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Pragmatic Humanism: The Great Mishmash of Ideology

Current political discourse is overrun by dogma and factionalism. To solve our political dilemmas, we need a broad ideology that seeks to improve human life through the most practical method available.


The slings and arrows of political ad hominems are hurled through digital vacuums and physical atmospheres at curious velocities. The present dance of political slurs goes 5...6...7...8 and pirouettes in the third pose of graceful vitriol. So-called fascists, centrists, radicals, liberals, socialists, neoliberals, imperialists, and cultural Marxists threaten to plague the discourse and society at every corner.

Getting labelled any of these terms is an instant red flag for some political grouping. For example, the further reaches of the left believe that Joe Biden is representative of the statist, neoliberal order that has ruled the US since the 1980s. Meanwhile, among the right, Joe Biden is an enabler of the woke, progressive leftist tradition that threatens to turn the US into some socialist dystopia. Accordingly, Joe Biden is often called a “neoliberal” and “radical leftist” by these respective groups.

Of all the problems to criticize, complaining about the state of political slurs in the discourse is pretentious and pedantic when compared to the more existential crises today’s leaders and populations face. Frankly, they always have been an easy way to shut down an opponent and will for the foreseeable future remain such. However, I still believe that their usage is reductive and instantly labels everything within the ideology that is being slurred as inherently bad. Slurs are the product of nearly all civil societies which have factions and can be exclusive. After all, a slur needs an “other” to slander.

Name-calling is not always bad. They can be used effectively to check those in power under a simple slogan which they cannot avoid. However, many on the left and right are too quick to discount and avoid all the ideas of conservatism, liberalism, traditionalism, socialism, and many other -isms simply because of the baggage associated with them. A central pillar of domestic politics identifies this tendency for individuals to create political slurs which must be avoided at all costs: ideology.

Individuals on social media and in real life interactions yell slurs at their most disliked politicians, pundits, and persons because they may find it instinctively gratifying and morally damning according to their ideology. However, despite the logical and unavoidable inclusion of ideology into everyone’s cognitive calculus, there are obvious flaws in any ideology that can corrupt any thinker if they rely too heavily on this central pillar in their thought process.

Ideology can misinterpret and misguide us if we base our ideas on unsound premises and information—garbage in, garbage out as computer scientists say. Additionally, ideology biases our worldview in a distorted light, making us interpret our world in specific ways which can be unhelpful and flawed. Moreover, the embrace of ideology, specifically its rigidity, promotes zero-sum politicking and seeks coercive methods to force their opponents to either join their side or face ostracization.

I propose pragmatic humanism as a beneficial method to interpret politics and derive policy from. I hope to explain pragmatic humanism as a political theory and broad ideology while establishing tenants of the belief and justifying their inclusion.

The concept I am describing is an amalgamation of various definitions of pragmatism, humanism, and pragmatic humanism. However, it is a unique concept on its own. To be a pragmatic humanist, who I will just name Bill James (after a founder of the classical school of pragmatism), one chooses the most efficient, effective, and outcome-driven ideas from the metaphorical sea of ideology. No belief set is off limits. Thus, the best ideas are shaved from each ideology and combined into Bill’s working view of the world. What determines what is a good idea? Evidence.

To be a good pragmatic humanist, Bill uses qualitative evidence in the form of a wealth of historical anecdotes and quantitative data to form his thought process. Pragmatic humanism is, fundamentally, a belief system of meta-analyses, peer-reviewed journals, and case studies as yet unconceived and unborn. This means that Bill may change his mind often as new evidence and new methods challenge and disprove the efficacy of formerly held beliefs.

Pragmatic humanists do have a centrist bent but are not locked into this middle route. If the evidence argues that historically right or left-leaning solutions produce the best outcome, then it is only rational for the pragmatic humanist to embrace the policy. This does not mean that pragmatic humanists will support in lockstep the same policies. Evidence is so diverse that based on a variety of factors pragmatic humanists may come to different conclusions. However, all policies must be rooted in the evidence of the past and present, and they are subject to change in the future.

The only broad commonality that all people who may come to subscribe to pragmatic humanism must adhere to is that all policies must be rooted in humanism and exist to perpetuate each human’s quality of life. In this sense, policymakers have to act on the assumption that politics exists by people and for people and that all people have fundamental, equal value; meaning that despite our differences, we are equal in our innate, inalienable, humanness.

This philosophical worldview grounds pragmatic humanism and creates a framework for deciding what is right and wrong according to the belief system. For example, one can technically approach genocide in a pragmatic sense, but it would be wrong according to pragmatic humanism because the policy is anti-humanist. Pragmatism is the means, but humanism is the end.

This separates pragmatic humanism from other similar wide ideologies like Trumpism because while both have lots of pragmatic leniency to what ideas are accepted, they differ greatly on what society these ideas should create. A pragmatic humanist policy works to create a humanist society, while a Trumpist policy works to create a society with an ethnoreligious/ethnonationalist and reactionary outlook loyal to Trump and his disciples.

What do pragmatic humanists do when their pragmatic style and humanistic beliefs contrast with each other? This opens a wide variety of questions that speak to different philosophical outlooks. Is it humanist to support policies which enable suffering if they will help more people in the future? These questions are nearly impossible to answer, but there are still methods of thinking about situations like these in a pragmatic humanist way.

Firstly, in these grey area decisions, it is imperative to reevaluate the evidence. Major decisions should never be taken solely on gut instinct, there must be compelling quantitative or qualitative evidence. If Bill pulls the lever of the trolley to kill one person to save five, he better know that the trolley will go on the right track. Moreover, it is important to ask cui bono, who benefits from the policy? If we are Kissinger in Latin America, do we as Americans and as humans benefit if we install murderous regimes in the Americas? Operating on the basis that all humans have an equally innate value, do the tradeoffs benefit the greatest amount of people? These questions must populate themselves in the minds of faithful pragmatic humanists.

Pragmatic humanism does not discount an ideology and tries to see the diversity of global beliefs as a supermarket from which to take the healthiest, appetizing, and nutritious ideas. It encourages a wide degree of adherents to discuss and refine policies and political philosophies avoiding narrow constituencies. In a world of political slurs, pragmatic humanists avoid this derogatory tactic by embracing ideas from the entire spectrum. Pragmatic humanists create a model for the future by relying on the quantitative and qualitative training data of the past and using it to develop efficient, outcomes-driven policy without relying on the curse of ideology.

David Leshchiner is a sophomore double-majoring in International Relations and Data Science. He is the Deputy Editor for Foreign Affairs for the Agora.

Image credit: Onasill ~ Bill under Creative Commons

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