Why are some people threatened by pragmatism?


Looked at soberly

Do we need more feeling - or more reason? There is a better solution between either and or: pragmatism. The art of adapting your visions to reality.

Text: Wolf Lotter
Illustration: Jan Robert Dünnweller

1. The cold heart

Some leave early and stay long anyway. On November 18, 1827, typhus ended Wilhelm Hauff's short career. In the last months of his life, the poet from Tübingen had become a master of the romantic fairy tale, the literary genre for which Germans are famous all over the world to this day.

Hauff's first hit was the “fairy tale almanac for the year 1826 for the sons and daughters of the educated classes”. The stories take place in the Orient, where adventures are still waiting and miracles happen, while life at home is monotonous and has no perspective for the young.

The German Biedermeier is a time of social, moral and material exhaustion. The turmoil of the French Revolution and almost 20 years of war were survived. The “Story of the Kalif Storch” is written less for children than for a youth who longs for moral orientation and reliability. Politics and business are talking more and more about usefulness and expediency. And the beginning industrial revolution calls into question everything that was previously sacred. Only fairy tales can help, it's always like that.

Hauff writes down this zeitgeist. The fairy tale “Dwarf Nose” is an accusation against small states and is enthusiastic about the “national whole”, his notorious novella “Jud Suss” brings anti-Semitism together with anti-capitalist resentment. His main accusation against the sober new times, however, is a fairy tale that stands out from his collection “Das Wirtshaus im Spessart”: “The cold heart”.

Peter Munk lives deep in the Black Forest, a charcoal burner, a job that was reserved for the poor and the dispossessed. Of course he dreams of advancement, especially when he falls in love with the beautiful Lisbeth. He turns to a good spirit who also fulfills his wishes - but in return Munk loses everything because he didn't have one thing on his list: more understanding. Now he turns to an evil spirit who helps him materially, but wants his heart as a pledge - and instead uses one made of stone for him.

The capitalist is ready. Peter Munk becomes a money changer and dealer, merciless towards the weak and tough towards everyone else. He kills his wife when she - against his will - helps a beggar. But now the wicked man, despite his stone heart, is gripped by repentance. He wants his flesh and blood heart back. This is achieved through errors, confusions and numerous tricks. In return, Munk renounces his wealth.

In thanks for choosing against materialism and in favor of romanticism, his wife rises from the dead. And so that everything else is good, Papa Waldgeist gives him a big roll of thalers.

And because they did not die, they are still alive today - in the collective memory: materialism brings bad luck, sober calculation spoils the character. Only warmth of the heart, on the other hand, the feeling that paves the way to happiness. Even the mind, which the good forest spirit demands, has, viewed more closely, nothing to do with cool intellect, but consists of pure morality. The rules of enlightenment - stay sober, think logically, act pragmatically - are no longer in force. Appropriate action is "cold". A German fairy tale.

Hauff's world is one of feelings, miracles, premonitions. The soon-to-be made mass experience that reason, materialism and prosperity belong together had not yet been made. Anyone who went from poor eater to rich man - and not through revolution or robbery - must have experienced a miracle.

But those who still distrust pragmatism today have simply not paid attention. The passionate dream of a better world. The sober build them. But we live in times of swift and cheap indignation. The sons and daughters of the better educated classes want to hear their fairy tales. "Down with the cold, heartless system!"

2. Cold and warm

Hauff would undoubtedly be the star on social media and on demos that do something with anti, the main thing, against the markets. They are the "cold heart", it is said. Funny actually. Because Karl Marx and his successors were conspicuously sober and rational. That was probably because the critics of capitalism were considered romantics and dreamers at the time, as unrealistic muddles. One reacted to this with a decidedly callous and cool manner. This profile neurosis led to word creations such as “real existing socialism” or the exaggeration of “Marxism” to a “science” - at least in those states in which this could be prescribed by the state.

