, because what is considered practical in our societies is generally what is popularly understood and believed. Our accepted conceptions of the human being, of society, of economics, and so on, dictates what is seen as practical and impractical.

The obvious reply is that this is not how truth works. We do not determine truth by practicality in any area of life. Truth, as commonly defined, is correspondence to reality (I expound on my own closely related theory of truth in this entry). But it seems to me that we need to be more specific here, because there are a number of claims being conflated. What do we mean when we say, for instance, that antinatalism cannot be true because it’s not practical? The way I see it, there are three propositions involved here:

(1a) There is sufficient rational evidence for the proposition that “procreation is wrong.”
(1b) Procreation is wrong.
(1c) We can prevent everyone from procreating.

Proposition 1b is the antinatalist view, so any antinatalist must believe (1b). Perhaps there are some antinatalists who do not believe (1a), but generally speaking people who believe (1b) will also tend to believe (1a). The reverse is much stronger: people who believe (1a) are very likely to believe (1b), and indeed, if they are honest, they should believe (1b).

On the other hand, there are no antinatalists I know who believe (1c). According to the pragmatist, this makes antinatalism false, or at least not true. But “antinatalism” is commonly defined as the proposition that procreation is wrong, not the proposition that we can prevent everyone from procreating. If that’s the pragmatist’s argument, then it’s simply incorrect, since refuting (1c) does not refute antinatalism in any way. The pragmatist may argue that it does make antinatalism useless, but whether (1c) is true or not, antinatalism still has an effect on people’s lives and cannot be discounted as useless. If it has any effect on people’s lives and some effect on society as a whole, no matter how small, it cannot be useless.

In a sense, the argument assumes that (1c) justifies (1b), that the practicality proves the truth of the proposition. What I believe, based on how we validate truth, is that a proposition like (1a) is what is needed to justify (1b), that what we need is rational evidence that the proposition is true. (1a) is a statement of fact which has nothing to do with practicality or implementation of any kind: an argument is either valid or invalid, a piece of evidence is either relevant or it is not relevant, and so on. While it may be complicated to reason through, the question “is there sufficient rational evidence for something” is a statement of fact which ultimately has only two answers, yes or no.

Another area where people use this sort of argument is in the case of left-wing ideologies. Let me take Anarchism as an example:

(2a) At least most hierarchies are not rationally justified. (the Chomsky Principle)
(2b) We should organize society along egalitarian lines.
(2c) We can organize society along egalitarian lines.

An Anarchist is most likely to agree with (2b), given that it is basically a restatement of Anarchism. An Anarchist may disagree with (2a), although I would think it rather unlikely. But an Anarchist does not have to agree with (2c). Here, we must point out that, as in the case of antinatalism (with the Shakers and the Cathars, to name only two), there have been instances of communities organized along egalitarian lines, historically and in the present. But when the pragmatist argues against Anarchists, the argument is that “our society” (whatever society that might be) cannot be organized along egalitarian lines, not “a society.” That is to say, it may be pragmatic for a Zapatista to believe in Anarchism, because it’s their status quo, but it’s not ours.

But this view, if correct, leads to the rather distressing conclusion that their idea of truth is no longer universal, but is rather culture-dependent. This is a red flag which shows that what they call truth is not really truth but something more wonky. What they are talking about is something like an “accepted belief” or “popular belief.” Truth is truth regardless of where you are or what society you’re in (except for things like indexical propositions, which have a meaning that itself depends on context, like “I am tired”). While you may not have access to evidence that other people can access due to being closer to its source, it does not mean that you have a “different truth,” it simply means that you have less evidence on which to base your judgment.

Of course, the issue of whether any given hierarchical society can be organized along egalitarian lines is a difficult one and can be asked in many different ways (is it feasible if there is the will to do it? will there ever be the will to do it?). But the simple fact is that no one can provide a definite answer to that question. Likewise, no one can definitely say that it will never be the case that no one will procreate. I will grant that the possibility is vanishingly small, but it is non-zero. However, whether the possibility is zero or non-zero, the issue of practicality has no bearing upon the truth of (1a) or (2a). The arguments for antinatalism are either valid or invalid. The Chomsky Principle is either true or false.

In some cases, we get a variant of this argument, which consists of stating that, while there is a possibility, that possibility is too frightening to contemplate. I have discussed this in the case of gender. It is also sometimes invoked in the case of denying free will (if people start denying their free will, they’ll go on a rampage!). This is a similar sort of argument, in that it still relies on general agreement, popularity, the status quo, and so on. If people believe a given hierarchy or ideal is necessary, then they will balk at the idea of losing it, and based on that, other people will say “look at what might happen if we lose this ideal.” But this still has nothing to do with whether this is a truthful evaluation.

This way of arguing goes hand in hand with a reformist, gradualist mindset. Gradualists want everyone to believe that their way is the practical way, the realistic way, that slow, gradual change within the system is what will work in the long run, and that radicals and revolutionaries are “utopian.” So it’s a natural step from there to argue that radicals are simply not being practical, that their way will never work, and that therefore there’s no point in considering their ideas. Of course, this is all nonsense: most social changes have not been accomplished by reformists (rather, they generally take credit for the changes after they take over a movement and tear it to shreds in order to make it socially acceptable).

Because issues of practicality are rather difficult to analyze, it’s also easy for these people to frame radical ideas as personal opinions, something like “well, you may think that X is better, but that’s just your opinion and I can ignore it because most people disagree.” So that’s another way in which the argument can collapse into a popularity contest.

4 thoughts on “Pragmatist objections to radical ideas.

  1. Deep Thinking August 13, 2017 at 02:43 Reply

    ‘Gradualists want everyone to believe that their way is the practical way, the realistic way, that slow, gradual change within the system is what will work in the long run, and that radicals and revolutionaries are “utopian.”‘

    Radical revolutionaries, maybe; gradualists are merely anti-insurrectionists, not necessarily anti-revolutionists.

    • Francois Tremblay August 13, 2017 at 02:56 Reply

      Sure they are. That’s sortof the whole point of being a gradualist. Your job/ideology/credibility depends on putting down anyone who wants more than you do as dreamers or terrorists, in order to make sure as many people get on board with the gradualist programme as necessary. Usually that translates into political action, which requires masses of money, manpower, etc.

      • Deep Thinking August 13, 2017 at 10:42 Reply

        Sort of, but not really; it’s always everybody else who’s a revisionist. :)

  2. sbt42 August 14, 2017 at 09:17 Reply

    It’s like you knew my dad when you wrote this. :)

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