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)

Advertisements

Voting: For LDS Dummies- The People’s Standard vs. The Lord’s

Qualifiers vs. Disqualifiers—There are many reasons people attempt to qualify or disqualify a candidate.  Many of those reasons are irrelevant and sometimes harmful, especially when compared to the standard the Lord set (D&C 98:5-11).  Some people might believe a candidate is qualified for office based on their political party while others might disqualify a person based their inability to speak eloquently.  Below is a list of reasons people (left column) and the Lord (right column) qualify or disqualify candidates.  Obviously we want to move away from the ridiculous and irrelevant reasons people (dis)qualify candidates and adopt the Lord’s reasons.

1 Sam 16:7 D&C 98:10
…for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart. Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil.
Reasons People Qualify or Disqualify Candidates: Reasons The Lord Qualifies or Disqualifies Candidates:
Personality Good
Rhetoric Honest
Eloquence Wise
Party Affiliation (whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil)
Gender
Age
Religion
Race
Occupation
Promises
Popularity
Appearance
Tradition
Endorsements

Good—Often we’ll learn of a candidate who is polite, outgoing or fun and we automatically like their personality.  We should be careful not to confuse our impression for their personality with their character though.  A person can have a “nice” personality but not have good character.  A person’s character is who the person truly is.  Finding out a person’s character requires more than a passive awareness of their outward words and actions.  It requires attention and focus to their inner core values.  It requires righteous judgment and the gift of discernment to learn a person’s character. Upright character is a necessary attribute in candidates we elect.  A person’s personality is irrelevant.  Also, just because a person shares the same religion as you doesn’t automatically make them good.

“Nevertheless, when the wicked rule the people mourn.” (D&C 98:9)

Honest—Sometimes it’s not easy to tell when a candidate is being honest and a lot of times people will cast their support for someone in hopes that they stay true to what they’ve promised.  All too often, especially in politics, people are let down.  The difficult question is how to determine when a candidate is telling the truth.  First of all, when a candidate continually repeats the same campaign rhetoric (language used to please and persuade) but has a weak history of being loyal to those espoused principles, they probably aren’t being honest.  Most candidates will have a record—political or otherwise.  It is the people’s duty to learn that record when determining if a candidate is an honest one.  The more consistent a candidate’s record is the more honest they have been.  Beware!  When a candidate changes the tone of their message based on who the majority of their audience is, this is a sign of dishonesty.

Wise—How each individual determines how wise a candidate is will depend on that individual’s personal values.  Latter-Day-Saints believe that morality and truth are not relative but are sure and lasting based on eternal law.  As they choose secular representatives they should choose those who represent them based on their ability to judge what is right and act accordingly.

People should take into account the context of D&C 98:10 when determining whether the candidate in question is truly wise.  In D&C 98:5-8 the Lord reveals to Joseph Smith:

“And that law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me. Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my church, in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land; And as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less than this, cometh of evil. I, the Lord God, make you free, therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free.”

A wise candidate is one who strictly adheres to the Constitution and supports principles of freedom.

Forsake Evil, Cleave Unto Good— When referring to the law of man the Lord said “whatsoever is more or less than this (the United States Constitution), cometh of evil”.  It’s clear that any deviation from the Constitution is against the Lord’s will.  When referring to whom we should seek for secular office the Lord stated, “whatsoever is less than these (a good, honest and wise representative) cometh of evil.”  It’s clear that seeking, advocating or voting for anyone who isn’t good, honest and wise is against the Lord’s will.  He calls both of these deviations evil after which he commands:

“And I give unto you a commandment, that ye shall forsake all evil and cleave unto all good, that ye shall live by every word which proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God.” (D&C 98:11)

“Lesser of Evils”—Despite the clear and direct counsel to only seek out good, honest and wise candidates for office most latter-day-saints continue to participate in the electing of blatantly bad candidates. Mostly out of an urge to beat the worst candidate your typical voter will only see two options as viable (D & R) and choose the lesser of their perceived evils.  Supporting evil is still evil.  Even when fear clouds our judgment and tempts us to think that “the greater evil has a good chance of winning” this still isn’t adequate justification to deviate from the Lord’s instructions.   Hyrum Smith agreed:

“We engage in the election the same as in any other principle; you are to vote for good men, and if you do not do this it is a sin; to vote for wicked men, it would be sin. Choose the good and refuse the evil. Men of false principles have preyed upon us like wolves upon helpless lambs.…. Let every man use his liberties according to the Constitution. Don’t fear man or devil; electioneer with all people, male and female, and exhort them to do the thing that is right. We want a President of the United States, not a party President, but a President of the whole people…and…. Have a President who will maintain every man in his rights .” –Hyrum Smith (1844, DHC-6:323)

Principle vs. Practical—All too often we allow what’s practical in our minds to supersede what is right.  We justify disobedience because we get short sighted and we convince ourselves that pragmatism is more expedient than righteousness.  We fall victims to the lie that if we don’t choose a major candidate than we are throwing our vote away.  We forget that our support for evil is perpetuating a system which will only continue to produce more evil as long as we feed it with such votes.  We seldom realize that every raindrop is responsible for the flood and that we must each individually take stand for what is right before we can collectively make a positive difference.

“We must be devoted to sound principles in word and deed: principle above party, principle above pocketbook, principle above popularity.” -Ezra Taft Benson (God, Family, Country)