It seems to me that I refer to William James theory of pragmatism often but have not really explained it. The theory of pragmatism is what I call the quintessential American philosophy. Not because William James was an American philosopher but in that it sums up the heretofore American ethos. That ethos being explained earlier by Tocqueville in his concept of Americans being, “Self Interested Rightly Understood.” These two philosophies dovetail into a whole that, I believe, is the reason the American experiment worked so well. Understanding this should be the first responsibility of anyone who want’s their representatives voted in, instead of, barged in at the point of a gun.
Pragmatism looks at the results of philosophies and actions. It takes past results and extrapolates them into future outcomes. As such we can say Pragmatism is a results oriented philosophy. We can also say that pragmatism is only really a means to test other philosophies or actions. It is more a measuring stick to reconcile outcomes of actions than a play that orchestrates all actions. Some philosophies are idealistic and some are rationalistic. Pragmatism falls closer to the rationalistic than the idealistic, but recognizes that if the outcome is good the philosophy should be followed, even if it isn’t totally rationalistic and is in fact moralistic or even religious.
Close association with capitalism trains the minds of people to be, Self Interested Rightly Understood, or put another way, Rational Maximisers. To engage in the market, in almost any function, one must weigh this action against that action. We test in our minds what the outcome of producing a million of this product at cost of that production. The very act of work then trains the mind to weigh costs versus benefits. It is only natural that we bring this understanding into other aspects of our lives.
When we do we start to become a Rational Maximizer. But to get all the way there, we must also have the understanding, that our good is in fact tied up in everyone’s good. Not that we have collective duties… we have individual duties. To the extent we have collective duties we have become subservient to the group. So, when we get the habit of weighing the cost versus the benefits of all of our actions, and we have a proper moral template to apply the actions, we can be said to be Self Interested Rightly Understood.
If someone has children their understanding of the universe is different from someone who doesn’t. Once a person understands that there are considerations outside ones self, considerations that we value so highly they outweigh our own worth, then the person who is Self Interested Rightly Understood, will be heroic. Even though that heroic act may cost the individual his or her life he or she will act, because they will have weighed the cost of doing so, against not doing so. This tally is done without conscious thought. This is the essence of what it is to be Self Interested Rightly Understood. It is sometimes to do that which is not in our immediate interests but meets our larger interests. Even such a mundane act like putting a few dollars away each week is the act of a Rational Maximizer.
To use pragmatism comes naturally to someone who is Self Interested Rightly Understood. As I said before part of being Self Interested Rightly Understood is to weigh costs versus benefits. This is the essence of pragmatism, to weigh the probable outcome of an action or philosophy against the probable benefit. The outcome can be reliably predicted by past examples and the benefit can be placed against that measure. Couple pragmatism with rational maximisers and you have a society that is geared to win. People will strive to get ahead but will have the self restraint that comes with civilization. Because really, isn’t that exactly what we are talking about, when we imagine people who are Self Interested Rightly Understood and Pragmatic… Civilized people.