Pragmatism and wickedness

Paper submission for SAAP 2009


Abstract: I argue in this paper that pragmatists must engage in a more thorough-going manner questions surround power, oppression, violence and domination.  While pragmatists have addressed this cluster of issues, which I refer to as “the problem of wickedness,” they have failed to incorporate the lessons into the heart of their philosophies.  To demonstrate why this is necessary, I read William James’ “The Moral Equivalent of War” in such a way to foreground how the desire to inflict harm, not simply to attain particular goals but also as an end, plays a significant role in human psychology.  I then show how this psychology reshapes how we should understand concepts at the heart of pragmatism.


This paper will attempt to demonstrate the centrality to pragmatism of what I will refer to as “the problem of wickedness.”  The problem is this: That pragmatists largely have not taken seriously enough, at a philosophical level, the challenges posed by violence, power, domination, and oppression.  While pragmatists have addressed this cluster of issues, they consistently fail to incorporate the challenges of wickedness into the heart of their philosophical work.  As I argue below, this is a crucial failure for pragmatism.  Following the writings of Cornel West, if pragmatism distinguishes itself from the traditional modern philosophies by emphasizing cultural criticism rather than epistemology, then it is incumbent on pragmatists to engage the problem of wickedness such that it is incorporated into their heart of their philosophy.  While this should be a concern for all contemporary philosophers, we can also add that this particularly pressing for pragmatists given their distinctly American tenor.  From Emerson on, pragmatists sought to articulate what is arguably the best of the promise of America, both for Americans and other audiences.  What has been underappreciated in this project is the distinct role that violence has played and continues to play within America.  Many of the decisive moments in the realization of America centered on violence, as well as the continued valorization of violence in American society.  This should be considered the dark under-belly of “the American experience” and must be brought directly into the heart of pragmatism.  In order to make this case, I will briefly explain what I mean by the problem of wickedness and then show how James addressed dimensions of the problem in his “The Moral Equivalent of War.”   With this reading of James in hand, I use James understanding of militarism as a way to demonstrate how wickedness problematizes several aspects of James’ philosophy.  I then conclude by proposing several general lessons.

Loosely following Mary Midgley, I refer to my concern as “the problem of wickedness” or our problem of evil (i.e., that humans do evil).[1]  This set of issues involving violence, power, oppression, is rather treacherous since the first problem is semantic: The vocabulary one philosopher uses to discuss the nest runs counter to others.[2]  To side step some of these terminological difficulties, I pose for purposes of this paper that “the problem of wickedness” is:

The use of violence as both a means and an end.

In this context, violence means the deliberate inflicting of pain, suffering or harm on some one, be it physical or mental.  Clearly, the idea of using violence as an end-in-itself is more important here (I will leave open whether violence as a “pure” end divorced from means ever occurs).  This goes beyond the legitimate use of force (whatever this might mean) or the inevitable reliance of power to shape human bodies.  Instead, this sort of wickedness involves the inflicting of cruelty on subjects not simply for attainment of this or that goal, but also because this sort of action is desirable unto itself.  There are many hyperbolic examples of this sort of wickedness.  From literature we have the works of Sade, Zamyatin’s We, or Orwell’s 1984 (especially O’Brien’s discussion of Oceania’s goals).  In psychology, there is Freud’s death drive, particularly as interpreted by Norman O. Brown or Erich Fromm.  And of course, the towering figure from philosophy is Friedrich Nietzsche. 

The trouble with such examples is precisely that they are hyperbolic, which makes them rather easy to dismiss.[3]  Yet, while these literary and other cases are rather exaggerated, they do point to this general phenomenon of wickedness.  From such exaggerations, it is too easy for some to dismiss the very idea.  Without wanting to takes sides on the reality of the hyperbole, a more mundane (no less traumatic) example can be offered: namely the 20th Century.  The experiences both in Europe and elsewhere with genocide and totalitarianism (Italian fascism, Nazism, the Shoah, Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Darfur, and so on) foreground the need to address this problem.  We must also resist the temptation from both the political Right and the Left to reads these as exceptions that ignored the Good News of free market capitalism and liberal democracy.  Rather, this Good News marks the emergence of new and more subtle sorts of domination and oppression. [4]

