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  • Jane Addams, "Pragmatic" Compromise, and Anti-War Pragmatism
  • Tadd Ruetenik

it seems like it would be easy to be a pragmatist and difficult to be a pacifist. In the commonsense understanding of "pragmatism," the term is nearly synonymous with "compromise," and compromise is usually thought to involve denying one's ideals in order to get things done. This could be getting things done for what is believed to be the common good, and both dictators and utilitarians can be called pragmatists. If it is said that a pragmatist sacrifices her ideals for the sake of the greater good, this is a little misleading, since such sacrifice is merely an expression of one's natural disposition, and thus hardly tragic.

On the other hand, "pacifism" is often understood to be a type of idealism, as the term is again commonly understood. Idealism is here taken as almost synonymous with "utopian." So considered, a pacifist stands in contrast to the pragmatist, with the pacifist regarded as well-intended but perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, naïve. The pragmatist, on the other hand, is considered hard-nosed, and often, for some reason, more virtuous. There seems to be a work ethic tied to the pragmatist, and the idea of luxury connected with the idealist.

This paper argues for a rethinking of the common notions of pacifism, idealism, and pragmatism. More radically, it suggests that the term "pragmatism" has become so misused as almost to suggest the opposite of what it should. The paper's specific topic is that of war, and it suggests an idea of anti-war pragmatism, one that is both idealist and tough-minded, and taking the form of a persistent meliorism rather than an unreflective gradualism. It suggests that judging the character of United States culture from World War I to the present, we are justified in asserting that pacifist philosopher Jane Addams probably got things right, and pragmatist philosopher John Dewey got things wrong.

Doug Anderson argues that with meliorism comes a hopeful experimentalism with an "emphasis on risk, the belief in being able to 'better' our present [End Page 102] situations" (29). The betterment of the present situation of an ever-growing United States military, with its unopposed power exerted both within the country and without, requires a willingness to endure a risk. Anti-war pragmatism is not the safe bet of compromise; it is, on the contrary, the continued activism against "pragmatic" compromise, when such concerns for pursuing political efficacy over idealism have resulted, gradually and somewhat unconsciously, in a world considerably less ideal, and more dangerously so. When continual "pragmatic" compromise does not ameliorate a problem, then we should be able to risk saying that idealism is the new pragmatism.

Jane Addams opposed World War I, and in so doing endured widespread criticism. Her pragmatism was both active and idealistic, both empirical and uncompromising. And so although Addams is generally regarded as a pacifist, it is more appropriate to refer to her as an anti-war pragmatist. This is in part because of an unfortunate tendency to see the concept of pacifism as a well-defined circle, with peace on the inside and war on the outside. In such a case, those who are more temperamentally suited for war find ways of penetrating the perimeter, and after that, encounter little resistance. Those who are opposed to a war before its outset can succumb to the tendency of switching attitudes once the war starts, as if previously they were providing merely token resistance to the idea. Inside the hard-shell perimeter, there is a tender and malleable core. Once the idea of war is shown to be strong enough to endure the resistance, and has proven itself worthy of their acceptance, they allow themselves to be overcome by it. Addams, however, was not a token resister. Behind a tender disposition, she was eminently tough-minded, that is, resistant, in the way that suggests not hardness but endurance, and in the almost physiological sense of the term, integrity.

Part of the resistance came from continuing to maintain anti-war collectives even after war was declared. This kind of activism is particularly difficult not only because...


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pp. 102-118
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