Final Class Comments

One of the criticisms of philosophy classes is that we just talk and talk and never come to any conclusions.  For that reason I’ve gotten into the habit of handing out some comments in the last class:  a few thoughts about what conclusions we can take away from the previous weeks’ work.  Here’s the handout I distributed last week:

Obama’s Pragmatism

As we’ve seen, Obama is often described as “pragmatic”:  for example, the May 2, 2009 New York Times ran a front page story entitled “As a Professor, Obama Held Pragmatic Views on Court.”  The question, of course, is what it means to be pragmatic. “Pragmatism” means many different things both in its ordinary sense (which is how most commentators use it) as well in its more technical, philosophical sense.

In its ordinary sense, to call Obama “pragmatic” means that he places an emphasis on results as opposed to ideological purity.  Less positively, it may mean that he lacks overarching principles but instead does whatever is expedient, not necessarily what is right in a deeper, moral, sense.  This ordinary sense of pragmatism is also open to a fairly serious charge:  if Obama is committed simply to doing “what works” what, then, are his criteria for “working”?  In other words, if he is only pragmatic in this ordinary sense, then this just defers the deeper question of how he decides what works:  and if there’s no answer to that question then his decisions will seem ad hoc and erratic.

And that, in a nutshell, is why we also want to look at more philosophical accounts of pragmatism.  After all, pragmatic philosophers are in the business of working out the foundations of pragmatism and, we would hope, would have some answer to what, ultimately, decides whether a course of action works or not.  So, even if Obama has never read a pragmatist (which is unlikely, given his personal acquaintance with several contemporary pragmatists), there’s still value in looking at what sorts of theories are at his disposal.

In this context it is also useful to see how pragmatism has developed over the last century or so.  As we saw, James’ version of pragmatism was highly individualistic and focused on large, metaphysical issues such as the existence of a god, etc.  Dewey’s pragmatism, in turn, was more a social philosophy deeply committed to the importance of democratic ways of life.  For Dewey, James’ insight that meaning is not inherent in an object but instead dependent on us and our purposes meant that we had to be democratic in our behavior toward others.  Again, because there is no fundamental meaning outside human experience, no ultimate reality that we need to get in sync with, we need instead to make sure that we are attentive to others experiences, both for our own good and for theirs.

According to Dewey, this has several concrete consequences:  we should, he argued, educate children so they can be full participating members of a democratic society; we should encourage social arrangements that promote interaction and participation among people; and, finally, we should favor policies that allow people to “grow” and expand their experiences.  For Dewey, then, “growth” is a fundamental good whose value is practically beyond question.

Contemporary pragmatists have expanded on Dewey’s themes in various ways.  As we saw, Richard Posner proposes a conservative, libertarian pragmatism that is skeptical about government intervention and people’s ability to participate deeply in democratic ways of life.  Roberto Unger, in turn, proposes a more left-wing pragmatism that suggests several concrete policies governments could adopt to radically transform modern democracies.  Richard Rorty suggests a “liberal bourgeois” pragmatism that seems to take a live-and-let-live attitude toward other cultures and political ideologies, while Cornel West proposes a “prophetic” pragmatism that more fully embraces the tragic (and comedic) aspects of life and, he says, resonates with the blues, jazz, and the African-American Christian tradition.

Where does this leave Obama?  Well, first of all, it means that it is possible to be a pragmatist and have criteria for what works.  According to Dewey, what works is what encourages democratic ways of life and growth.  According to Posner, what works is generally what has the best economic outcomes.  And for West, what works is what does the most to relieve oppression and provide comfort to tortured souls.  (On the other hand, Rorty would argue that our standards of what works are simply our standards and cannot really be argued for.)

What kind of pragmatist is Obama?  It’s risky to make any definite pronouncement so early in his presidency, but I’d say it’s clear that he doesn’t agree with Posner either on the priority of economics or on the limits of democratic involvement:  his writings and experience as a community organizer show this pretty clearly.  Beyond that, there are clear resonances with the work of Dewey, West, Unger and, to a lesser extent, Rorty.  Like the first three, Obama seems to recognize that a pragmatic approach to decision-making commits one to an expansive, participatory understanding of democracy:  democracy because more than just an exercise in voting but, as Dewey put it, a way of life.  Like West, Obama finds important resources in the Christian tradition.  And, like Unger and Dewey, he sees government as a means for transforming lives.

Finally, it is worth remembering that pragmatism is a self-consciously modest philosophy.  (West, after all, calls it an “evasion” of philosophy.)  While other philosophies may fret about finding absolute foundations for our philosophical, ethical, and political beliefs, pragmatism is anti-foundational.  On the other hand, it is committed to a richer-than-normal conception of human experience that can then play a quasi-foundational role.  For example, if someone questions the value of growth or democracy the pragmatist can say a few words about why these are good things.  But beyond a certain point further argument will be impossible (a point Rorty makes well).  At that point the pragmatist can simply point to our experience:  we value growth, for example, because we experience it as a good thing.  As a result, expanding and deepening our range of experiences, and supporting policies that make this possible, is one of our fundamental responsibilities.  Philosophers can continue arguing this theoretical point, but the real goal is to make a practical difference.

