May 29, 2009


The emptiness of Obama's pragmatism: Policy devoid of clear ethical theory creates a nation without principle, and a nation without principle is a nation on stilts. (Jacob Bronsther, May 26, 2009, CS Monitor)

Obama has governed so far as though Pragmatism 1 entails Pragmatism 2. He presumes that policies forged by reason, evidence, and "unbiased" expertise (Pragmatism 1) – those policies that "work" – will garner the support of all reasonable members of Congress and thus bridge partisan divides (Pragmatism 2). He bases his belief in the possibility of national and political consensus on this faulty argument.

Consensus has not emerged in Washington because disagreement exists over the definition of Pragmatism 1. What "works" for liberals doesn't work for conservatives. Did Reagan's policies "work"? Did Clinton's?

The most divisive public policy issues are not that way because liberals and conservatives solve math differently. Economists cannot specify the rights and duties of citizenship. The deeper partisan disagreements are ethical and philosophical. Liberals and conservatives have conflicting intuitions and moral arguments about how we ought to distribute the burdens and benefits of a free society.

Such fundamental disagreement helps explain why Chief Justice John Roberts's bid for more unanimous Supreme Court rulings has faltered. And it sheds light on the Republicans' vigorous opposition to Obama's pragmatic agenda, which they see as a liberal plan to radically reshape American society.

For Obama and other Democratic leaders to be the harbingers of a lasting American liberalism, they need to unite their pragmatism rhetoric with real moral argument about the meaning of rights, freedom, and equality. They need to prove that their understanding of what works is connected to what is right and just beyond mere assertion.

...because we're Judeo-Christians.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 29, 2009 6:10 AM
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