Pragmatism Vs Idealism Essay

In a series of heroic leaps of logic, I aim to highlight some important links between three current concerns: Labour’s leadership contest, the Brexit vote built on emotion over facts, and the insufficient use of evidence in policy. In each case, there is a notional competition between ‘idealism’ and ‘pragmatism’ (as defined in common use, not philosophy); the often-unrealistic pursuit of a long term ideal versus the focus on solving more immediate problems often by compromising ideals and getting your hands dirty. We know what this looks like in party politics, including the compromises that politicians make to win elections and the consequences for their image, but do we know how to make the same compromises when we appeal for a more deliberative referendum or more evidence-informed policymaking?

I searched Google for a few minutes until I found a decent hook for this post. It is a short Forbes article by Susan Gunelius advocating a good mix of pragmatic and idealistic team members:

Pragmatic leaders focus on the practical, “how do we get this done,” side of any task, initiative or goal.  They can erroneously be viewed as negative in their approach when in fact they simply view the entire picture (roadblocks included) to get to the end result.  It’s a linear, practical way of thinking and “doing.”

Idealist leaders focus on the visionary, big ideas.  It could be argued that they focus more on the end result than the path to get there, and they can erroneously be viewed as looking through rose-colored glasses when, in fact, they simply “see” the end goal and truly believe there is a way to get there”.

On the surface, it’s a neat description of the current battle to win the Labour party, with Jeremy Corbyn representing the idealist willing to lose elections to stay true to the pure ideal, and Owen Smith representing the pragmatist willing to compromise on the ideal to win an election.

In this context, pragmatic politicians face a dilemma that we often take for granted in party politics: they want to look flexible enough to command the ‘centre’ ground, but also appear principled and unwilling to give up completely on their values to secure office. Perhaps pragmatists also accept to a large extent that the means can justify the ends: they can compromise their integrity and break a few rules to win office if it means that they serve the long term greater good as a result (in this case, better a compromised socialist than a Tory government). So, politicians accept that a slightly tarnished image is the price you pay to get what you want.

For current purposes, let us assume that you are the kind of person drawn more to the pragmatist rather than the idealist politician; you despair at the naiveté of the idealist politician, and expect to see them fail rather than gain office.

If so, how might we draw comparisons with other areas in politics and policymaking?

Referendums should be driven by facts and an intelligent public, not lies and emotions

Many people either joke or complain seriously about most of the public being too stupid to engage effectively in elections and referendums. I will use this joke about Trump because I saw it as a meme, and on Facebook it has 49000 smiley faces already:

An more serious idealistic argument about the Brexit vote goes something like this:

  • the case for Remain was relatively strong and backed by most of the best experts
  • most Leave voters ignored or mistrusted the experts
  • the Leave campaign was riddled with lies and exaggerations; and,
  • a large chunk of the public was not intelligent enough to separate the lies from the facts.

You often have to read between the lines and piece together this argument, but Dame Liz Forgan recently did me a favour by spelling out a key part in a speech to the British Academy:

Democracies require not just literate and numerate electorates. They need people who cannot be sold snake oil by every passing shyster because their critical faculties have been properly honed. Whose popular culture has not degenerated so completely that every shopping channel hostess is classed as a celebrity. Where post-modern irony doesn’t undermine both honest relaxation and serious endeavour. Where the idea of a post-factual age is seen as an acute peril not an amusing cultural meme. If the events of June have taught us anything it is that we need to put the rigour back in our education, the search for truth back in our media.

Of course, I have cherry picked the juiciest part to highlight a sense of idealism that I have seen in many places. Let’s link it back to our despair at the naïvely idealist politician: doesn’t this look quite similar? If we took this line, and pursued public education as our main solution to Brexit, wouldn’t people think that we are doomed to fail in the long term and lose a lot of other votes on the way?

Another (albeit quicker and less idealistic) solution, proposed largely by academics (many of whom are highly critical of the campaigns) is largely institutional: let’s investigate the abuse of facts during the referendum to help us produce new rules of engagement. Yet, if the problem is that people are too stupid or emotional to process facts, it doesn’t seem that much more effective.

At this stage, I’d like to say: instead of clinging to idealism, let’s be pragmatic about this. If you despair of the world, get your hands dirty to win key votes rather than hope that people will do the right thing or wait for a sufficiently ‘rational’ public.