The western 68s used a particularly pseudoscientific language to convey their highly emotional message. Those who did not understand the gurgling were of course "blinded". But hardly anyone who wanted to be cool admitted that anyway. The corresponding key passage can be found in Marx 'and Engels' bestseller “Communist Manifesto” and reads: “All fixed, rusty conditions with their entourage of time-honored ideas and views are dissolved, all newly formed obsolete before they can ossify” - and experience immediately afterwards one, where that leads: "Everything standing and standing evaporates, everything sacred is desecrated, and people are finally forced to look at their position in life, their mutual relationships with sober eyes." Oha. There we are.

Sober - and not intoxicated with feelings. But regardless of whether it is about Greece, the euro crisis, refugees, free trade, genetic engineering, the energy transition or the quota, the politics of emotions prevails on all sides. And that begs the crucial question of whether one only wants to understand the world with one's gut. If you take a closer look, you will quickly notice: pragmatism is not a question of taste.

3. Legend of passion

It took several millennia and cost countless human lives until one in society, economy and politics - at least largely - put the feeling, the passion, the emotion in their place. A look at the German word passion makes you smarter: there is something that ultimately brings suffering, anger and destruction with it. It describes a feeling that no rules, no law, no reason can curb. This is great in love, but insane in the normal state of a community. Life among people who curb their passion in public is - yes, it's true - a bit boring. But where passion is lived out, it is a threat to life and limb. The history of culture is therefore also a history of controlled passion.

The ancient Greeks called what is missed by many today, pathos, which was once synonymous with suffering. The Romans, who liked to avail themselves of the Greek cultural fund, referred to what happens with pathos as afficere - translated into German means to do it.
That is exactly to the point.

It is a word from a time when uncontrolled violence - with murder and manslaughter - reigned, a relic of evil that many have forgotten. Those who commit an act with affect can expect less punishment. Peter Munk, who killed his wife because she gave a beggar something to eat and drink, which he had expressly forbidden her, could have asserted mitigating circumstances. He struck in anger, passionately, in a sudden surge of emotion. Passionate manslaughter is not nice, but somehow forgivable, while a calculated crime is far more serious. Except for the victim, of course. Even those who are slain in affect are dead as a couple.

Pogroms, holy wars and crusades against people of different faiths can be carried out with passion and affect. Populists of all camps love passion, and they always strike with affect. That is their calculation.

Democracies, on the other hand, rely on cooling. First you take your breath out. They therefore appear as sober, cold, long-suffering and thus also boring structures. At first glance, therefore, they seem less attractive than the passionate promises of the affected. But the emotional sobering up cell has many advantages, increased life expectancy from less passionate environments is just one of them. The sober look also brings better solutions and insights. You have to know that, very soberly and dryly, because we are inherently different. Passionate and affected. This is not an insult, it is state of the art.

4. Fast and dirty

Four years ago, the Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman published a book entitled “Thinking, fast and slow” - in German “Fast thinking, slow thinking”. * The book summarizes a long-term research work carried out with his colleague Amos Tversky, which under the name “Prospect Theory” - the so-called New Expectation Theory - led to a revolution in behavioral economics, the most important question of which is: How do people behave under the conditions of Uncertainty? For almost 60 years, this approach was shaped by the image of Homo oeconomicus, an always rational, affect-free logician who coolly bases his decisions on minimizing costs and maximizing benefits.

Basically, this is not wrong at all, but it still has a crucial catch: The worldview that Homo oeconomicus has, unconsciously as well as game-critical, controls the selection of information on which his supposedly rational decisions are based. And even the coolest character has friends, acquaintances, preferences, has been raised in one direction or another - and has received ample moral lessons, that is, instructions on what is right or wrong, good or bad, according to common mores. Under these circumstances no one can act completely economically, make rational and “objective” decisions. The problem of the Homo oeconomicus model is referred to in clinical psychology as “cognitive distortion”.

