My Kind of Pragmatism

(Crossposted from LessWrong)

Recently I’ve been thinking about pragmatism, the school of philosophy which says that beliefs and concepts are justified based on their usefulness. In LessWrong jargon, it’s the idea that “rationality is systematized winning” taken to its logical conclusion— we should only pursue “true beliefs” insofar as these truths help us “win” at the endeavors we’ve set for ourselves.

I’m inclined to identify as some sort of pragmatist, but there are a lot of different varieties of pragmatism, so I’ve been trying to piece together a “Belrosian pragmatism” that makes the most sense to me.

In particular, some pragmatisms are a lot more “postmodernist-sounding” (see e.g. Richard Rorty) than others (e.g. Susan Haack). Pragmatism leads you to say relativist-sounding things because usefulness seems to be relative to a particular person, so stuff like “truth is relative” often comes out as a logical entailment of pragmatist theories.

A lot of people think relativism about truth is just a reductio of any philosophical theory, but I don’t think so. Respectable non-relativists, like Robert Nozick in Invariances, have pointed out that relativism can be a perfectly coherent position. Furthermore, I think much of the initial implausibility of relativism is due to confusing it with skepticism about the external world. But relativism doesn’t imply there’s no mind-independent reality: there can be one objective world, but many valid descriptions of that world, with each description useful for a different purpose. Once you make this distinction, relativism seems a lot more plausible. It’s not totally clear to me that every pragmatist has made this distinction historically, but I’m going to make it.

There’s one other hurdle that any pragmatist theory needs to overcome. Pragmatism says that we should believe things that are useful, but to determine if a belief is useful we need some background world model where we can imagine the counterfactual consequences of different beliefs. Is this world model a totally separate mental module that’s justified on non-pragmatist grounds? Most pragmatists would say no, and adopt some form of coherentism: we assess the utility of a belief or concept with respect to background beliefs that we aren’t questioning at the moment. Those background beliefs can come into the foreground and be questioned later. The hope is that this procedure will lead to an approximate fixed point, at least for a little while until new evidence comes in. Notably, this basic view is pretty popular in non-pragmatist circles and was popularized by Quine in the 1960s. I think something like this is right, although I want to say something more on this issue (see point 3 below).

Here are some possibly-distinctive aspects of my personal variety of pragmatism, as it stands right now:

  1. Objective reality exists, but objective truth does not.
    This is because truth presupposes a language for describing reality, and different languages are useful for different purposes.
  2. Values are utterly subjective.
    This is a pretty important issue for pragmatists. We reduce truth to utility, so if utility is objective, then truth would be objective, and the whole position becomes a lot more “realist.” Historically, there’s some evidence that C.S. Peirce, the founder of pragmatism, shifted to a moral realist position in reaction to the more “relativist” pragmatists like William James, who he vehemently disagreed with. But for reasons I won’t go into here, I don’t think values could possibly be objective— the phrase “objective morality” is like “square circle.” See some of Lance Bush’s YouTube videos (e.g. this one) to get a taste of my view on this.
  3. Not all beliefs are means to an end.
    There does seem to be a clear distinction between beliefs about ordinary objects and direct sensory experiences— stuff like “this chair exists” or “I’m happy right now”— and beliefs about scientific or philosophical theories. I don’t consciously think of my beliefs about ordinary objects in terms of their utility, I just take them for granted. It’s also hard for me to imagine a scenario in which I would start to question the utility of these beliefs. Importantly, I do question the metaphysical nature of ordinary objects and experiences; I often wonder if I’m in a simulation, for example. But I take that to be a secondary question, since even if I’m in a simulation, these objects and experiences are “real” for my purposes. On the other hand, I do consciously think about the practical utility of scientific and philosophical theories. I still feel a bit confused as to why this distinction exists, but my best guess is that my values latch onto ordinary objects and direct experiences, so I can’t question those without throwing out my values, whereas other stuff is more “instrumental.”

Why No One Deserves to Suffer

The Left rightly rejects the narrative that the poor and oppressed somehow “deserve” their lot in life. We also eschew a vision of criminal justice focused on retribution and revenge. But leftists don’t usually understand the philosophical underpinnings of these beliefs, and consequently we don’t apply our principles consistently.

The underlying principle is that no one deserves to suffer. It can often be justified to harm someone for the sake of avoiding greater harm to others, but it can never be justified to cause someone to suffer simply as an end in itself, no matter how badly the person may have acted in the past. It’s of course absolutely necessary to lock up dangerous people until they are rehabilitated, for the sake of protecting society as a whole. But this isn’t the same as retribution, the idea that some people deserve to suffer simply as “payback” for the suffering they have caused others.

What about personal responsibility?

Accepting the idea that no one deserves to suffer also means that we must reject the very idea of personal responsibility. Everyone is a product of their circumstances, so it doesn’t make sense to hold anyone ultimately responsible for their behavior. There’s an important sense in which “evil” people are simply unlucky. They were born with the wrong genes, the wrong upbringing, the wrong social influences. They didn’t choose any of this they’re simply acting in response to their environment.

Charles Whitman

If you aren’t convinced, it may help to cite an example. Take the case of Charles Whitman, a mass murderer who shot up dozens of people at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966, killing 16 people and wounding 31 others before being killed by police. In his autopsy, it was found that Whitman was suffering from a brain tumor that could have caused his shooting spree. The evidence isn’t conclusive, but let’s assume for a second that the brain tumor was the ultimate cause of Whitman’s horrific actions. Removing the tumor would have made him sincerely remorseful for his actions, and dramatically less likely to engage in violent behavior in the future. In that case would it really make sense to say that Whitman was truly personally responsible for the killings? Surely not.

The problem with personal responsibility is that, at bottom, all causal influences on behavior are like Whitman’s brain tumor. If we were able to trace back the entire chain of causes leading to any given violent crime, our instinctive desire for revenge would quickly fade away. We would begin to empathize with the criminal. As Leo Tolstoy once wrote, tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner (to understand all is to forgive all). If any of us had a different environment or different genes, we would become a psychopathic monster, too.

Once we reject the notion of personal responsibility, we are free to design a criminal justice system that focuses solely on rehabilitating criminals, and protecting the rest of society from dangerous behavior. Luckily, we have a great real-world model to look at: Norway.

Not only has Norway abolished the death penalty, it’s abolished life sentences, too. The maximum prison sentence is just 21 years, although 5 year increments can be added to the sentence indefinitely if the courts judge that the inmate is still a threat to society. The prisons themselves are remarkably humane, providing a relatively high standard of living and many opportunities to socialize with other inmates. What’s more, the Norwegian prison system produces results. Just 20% of Norwegian inmates are re-arrested within five years of release, compared to 77% in American prisons.

capitalist pyramid

We should also recognize that no one is personally responsible for their positive behavior, either. Intelligent, kind, or hardworking people aren’t intrinsically deserving of reward although it can often make sense to use rewards as an incentive for socially beneficial activities. Good people are simply lucky to have the right genes, the right upbringing, and the right social environment. None of this is a product of their own volition. This also means that the wealthy don’t “deserve” their riches in any sense, and that society should guarantee housing, healthcare, food, and education to those of us who are unlucky enough to have lost out in the lottery of birth.

Free will is an illusion

Most people intuitively believe that they have free will the idea that the conscious self is the ultimate cause of human behavior. But when we adopt a scientific understanding of human psychology, it becomes very difficult to maintain the idea that human behavior is anything more than a product of material causes and effects. There’s no room for conscious choices to somehow be made “outside” the largely deterministic system of the human brain. Appeals to the randomness of quantum mechanics can’t resuscitate the idea of free will, either. Adding a roll of the dice every so often in an otherwise deterministic system doesn’t make you any more “free.” Our scientific picture of the world only leaves room for two kinds of causality: determinism and quantum randomness. Neither of these are a suitable foundation for free will.

Recognizing that free will is an illusion doesn’t mean that the choices we make are meaningless. Our choices are themselves material events, and they have a tremendous impact on our lives and the lives of others. What it does mean, however, is that we should stop blaming people, and stop blaming ourselves, when we do wrong. We should have empathy for ourselves and for other people when reflecting on our failings, and simply resolve to do better next time, or to change the conditions that give rise to our negative behavior.

We should also stop hating people. Hatred is an emotion grounded in retribution and the idea of free will. We can only truly hate someone if we feel that they have some special “essence” which is inherently evil, wrong, or stupid. But human beings don’t have essences. We are all complex bundles of causes and effects, environmental and genetic influences. Instead of hatred, we should approach those with whom we disagree with compassion and a determination to help them see a new perspective.

We must be compassionate toward everyone

Unfortunately, the Left tends to lapse back into individualistic thinking when we deal with people we don’t like, such as capitalists, right-wing politicians, or Republican voters. But these people, too, are simply products of their circumstances. They aren’t intrinsically evil, and for the most part, they aren’t irredeemable either. Trump voters can be won over to the Left with hard work and a class-based political program.

The Left must embrace the entirety of the working class, as it is, and appeal to it in terms that it can understand. Once we win state power, we can reshape institutions and social relationships in such a way that racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry will begin to wither away. But blaming individuals for their reactionary attitudes can only be counterproductive. If we simply write off these voters as being intrinsically right-wing, we won’t be able to build the majoritarian multiracial coalition we need to end class exploitation and oppression once and for all.