Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy

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Against pragmatism

Theories and hypotheses are invented, used, tested, revised, and so on. At the same time, new methods for the invention, use, testing and revision of theories and hypotheses are developed and refined, and so are new standards for evaluating theories and hypotheses. In this way, the methods used by science are not fixed but themselves have a history and develop progressively and sometimes in unexpected ways. A crucial dimension of the experience that has established these standards and practices is social or communal, as we must look to the community of our fellow inquirers for testing and confirmation of our findings.

Accordingly he rejects non-cognitivism about values and holds that values can be true or false in his pragmatic sense, responsive to reasons and corrigible in the light of experience. Practical inquiry encompasses instrumental reasoning about means: so if we our path to the beach is blocked by a giant rock the problematic situation we can reflect on what it would involve to take another route, to climb the rock, to dynamite it, etc. But it also includes reflective criticism of ends: if the journey now has to include arduous rock-climbing, we may reconsider how important our end of getting to the beach is.

Inquiry as practical judgment involves reflecting on, and revising our ends, in the light of what is involved for us in achieving them, and this often leads us creatively to transform our values and to develop new ends. Moral theories are generated in contingent historical circumstances, are responsive to the particular needs and conflicts of those circumstances, and reflect their prejudices and assumption.

11 Aspects of a Liberal Democracy

Ideas that were functional for a particular social order can cease to make sense or become dysfunctional as that order changes. Mistaking contingent social products for unchangeable features of human nature or psychology is one of the core occupational hazards of moral philosophers. Rather, he sees it as as a repertoire of conceptual resources and tools that we have for dealing with the problems of value judgement in a world of plural and changing values.

In Ethics , Dewey and James H. Tufts offer an interpretation of different canonical value theories, teleology, deontology and virtue ethics as providing contrasting methodological orientations for identifying, describing and solving problems.

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Instead, these provide standpoints from which agents can identify and analyze problems, sift important from unimportant considerations, and appraise our raw preferences and alternative plans of action. Values, Dewey suggests, can be viewed as constructs to solve practical problems. Like an outmoded piece of technology, a past value which was once constructed to address a problem in one set of circumstances can outlive its usefulness, and become a hindrance to the capacity of those in the present to deal with their practical needs and worries.

This, Dewey believes, is the case with values of classical liberalism. He develops this thought in discussing the relation of individual and society, the character and value of freedom, and the scope of legitimate social and political action. This is the tendency to divide up experienced phenomena, and to take the distinct analysed elements to be separate existences, independent both of the analysis and of each other.

Instead, he argues, a genuine:. The abstraction of the individual from social context in classical liberalism shapes its ethics. If the individual is thought of as existing prior to social institutions, then it is easier to envisage securing freedom for the individual in purely negative terms as solely consisting in the removal of external impediments on individual action, such as legal restrictions on freedom of speech.

By contrast, Dewey argues that, while removal of external constraints may often be important for supplying the conditions of liberty, liberty in the sense in which it is a value for liberals does not consist in the mere absence of external constraint. The first point is that freedom is held to consist in the capacity and willingness on the part of a person to reflect on her or his own goals, aims and projects, and to revise them as a result of this reflection. This is not a matter of arbitrarily or whimsically plumping for one option rather than another, for Dewey.

Rather, choice that is expressive of individuality in the strong sense involves intelligent criticism of options. Second, freedom as individuality is social: it is thought to involve participation in shaping the social conditions that bear on individuality. Freedom in its fullest sense, then, is only possible in a canonical form of social order, in which all take part in shaping the conditions of common life. Third, this is what has been called an exercise rather than an opportunity concept of freedom.

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This account of the character and value of freedom was for Dewey, as for the Idealists and New Liberals that he drew on and for later writers on negative and positive liberty such as Isaiah Berlin, flowed into a debate about the proper scope of social and political action.

The classical identification of liberty with negative liberty bolsters the identification of freedom with the sphere of life outside the scope of political action. By contrast, for Dewey the scope of legitimate social and political action had to be determined experimentally: laissez-faire should not be assumed to be the default position for a liberal, according to Dewey, since what he called intelligent social control or social action rather, it should be noted, than state control is often a requirement of positive liberty or individuality, in modern industrial conditions.

Unsurprisingly, this drew a hostile reception from advocates of a negative concept of liberty such as F. So, for example, throughout his life he argued that education to produce undocile, unservile citizens was essential, in the name of individuality. More pointedly, Dewey argued, particularly in the s, that a socialized economy was necessary for individuality. Dewey drew on a wide range of sources to flesh out his conception of social action or social control, including the utopian Edward Bellamy and British guild socialist G.