Yet, I don’t think we yet know enough about how to do it and how far ‘experts’ should go, particularly since many experts are funded – directly or indirectly – by the state and are subject to different (albeit often unwritten) rules than politicians. So, in a separate post, I provide some bland advice that might apply to all:

  • Don’t simply supply people with more information when you think they are not paying enough attention to it. Instead, try to work out how they think, to examine how they are likely to demand and interpret information.
  • Don’t just bemoan the tendency of people to accept simple stories that reinforce their biases. Instead, try to work out how to produce evidence-based stories that can compete for attention with those of campaigners.
  • Don’t stop at providing simpler and more accessible information. People might be more likely to read a blog post than a book or lengthy report, but most people are likely to remain blissfully unaware of most academic blogs.

Yet, if we think that other referendum participants are winning because they are lying and cheating, we might also think that honourable strategies won’t tip the balance. We know that, like pragmatic politicians, we might need to go a bit further to win key debates. Anything else is idealism, right?

Policy should be based on evidence, not electoral politics, ideology and emotion

The same can be said for many scientists bemoaning the lack of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ (EBPM). Some express the naïve hope that politicians become trained to think like scientists and/ or the view that evidence-based policymaking should be more like the idea of evidence-based medicine in which there is a hierarchy of evidence. Others try to work out how they can improve the supply of evidence or set up new institutions to get policymakers to pay more attention to facts. This seems to be EBPM’s equivalent of idealism, in which you largely wish for something that won’t exist rather than trying to produce pragmatic strategies for the real world.

A more pragmatic two-step solution is to:

(1) work out how and why policymakers demand information, and the policymaking context in which they operate (which I describe in The Politics of Evidence-Based Policymaking, and with Kathryn Oliver and Adam Wellstead in PAR).

(2) draw on as many interdisciplinary insights to explore how to do something about it, such as to establish the psychology of policymakers and identify good ways to tell simple stories to generate an emotional connection to your evidence (which I describe in a forthcoming special issue in Palgrave Communications).

Should academics remain idealists rather than pragmatists?

Of course, it is legitimate to take what I am calling an idealistic approach. In politics, Corbyn’s idealism is certainly capturing a part of the public imagination (while another part of the public watches on, sniggering or aghast). In the Academy, it may be a part of a legitimate attempt to maintain your integrity by not engaging directly in politics or policymaking, and/or accepting that academics largely contribute to a very long term enlightenment function rather than enjoy immediate impact. All I am saying is that you need to choose and, if you seek more direct impact, you need to forego idealism and start thinking about what it means to be pragmatic while pursuing ‘evidence informed’ politics.

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Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, UK politics and policy

Tagged as brexit, Brexit brexit brexit brexit brexit brexit brekit, evidence, evidence-based policymaking, Government, Policy, policymaking, public policy, the Academy, UK politics and policy

Pragmatism Vs. Idealism (a Man

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Morality is often overpowered by materialistic pursuits. In “A Man for All Seasons”,Robert Bolt shows the corruption of those who put self interest above all other values. His use of such characters as Thomas Cromwell, Richard Rich, Chapuys and Wolsey help convey this
corruption. There is yet another character who is a pragmatist that Bolt successfully represents. Thomas More is an idealist as well as a pragmatist, for he is prepared to give up everything for his beliefs and takes all precautions possible to make his case “watertight”. It is through this pragmatism and idealism that Robert Bolt shows the corruption of the times.
     Thomas More believed in his ideals to such an extent that he was prepared to sacrifice his life for them, if the need arrived. He was a firm believer in the separation of Church and State. When the King tried to start the reformation of England and the Church by a simple Act of Parliament called the Act of Supremacy, Thomas refused to sign it. He believed that the indictment of the King was “grounded in an Act of Parliament which is directly repugnant to law
of God. The King in Parliament cannot bestow he Supremacy of the Church because it is a Spiritual Supremacy! And more to this the immunity of the Church is promised both in Magna Carta and the Kings own Coronation Oath!”(Bolt, p. 92) The marriage was yet another reason why More refused to sign the Act. He knew that if he signed it then he would accept the King as the Supreme Head of Church and thus give the King the power to “dispense with the dispensation” which to him was against his morals and religion. Of course the marriage was associated with other things -attack on the abbeys, the whole Reformation policy-to which More was violently opposed. When told by Norfolk that his parish attire is a disrespect to the King
and his office. More replies that “the service of God is not a dishonor to any office”(Bolt, p.26) Even though he loves the King to death as proved by Mores loyalty towards him, he values his
morality and religion more. For his conscience is a “little area where I must rule myself”(Bolt,p.34). His position is perfectly described in his belief that “when statesmen forsake their own
private conscience for the sake of their public duties... they lead their country by a short route to chaos.