The information that one prefers politically, ideologically and in terms of taste appears to be logical and sensible. Not only with long-serving experts comes the notorious déformation professional, the view of the world tailored purely to one's own professional point of view. You see, read and hear what you want to see, hear and read. This can be seen particularly well on social media - where the “filter bubble” syndrome, named by the American network expert Eli Pariser, predominates. You ignore other opinions and positions and prefer those of your own group to confirm yourself. Search engines like Google or Yahoo have the potential to provide objective information - but this also thwarts the unconscious selection of searchers. Because the question determines the answer.

Leftists seek confirmation of their thesis in small, sometimes imperceptible nuances, conservatives seek confirmation of theirs, optimists seek out good and pessimists seek out bad signs of a development. There is something for everybody. And although there could be more and more information, better access to knowledge and data and thus also an objective improvement in the quality of decision-making, people look systematically for confirmation - and in the process miss the chance to learn new things, to evaluate new information in peace and their own Broaden your horizons.

This is not the world of the rational, the sensible, the logical, but that of the “gut feeling”, the “language of the heart”, that is, what is considered good and right.

According to the Prospect Theory - for which Kahneman received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 (Tversky died in 1996) - the human brain works in two operating states: Mode one is fast thinking, which is based on rules of thumb, so-called heuristics, on experiences, impressions and everything what you know, like and consciously and unconsciously consider to be right.

Because you don't have to think twice about the instincts and emotions that make up this system, everything goes quickly here. Most of what we do is rewound through this area. The limbic system, in which feelings and instincts rule, plays a decisive role in this. When thinking, the brain prefers to use this region of all places. Unfortunately, because the lobes and convolutions around the hippocampus and amygdala are, it has to be said so clearly, extremely reactionary and backward. Your intentions are always quick and dirty.

However, they deliver the affect promptly, no wonder, because the lobes consist almost without exception of past experiences, prejudices and fixed attitudes. This static fund is only supplemented, if at all, by information that fits easily and effortlessly. This is the principle of “cognitive ease” - in which there is an almost systematic search for confirmation of what you think you already know.

Fast thinking, on the other hand, is really new - too much work. And if the brain nevertheless decides to check something unknown for its chances, then the backward lobes of quick thinking sound the alarm hysterically: the risks are disproportionately exaggerated, possible losses are hyped up - the built-in loss aversion, as the researchers call this process, usually prevents new ones Experience.

The quick thinking that promotes the status quo is also the domain of what is called "right moral sense". So where the forehead is narrowest is what we hold to the highest: morality.

In contrast, Kahneman's so-called “slow thinking” is the exception to the rule. This form of thinking requires critical and self-critical collection of information, a reasonable and logical stipulation of the following inclusion of alternatives, the factual handling of probabilities and variants - in short, dealing with real life, which consists of diversity and complexity.

5. The wrong morality

Whichever way you take it, that's one thing above all else: exhausting work that the brain - lazy by nature - prefers to save. Rational thinking only kicks in when there are serious conflicts between quick thinking and reality. If there are multiple problems, the brain will fight back as much as possible. Multitasking, a virtue of which so-called emotionally intelligent people especially like to boast, is nothing more than self-deception.

The conclusion of the research is sobering: As long as everything is going well, almost everyone thinks quickly and dirty. But when times are full of changes and contradictions, then conflicts and uneasiness are programmed. Good, slow, and thorough thinking needs a conflict that arouses. Against this background one understands the clairvoyant character of the motto of the early enlightenment expert René Descartes: "Doubt is the beginning of wisdom."

But is there no other option than to wait for lazy, easy-going, quick, and dirty thinking to be replaced by deep reflection in a crisis or conflict? Do you have to let yourself be carried away by feelings until damage occurs? Isn't that possible a little different, more sensible, more practical?

Yes, says Professor Karl Homann, business ethicist and professor emeritus at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich. You just have to throw old morals overboard. Because it prevents us from being really sensible. "Thinking in terms of good and bad creates good and bad," he says, "and we have to change that."

