Help me find a philosophical name/school/whatever.
September 1, 2018 1:21 PM   Subscribe

Is there a term for "the practical outcomes matter more than the principles?" Not utilitarianism.

When considering how to act – whether personally, politically, at work, etc – it seems to me that the practical implications of that action is important than black-and-white principles about "how things should be." For example, the libertarian ideal that everyone should be responsible for themselves sounds great on paper but immediately collapses upon any contact with the real world. Similarly, it's easy to say "*bad thing* should never happen," but it turns out that the cost of 100% prevention is worse than the cost of *bad thing* happening every once in a while.

So is there a term for a philosophy that instead of working to a theoretical Utopia from first principles says we should work towards a pretty good world by observing the practical impact of what we're doing?
posted by Tehhund to Religion & Philosophy (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Pragmatism, perhaps?
posted by skye.dancer at 1:33 PM on September 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

posted by Iris Gambol at 1:34 PM on September 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

Consequentialism also
posted by Krawczak at 1:56 PM on September 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Maybe my understanding of Consequentialism is too simplistic ("the ends justify the means"), but it doesn't really fit unless the ends also include the means.
posted by Tehhund at 3:04 PM on September 1, 2018

Pragmatism, in philosophy, is a theory of truth, not a moral philosophy or a theory of action.
posted by thelonius at 3:05 PM on September 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

I recently watched this talk by Marco Pierre White at Oxford. It seems to me that he is a pragmatist. That is, he was thrown into his career by his father, but he later gained greatness by chance, desire, and mentoring.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:41 PM on September 1, 2018

I would be cautious about using the term 'pragmatism' here. (source: I am one, and have a couple dozen publications on it.) Most pragmatists are fine with principles about "how things should be" and how they should be done, though even many of those who are would agree that most principles are not exceptionless. There are pragmatists who have offered distinctive theories of truth (e.g. William James), but also others who have said there's really no such thing and we would be better without the expectation of it (e.g. Rorty), or that it's merely a formal/expressive part of speech that can be explained away without too much philosophical weight (e.g. Quine, Ramsey). If you want to characterize pragmatism more generally, it will turn into a discussion of how we understand the very content of our own thoughts and words, and how those relate to actions and the interests we have in taking them. So you might be a pragmatist at heart, but hang on...

I also think you're a little quick to dismiss consequentialism as a characterization of your own views here. While some consequentialists would say that the ends justify the means, that's not really what characterizes the position (more like a principle some, but not all, consequentialists would endorse). Consequentialism is really the view that the fundamental measure of our evaluation of an action (or whatever is at stake) is the consequences that taking that action (or whatever) will bring. Typically, consequentialists would say that if an action (etc.) will tend to produce more benefits than harms, then it's something we should do or encourage people to do. Conversely, if it produces more harms than benefits, we should discourage it. And those who are consequentialists differ about whether the best way to go about this is to have fairly broad rules, or to try to determine what action does more good in a given situation. So "rule utilitarians" would give you big rules that they figure will serve us better in the long run, and "act utilitarians" would say that those rules are at best rough guides, and we should be open to doing whatever would produce the best result in a given situation. The rule utilitarians would say that there is an additional benefit to the stability and predictability of a rule; the act utilitarians would say that too much is lost by sticking to those rules. There are literally thousands of books and articles going back and forth about this, and I won't pretend to settle the matter here. But at least on a quick read, you sound like someone who's kind of a consequentialist, but not one who thinks strict adherence to rules is the best way to pursue those consequences. (Go google Alastair Norcross and Peter Singer for a couple of contemporary thinkers who are kind of like this in ethics and politics.)

So given how you describe yourself, it doesn't sound so much like you have a problem with consequentialism itself. It sounds like you are gripped by what has been called the defeasibility of rules; that is, even the best rules and principles have exceptions and can be "defeated." You're attaching this to an emphasis on practical consequences, sort of implying that we should make exceptions when the rules conflict with the consequences they are supposed to produce. And that's not a wildly implausible position on the face of it. Any principle worth mentioning is probably going to range over complex, shifting sets of circumstances, and if it's simple enough to remember, it's probably too simple to cover all those possibilities. There are challenges to saying ALL rules and principles can be defeasible. For instance, when you do make an exception to some rule, you presumably appeal to something else that is somehow more important: why wouldn't you expect that to lead you to some set of things that were more important than everything else, and perhaps a set of rules that reflect that? Aren't you saying that there are some kinds of practical consequences that are important in and of themselves? (And if there's nothing like that, will our decisions end up being arbitrary or circular at some point?)

For what it's worth, I think most pragmatists (including me) would share your sense that most rules/principles should have exceptions. There's just a lot of other stuff that goes along with pragmatism that you may or may not have in mind.
posted by el_lupino at 4:10 PM on September 1, 2018 [13 favorites]

I've lectured in ethics, and I think the closest to what you are thinking of in moral philosophy is moral particularism (e.g. Jonathan Dancy and his book Ethics without Principles), or moral pluralism (e.g. W.D. Ross). Both theories work on the understanding that in any given situation there may be various values in play that we need to balance, and no one size fits all rule that can always tell us the right thing to do.
posted by leibniz at 8:43 PM on September 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

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