COVID-19 and the Insufficiency of Pragmatism

Our world is enamored with pragmatism, which teaches that knowing the world is inseparable from agency within it.  While pragmatism has become part and parcel of contemporary understandings of everything -- from culture to politics to economics -- one nevertheless wonders whether it has the resources we need to solve problems and meet needs, especially now, during what Ephraim Radner, of Wycliffe College, has described as “the time of the virus.”

Don’t misunderstand me: pragmatism, and practically minded decision-makers, play absolutely necessary roles in our chaotic and broken world.  And this may be even truer in uncertain times, like this one, when how we live and move and have our being ostensibly turns on the decisions of supremely pragmatic people, like Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx.  That something is necessary does not, however, mean it’s sufficient.  We know, for example, that water is necessary for human life.  But without oxygen and an appropriate atmosphere, human life is nevertheless impossible.  And so it is with pragmatism.   

Though pragmatism, and practically minded decision-makers, have an important role to play in the nation’s -- and, indeed, the world’s -- response to the COVID-19 pandemic, decisions based exclusively on practical considerations aren’t sufficient because practical considerations cannot answer whether or why questions. 

Take, for example, last month’s debate between President Trump and senior health officials about whether to reopen the country for business by Easter.  Although the president promised to hear other recommendations -- and has since adopted some -- his remarks about restarting the U.S. economy sent a different message than health officials, who continue to warn “that resuming business as usual could worsen conditions by accelerating the spread of the coronavirus.”  Rather than calling for the reopening of the country for business, health officials called for just the opposite: the doubling down on social distancing and other related measures

The difference in opinion ostensibly stems from the fact that, in the president’s mind, the COVID-19 pandemic is responsible for a languishing economy and the acute suffering of millions of companies and workers.  So he has -- understandably -- made his top priority the reopening of the country for business.  But public health officials don’t see the pandemic through an economic lens.  Instead, they see an unprecedented public health crisis that demands draconian measures, like the shuttering of schools, restaurants, and cities.   

And herein lies the problem: wherever there are two or more ostensibly viable solutions to a problem, pragmatism has no viable way to discriminate between them.  This doesn’t, of course, come as a surprise to those versed in the philosophy’s tenets.  As William James explained more than a century ago, pragmatism is a philosophy that “stands for no particular results.   It has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method.”  Instead, pragmatism is merely “an attitude of orientation” that turns its back on “first things” and principles in order to embrace “last things” and consequences. 

While we must continue to think sensibly and realistically about the challenges in front of us, we cannot continue only to think pragmatically because solving today’s problems requires discrimination and triage.  And pragmatism is utterly incapable of doing that.  What this means is that now cannot be a time to embrace an attitude of orientation towards last things and consequences to the exclusion of first things and principles.  Instead, now is the time to lean into first things and principles; now is the time to draw from a set of fixed points, or North Stars, by which we can calibrate wise and loving responses to a problem that has two or more viable solutions. 

To allow the economy to languish needlessly, or to permit the acute suffering of millions of companies and workers, strikes me as categorically, even morally, bad.  But so too does the reopening of the country for business before health officials give the “all clear.”  To determine which solution is preferable will require us to do more than think pragmatically.  It will require us to weigh competing principles, like the dignity of work and the inherent value of human life.   While weighing these against other principles won’t be easy, it’s absolutely necessary -- especially in this time of the virus. 

Grayson is a 3L at the University of Oklahoma College of Law. 

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