This question of wickedness is a general problem for philosophers, and not just ethicists.  Yet, the case I make here is that it is particularly acute for pragmatists.  The general outline of this case is as follows.  In various ways, pragmatists have made plain the importance of community to all of the specialties within.  Examples range from Peirce’s discussion of belief and inquiry to Dewey on ethics, politics, knowledge and George Herbert Mead on the self.  It is precisely this move that allowed Cornel West to argue that pragmatists have engaged in cultural criticism rather epistemically-centered philosophy that has dominated since Descartes.  While rarely articulated directly, underlying much of pragmatism’s focus on the community is that the members of the community are relatively earnest, optimistic and, for the most part, care about other members of the community.  No doubt that innumerable examples of this sort of individual can be found and I will not challenge such claims.  Instead, my goal is to draw attention to points where either individuals disrupt communities or vice versa in ways that threaten the very structure of an earnest, optimistic, and caring community with its members.  Given the importance pragmatists place on community, this problem of wickedness threatens to deform communities in such a way that achieving the democratic ideals pragmatists take as fundamental is impossible.  This problem might also go some distance to explain why it is that America in particular continues to fall short of these ideas.

To make matters more concrete, I turn to James’ essay “The Moral Equivalent of War.”  This essay is among the most profound engagements by any of the classical pragmatists on issues of violence and conflict.  My purpose here is to draw out the question of wickedness here in such a way that it foregrounds the need for a philosophical reckoning with the topic.  Much of the essay is devoted to mapping the psychology that feeds into the causes of war.  James’ point is to understand this psychology in such a way that he can propose a pacifist alternative to this psychological complex. 

He begins by rightly noting that, although many Americans of his day would be reluctant to fight another Civil War, there is no desire forget this history.  These stories of war touch something very significant, even primal.  No doubt this remains true to this day.  War is heroic.  Within the American context participation in the military is among the most important ways to prove one’s character and demonstrate love for one’s country.  The military life is among the most highly valued.  Yet, it is a very strenuous life, and dangerous depending on the time.  In James’ estimation, this has remained true basically throughout recorded history, even if “the how” varies.  While countries or individuals no longer invade others for plunder, piracy, glory, honor or sport, “We inherit the warlike type…”  (James 1910, 1283)  The desire for war, military style discipline, and the strength it provides is a result of our historical development.  As he notes elsewhere: “Ancestral evolution has made us all potential warriors…” (James 1902, 331-2)  This is bred into the bone.  Even though the Greek or Roman style of waging war virtually for its own sake has largely fallen away, the valorization of war and its importance on the world-stage remain.  While few are eager to wage war, much that is associated with war continues to have a certain allure: strength, power, patriotism, and so on. 

I take James’ case here as largely correct.  Focusing just on the United States, it should be clear enough that many of martial virtues James enumerates hold a special place within American culture.  Popular culture, in particular movies and video games, exhibit a certain fascination with war and violence.[5]  For the most part, many of our leaders must exhibit the strength and decisiveness required of those in the military.  It is frequently said that military service is highest sort of patriotism and veterans are accorded a respect that few others receive.  Especially with the last example, the point is not to label this as “wickedness” in any simple sense.  Instead, it is to illustrate the ways in which this valorization remains a significant part of American culture, that war continues to be important for us.

Where the much more straightforward trouble arises is with James’ rather prescient diagnosis of what occurred over the last 100 years.  He states:

“Peace” in military mouths to-day is a synonym for “war expected.”  The word has become a pure provocative, and no government wishing peace sincerely should allow it ever to be printed in a newspaper.  Every up-to-date Dictionary should say that “peace” and “war” mean the same thing, now in posse, now in actu.  It may even reasonably be said that the intensely sharp competitive preparation for war by the nations is the real war, permanent, unceasing; and that the battles are only a sort of public verification of the mastery gained during the “peace”-interval. (James 1910, 283-4.  Emphasis original)

