DESAI: Promise in Pragmatism
Unpopular Opinion

An interesting quality about Georgetown students that I have noticed is our general tendency to favor normative reasoning over positive reasoning. The former centers on subjective, value-based judgments whereas the latter relies on objective facts. Essentially, the difference is whether one can prove or disprove the claims one makes. For example, when I say the government should increase health care spending, I am making an unprovable normative statement. On the other hand, if I say increased health care spending will increase the government deficit and/or raise tax rates, that is a positive statement economic theorists would seek to prove with statistics.

Our unchecked reliance on normative reasoning — that is, opinions — frustrates me because it allows people to make arguments without any evidentiary standard, accountability or expectation of results. If you argue only on ethics, morals and what people ought to do, you never have to prove that your claims would necessarily hold true in the real world. Since no one can prove or refute subjective assertions, people do not need to bring data or logical proof to such debates. While normative arguments can be fun, the ivory tower of theoretical claims generally falls flat in the real world. Without objective support, even the best ideas can often prove incommensurable in reality.

We might now consider a timely real-world example: Bernie Sanders. Heretofore, his argument has been that the country has reached an untenable level of inequality and that we should strive for a more egalitarian society. This is obviously an admirable goal. However, he often fails to provide factual data that supports the claims he makes about democratic socialism. We cannot simply make everything more equal because forcing an equality of any one thing necessarily results in an inequality of some things. The pursuit of true equality has an almost irresistible tendency to exacerbate undesirable inequalities of other kinds. For example, if we try to make everyone equally healthy, we would spend different amounts of taxpayer money on each person because human beings cannot inherently be equally healthy, and thereby our public spending on health-care will become unequally distributed.

Conversely, rigorous planning motivated by facts — in short, practicality — achieves results where idealistically opining does not. A beautiful example of practical reason is the Golden State Warriors’ historic season last year. In 2010, the then-notoriously underperforming team was taken over by venture capital investors and corporate executives, who adopted skills such as “nimble management, open communication, integrating the wisdom of outside advisers and continuous re-evaluation of what companies do and how they do it,” according to an article in The New York Times Magazine. This sort of data-driven management forced the owners of the Warriors to actually determine substantive plans to pursue results, instead of making opinions, such as “I think we should change our lineup.” Pragmatic reasoning took six years to generate sufficient returns for the team, but eventually this strategy paved the way for huge victories.

Clearly, I am more intrigued by practical reason compared to ethical reason. This is why I am actually impressed by Mossack Fonseca & Co., the law firm exposed in the Panama Papers leak. It chose to live in a world of reality rather than a world of hypotheticals. The firm exploited legal loopholes to help its clientele avoid burdensome taxation. While the offshoring of wealth strikes some as unethical or corrupt, it seems perfectly pragmatic from the decision makers’ point of view. Objectively, the law firm used its command of the law to achieve successful results.

Make no mistake — my argument is not that we should be unethical. Rather, I fundamentally believe that all of our decisions, moral or not, must be undergirded by a sense of the way the world really is. Unchecked idealism more often than not leads to inefficient allocations of resources, time and talent. I believe this is the point my colleague Deep Dheri (MSB ‘16) makes in his viewpoint on divestment (“No to Divestment and Meaningless Solutions,” The Hoya, Nov. 10, 2016, page published). He points to the internal mechanics of the stock market to empirically show that divestment from fossil fuel companies would have little to no real-world impact on said firms.

Ultimately, if we try to employ more practical reason, we will undoubtedly make more effective decisions in whatever domain we find ourselves in, whether that be increasing equality, playing basketball, avoiding taxes or protecting the environment. By simultaneously working our way backward from real consequences and forward from first principles, we can actually create the change we seek.

 

Rahul Desai is a senior in the McDonough School of Business. unpopular opinion appears every other Friday.

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One Comment

  1. MSB Run Amok says:

    This is a parody of tech-bro delusion, right? Surely you don’t really think the Warriors are good because they were bought by Silicon Valley types who communicate nimbly and cross-synergize all their deliverables across disruptive platforms

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