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Pragmatism         Idealism         Other Things         Self Interest         Robert Bolt         Magna Carta         Separation Of Church         Supremacy         Parish        

” His idealism is clearly shown in his refusal to take the oath for the oath to him was an
invitation to God to act as a witness as well as a judge and the consequence of a perjury was damnation. He is a man who is “anchored to his principles” (Bolt, p.36). The issue is not about what other people see his beliefs as but “not that I believe it, but that I believe it...”(Bolt, p.53). He needs to be true to his conscience and cannot let other people interfere with these decisions, for when he faces his creator it is he alone who will answer Him. “In matters of conscience, the loyal subject is more bounded to be loyal to his conscience than to any other thing”(Bolt, p.89) Even towards his tragic end he is so sure of his righteousness that he advises the headsman to “be not afraid of your office. You send me to God. He will not refuse one who is to blithe to go to him” (Bolt, p.94) Thus, it becomes clear that Thomas alone possess the “moral squint” that no other character possesses in the play.
     Thomas More is a pragmatist with a lawyers mind and a loyal heart. He was able to foresee the future and knew exactly what could be used against him later on. When Thomas More realized that the silver goblet that he received from the woman was a bribe he immediately got rid of it. He gave it to Rich, for he knew the type of person Rich was, and gave the woman an impeccably correct judgment. Not surprisingly, the goblet was later used against him but due to More’s actions, it held little substance. More’s trust in the law was his trust in society; his desperate sheltering beneath the forms of the law was his determination to remain in the shelter
of society. To him the law was a forest in which he could hide and never be found; it was a “causeway upon which, so long as he keeps to it, a citizen may walk safely” (Bolt, p. 89) Thus, with this belief More took every action to not to trap himself but rather be protected by the law. He avoided all events that may be misinterpreted as treason. When Signor Chapuys came to More to inform him that the people in Yorkshire were ready for resistance by force of arms,
More deliberately misinterpreted it as “Metaphorical arms. The breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation.”(Bolt, p. 51) He is able to see right through people and he knows he has
spies in the house such as the steward looking for some evidence against him and thus he protects himself quit cleverly. Also, as soon as Norfolk arrives, More warns him of the rising in
Yorkshire, thus proving his loyalty to the King and protecting himself. On Chapuys’ second arrival, he offers More a letter from the King of Spain, he doesn’t lay a finger on it, for then he
will be allying with the enemy. He further goes on to show it to Alice and everyone else that the seal has not been broken, thus showing that he has not read the letter. Even in the case of the
Maid of Kent, More writes to her “advising her to abstain from meddling with the affairs of Princes and the State” (Bolt, p. 67). As a precaution, More gets it notarized and thus it is evidence in favor of him, not against him. Other then refusing every possible way of being disloyal, More uses silence as his main strategy. “He was a man with a firm sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off, what area of himself he could reveal to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved.” He refuses to talk to anyone or declare his position on the Kings divorce. He knows that anything he says canbe used against him as treason and thus repeatedly says that he will answer to the King alone. The corruption of the times is evident when, after failing to find anything on More, Cromwell decides to “put something in the cupboard” (Bolt, p. 69). The laws that More hid behind are
now twisted in such a way that he is charged with ingratitude and sentenced to death and it is
this single event that Thomas More fails to foresee.
     Richard Rich, Thomas Cromwell, Chapuys, and Wolsey are other pragmatist who use
their foresight of the future for personal power and advancement. Richard Rich is a very sneaky
and ambitious man. He wants to be popular for when he is offered the teachers job he comments
“who would know it?” (Bolt, p.6) It is evident that Richard is capable of bribery when he says
“But every man has his price” (Bolt, p. 4) Later on during the play, due to his hunger for fame
and money, he sells out to Cromwell and lies about More under oath. Richard climbs on other
people to get to where he wants to be. Every step that Richard goes up, Thomas goes a step
down. At the end, Richard gets what he wants. He wanted a gown like Thomas’ and now he has
it, symbolically meaning his status and position. Cromwell is another scavenger who is a
pragmatist. He knows exactly how to get what he wants. He is like the Kings ears, very cruel
and dangerous. He is a man for whom the ends justify the means and thus he feels no regret in