Clearly, since the end of World War II, the United States has remained on a war footing, ever watchful for new enemies.  With exception of the period from 1991 to 2001, where there was a peculiar “flailing-about,” trying to find a suitable enemy, war and peace have been indistinguishable beyond whether guns and bombs were applied or merely acquired.  The danger associated with the valorization of militarism and violence is seriously ambiguous; it is for good and ill.  The perils of quasi-Orwellian psychology James describes here is much more straight-forward.  The lack of distinction between war and peace requires the organization of society to be ready of the outbreak of overt conflict.  Moreover, in order to show that such military strength and power is real, conflict is necessary.  Power requires that it be exercised; it is only power if used concretely.  Here we find an instance very close to the definition of wickedness introduced above, where cruelty is willed for its own sake.  While there are arguably legitimate reasons for such a militaristic posture, alongside these is a desire for conflict for which the rest is justification.  Aspects of this psychology can be seen in the events leading up to the Iraq War, beginning in 2003.  While the loudest case for war began in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), founded by William Kristol and Robert Kagan and has had several members associated with the Bush Administration, argued for some sort of military intervention against Iraq starting in 1998.  The overall goal of PNAC is to ensure the long-term strategic power, economically, politically, militarily, of United States; basically, to guarantee for the foreseeable future America as the sole global superpower.   PNAC’s pre-and-post-9/11 documents illustrate both the desire to keep war/peace as a question of potential and the ease through which the Bush Administration was able to return after our so-called “vacation from history.”[6]  This abbreviated history shows that the infatuation with military strength is still alive within American society.

What do we learn from this excursion through James’ essay?  The lesson here is that within the psychology of militarism, there is something of the desire to inflict harm on others beyond any specific goals.  If this was not the case, James might not have needed to write this essay because his recommendations about alternatives for channeling these desires might have been pursued more vigorously.  Instead, this psychology continues to permeate American society through the present day.  This is not to say that everyone who embraces martial virtues is wicked.  One of the daunting points implicit within James’ essay is that there is a broad appeal to militarism that runs throughout American society, but it remains largely in a potential state.  The more worrisome actor in the drama are those leaders who mobilize this sentiment, not simply for national defense, but also because the exercise of such powers is an end unto itself: something good irrespective of other ends.  The danger does not end simply with those who mobilize society in order to exercise its military strength in this way.  Such calls, perhaps exempting circumstances like World War II, would go unheeded if the underlying psychology was not already widespread.  The trouble cannot be localized to a few powerful leaders, but also exists throughout the society.  With this psychology lingering within us, the possibility of the sort of community that James and other pragmatists require becomes more difficult to attain because of the way such militaristic sentiments can be mobilized against others, whether in the community or outside. 

In which case, this psychology goes to heart of pragmatism’s philosophy.  For example, pragmatists have emphasized, to various degrees, the open-endedness of the universe, or at least humanity’s role within it.  Consider James’ discussion of the possibility of salvation in the final chapter of Pragmatism.  There he argues that God has left it up to humanity to determine, to works towards, the redemption of the world.  The world is fundamentally open-ended.  Salvation is not assured.  There is definite risk, a real possibility of failure, here.  We could fail to realize the world’s, and our, promise.  What prevents the open-endedness of the world from being an utter nightmare is James’ faith in individuals.  If we trust in one another, especially through democratic institutions, failure should be avoided.  Yet, following the logic drawn out of my reading of “Moral Equivalent,” there is reason to be less sanguine than James or Dewey on this front.  Given the human propensity for cruelty as an end-in-itself, there are new dangers here.  It is not simply that the world is risky enough that we might fail or that we might not try hard enough to work towards collective salvation, but rather that humans “show themselves to be the most formidable enemies of the ideals of humanity.” (Janicaud 2005, 19)  More simply, Pogo is right: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” (Quoted in Kelly 1985, 114)  Furthermore, my reading of James above sought to demonstrate, albeit too quickly, that the psychology of militarism is not some isolate pathology of a few but a general feature of American society.  As James argues in that essay, overcoming this psychology “is going to be no holiday excursion or camping party.”  (James 1910, 1281)  The psychological complex goes deep, and probably much further than James fears if Freud and Nietzsche are correct, and must be work through if pragmatism’s meliorist agenda is to ever be realized.

To demonstrate just how far this problem goes for pragmatism, we can reread another crucial passage in James: his discussion of essences from The Principles of Psychology.  He states:

that the only meaning of essence is teleological, and that classification and conception are purely teleological weapons of the mind.  The essence of a thing is that one of its properties which is so important for my interests that in comparisons with it I made neglect the rest.  (James 1950 Volume II, 335. Emphasis original)

Given the drift of the argument thus far, we should avoid reading James’ definition of an essence as purely analogical.  Essences are not like weapons.  Instead, a quite literal reading of James’ statement is now available: essences are a species of weapons.  While lacking the physical manifestation or powers of a gun, an essence can be used as a tool for attack, a means to inflict violence.  Using this interpretation, we understand that the use of essences need not be innocent, altruistic.  The act of abstracting out only particular salient features of some thing, always at the expense of others, can be another mechanism for control.  For example, by making man’s essence his rationality, or whatever else, the fabricator possesses a tool for regulation of both those who are considered “rational,” and must adhere to those canons for fear of exclusion, and those excluded who fall outside of this essence (women, non-whites, children, etc.).  At least in cases of rather long-standing essence, like “(certain) men are rational animals” to the exclusion of women and others, we can say as James does with respect to the categories of common sense that they got their “innings first, and made all language into [their] ally.” (James 1907, 568)  Such essences became part of the fabric of our languages, hence our ways of thinking, so that escape becomes difficult. 

