Timothy N. Baldwin, JD.
January 11, 2014
Some people think Pragmatism is bad and void of Principles. These people are wrong. In reality, principles are nothing without pragmatism, and pragmatism is a principle. People who reject pragmatism reject science and the source of principles. Moreover, they reject the philosophy that formed America.
The philosophy of pragmatism developed notably during and since the Age of Reason—the philosophy that dominated America’s thinkers before and during its founding. But this philosophy disturbs mostly those who see the world through a purely religious lens. In other words, they believe that pragmatism harms or undermines their religious belief. Consequently, these people feel compelled to attack pragmatism (the science of decisions). They claim they are loyal to “principles” only and call using pragmatism evil or the like.
Let us look at the definitions of pragmatism and principle and then look at how America has used pragmatism for its founding and existence.
Definition.com defines “pragmatism” as:
1. action or policy dictated by consideration of the immediate practical consequences rather than by theory or dogma
a. the doctrine that the content of a concept consists only in its practical applicability
b. See also, instrumentalism, the doctrine that truth consists not in correspondence with the facts but in successful coherence with experience.
It defines “principle” as:
1. an accepted or professed rule of action or conduct.
2. a fundamental, primary, or general law or truth from which others are derived.
3. a fundamental doctrine or tenet; a distinctive ruling opinion.
Again, Pragmatism is a principle: it is a rule of action that considers the practical consequences of the action. Pragmatism does not see actions, and the rules requiring actions, to live in a vacuum or isolation. By necessity, for a rule to be good, it must consider the practical results of the action. It must also consider the degrees of good or evil resulting.
In truth, the philosophy of Pragmatism is interwoven into our politics, law and Constitution.
Here are some examples.
Journalist Tim Murphy recently criticized the political tactics of Ken Cuccinelli, Republican candidate for governor of Virginia. Illustrating the point, Murphy shows how Cuccinelli advocated for reviving sodomy laws, which would make homosexual behavior a crime—not a good political move.
While Cuccinelli is the exception, the standard today is that no conservative candidates advocate criminalizing consensual sex between adults. This is the case even though
sodomy was a criminal offense in all thirteen original states when the Bill of Rights was ratified, in thirty-two of thirty-seven states in 1868 when the fourteenth amendment was ratified, and ultimately was banned in all fifty states (3-12 United States Supreme Court Cases and Comments § 12.07).
Time has changed America’s culture on homosexuality, so now instead of conservatives trying to criminally punish homosexuality, they are trying to prevent homosexual marriage—their sort of last stand regarding homosexuality. Even conservatives who despise homosexuality and believe it is destructive to society refuse to put principle over pragmatism (as they would say) because it would lead to consequences they believe are not worth openly demanding the “principle.”
There are a host of political issues that, over time, have died; and anyone who attempts to revive them are committing political suicide: for example, women suffrage, slavery, child labor—matters that at one time were extremely important political topics and “deal breakers” for many; yet society (even the most conservative of us) has mostly embraced what was once rejected.
All of these examples prove that politics and pragmatism are necessarily interlinked.
Hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) is based on the philosophy of pragmatism. Pragmatism controls the interpretation of our laws and state and federal constitutions. Philosophers, legal scholars and judges have recognized that no law can create an absurd result. This focuses on the consequence of the law: i.e. pragmatism.
One legal scholar described pragmatism’s impact on interpreting law this way:
The absurd result principle in statutory interpretation provides an exception to the rule that a statute should be interpreted according to its plain meaning. In an age of increasing debate about the proper approach to statutory interpretation, and of increasing emphasis on literal approaches, the absurd result principle poses intriguing challenges to literalism and to theories of interpretation generally.
The absurd result principle is extraordinarily powerful. It authorizes a judge to ignore a statute's plain words in order to avoid the outcome those words would require in a particular situation. Veronica M. Doughert, 44 Am. U.L. Rev. 127, 127-128.
This use of pragmatism has its origins in Enlightenment Philosophy. For example, Emer de Vattel (perhaps the most influential philosopher on the Law of Nations), said about interpreting law,
Every interpretation that leads to an absurdity ought to be rejected; or in other words, we should not give to any piece a meaning from which any absurd consequences would follow, but must interpret it in such a manner as to avoid absurdity. (Vattel, The Law of Nations, Book 2, Ch. 17, Section 282 (1758).
Notably, Vattel states that natural law requires that we reject “any absurd consequences” of a rule: this is the very definition of pragmatism (i.e. “action or policy dictated by consideration of the immediate practical consequences rather than by theory or dogma”).