Obama’s Legal Pragmatism

Following up on Jesse’s post, below, it’s worth highlighting a few passages from the New York Times article on Obama’s pramgatic legal philosophy.

Former students and colleagues describe Mr. Obama as a minimalist (skeptical of court-led efforts at social change) and a structuralist (interested in how the law metes out power in society). And more than anything else, he is a pragmatist who urged those around him to be more keenly attuned to the real-life impact of decisions. This may be his distinguishing quality as a legal thinker: an unwillingness to deal in abstraction, a constant desire to know how court decisions affect people’s lives.

There’s also a passing reference to Richard Posner:

Mr. Obama often expressed concern that “democracy could be dangerous,” Mr. Stone said, that the majority can be “unempathetic — that’s a word that Barack has used — about the concerns of outsiders and minorities.”

But when a student asked Mr. Obama to name the circuit judge he would most like to argue in front of, he named Richard Posner, a conservative. Judge Posner was smart enough to know when you were right, Mr. Obama told the class.

Despite their differences, Posner and Obama are both pragmatists.

Obama’s Pragmatism in Choosing Justices

–Posted by Jesse Knoth

Here is a recent article from the New York Times about Obama’s pragmatism in regards to dealing with the courts.

Justice Souter’s Retirement/Obama Press Meeting

–Posted by Peter Erickson

Video from MSNBC that was aired this afternoon, on Justice Souter’s retirement, and the Press Conference that President Obama interrupted.  We spoke of Obama’s Constitutional views the other day, and previously of his time spent as a constitutional law professor, and I predict we’ll have some interesting discussions on his Supreme Court Justice appointment if it happens soon.

“Student Loans: Cutting Out the Middle Man”- President Obama Makes Remarks on Higher Education

–Posted by Sarah Backus

On Friday, April 24, 2009 President Obama made a speech on college education and student loans.  I thought it was a good speech and would be valuable for other students to read.  It also answers a lot of questions other students have asked in class and relates to topics we have been discussing.

I have also copied and pasted the transcript of the speech here from the White House Blog.  Hope you guys find it interesting!


Office of the Press Secretary


For Immediate Release                              April 24, 2009


Diplomatic Reception Room

1:46 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  That was excellent — we might have to run her for something some day.  (Laughter.)  That was terrific.  Thank you, Stephanie.  I want to also introduce Yvonne Thomas, who is Stephanie’s proud mother.  And we appreciate everything that you’ve done.  And Stephanie’s father, Albert, is around here as well.

There are few things as fundamental to the American Dream or as essential for America’s success as a good education.  This has never been more true than it is today.  At a time when our children are competing with kids in China and India, the best job qualification you can have is a college degree or advanced training.  If you do have that kind of education, then you’re well prepared for the future — because half of the fastest growing jobs in America require a Bachelor’s degree or more.  And if you don’t have a college degree, you’re more than twice as likely to be unemployed as somebody who does.  So the stakes could not be higher for young people like Stephanie.

And yet, in a paradox of American life, at the very moment it’s never been more important to have a quality higher education, the cost of that kind of that kind of education has never been higher.  Over the past few decades, the cost of tuition at private colleges has more than doubled, while costs at public institutions have nearly tripled.  Compounding the problem, tuition has grown ten times faster than a typical family’s income, putting new pressure on families that are already strained and pricing far too many students out of college altogether.  Yet, we have a student loan system where we’re giving lenders billions of dollars in wasteful subsidies that could be used to make college more affordable for all Americans.

This trend — a trend where a quality higher education slips out of reach for ordinary Americans — threatens the dream of opportunity that is America’s promise to all its citizens.  It threatens to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots.  And it threatens to undercut America’s competitiveness — because America cannot lead in the 21st century unless we have the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world.  And that’s the kind of workforce — and the kind of citizenry — to which we should be committed.

And that’s why we have taken and proposed a number of sweeping steps over our first few months in office — steps that amount to the most significant efforts to open the doors of college to middle-class Americans since the GI Bill.  Millions of working families are now eligible for a $2,500 annual tax credit that will help them pay the cost of tuition; a tax credit that will cover the full cost of tuition at most of the two-year community colleges that are some of the great and undervalued assets of our education system.

We’re also bringing much needed reform to the Pell Grants that roughly 30 percent of students rely on to put themselves through college.  Today’s Pell Grants cover less than half as much tuition at a four-year public institution as they did a few decades ago.  And that’s why we are adding $500 to the grants for this academic year, and raising the maximum Pell Grant to $5,550 next year, easing the financial burden on students and families.

