Is incalculability a defense for ignorance?

We talk a good deal about pragmatism. It’s as if being pragmatic sidesteps more difficult issues that require time and cerebral resources to sort. Time and cerebral resources we hope to apply to something else, something of more immediate resolve. Some might say, “Don’t worry about the theoretical underpinnings of your choices; don’t try to be right. Just try to be right enough, right now.”

I understand this. Trying to consider every configuration of choices yields the same sort of error your calculator returns when you divide anything by zero. There are too many.

Rather than fret over this maddening feat, it’s simpler to look at the moment. What do I need right now? we ask. What can I do today? I don’t care where I’m going in a year, or five years, or for the rest of my life; where do I want to be tomorrow, or maybe even this weekend? This scope maps more cleanly to our faculties; like predicting weather some five years in the future, predicting what will be right for me next year or the year after relies on understanding too many variables. I won’t be a long-range climatologist; I’ll just be a weather man. Is it raining today, and if so, do I need to close the windows? Is it raining tomorrow, and if so, will I need to take an umbrella?

I get it, really. Many people, myself included, fumed over the Teri Schiavo case. While politicians, preachers, and pundits argued from their comfortable rhetoric, Ms. Schiavo lay in a state with which none of us were prepared to truly empathize, but for its possibly great discomfort, sympathized. The idealist would stubbornly hold out on conclusion until he had considered all angles, had worked out all the moral calculus; those who fumed skewed toward the pragmatic, honoring the quality of her life before honoring the muddled precepts of any culture of life.

While sitting here, in Fountain Square, typing this, a man approached with a pitiable but unsurprising expression, asking for spare change. I have spare change in my pocket, and just as much as before I told him I had none. After the fact, I am pondering the rightness of my lie, of my presumption that this man was attempting to take advantage of my sympathy. I’m pondering the rightness of refusing to offer a minimal amount of money even if he misrepresented himself. Here, I acted pragmatically, eyeing the moment’s result rather than its implications about my moral fiber, or some objective moral cloth into which I might weave myself. Whose hoax was worse?

It’s all a hoax.

Falling Down

The focus on pragmatism versus idealism is not so much a focus on whether or not to worry about the specificity and completeness of a moral consideration, as much as it is a question of how precisely such a system is to be applied. Imagine yourself in the woods, with thunderous clouds rolling in from the north. You have approximately 20 minutes to find or build shelter. A fantastic idealist may attempt to take a survey of the land, of its drainage, of the types and structural integrity of various existing materials, and upon finding a suitable site, would hope to create an engineering diagram of materials, construction methods, angles and forces, and do all this before starting to build. That is, he or she would do most of this wet. A fantastic pragmatist would find a tree with some branches, something to lean against the tree, and wait for the storm to pass, mostly dry. This pragmatist would not build something good, but something good enough.

Neither the idealist nor the pragmatist is more or less bound by the natural laws of the universe, though. It’s not as if the pragmatist considers a coarser kind of gravity, but rather considers a coarser approximation of the same gravity with which the idealist must work. Pragmatism versus idealism is not a dichotomy of fundamental structures on which they hang their decisions; it is a dichotomy of the approximation of a shared, immutable structure.

The moral pragmatist, then, is no less accountable for measures of rightness than is the moral idealist. No matter how approximately we consider our decisions, the reference point of their rightness doesn’t change. So, no matter how idealistic you are, you still have to wrestle with the issue of the authority, the source, of your rightness. Is there something objective that acts as our standard? Are we each left to define our rightness? Are we, instead, to avoid “rightness” as a matter of course, and just accept that morality is a currency with which we pay and are paid respect within a society? Is “right” a function of the exchange rate of our decisions in the moral marketplace?

Now a woman has approached me, as I sit in Fountain Square, and asked if I knew anyone who needed in-home babysitting. Despite her obvious desparation (approaching strangers on a city square about watching their children, in their home, isn’t well-reasoned), I changed my approach. “Well, our children attend a daycare that provides some educational activities. Everyone else I know uses something like that. I can’t think of anyone who’s looking for in-home daycare.” This is all true, and that truth is independent from the fact that I wouldn’t let a strange passerby in my home to watch my children. Is this more right? I don’t know. Is it a little more idealistic? Yes. Is it pragmatic? Yes. Its rightness, though, is invariant in either case.

Don’t think you can, through a focus on expediency, escape the need to consider the sources and implications of your actions. It’s a hoax.

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