Ideology, Pragmatism, Conceptual Frameworks, Ideals, Prejudices, and Yogachara

Chris Hayes has written an essay on pragmatism versus ideology that is inspiring much thoughtful commentary. It’s worth reading all the way through, but to simplify, Hayes looks at the reigning conventional wisdom that the Bush Administration failed because it is too ideological, whereas the Obama Administration promises to be pragmatic.

However, Chris argues, ideology and pragmatism do not neatly sort themselves into cleanly separated dichotomies.

For one thing, as Glenn Greenwald has astutely pointed out on his blog, while ideology can lead decision-makers to ignore facts, it is also what sets the limiting conditions for any pragmatic calculation of interests. “Presumably, there are instances where a proposed war might be very pragmatically beneficial in promoting our national self-interest,” Greenwald wrote, “but is still something that we ought not to do. Why? Because as a matter of principle–of ideology–we believe that it is not just to do it, no matter how many benefits we might reap, no matter how much it might advance our ‘national self-interest.'”

One frustration I had with Chris’s essay, and most of the essays written in response to it, is that definitions of “ideology” and “pragmatism” remain a bit fuzzy.

For example, Hayes quotes Alan Greenspan: “Well, remember that what an ideology is, is a conceptual framework with the way people deal with reality. Everyone has one. You have to–to exist, you need an ideology. The question is whether it is accurate or not.”

Here’s where I come in. I think Greenspan is right when he says that people deal with reality through conceptual frameworks. Buddhist teaching is that our self-identity is merely a kind of conceptual framework. The way we perceive reality is a conceptual framework. The Yogacara school of Buddhist philosophy, for example, says that everything that exists, exists only as a process of knowing. That is, everything is just space and matter until our brains organize it into this or that, and this process of organization is in large part conceptual.

However, from this perspective, everything short of Anuttara-Samyak-Sambodhi (and good luck with that) is ideology, which renders the word ideology into mush.

The American Heritage dictionary defines ideology as

1. The body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture. 2. A set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system.

So an ideology would be a set of values, perhaps, or a belief system. Let’s work with that. Now, what is “pragmatism”? Back to the dictionary —

1. Philosophy A movement consisting of varying but associated theories, originally developed by Charles S. Peirce and William James and distinguished by the doctrine that the meaning of an idea or a proposition lies in its observable practical consequences. 2. A practical, matter-of-fact way of approaching or assessing situations or of solving problems.

The meaning of an idea or a proposition lies in its observable practical consequences.” I like that. One of my problems with current conservative ideology is that its observable practical consequences are light-years apart from its stated goals or ideals. For example, one gets the impression that conservatives think “freedom” is acquired by cutting taxes, deregulating business, and waging wars against hostile heads of state on the theory that, given the means and opportunity, those heads of state might attack us first.

However, the observable practical consequences of the Bush Administration’s tax-and-war policies are that our economy is wrecked, our military is weakened, our credibility is shot, and we’re in debt up to our eyeballs to China, which has one of the most heinously nasty governments on the planet. I contend that this is less freedom, not more freedom. Therefore, we can define “movement conservative” ideology as a plan for making America poorer, weaker, more vulnerable, and less free, since it results in limited options and puts us in the position of having to kiss China’s ass.

After several years of holding up Bush as the Conservative’s Conservative, now conservatives complain that Bush is not a “real” conservative, because he “grew” government, as in raising expenditures. However, one can argue that growing government is an observable practical consequence of movement conservatism. The truth is that Bush has been a purer Reaganite than Reagan himself. Bush has been more aggressive about cutting taxes, more favorable to business — to the point that regulatory agencies have been handed over to the industries they regulate — more opposed to regulation and oversight, more determined not to back down from fights even if they are stupid fights. Yes, federal coffers have hemorrhaged money under Bush, but that’s mostly because of war, incompetence and corruption. And the war and corruption parts, at least, go hand-in-hand with conservative “ideology.”

From this perspective, pragmatism is pursuing a course that will give you the result you want, and not-pragmatism is pursing a course that will not give you the result you want.

For example, in a response to Chris Hayes, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that “People forget that there is pragmatic, if ultimately flawed, case for torture.” However, people who have studied torture say that it gives you bad intelligence, and further, it complicates trying to get convictions for whatever the tortured people allegedly did. Thus, torture is not pragmatic at all.

And why do people do things that are not pragmatic? Because they want to.

Torture is its own end. People who want to do it, want to do it for the sheer emotional gratification of it. They won’t admit that, but it’s the truth. Torture has no pragmatic application; therefore, no honest pragmatic argument can be made for it. Genuine pragmatism is, IMO, centered in self-honesty, whereas un-pragmatic ideology is centered in self-deception.