And we are also changing the way the value of a Pell Grant is determined.  Today, that value is set by Congress on an annual basis, making it vulnerable to Washington politics.  What we are doing is pegging Pell Grants to a fixed rate above inflation so that these grants don’t cover less and less as families’ costs go up and up.  And this will help prevent a projected shortfall in Pell Grant funding in a few years that could rob many of our poorest students of their dream of attending college.  It will help ensure that Pell Grants are a source of funding that students can count on each and every year.

Now, while our nation has a responsibility to make college more affordable, colleges and universities have a responsibility to control spiraling costs.  And that will require hard choices about where to save and where to spend.  So I challenge state, college and university leaders to put affordability front and center as they chart a path forward.  I challenge them to follow the example of the University of Maryland, where they’re streamlining administrative costs, cutting energy costs, using faculty more effectively, making it possible for them to freeze tuition for students and for families.

At the same time, we’re also working to modernize and expand the Perkins Loan Program by changing a system where colleges are rewarded for raising tuition, and instead, rewarding them for making college more affordable.

Now just as we’ve opened the doors of college to every American, we also have to ensure that more students can walk through them.  And that’s why I’ve challenged every American to commit to at least one year of higher education or advanced training — because by the end of the next decade, I want to see America have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.  We used to have that; we no longer do.  We are going to get that lead back.

And to help us achieve that goal, we are investing $2.5 billion to identify and support innovative initiatives that have a record of success in boosting enrollment and graduation rates — initiatives like the IBEST program in Washington state that combines basic and career skills classes to ensure that students not only complete college, but are competitive in the workforce from the moment they graduate.

And to help cover the cost of all this, we’re going to eliminate waste, reduce inefficiency, and cut what we don’t need to pay for what we do.  And that includes reforming our student loan system so that it better serves the people it’s supposed to serve — our students.

Right now, there are two main kinds of federal loans.  First, there are Direct Loans.  These are loans where tax dollars go directly to help students pay for tuition, not to pad the profits of private lenders.  The other kinds of loans are Federal Family Education Loans.  These loans, known as FFEL loans, make up the majority of all college loans.  Under the FFEL program, lenders get a big government subsidy with every loan they make.  And these loans are then guaranteed with taxpayer money, which means that if a student defaults, a lender can get back almost all of its money from our government.

And there’s only one real difference between Direct Loans and private FFEL loans.  It’s that under the FFEL program, taxpayers are paying banks a premium to act as middlemen — a premium that costs the American people billions of dollars each year.  Well, that’s a premium we cannot afford — not when we could be reinvesting that same money in our students, in our economy, and in our country.

And that’s why I’ve called for ending the FFEL program and shifting entirely over to Direct Loans.  It’s a step that even a conservative estimate predicts will save tens of billions of tax dollars over the next ten years.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, the money we could save by cutting out the middleman would pay for 95 percent of our plan to guarantee growing Pell Grants.  This would help ensure that every American, everywhere in this country, can out-compete any worker, anywhere in the world.

In the end, this is not about growing the size of government or relying on the free market — because it’s not a free market when we have a student loan system that’s rigged to reward private lenders without any risk.  It’s about whether we want to give tens of billions of tax dollars to special interests or whether we want to make college more affordable for eight and a half million more students.  I think most of us would agree on what the right answer is.

Now, some of you have probably seen how this proposal was greeted by the special interests.  The banks and the lenders who have reaped a windfall from these subsidies have mobilized an army of lobbyists to try to keep things the way they are.  They are gearing up for battle.  So am I.  They will fight for their special interests.  I will fight for Stephanie, and other American students and their families.  And for those who care about America’s future, this is a battle we can’t afford to lose.

So I am looking forward to having this debate in the days and weeks ahead.  And I am confident that if all of us here in Washington do what’s in the best interests of the people we represent, and reinvest not only in opening the doors of college but making sure students can walk through them, then we will help deliver the change that the American people sent us here to make.  We will help Americans fulfill their promise as individuals.  And we will help America fulfill its promise as a nation.

So thank you very much.  And thank you, Stephanie.  And thank you, Stephanie’s mom.

All right.  Thanks, guys.

1:56 P.M. EDT

NYT on Obama’s Pragmatism

This is a bit old, but The New York Times had a recent piece on Obama’s “pragmatism.”

Here are some of the references:

In some of his earliest skirmishes, Mr. Obama eventually chose pragmatism over fisticuffs.

….And Thursday, Mr. Obama suggested that he would not fight in Congress to renew an assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. It was the latest example of the pragmatic approach he adopted after winning the presidency by promising to challenge entrenched interests and put the public good ahead of political expedience.

….Pragmatism, they add, is an Obama hallmark, and among the changes he promised — and has delivered — is a break from his predecessor’s often uncompromising style.

Posner’s New Book and Free Markets

In light of our discussion a few weeks ago on Posner and libertarianism, this review of A Failure of Capitalism is illuminating. posner1

As the author, Marcus Baram, points out, Posner seems to have changed his tune significantly over the last few months, recognizing a larger role for government intervention in markets.  In other words, Posner seems to be softening his libertarianism.