Pragmatism Is The Principle

In a recent article about the imprisoned Ai Weiwei, Boris Johnson highlights China’s practice of silencing their critics and opponents seemingly at will and without fuss. In a Communist country that’s rapidly emerging into superpower status, formerly agreed upon world principles, like human rights, don’t seem to hold much weight. With an economy growing at at a faster rate than a sunflower on steroids in a hot June and an ever expanding military muscle to match, the world sits back and keeps silent on matters of principle.

This time, unlike the 80’s with Russia as the aggressor, we are facing a different situation. As Mr. Johnson correctly points out, by the mid-80’s Russia was in decline and people could see light at the end of the tunnel (although that was all very different just 10 year earlier). Today we see the strong and growing country of China that has such strategic economic might that we have to tread very differently around the situation. In the face of this different threat we have lost our nerve and kept quiet. Johnson states,

I just don’t believe that the Chinese respect us any more if we bite our tongues and say nothing about cases like Ai Weiwei. On the contrary, they must secretly think it pathetic that we claim to adhere to principles such as freedom from detention without trial — and then do nothing to back up our convictions.

If The Foundations Be Destroyed

“Conflict is the evil we most want to avoid, among nations, among individuals and within ourselves.”

So said Allan Bloom in his critique of the state of the foundations of the Western world in 1987, in his book, The Closing Of The American Mind (US|UK).

We are responsible to analyse the health of our nations and when we find it it be ill we must speak out. It is true indeed that only dead fish go with the flow. And in matters of morality it must be said that my nation, Great Britain, has cancer.

By swaying from principled absolutes into the realm of dialectic morality we have no back bone to stand up and cry “This is wrong”, even if we feel that we ought to speak out. What I mean is, the very foundations of our morality, our thinking what’s right and what’s wrong, has been changed. We live at a time when our hearts have inherited the fruit of a coherent and consistent framework of law built upon self-evident truths. Our hearts are one way inclined; our minds are otherwise instructed. We feel that something may be wrong but have no intellectual basis for claiming it to be so.

This shift in the core of the framework at the heart of the nations in the West didn’t happen overnight. Yes, towards the twilight days of Soviet Empire the West did speak out a little more but at the height of the Cold War deaf ears were turned on Alexander Solzhenitsyn and others. Indeed, those very same deaf ears were turned on Solzhenitsyn as he issued a warning to the West. After light had been shed on the atrocities of the Marxist regime and the world had hard proof, Solzhenitsyn went to America, and offered a plea for us to change our ways and rebuild our foundations. We did not listen.

In Solzhenitsyn’s speech to Harvard in 1978 he says,

“No weapons, no matter how powerful, can help the West until it overcomes its loss of willpower. In a state of psychological weakness, weapons become a burden for the capitulating side. To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being. Nothing is left, then, but concessions, attempts to gain time and betrayal.”

Solzhenitsyn continues with his diagnosis,

“How has this unfavorable relation of forces come about? How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present sickness? Have there been fatal turns and losses of direction in its development? It does not seem so. The West kept advancing socially in accordance with its proclaimed intentions, with the help of brilliant technological progress. And all of a sudden it found itself in its present state of weakness.

This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment. It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists.”

The Pslamist cries out, “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3) We long for a voice to speak out but standing on broken foundations doesn’t give us the platform we need to see change happen.

Where We Are Now

Be shifting our focal point for morality away from absolutes, by making man ‘the measure of all things’ and our canon for truth, we have moved away from the supports that created the foundations of the Western civilisations. Right and wrong fade away to be trumped by “whatever works”. The overarching, supreme principle we now live by is pragmatism. If it works, it works. If right and wrong are based on man and therefore forever changing we lose our ability to ask “what ought we do” and are left with “what can we do”.

Samual Adams, a Founding Father of the USA said,

“A general dissolution of principles and manners will surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous, they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue, they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.”

Willam Wilberforce, whose tireless efforts brought about the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, was wholly motivated by his zeal for a great “reformation of manners” – that is, bringing principled absolutes back into the core of society. He knew that only on the back of a morally strong nation could true and lasting reform take place to cure such abhorrent ills such as slavery.

In a world that’s changing so incredibly quickly now must be the time that we examine our foundations. This must start personally. What am I building my life on and why? What am I building towards?

To effect change requires a strong structure and a structure is only as strong as it’s foundations. So when we want to speak out against Ai Weiwei, or Burma, or Sudan, when we take a stand against sex trafficking, child labour or a host of other problems, do we want to merely speak with words?

Or do we want to stand on a strong structure rooted on unchanging truths that provide a platform to act and not merely shout at the problems we are faced with hoping that our hot air will blow them away.