Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

The Pragmatics of Betterment

Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

The Pragmatics of Betterment

Article excerpt

Two issues are at the focus of the paper: (a) to clarify what "world improvement" is and what its achievement would require, and (b) to consider whether "world improvement" is something possible for us humans. Three conclusions emerge: (1) that we can never secure categorical assurance that something we do with the aim of improving matters will actually succeed; (2) that we are nevertheless morally obligated to try for improvement; and (3) that in one somewhat ironic regard we are bound to succeed, because even merely by trying for improvement we make the world a better place than it otherwise would be.

1. Amelioration

This is not a how-to article. It provides no instructions for making the world a better place. All that it does - and all that it attempts to do - is (1) to clarify what "world improvement" is and what its achievement would require, and (2) to consider whether "world improvement" is something that is possible for us humans. Accordingly, the issues that concern us here relate to the theory of pragmatism. They represent the concerns of the philosopher, not those of the philanthropist. And the crux of these deliberations is our commitment to the idea that we can act to intervene in the course of events to make things better than they otherwise would be. The central question is whether we are entitled to see ourselves as change agents able to effect improvements in the order of things.

2. Potential Impediments

We standardly accept the idea that it makes a difference what people do - that how they choose to act will affect the course of things. We suppose that we can and do act in the world to create situations that would not otherwise come about. But is this sort of thing true?

After all, this belief could in theory be wrong - for any of various reasons. Among these, three stand out:

Fatalism has it that as a matter of necessitation and of determinism there is a foreordainment providing for the inevitably of the course of events. And fatalists flatly deny that we can possibly succeed in our efforts to change the course of events so as to improve the world beyond what would otherwise be.

Futilitarianism on the other hand, urges a theory of human impotence. Here our human place in the scheme of things is seen as being too small and insignificant to have any substantial effect on the course of things. We are impotent - unable to produce significant efforts. Those things that bear on the world's merit will happen anyway - irrespective of what we do. The effect our efforts will dampen out in the larger scheme of things - like tossing a single grain of sand into the Pacific Ocean. While the world is not optimal and can indeed be improved upon, humans are impotent to effect such improvements. Noting that we mere frail mortals cannot effect changes - let alone improvements - on the course of occurrence.

Cosmic perversity, by contrast, is a deeply pessimistic stance, holding that what we do does make a difference - but always negatively. The idea of collateral damage has central ramifications here. It is - unfortunately - entirely possible for the removal of even a Hitler or Stalin from the world stage to be achievable only at the price of visiting upon mankind an even greater disaster. To render this idea graphic, one should consider W. W. Jacobs's chilling story of The Monkey's Paw, whose protagonist is miraculously granted wishes that thereupon actually come true - but always at a fearsome price.1 In the present context, the idea is that while the world's particular existing negativities are in theory remediable, the endeavor to arrange for this will involve an even larger collateral array of mishaps overall. The cost of avoiding those manifest evils of this world would then be the realization of an even larger volume of misfortune.

On this basis, there stands before us an array of dreary world-perspectives that would negate any prospect of our effecting improvements in the world. …

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