Pragmatism is, IMO, pursuing a course of action in order to obtain an achievable result, rather than pursuing a course of action because it is emotionally gratifying. The flaw in my definition is that people are dishonest with themselves about why they do things. People who are motivated by resentment, bias or greed will nearly always throw a cloak of ideals over what’s really driving them.

For example, conservatives want to do away with regulation on the grounds that regulation is unnecessary and gets in the way of business. Regulation is unnecessary, they argue, because corporate executives would not do something, such as cheating customers or stockholders, that is detrimental to the long-term interests of the company. But the fact is that corporate executives do stupid and underhanded things all the time. Why? Because they want to. Greed trumps good business practice every bleeping day.

And many of the leaders of the Right who push deregulation and small-government ideology do so not because of “freedom,” but because they want to cash in. Whether they are able to admit that to themselves I do not know.

Let’s get back to the original contention, the conventional wisdom that the Bush Administration failed because it is too ideological, whereas the Obama Administration promises to be pragmatic. Yes, the Obama Administration, so far, promises to be relentlessly pragmatic. We see this in the way Joe Lieberman was “forgiven.” Yes, it would have been emotionally gratifying to kick Lieberman’s ass off of the Senate Homeland Security Committee chair, but to what end? Democrats are better off with Lieberman caucusing with them rather than with the Republicans, like it or not.

However, the Obama Administration also promises to be ideological, in the sense that it promises to operate within the parameters of values and ideas. We can debate what those values and ideas might be, but we can’t say there aren’t any.

The Bush Administration, on the other hand, most certainly was not pragmatic. Just look at the results.

I have argued in the past that all ideologies are wrong, because none of them are the whole truth.

I define ideology as a kind of cognitive filing system. The cosmos is an infinitely complex place, and we have very finite brains, so as we grow and learn we tend to organize input in certain ways to make sense of it. The way we learn to file depends a lot on our upbringing, the social and cultural values we absorb, our experiences, the limitations of our intelligence, etc. etc. We use cognition to interface with absolute reality, breaking the awesome absolute down into little digestible relative bits that we can comprehend, label, and file. And we all do this, unless maybe you are a superduper Einstein-level genius, and then I suspect you still do it most of the time.

I still think that’s true. However, a wise person is able to learn, adjust, and adapt his ideology to fit changing reality (or, his changing understanding of reality). A fool cannot do that; fools will continue along an obviously unwise course because their ideologies have become a cosmic security blanket, something they cling to for safety and comfort rather than consult for answers. And there’s your distinction between ideology and pragmatism.

14 thoughts on “Ideology, Pragmatism, Conceptual Frameworks, Ideals, Prejudices, and Yogachara

  1. Long term goals and “satisfaction” must occasionally (perhaps always) diverge.

    I would have liked to see Lieberman removed as Chair. But would that have helped or hurt the long term goal. Remember, we do not know exactly what the “Long Term” goal that P-E Obama has in mind.

    Is it in our long term interests to hold part of the Bush Administration accountable for trashing our national values?

  2. Is it in our long term interests to hold part of the Bush Administration accountable for trashing our national values?

    I’d say it is in our long-term interests to thoroughly investigate the Bush Administration and drag all of its shenanigans kicking and screaming into the light of day, so that only the most utterly reality-challenged Bushies can deny what they did. And where crimes were committed, prosecutions should follow. This is pragmatic, because we’ve seen what happens when perps are allowed to slide.

    The way this is handled is critical. If it is rushed or if it appears to be purely partisan or vindictive, it will come back to bite us. That’s the difference between the Clinton impeachment and the Nixon almost-impeachment. With Clinton, it was obvious the Right was utterly deranged where Clinton was concerned and were out to get him. With Nixon, the public saw a bipartisan and mostly dispassionate effort to protect the Constitution.

  3. I found the Chris Hayes piece welcome but maddeningly incomplete in certain ways. Several points (mostly clarifying or building on what you wrote):

    – Ideologies are like maps. They oversimplify reality to make reality easier to handle. Being oversimplifications, all maps have biases, because they have to leave things out. A roadmap will not show the kinds of soils found in a region, for example. Maps are useful tools, but the problem arises when the user thinks the map is reality. This confusion produces a disconnect with reality, usually with disastrous results – see the last eight years in America, see also Soviet communism.

    – Emotions are the biggest driver of human action. Ideas, ideologies, intellectualizations are just rationalizations papering over emotional drives.

    – Conservativism’s goal is to create and sustain an aristocracy, regardless of what it advertises about itself – outright lies and deception are standard procedure in the conservative toolkit. This includes self-deception as well. The desire to dominate and the security it supposedly provides is the driving emotion behind conservativism. Conservativism is all about fear, despite the way it is sold to others, much of which is smokescreen and rationalization.

