Principled Pragmatism

Principle SifterWhen faced with an idea or choice one of the first questions most people ask themselves is- “Is this practical?” but few back up and ask, “Is this even right?” The first question deals with pragmatism (or with what works) while the second question deals with principle (or a fundamental truth, a foundation on which to base all other reasoning and behavior). If we ignore principle and merely look at what will “work”, we often fall victims to silly, expensive, addictive, and/or dangerous ideas and behaviors. We suffer the consequences of our ignorance and moral decadence. We would be better off if we filtered ideas and choices through principle first, practicality second. If an idea doesn’t pass the first test then there is no sense in even contemplating how to execute it. If it does pass the first test then we can contemplate the practicalities of execution. This is principled pragmatism.

The term principled pragmatism is actually a redundancy since true principles are indeed pragmatic. It isn’t always obvious (in fact many times it is paradoxical) but when we base our decisions and convictions on truth- it always works out in the end.

Isaiah Messianically wrote:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

For many sincere individuals, experience and revelation have proven that the Lord’s ways are higher and more practical than ours. Though we may be tempted to believe that our “pragmatism” is more expedient than principle the Lord also taught “lean not unto your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5), “yield to the persuasions of men no more” (D&C 5:21), and “keep all my commandments” (D&C 43:35). It’s been wisely said that, “When someone bases his life on principle, 99 percent of his decisions are already made.” Having made these decisions based on gospel principles beforehand helps alleviate the temptations to make bad decisions when those choices arise.

The pseudo-pragmatism that many subscribe to might be best termed shortsightedness. The pseudo-pragmatist looks at what works here and now but since he failed to consider the principle, there will likely be unintended and/or unforeseen negative consequences eventually—whether in this life or the next.

Look at excessive debt as an example. A father of four on a $40,000/year income who goes into debt for a $70,000 BMW was being a pseudo-pragmatist. He saw something he wanted, asked himself how he could get it, and he went out and executed that plan. If only he had stopped to ask the questions- “Is this even right? Am I being responsible? What risk am I putting my self and family at?” But because of his “pragmatism” he did what “worked” and got what he wanted. Eventually his bills will come due. Hunger, loss of freedom/opportunities, embarrassment, marital issues, and/or bankruptcy will likely afflict him and his family.

Unnecessary spending applies to individuals the same way it applies to families (unaffordable vacations), businesses (lavish executive dinners/bonuses), governments (bailouts, imperialism, welfarism, etc) and other institutions. When spending exceeds revenue (debt, inflation, and taxes) government agents hardly ever consider serious spending cuts (a responsible direction) but instead look for ways to raise revenue (enslave). It seems as though much of the things being considered by agents of government are pseudo-pragmatic. Some could make a strong case that taxes are a form of pseudo-pragmatism since it is using force to take someone else’s property. But what correct principle is thievery or legal plunder being based on? A long list could be compiled of things we do through government that defy principle but are done because it’s “practical”. A few might include:

  • Unwarranted searches/seizures and spying on innocent civilians to prevent crime
  • Pre-emptive war because striking them first gives us the advantage
  • Total War- destroying the moral, lives, and property of innocent people in order to “win” war
  • Economic sanctions because causing a nation’s civilians to suffer usually causes their government to bend our way
  • Torture- using pain, or disfigurement apparently gets our enemies to talk
  • Protectionist regulations and licensure which favors one sector over others because it raises power/gain for government and gets rid of competition for certain industries
  • Bailing out big banks and businesses because it would be economic disaster otherwise
  • Welfarism (robbing Peter to pay Paul) because people will suffer/die if we don’t redistribute the wealth
  • Enforcing social justice because certain groups of people with less opportunities deserve more- even if it’s at the expense of the right and control of property for individuals
  • Inflating the currency because it’s a good way to reduce the national debt and pay for warfare and welfare
  • Maintaining the American Empire because we want to enjoy our standard of living and we don’t want any “bad guys” to become a world superpower

Look at each of these things and notice how immoral and shortsighted they are. Also notice that fear is at the root of all of them. Many excuse or attempt to justify these things because they don’t see any other “practical” alternatives. Though choosing the right may not have immediate/obvious results Joseph F. Smith taught us:

“That through [Christ’s] atonement, and by obedience to the principles of the gospel, mankind might be saved (D&C 138:4).”

Unprincipled pragmatism is a form of focusing on ends at the expense of means. As explained here, worthy ends do not justify immoral means. Paul had to debunk the false idea attributed to him— “Let us do evil that good may come” (Romans 3:8). Elder F. Burton Howard also taught:

“The war in heaven was essentially about the means by which the plan of salvation would be implemented. It forever established the principle that even for the greatest of all ends, eternal life, the means are critical. It should be obvious to all thinking Latter-day Saints that the wrong means can never attain that objective.” (Repentance)

So does something being “practical” automatically make it right? Do the principles “Thou shalt not steal, lie, or murder” take a back seat to Machiavellian statism because fear and aggression seem to work better than love and persuasion? Lest someone assume that this is condoning anarchism then please read the story of King Benjamin (Mosiah 2:14). Did he, an agent of the people, rule by fear and aggression or did he serve by love and persuasion? Government can exist in a proper frame when its role is based on correct principles—not pseudo-pragmatic ones. Our lives can also exist to their fullest extent and maximum happiness when they are based on correct principles.

“Once they are driven off the high ground of principle, so many people then settle for being “practical.” But immorality is so impractical! Provisional morality always emerges once people desert a basic truth. Such individuals are forever falling back trying to develop substitute rationales, drawing new lines beyond which they vow they will not be driven, only to abandon these also under the pressure of growing evils…

Moral uncertainty always leads to behavioral absurdity. Prescriptions which are value-free always prove to be so costly. Unprincipled pragmatism is like advising someone who is hopelessly mired in quicksand not to struggle—so that he will merely sink more slowly!” –Neal A Maxwell (The Stern but Sweet Seventh Commandment)

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