Hamilton also used this pragmatic method of interpreting law to describe the rightness of compacts between nations. He said in Federalist Paper (FP) 15, “There is nothing absurd or impracticable in the idea of a league or alliance between independent nations…Compacts of this kind exist among all civilized nations.” Hamilton uses pragmatism’s gauges of absurdity, impracticability and experience to justify the right of compact. If Hamilton found that such compacts were “absurd” or “impractical” (using experience) his conclusion would have been different, thus again proving that pragmatism controls the decision, not some fixed rule that does not consider the consequences of the rule.
Today, states have incorporated this philosophy of pragmatism into statutes and court decisions. It is well-established law in America.
From Vattel to Hamilton and to today, law and pragmatism are necessarily intertwined.
The Founders believed in the primacy of pragmatism. They referred to the concept in several ways, but perhaps the most noticeable is their allegiance to Experience; like, “Let experience, the least fallible guide of human opinions, be appealed to for an answer to these inquiries” (Hamilton, FP 6).Of course, using experience (i.e. proven consequences of actions over time) is pragmatism by definition (i.e. “truth consists not in correspondence with the facts but in successful coherence with experience”).
Their invocation of Experience was also repeated in the Constitutional Convention Debates of 1787. In truth, the Constitution was created using pragmatism. A very small sample of this follows (taken from James Madison’s notes):
A. On the Mode of Appointing the Executive
Mr. WILSON wished to derive not only both branches of the Legislature from the people, without the intervention of the State Legislatures but the Executive also; in order to make them as independent as possible of each other, as well as of the States;
Col. MASON favors the idea, but thinks it impracticable.
B. On Mode of Electing Congress
General PINKNEY [stated that] an election of either branch by the people scattered as they are in many States, particularly in S. Carolina was totally impracticable.
C. On Whether the States Should Be Dissolved
M. DICKENSON [stated that] to attempt to abolish the States altogether, would degrade the Councils of our Country [and] would be impracticable.
D. On Whether Congress Should Have Authority To Negative All State Laws Which They Should Judge To Be Improper.
J. MADISON [stated that] he could not but regard an indefinite power to negative legislative acts of the States as absolutely necessary to a perfect system. Experience had evinced a constant tendency in the States to encroach on the federal authority…A negative was the mildest expedient that could be devised for preventing these mischiefs. The existence of such a check would prevent attempts to commit them. Should no such precaution be engrafted, the only remedy would lie in an appeal to coercion. Was such a remedy eligible? was it practicable?
This focus on pragmatism carried from their private debates at the Convention to their public discussion of why the Constitution should be ratified. Hamilton used pragmatism to convince the States to ratify the Constitution, which obviously means he knew Americans would accept this philosophy. He said in FP 9,
If it had been found impracticable to have devised models of a more perfect structure, the enlightened friends to liberty would have been obliged to abandon the cause of that species of government as indefensible. The science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement.
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Clearly, the Founders were men of pragmatism. They formed a Constitution using pragmatism, and they convinced the States to ratify it using pragmatism. Consequently, America’s experiment benefited because of that.
People who refuse to apply pragmatism to politics reject America’s history, philosophy and practice. Pragmatism is not evil; it is good and an essential part of human nature. This means using fixed rules without regard to the harm they will cause contradicts natural law and human duty. It may require more work for people to use pragmatics to make political decisions—rather than simply and blindly following some rule—but liberty is hard work.
© 2014 Timothy N. Baldwin, JD - All Rights Reserved
Timothy Baldwin, born in 1979, is an attorney licensed to practice law in Montana (and formerly Florida) and handles a variety of cases, including constitutional, criminal, and civil. Baldwin graduated from the University of West Florida in 2001 with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in English and Political Science. In 2004, Baldwin graduated from Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham, AL with a Juris Doctorate (JD) degree. From there, Baldwin became an Assistant State Attorney in Florida. For 2 1/2 years, Baldwin prosecuted criminal actions and tried nearly 60 jury trials. In 2006, Baldwin started his private law practice and has maintained it since.
Baldwin is a published author, public speaker and student of political philosophy. Baldwin is the author of Freedom For A Change, Romans 13-The True Meaning of Submission, and To Keep or Not To Keep: Why Christians Should Not Give Up Their Guns–all of which are available for purchase through libertydefenseleague.com. Baldwin has also authored hundreds of political articles relative to liberty in the United States of America. Baldwin has been the guest of scores of radio shows and public events and continues to exposit principles which the people in America will need to determine its direction for the future.
Web site: libertydefenseleague.com