To conclude, I will note that the problem of wickedness raised here is not insurmountable for pragmatists.  It is difficult, and will require pragmatists to change their occasional optimistic tenor.  What is incumbent on pragmatists to do is accept that at present people do evil things, that the desire to do evil can go deep and threatens the sorts of communities pragmatists argue in favor of.  Yet, pragmatism’s evolutionary strain provides a space to hope that some sorts of wickedness might be overcome.  If pragmatism is to fully realize the relevance that West claims for it, that is to evade the sort of navel-gazing epistemology of modern philosophy and pursue a program of cultural criticism, then pragmatists must engage this problem starting at the core of their philosophies.  Whether pragmatism has the internal resources to adequate philosophize the varieties of wickedness, or if importing the thought of post-structuralists, Marxists, feminists, etc., will be necessary is a question for another day.  Regardless, from the argument above, it should be clear that pragmatism must take the problem of wickedness seriously, and that it is sufficiently robust to be able to do so.





Arendt, Hannah.  1970.  On Violence.  New York: Harvest.

Foucault, Michel.  1983.  “The Subject and Power” in Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics by Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow.  Second Edition.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fukuyama, Francis.  1992.  The End of History and the Last Man.  New York: Free Press.

James, William.  1902.  The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, in  Writings,1902-1910.  Edited by Bruce Kuklick. New York: Library of America. 1987

James, William.  1907.  Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, in  Writings,1902-1910.  Edited by Bruce Kuklick. New York: Library of America. 1987

James, William.  1910.  “The Moral Equivalent of War,” in  Writings,1902-1910.  Edited by Bruce Kuklick. New York: Library of America. 1987

James, William.  1950.  The Principles of Psychology, 2 Volumes.  New York: Dover Publications.

James, William.  1987.  Writings,1902-1910.  Edited by Bruce Kuklick. New York: Library of America.

Janicaud, Dominique.  2005.  On the Human Condition.  Translated by Eileen Brennan.  New York: Routledge.

Kelly, Walt.  1985.  Outrageously Pogo.  Edited by Mrs. Walt Kelly and Bill Crouch, Jr..  New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc..

Midgley, Mary.  1984.  Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay.  New York: Routledge.

Rorty, Richard.  1990.  Objectivity, Relativism and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Volume 1.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


[1] Specifically the case she outlines in Midgley (1984).

[2] For example Hannah Arendt (1970) goes to some length to show the fundamental opposition of power and violence, while Michel Foucault (for instance: Foucault 1983) argues that, while different, there is a historical connection and overlap between them. 

[3] Consider Rorty’s discussions of Nietzsche on morality and democracy (Rorty 1990, 175-96).

[4] On the Right, there is Fukuyama (1992).  The Left’s embrace of the Free Market might tends to be more restrained than examples like Fukuyama, but can still be found in places like  Rorty’s “Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism” (1990 197-202).  As to new forms of domination and oppression, a good place to begin is the writing of Michel Foucault and Susan Bordo. 

[5] With movies, Rambo, Saving Private Ryan, Natural Born Killers and most summer blockbusters serve as good examples.  Much of the video game industry is based around violence, but in this respect titles like SOCOM and the seemingly endless line of World War II based first-person shooters are significant (and lucrative).  The Grand Theft Auto franchise is also worth noting both for its hefty reliance on violence and moral depravity, and its occasional performative critiques of violence in American life. 

[6] For those curious, it is worth checking out PNAC’s website:, where much of this is said in marginally more cautious language.  Of particular note is the 1997 Statement of Principles, including those who signed the document, and the 2000 report Rebuilding America’s Defenses.  It is also worth mentioning that, if in fact the Clinton years were a vacation from history, it was one justified by Francis Fukuyama, another associate of PNAC.