I recently watched a talk show host interview a senior partner from a well-known management consulting firm. The partner had recently praised the Chinese government for being very effective in handling its affairs. It was a surprising thing to do at a time when the whole world was blaming the country for the uncontrolled spread of a virus, and accusing its government of silencing critics within and locking up infected people inside their apartments, some of whom were left to die.
Naturally, the show host asked the senior partner what he thought about that and he rationalized that the result was a slowing down of the spread of the virus, while admitting that the process was a very harsh one. The host pivoted to ask him about the Uighurs — an ethnic group in China, who are predominantly Muslim. China has put about a million of them in internment or concentration camps in an effort to suppress the Muslim minority in the country. Surprisingly, he rationalized once again, this time saying that the result was an absence of terrorism in that part of the country.
At this point, I was wondering why someone would not only justify these actions, but publicly praise them. And then he said it: “… look, I’m a real pragmatist.” And that, right there, helped me understand what was going on. Pragmatism; a school of thought where the end always justifies the means – where something is right as long as it works. This man had completely bought into that school of thought and was simply expressing his thought process to the world.
Many of us are pragmatists, or at least we dabble into that school of thought from time to time. We justify our actions by the results they produce. And if those results are what we see as being good for us, then the actions we take are totally worth it.
We may starve ourselves in order to lose some weight or abandon our families to make some money. Whatever the case may be, the end — a thinner body and more money in the bank — would justify the questionable means to get there. We may go into severe debt to have a lavish wedding or buy a very expensive car while still renting a home. The end — impressing people — would justify the irrational means to get there. Ever wonder why an internet fraudster doesn’t seem to have sleepless nights over extorting life-savings from a hapless retiree? Well, the boatload of cash justifies the cruel means to him. Ever wonder why an internet blog would be full of life-wrecking gossip about other people? The heavy flow of traffic to the site clearly justifies ruining other people’s lives.
How we do one thing is typically how we do every other thing. So we have to be really careful when it comes to justifying whatever we do. There surely are better ways to reach our goals. We could eat less and exercise more to lose weight. That is certainly healthier. We could balance time between our work and families and just take a little longer to reach our financial goals. We could save up for huge purchases and re-prioritize our expenses. It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t get what we want, it may just come differently or take longer to arrive. These are much more worthy steps to take toward meeting our goals. But they are boring. They take too much time. They don’t get us what we want when we want them.
Instant gratification is often at the heart of pragmatism and so is greed. This is what has brought about the growing distaste in capitalism, causing more and more people to embrace socialism of all things. The idea of ethical capitalism is dying, giving way to the distasteful dog-eat-dog culture that currently plagues commercial interactions. That senior partner who was interviewed had spent a huge portion of his career in China and so found it necessary to defend the detestable actions of a government he had come to see as the fingers that feed him.
Getting money is one end that so easily justifies any means to it. It is often the unspoken motivator behind pragmatism. We, therefore, have to be very careful in our pursuit. We have to constantly ask ourselves, “what do I want to be remembered for?” rather than “what do I want?” The former takes into consideration the things involved in attaining a desired goal, while the latter just identifies the desired goal and justifies any path toward getting there. The former is the question we should be asking our kids when guiding them along career paths. That way, they are less likely to find themselves justifying an obviously horrendous series of incidents perpetrated by an organisation they view as the custodian of their desired end.
To them, and to any of us, the end shouldn’t justify the means but be the result of a thoroughly considered and healthily considerate process.