Image of Idealism vs. pragmatism - the idealism/pragmatism dichotomy

There's a joke in philosophy that goes like this:

The First Law of Philosophy: For every philosopher, there exists an equal and opposite philosopher.

The Second Law of Philosophy: They're both wrong.

Formidable Opponent - Pragmatism or Idealism: Idealist Stephen and the pragmatist Stephen attempt a compromise on how best to deal with cats and dogs.

Take idealism vs. pragmatism. There are many different perspectives on what idealism and pragmatism are. Let's define idealism as a rigid belief system in which you live your life based upon a morality as it is "supposed to be" or "should be," and let's define pragmatism as doing what is practical, regardless of how you things are supposed to be or should be.

Using those definitions, we can make some logical generalizations on how each is likely to act: idealists are more likely to make decisions with the longer-term in mind, while a pragmatist will be more focused on the short-term. An idealist will more likely fight for what he considers the "best" solution based on a fixed standard, even if he is unlikely to achieve it, while a pragmatist will more likely compromise his position in order to be more "accommodating." An idealist will more likely have an "all-or-nothing," "extremist" attitude, while a pragmatist will look to keep all options open, having a more "moderate" attitude. An idealist is more likely to stand-up to the status quo, while a pragmatist is more likely to "go along to get along."

Should idealism be "tempered?" Without idealism, would we lose sight of what "could be?" Does it have to be either-or when it comes to idealism vs. pragmatism?

Idealism is the belief that we should adopt moral principles, even if they have negative effects on our lives. The idealist is willing to suffer in order to do what he thinks is right... Pragmatism is a rejection of Idealism. If the Idealists principles get in the way, the Pragmatist solves it by rejecting moral principles. They do whatever is deemed as practical, with no concerns for morality... The problem is that principles are generalized knowledge that allow you to predict the outcome of certain kinds of actions. By rejecting principles, you have no means of determining what might be practical.

These two positions form a false dichotomy. The Idealist rejects practicality for the sake of moral principles. The Pragmatist rejects moral principles for practicality. But that all hinges on the view that moral principles are in conflict with what's practical, instead of means to being practical. It assumes that they're mutually exclusive. But if you adopt a morality of rational self-interest, where your morality seeks to enhance your life, your moral principles become your means of determining what kind of actions will be practical.

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I consider myself an idealist, but I openly admit that a pragmatic response to some events is entirely in order. Take taxes, for example. I am morally against how the government uses my taxes for funding wars (among other things). But I am not willing to go to jail over it, as it wouldn't make any difference in the government's behavior. In other words, I know it wouldn't be practical. Does that make me a pragmatist or a idealist who takes precautions?

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About objectivism


My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.

My philosophy, Objectivism, holds that:

  1. Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
  2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
  3. Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
  4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

- Ayn Rand

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