Pragmatism vs. Idealism

June 1, 2009 at 8:02 pm (Health Care, Politics) (, , , )

Last night, I amused myself before bed by watching a recent episode of Countdown with Keith Olbermann.  I haven’t watched that particular show in awhile (because we’re no longer in the midst of an election), but it was interesting.

I realize that Keith Olbermann is, in many ways, the liberal answer to Bill O’Reilly.  Except that, for one, Olbermann is a lot nicer to the people on his show, and for another, I think his distillation of various news stories is better.  And I can’t help the fact that I think O’Reilly is morally degenerate, but that’s my biases talking.

Anyway, Olbermann had Rachel Maddow on his show to discuss a revelation about waterboarding, and to talk about torture in general.  One of the people who was very vocal that waterboarding was useful and not torture (I wish I could remember the guy’s name, but I can’t) recently underwent the process himself.  He basically said at the end of it that it is absolutely torture, and he would have told anyone anything they wanted to hear to make it stop.

So Olbermann was saying that the best argument against torture is that it doesn’t even work, aside from being inhumane and cruel.  Maddow disagreed with him, and said that the primary argument against torture should be that we, as a society, don’t do it.  In other words, that torture is immoral and wrong, whether it works or not.

I think it’s an interesting question about how we debate certain topics, especially in politics.  I think it’s very easy to get caught up in pragmatic arguments, like the one Olbermann thinks is the most important, and lose sight of the moral arguments, like those Maddow thinks should have primacy.  I can think of at least two other issues that have similar pragmatic vs. idealistic arguments – the death penalty, and health care.  On the one hand, we could argue that abolishing the death penalty or instituting health care is more cost effective than our current system.  On the other hand, we could argue that it is morally wrong for the state to kill people, or that it is a moral imperative for the government to ensure that everyone has equal access to health care.

I think I personally would side with Maddow in this sort of argument.  Torture is wrong not because it is ineffective, but because we don’t do it.  It goes against our values and our belief system.  It’s not an issue of finding a method of torture that works (which is what the pragmatic argument would lead to); it’s an issue of not even looking for one, because it’s wrong.

Similarly, the death penalty is wrong because the government has no business playing God.  Sure, it’s cheaper to get rid of the death penalty (because you won’t need so many expensive trials), but that argument would lead to an attempt to make the death penalty cheaper to enforce.  Not more just, not more accurate – cheaper.  The point is that no matter how cheap it is, it’s wrong.

And finally, with health care, I think this debate is becoming one about whether or not people have the right to health care.  Is it a right like the freedom of speech, thus deserving of protection by the government, or is it a privilege?  I personally think it should be a right, and that anyone who agrees with me on that is weakening their case by arguing first about cost.  Cost is a consideration (and I really do think it would ultimately be cheaper if everyone had insurance, at least), but the first consideration is that people deserve to have health care simply because it is the right thing to do.

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