    – Pragmatism is a loose name for an approach that I would say has its goal as doing what works, and not being too married to an ideology. A conservative can also be pragmatic about his/her need to dominate. Obama’s approach is perhaps pragmatic but is geared toward providing the most good for the most people – the democratic or anti-aristocratic ideology. This inclusive ideology is the opposite of the conservative, aristocratic, exclusive ideology. The willingness of the Democratic ideology to be inclusive, considering all viewpoints, makes it seem pragmatic.

  4. Ideology requires faith – sometimes blind faith. When everything and eveeryone around you shows you to be wrong, you stamp your little feet and say facts don’t matter. That you know better.
    Pragmatism is more scientific.
    Pragmatist: You check the weather on the news, check it in the paper, look out the window. Hmmm… Actually kind of warm for a December day. But the news reports show a cold front coming in later in the day bringing winds and rain. The pragmatist brings along a raincoat and golashes (do they even still make those things?).
    Ideologue. Hmm, looks warm outside. The news is calling for rain and wind? Well, I don’t believe it. It’s too nice a day. I’ll go out in in a t-shirt and shorts.
    Unfortunately, it’ll be the pragmatist who catches cold. Why? I don’t know. Some things are just not explainable 🙂

  5. Ideology requires faith

    I mostly agree with that, but it does depend on how you define “ideology.” If ideology is a belief system it requires faith, but if you define it as a set of values I don’t think it necessarily does.

  6. “Emotions are the biggest drivers of human action” (I’ll add ‘and thought’) moonbat. Foreinstance, those who study the why’s and wherefores of torture argue that it is a lust for tyranny that drives people to torture. The Bush Ad. has shown without a doubt that tyranny is their bag so the fact that they promoted and engaged in torture was a foregone conclusion.

    A controlled and simulated ‘stock market’ lab study revealed that even when ‘traders’ have iron-clad information and a predictable outcome of their trades, they will behave ‘irrationally,’ that is create ‘bubbles’ that inevitably pop and inevitably result in huge ‘losses.’ Simply put, their emotions take over somewhere along the line, the spirit of competition and beating somebody out of a few bucks take over and it’s inevitably all down hill from there. (Our present economic mess is not the first and it won’t be the last, no matter how many ‘regulations’ we put in place – so say the guys who devised the lab study.)

  7. “Idelogy requires faith”
    You can make up BS, Ideology is full of BS,but the truth is the truth….One does not “make up truth”,
    Truth is a constant.Voltaire wrote about this in the 1700’s, yet it continues to elude many.

  8. maha and erinyes,
    Unfortunately, as the last 28 years have shown us, “truth” is in the eye of the beholder. As are “values.”
    When the government and media create a cacophony of noise, obfuscating what we know as truth, the truth gets lost in all of the racket.
    This adminstration has been shown “the truth” on every issue, yet followed its ideology. I have shown my conservative friend facts that support the truth. They turn a blind eye. It’s not “their” truth -like Rove who had the “real” numbers in 2006.
    We are rational people. We search out the truth. They create their own truth and then sell it to the traditional media, who then sell it to back to us. That is the circle of lies that has been the backbone of this current adminstration.

  9. As are “values.”

    I’d say values are values. Whether something is a “value” is not really a matter of faith. Whether values are good or not, or whether one is honest about what his real values are, is another matter.

  10. You wrote:

    “fools will continue along an obviously unwise course because their ideologies have become a cosmic security blanket, something they cling to for safety and comfort rather than consult for answers.”

    Replace “fools” with “conservatives” and there you have the problem. Conservatives don’t know any other way to act than to promote power for themselves and their cronies. This makes them level 3 (traditionalism) or even level 2 (my god can beat up your god), while you’re operating from level 5 (post-modernist dialectical inter-institutional self-transformation):

    The average conservative can’t even understand what you’re saying, because any institutions other than the ones they control are by (their) definition evil and in need of being destroyed, so how could they engage anyone who finds any merit in such institutions in any kind of dialectic other than deception intended to overpower?

    I have some hope that Obama is actually operating from around level 6, which recognizes the value of levels 5 and below and sees that certain aspects of each of them are in some senses better, yet all have their values and uses. The evidence for this is his success in presenting his philosophies, policies, and proposals in ways that make sense to multiple different levels at the same time.

    Pragmatism and ideology mean very different things at different levels. Many “liberals” operate at level 4, of institutions (trade unions, political parties, etc.) and thought Obama should fight elections harder in traditionals ways (esp. sling mud at his opponents). He did it his way and won.

    Yogacara is somewhere around level 8 or 9, so it’s no wonder none of us really understand how to apply it. 🙂

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