Individuality as an ethical ideal requires that individuals find their own way, and not have particular doctrines or social roles imposed on them. Furthermore, viewing liberty through the prism of individuality only opens up the possibility of political action in the name of liberty, but it does not itself require it. Finally, and in contrast to technocratic critics of laissez-faire such as Walter Lippmann, Dewey argues that an extensive form of democracy is essential for social action, and he vests little faith in experts.

What does Dewey mean by this kind of claim? Lippmann who like Dewey was influenced by William James and who shared many philosophical and political commitments with Dewey at an earlier stage of his career agrees that contemporary moral and political thinking has not caught up with the modern world. The force of this critique of democracy for Dewey in part derives from its deployment of his own intellectual strategy for ends with which he vehemently disagrees. At the minimum, for Dewey, this machinery helps to protect individuals from putative experts about where the interests of people lie.

1. Situating Dewey’s Political Philosophy

A class of experts will inevitably slide into a class whose interests diverge from those of the rest and becomes a committee of oligarchs. Taken in isolation, this way of viewing the desirability of democratic political machinery seems instrumental and minimal; instrumental, in that the desirability of democracy derives from its protecting the interests of each individual against the depredations of an elite class, and minimal, in that the rationale for popular participation is limited to the need to keep the elite informed about where the shoe pinches, if its policies are not to be misguided.

The real target of his ire is the exclusive identification of democracy with a particular current set of political institutions, particularly only with elections and majority rule. As in the case of the defunct idea of liberalism, Dewey thinks of this as a once liberating conception that now contains an inbuilt conservative bias that prevents more imaginative institutional thinking.


Democracy is more than merely a means to check on political leaders and administrators or call them to account. Dewey thinks that this misses out the importance of democracy for a much wider range of social institutions than this narrow view captures, including the workplace. The scope of democracy, in the sense of the range of institutions to which it applies, should not be construed narrowly.

If our individuality is shaped by the wide range of institutions that make up our social habitat, as Dewey thinks, then the rules and norms governing these institutions are too important to us to be left to chance, dogma, tradition or inherited hierarchy. So restricting democratic scrutiny and control to a single sphere of social life would be a mistake. Democracy is a method for identifying and solving the common problems confronted by communities.

Robust inquiry requires that we must have access to all the available evidence and arguments. If we want our inquiry to be successful, we should not prejudge its outcomes, by excluding sources of experience that allow us to explore and correct our hypotheses. By contrast,. Democratic societies are thought of as both seeking to attain desirable goals, and arguing over how to do so, and also as arguing over what a desirable goal is. In other words, democratic politics is not simply a channel through which we can assert our interests as it is for the first argument , but a forum or mode of activity in which we can arrive at a conception of what our interests are.

Against pragmatism | Prospect Magazine

Accordingly, like recent deliberative democrats, Dewey ascribes a central importance to discussion, consultation, persuasion and debate in democratic decision-making. As the experimentalist conception of inquiry insists, this does not imply that we need a priori criteria in order to establish if this process has been successful. Rather, criteria for what counts as a satisfactory solution may be hammered out in the process of searching for one. Dewey views democracy as an ideal of associated life in the sense that as an ideal it reconciles individual and collective interests.

As he describes this ideal,. We can understand Dewey this way. In working out what to do, individuals and groups are confronted by dilemmas about what to do. It is only a democratic community, Dewey believes, which allows each member fully to realize her potentialities without conflict and coercion. The Affordable Care Act, his trademark achievement, is a case in point: A market-based health care reform bill with roots in the conservative think tank world , it nevertheless represents an important stepping stone in the path to a single-payer system.

While it was broadly framed as a fight between the Democratic establishment, represented by Clinton, and Democratic insurgents, represented by Bernie Sanders, it was also representative of the long-running intra-party dispute over the best strategy for winning elections and enacting change. Clinton, the pragmatist, won the battle, but Sanders won the war , as his supposedly idealistic policies have become broadly popular among Democrats—even party doctrine, in some cases. Pragmatism is as much a political strategy as a legislative one.

Most voters are realists, not zealots, the thinking goes; by embracing pragmatism, presidential candidates like Klobuchar can win over this silent majority. Polling has shown that Democratic voters are eager to elect anyone who can defeat Trump—and would prefer that the party nominate the candidate with the best chance of beating him.

Presidential candidates should not conflate that with appealing to the far left with populist rhetoric and a democratic socialist agenda. As Lee Drutman found in , most social and racial conservatives have liberal economic views, while liberals, contra much of the reporting on the divide between Sanders and Clinton supporters, were in broad agreement on economic issues.

Dewey’s Political Philosophy

But this is also true of any major piece of legislation at this point, whether it be universal or incremental. The actual pragmatic position is the one that no Democratic candidate has taken: If they want to pass any meaningful legislation, they must abolish the filibuster. For now, however, that remains a curious third rail among leading Democrats.

Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy
Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy
Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy
Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy
Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy
Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy
Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy
Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy

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