having More destroyed. He knows that in dark corners can lie ears waiting to hear, thus he is
very careful in planning his conspiracy. In the trial, Cromwell rewards Rich for lying about the
More and sends away the only two people that would be able to save the More. Chapuys is a
mirror image of Cromwell. Just like Cromwell is King Henry’s ears, Chapuys is those of the
King of Spain. He hunts around for information by paying the steward and tries his best to get
More on his side, so later he himself may be rewarded. Last but not least, Wolsey is another
pragmatist who is a self serving man. Even though he is a churchman he has no moral
conscience. He wants to be the pope only for the materialistic rather than spiritual reasons. He
is supposed to be a holy man yet he speaks vulgarity. When talking about Queen Catherine he
calls her “as barren as a brick” and when addressing Anne he refers to her as a “fertile thing”
(Bolt, p. 12) He even sacrifices his conscience for the sake of loyalty to the King and says that
good statesmen shouldn’t possess “that horrible moral squint”(Bolt, p. 11) and thus, through this
it is evident that Wolsey is morally corrupt. Thus, Richard Rich, Thomas Cromwell, Chapuys,
and Wolsey are like “jackals” who follow the King because he is their lion, and so they could
pick up the left over pieces from him.
     The Common Man is the supreme pragmatist throughout the play. He functions as a one
man Greek chorus who is an outside observer as well as a commentator. As the steward, the
common man spies on his master for the sake of money. He is a pragmatist for he only tells
them things “that are common knowledge! But now they’ve given money for it and everyone
wants value for his money”. When he realizes that his position may be in trouble he “will go
deaf,, blind, and dumb”. This shows his realism for he knows exactly what he wants, as well as,
his limitations and parameters. He will not leak any information that may get him into trouble.
The steward can also see through people. When introducing characters he comments on them.
“Lady Margaret, my master’s daughter; lovely, really lovely” (Bolt, p. 7) He also comments that
Richard Rich is not a righteous person. Thus, he is able to see through people into their deeper
characters and can foreshadow later events. When Thomas More says that he will miss the
steward, Matthew is able to look through More and realize that it is a lie for he says “what’s in
me for him to miss”(Bolt, p.56) and thus looks out for himself when he refuses a salary cut. Yet
another example of the common mans realism is his refusal to serve the More anymore. Before,
the boatsman used to give More rides on his boat, but as soon as the King ordered that More not
be served, the boatsman stopped answering to Thomas’ calls. Even as a jailer, the common man
is able to look into the future and thus save himself from destruction. When he is told that if he
reports any statements made by More, he will be given 50 guineas he is tempted. But later, he
realizes that “Fifty guineas isn’t tempting; fifty guineas is alarming. If he’d left it as swearing...
but fifty- that’s serious money. If its worth that much now its worth my neck presently. I want
no part of it. They can sort it out between them. I feel my deafness coming on.” (Bolt, pp.
78-79) Here the common man’s pragmatism is clearly shown because as soon as he realizes that
he may be putting himself in danger he becomes “deaf, blind and dumb”, for he says “I am a
plain and simple man who just wants to keep out of trouble.” (Bolt, p.85) Even as a steward he
sees the future, “My master Thomas More would give anything to anyone. Some say that’s good
and some say that’s bad, but I say he can’t help it-and that’s bad...because someday someone’s
going to ask him for something that he wants to keep; and he’ll be out of practice”. (Bolt, p.10)
Here he sees how More will be asked to sacrifice his conscience for loyalty to the King and he
wont able to do that and as a result, be terminated. When the common man transforms into the
publican, he only emphasizes his pragmatism. He realizes that anything he says may be used
against him, so he only answers to Cromwell by saying “I don’t understand, sir.” (Bolt, p.40)
The common man would rather be “a live rat, than a dead lion.”(Bolt, p.73) He is a
representative of us, the people. “If we should bump into one another, recognize me.” (Bolt,
     In conclusion, with the exception of Thomas More, moral corruption is evident
throughout the play. Robert Bolt uses the characters of Richard Rich, Thomas Cromwell,
Chapuys, and Wolsey to portray how corruption comes to those who put self interest above all
values. He uses pragmatism and idealism to show how each character achieves his goals, and
how even though More took all precautions possible, he wasn’t able to escape the corruption of
society. He presents Thomas More’s idealism as the only admirable quality in that class of
society, for at that time the upper class were extremely corrupt. It is through this idealism that
Thomas more becomes hero and a saint.

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