As Americans we pride ourselves as being a practical 'People'. We seek answers and solve problems. For many, that is the
essence of purpose and the justification for a pragmatic approach to society. But the legacy of best known pragmatists, John
Dewey and William James, in the form of their departure from Platonism thought, has burden our own contemporary world with
a very different version of the practical. Their pragmatism follows the result of "collectivism" - the scourge of mankind.
But is this the real meaning of the pragmatic approach to problems? One will find the answer to this question in the historic
context of Utilitarianism.
It has been popular to blame the roots for modern "collectivism" on the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham. Changing conceptions of governmental responsibility, has long been cited as a correlation in the influence of Benthan. But
the other great thinker on this subject, John Stuart Mill, frames the viewpoint of his predecessor, Bentham.
"It is probable, however, that to the principle of utility we owe all that Bentham did; that it was necessary for him
to find a first principle which he could receive as self-evident, and to which he could attach all his other doctrines as
logical consequences: that to him systematic unity was an indispensable condition of his confidence in his Own intellect."
In its most simply and pure form, utility is that which works! But what does it mean and what is involved with that which
is the practical method in solving a problem? And how is such an approach applied to government and public policy? Bentham's
utilitarian doctrine was principally concerned with the legislation of morals. His principle of utility, has it is in vain to talk of the interest of the community, without understanding what is the interest of the individual.
The foundation of all valid decisions, are based upon a perceived benefit to the person making that judgment. This basic
and universal characteristic, applies to all mankind and has matured to consider the betterment of the community, as a condition
of civilized conduct. What is lost to the modern pragmatist is that key to Bentham's major work, stated clearly in the title:
Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. By linking morality to utility, we are presented with this conclusion from - Of Human Actions in General, II:
"The general tendency of an act is more or less pernicious, according to the sum total of its consequences: that is,
according to the difference between the sum of such as are good, and the sum of such as are evil."
For those who are cautious to rely upon a prime mover, or reject the influence of the mystic "categorical revelation", Bentham provides a most sensible and practical standard for behavior.
Contrast the recognition that morality is the proper foundation for utility with the most popular forms of pragmatism.
Fundamental to pragmatism is a strong antiabsolutism: the conviction that all principles are to be regarded as working hypotheses
rather than as metaphysically binding axioms.
Another pragmatist - Charles Sanders Peirce held that an intrinsic connection exists between meaning and action - that the meaning of an idea is to be found in its "conceivable
sensible effects" and that humans generate belief through their "habits of action." Note that the disconnect from a constant
morality, is a central theme in the evolution of pragmatism. The leap to accepting a "secular humanism" is an easy transition
for those who accept that a constant morality is a diminished factor in achieving the practical end. With a recognition that
moral conduct has a relative interpretation, "situations ethics" become the new standard. All in the name of the pragmatic
. . .
Is this really the kind of practicality that we as a country want to accept?
But Bentham does not base his morality on divine revelation. He says in Chapter II Of Principles Adverse to that of Utility:
"It is plain, therefore, that, setting revelation out of the question, no light can ever be thrown upon the standard
of right and wrong, by any thing that can be said upon the question, what is God's will."
Can genuine self interest be achieved without the underpinnings of a moral standard that is based upon our codes for behavior
that has been traditionally associated with divine law?
The Chicago school of pragmatism were a central force in philosophy, contesting realism and idealism for supremacy in metaphysics,
epistemology and value theory. But can that same fault be attributed to the utility of Bentham? Again John Stuart Mills speaks
to this point: Bentham derived the idea, as he says himself, from Helvetius; and it was the doctrine no less, of the religious philosophers of that age.
The need to related conduct back to morality is just as indispensable to the utility of the community as the interest of
the individual, is to himself. Consider how it applies to the economic realm.
"The practical value of capitalism flows from the need to protect the creativity and freedom of thought of the individual.
But isn’t this also a profound moral principle? Most of today's intellectuals still recognize that we need to protect
the thinking of the artist or the scientist—but the same principle applies equally to the worker, the executive, and
the industrialist. Only capitalism fully recognizes the moral right of the individual to think and to act on his thinking—not
just in his personal life or intellectual life, but also in his economic life . . . Stated in more fundamental terms, capitalism
is practical because it relies on the inexhaustible motive-power of self-interest . . . the principle that each man is an
end in himself, not a mere cog in the collective machine to be exploited for the ends of others."
What we see in this account is how the economic relates to the legitimate individual self interest. This is consistent
with the Utilitarianism as Bentham proposed. But we must remember that both Bentham and Mill were subjects of the Crown, during
the time of empire. Their advocacy for the virtue of individual Liberty were tempered with leanings toward support of a Humanitarian Intervention.
As see in this essay, when Mill calls: "Intervention to enforce non-intervention", he starts down that road that leads
to the errors of the pragmatists that in turn, embraces the altruism of "collectivism". Utilitarianism has a valid meaning when it is confined to the ranks of moral policy that works for a practical
end, which benefits individuals. Pragmatism does not have to be a dirty word, nor should it be an uncritical behavior. Solutions
are fine if they are practical within the realm of real world options that adhere to moral means and seeks to achieve benefits
for citizens. But this goal must be tied to the self interest of the individual, and their moral conduct - if public policy
is ever to reach - real utility in practice.