Idealists and Pragmatists

Idealist are good at generating codes of conduct, rules of engagement and visions of the future when the good and true will prevail. The problem, of course, is that ideal human conduct is rare and when it does occur, it is temporary. Pragmatists focus on what actually happens and develop strategies to fix what is broken. World problems have proliferated at a feverish pitch. Everywhere you look, there are big problems that promise to get worse rather than better. A list of these problems discourage even the most optimistic of citizens.

If you take a God’s eye view of the planet, you have to notice one basic fact – that most humans generate problems on a daily basis and a smaller number try to catch up with solutions. You can supply AIDs drugs to the sick and poor in Africa, but the recovering patients suffer from malnutrition, water shortages and other diseases. Their social infrastructures are gone. If they survive their immediate adversities, warriors from neighboring tribes may arrive one day and kill them with machetes or automatic rifles, bought from US or Chinese weapon suppliers.

Even polite societies that have enjoyed periods of affluence and stability, a series of increasingly severe problems accumulate and undermine social order. In the US, a incompetent congress an ineffective administration, a failing economy, an aging infrastructure that needs reconstruction, destructive weather events and many layers of conflict within the society are serious problems with no obvious remedy. We have briefly considered the cumulative effects of resource depletion, habitat destruction, climate change and changing patterns of disease; these descriptions point to problems that do not have easy solutions.

A pragmatic approach to an overwhelming set of problems is to establish priorities and focus on achievable goals. Within every effective pragmatist is the hope that incremental problem solving will in the end produce a rational, enduring social order. There is also the hope that young, smart, well-informed people will join an enlarging group of problem solvers, hard at work every day in every country on the planet.

Smart people can break through old paradigms and recognize patterns in human nature. This is happening all the time. Good, new ideas always impress me and I always ask -why didn't I think of that? A new, good idea can spread from person to person and can make people smarter and more effective in the world. A good idea may seem obvious once you understand and accept it, but before someone comes up with the idea, you are ignorant. Humans who do not have access to new ideas and learn only a few of the old, worn-out and bad ideas are stuck with being ignorant; the natural and spontaneous level of human thought is crude and superstitious, often based on false beliefs and errors in judgment and attribution. Humans do well, even with marked cognitive limitations, because most transactions of life are carried out by innate, expert systems in their brain that do not require educated and rational thinking. Even though crude thinking dominates human society and will probably dominate for a long time to come, a small percentage of humans with especially clever minds will keep evolving toward some ultimate encounter with the really real. We can hope that smart and nice come together, since smart and evil is an undesirable combination. From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason