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Pragmatists, Team Players, Idealists, and Democracy

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I heard on NPR recently a discussion of the difference between pragmatists and idealists. The definition of a pragmatist was a person who says, "Tell me how the system works, and I'll try to find a way to work within it to make a profit."- An idealist was defined as a person who has a vision of how things ought to work and tries to make the system over according to that vision. These may not be exactly the definitions, but I think they are pretty close. This was an intriguing program because I've been an idealist for as long as I can remember and at various times have been taken to task for not being more pragmatic and for not being a team player.

I like the definition of a pragmatist quoted above because it embodies all that is wrong with pragmatism. A pragmatist would seem to be a person who desires to gain something from his actions and doesn't really care what it takes to succeed. This is a person without values that transcend profit-making. Such a person is a perfect player in the game of business. The usual interpretation of Adam Smith's theory of capitalism says that the market always knows what is best for humanity and that all anyone needs to do is to focus like a laser on making a profit, and all will be well. In this model life is a game, and the person with the most toys at the end is the winner.

Corporations are a logical result of maximizing profits, because they are able to amass and control much more capital than most individuals could ever control. Consequently we have the phenomenon of the team player. The team player is a pragmatist within a corporate structure. He is never distracted by any thoughts that might create inefficiency in the game of profit-making. He is the epitome of a "good soldier"-, following orders without question or misgivings. In the hierarchy of corporate power, everybody who survives is a team player, and each member is convinced that his rewards are commensurate with his contribution to the game.

The game"-winners and losers"-you don't want to be a loser. Losers are not team players. The metaphor of "a game"- and "players"- is not accidental. Children in our society are conditioned early to fit in through participation in team sports. The game is a benign activity in which the score has no importance other than the conveyance of bragging rights and the pleasures of posturing and celebration. But no one gets hurt, and there is no need for concern about the losing team. They will play again another day, and all teams have their successes and failures to deal with. Losses teach "good sportsmanship"-, another term for complacent acceptance of loss of goals regardless of any consideration of the justice of the score. This childhood learning leads to adult pragmatism.

In a world where only team players exist there is no independent thought, no evaluation of outcomes, no questioning of authority. People who never think for themselves often become wealthy and function as judges of the quality of subordinates' pragmatism and team playing skills. They rise to positions of power over others but are in reality only blind followers of an order that is never questioned.

Pragmatists will readily abandon any cause that they see as a potential losing proposition. They would never be Goliath's David, never invest in any difficult effort because it is the right thing to do. Their idea is that the nail that sticks out will be hammered in, and so they take pains not to stick out.

In a world of pragmatists we see the Tragedy of the Commons played out repeatedly without concern. Assets such as forests, fisheries, the environment, and the stability of the planet's climate are squandered in a mindless, blind game of business and unsustainable perpetual growth.

Then there is the question of the viability of democracy. It never occurs to a pragmatist to consider whether or not any proposed action by the government, individuals, or corporations is consistent with democracy or undermines it and transforms it into fascism. Corporate power is deemed to be right without question.

Idealists, on the other hand, are the opposite of the pragmatists. If there is anything wrong with the pragmatists' game of civilization, the only hope for creating a society that can survive lies with the idealists.

I rest my case.


I am a retired physicist and hold a B, S, in Ch. E. as well. I have been an environmental activist since the early 1970s. I have been a writer of opinion pieces and other essays since about 1995. I am an owner of a home with mineral rights in Fort (more...)

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