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Theory and Practice

Where Barnabas is Coming From.

by Barnabas
August 28, 2002

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Theory and Practice_Barnabas-Where Barnabas is Coming From. I’m not responding to a specific news item today, but to an idea that stands unstated behind most of the stories I have responded to in the past several months. It’s what often renders the events reported either absurd or ethically doubtful. It was put into words for me by a very old friend who didn’t know he was talking to a pseudonymous columnist, and won’t until I send him this!

“In theory I agree with you,” he said. “but pragmatically I totally disagree.” It doesn’t matter what the issue was because we have all heard or said a statement like his or close to it, about any number of issues. I may have said it myself, even though I “totally disagree” with the idea that one can agree in theory and disagree in practice!

For a theory to be sound and worth considering, it must be true, relevant, and consequential--in that order. If it doesn’t pass the test of truth, drop it; if it doesn’t apply to what you’re doing and who you are, don’t bother with it; if it doesn’t make any difference, spend your time or more important things. But if a theory is true, relevant, and consequential, your practice and policies concerning the issue it addresses had better be in line with it or you are headed toward a major crash.

Of course you don’t have to agree with it, but then you must go to the trouble of refuting it if you can—a very tiresome exercise. That’s why refuge is taken in “agreeing in theory but not in practice.”

“Theory” is confused with “ideal” which is a very different thing. An ideal can be moonshine. A theory is an abstract and summary description of what is, not a pious wish for what might be. “Ideally, I agree with you” may be an accurate statement, even when prefacing a stated or unstated intention of doing nothing. (In fairness, this may have been what my friend meant; it was an incidental conversation. As far as I was concerned, however, “theory” was the accurate word. In serious matters, failing to distinguish a sound theory from an ideal courts disaster.)

The temptation to ignore sound theory in favor of “pragmatism” has superficial attractions. It avoids short-term costs and conflicts; it justifies strategies that ordinary morality finds doubtful; and it deprives people of due process for reasons of efficiency. Eventually we pay the price for these denials of the way things, not too unlike a landlord paying a lot more for deferred maintenance than for routine maintenance. Of course, if he waits long enough the building will collapse. Then maintenance won’t cost him anything.

In many respects, triumphant pragmatism is a synonym for short-sightedness. The famous and supremely cynical wisecrack of Lord Keynes, “In the long run we’re all dead,” is the watchword of its proponents whether they approve of Keynes or not.

In fact, “In the long run we’re all dead,” while true of mortal life, is irrelevant to the subject. Some things are not intended to die, but to continue until the end of history. For Americans, the United States is not intended to die. For Christians, the church is not intended to die.

Sound theories do not die because they describe what is, but they require practices that conform to what is true, relevant, and consequential if our institutions are to survive.

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