The Perils of Pragmatism

Santa Clarita Signal • Ethically Speaking Column • For September 12 weekender, 2015

 The Perils of Pragmatism

(photo courtesy of Stuart Miles at

David W. Hegg

In the course of everyday life we all make hundreds of decisions. Few end up being of grave consequence, but still we end each day having chosen to do what, at least at the time, seemed best.

But just how do we make those decisions? In the field of ethics, there are two basic systems of decision-making. Consequentialism determines the best course of action based on - you guessed it - the consequences of the decision. This includes ethical schools like utilitarianism, and especially, pragmatism. Consequentialists do what they do based on the results they will achieve.

On the other end of the scale is Deontology. Coming from a Latin word for “duty” this school of thought determines the “rightness” of a decision or action based on its alignment with a recognized source of moral authority. Deontologists consider actions to be right or wrong, not based on consequences, but on intrinsic moral “rightness.” Deontologists determine their course of action based on their “duty” to uphold previously proven standards and values.

To be fair, both schools offer acceptable ways to make decisions, in certain situations. For example, a choice of which flavor of ice cream to buy certainly will be based on the consequence of taste, and price, among other things, unless one is on a strict diet in which case the “rightness” of abstaining should take precedence in the decision-making no matter how yummy the taste. It has long been understood that, where deontology brings moral authority into the equation, consequentialism must take a back seat. Where there is right and wrong, right must prevail despite the consequences.

Yet, in our world, consequentialism has so successfully replaced deontolgy that the understanding of a moral right or wrong is quickly fading into oblivion. Every society that lasts and succeeds has been built on moral absolutes, including ours. The framers of our Constitution and other foundational documents believed each human being comes into the world “endowed by their creator with inalienable rights.”

As our country was birthed, those involved had a mutual understanding that certain things were right because God and society had determined them to be so. Today we are watching as belief in right and wrong being static and reliable, is being slammed on every side. We are the generation that has been granted a front row view as the very concept of absolute truth is systematically being dismantled in favor of a pragmatic society where everyone gets to do what is right in their own eyes.

But the truth remains true regardless of whether or not it is recognized and valued. A simple example will demonstrate this. No matter what you think of it, gravity remains a natural truth, as does the coming and going of the tides, the planetary movements, and the certainty that ingesting poison will bring about grave discomfort, if not death. Some things are right, and some things are wrong, and no amount of deception and argument can change that.

The same is true in the moral area. Wives who find themselves left behind by unfaithful husbands understand a natural law has been violated, and grave promises broken. Children hammered by their parents’ divorce intuitively recognize the situation as wrong. And those forgotten kids who are scooped up by human traffickers to be commercially and sexually exploited certainly know some fundamental law of human dignity has been radically violated.

As we watch, our society is drowning in a pragmatism fueled by self-centered consumerism, greed, and a pervasive selfishness that has catapulted the pleasure of the moment into a tyrannical position. We are ruling ourselves to death as we overthrow standards of decency in favor of the pleasures of sin for a season.

America is desperately in need of those who will do the right things, in the right way, and for the right reasons regardless of the consequences. But for this to happen we’ll need to recover and hold fast to those principles of moral authority and “rightness” that have been the common denominator in every great society. And we can’t afford to wait any longer because the decisions that matter most aren’t about ice cream, but about what kind of society we will leave behind for our children. We urgently need to do what’s right for their sake, regardless of the consequences.