Homann is himself a pragmatist through and through. Ethics is not a “noble organization of big words and passionate appeals”, but simply a function that is there to “enable people to have the best possible life”, so again: to make the best of it. The popular contradiction between morality and economy is simply nonsense - because the market economy ensures a steady improvement in living conditions and more prosperity. And new ethical and moral rules? Will not help, says Homann, have never helped. “We have been judging human actions according to moral norms and principles for an infinitely long time. And all we know is: sometimes people act according to moral norms and principles - and sometimes they don't. "

The moralists do not look for deeper causes, as behavior economists like Daniel Kahneman do, but attribute the wrongdoing to a lack of discipline, weakness of character or malice. That is irrelevant, but common. Anyone who violates the moral code is evil; that the moral code may be nonsense is not considered. The result, according to Homann, is an endless chain of senseless moral appeals and accusations that have "long since led to broad blunting among the audience. In reality, people have long been immune to moralizing at all levels. ”Perhaps they still play along a little, pretend. But in fact, the big words have long since bounced off reality.

No wonder, as Homann knows: “Anyone who really wants to help morality gain greater validity in this world has to stop appealing and accept how people think. The system is okay - but the framework conditions are not right. ”In concrete terms: moral behavior must be worthwhile. Not unethical behavior.

This is not a question of capitalism or state economy, but the sober insight that people will always do what is personally most useful to them and can be done with the least effort. So are we. When you can soberly expect that it will be worthwhile if you behave correctly, that also becomes the rule.

In this way, morality could again perceive its actual function and turn from a feeling into a useful tool that makes cooperation possible in the first place. Doing really good instead of just talking about it all the time. This transformation is called pragmatism.

6. The reality builders

The word pragmatism, writes the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, “colloquially describes behavior that is based on known practical conditions, whereby practical action is placed above theoretical reason. In pragmatism, the truth of a theory is proven by its practical success, which is why pragmatic action is not tied to unchangeable principles. "

This attitude is a child of the new world - a direct consequence of the attitude by which the United States seeks to distinguish itself from its European mother countries. In the European nation-states of the 19th century, ideologies - that is, new dogmas - replaced the old religious denominations. In the process, solid and rigid structures emerged that spread “unchangeable, eternal truths”. Like all ideologies, they used the simplification, like all demagogues the shortening - and thus leveraged themselves into people's “quick thinking”. Criticism and doubts were not provided. You had to believe what you heard. Ideologies, even if misunderstood as “attitude”, are downright inflexible matters. Learning, renewing - or even changing - a position is not intended. Ideologies offer a good container for quick thinking: a firm moral, lots of security promises, easy confirmation of all prejudices - and no room for maneuver.

However, the world of pure reason, of cool logic, cannot counter this with anything really attractive. That is why it rises more and more in its ivory tower. It may be that the cold computers have the optimal solutions. But they only work under optimal conditions that do not exist outside, in real life. Pure reason is a clinically pure laboratory in which nobody is allowed to open doors and windows because everyone would immediately become infected with reality. All theory is gray.

Nowhere has this idea been more connected to the dominant culture than in the USA in the 19th century. A huge country had to be built there - and an agricultural and industrial society to be managed at the same time. You can't do that if you stick to fixed, rigid ideologies. You have to improvise to solve the multitude of problems. Fast thinking with standard answers does not help anyone. What is too quick and dirty does not work, but everything that degenerates into brooding for brooding is also impractical.

“Pragmatists say: What is real is what can be realized, what can be implemented. It's pure pragmatism, ”says Birger Priddat, Professor of Economics at the University of Witten / Herdecke. In the pioneering USA, pragmatism, coupled with sober capitalism, was at its best. The conditions for this were far better than in old Europe.

The old world was largely abandoned by those willing to take great risks to improve their situation. An emigrant had to know what he wanted, but he couldn't be stubborn. There were many ways to get there. At the same time, the economic refugees from Europe had to accept to get involved with the unknown and new, with a completely different reality than the usual.

Those who did not manage to get stuck in the ethnic ghettos of the great immigrant ports of New York or Boston, which quickly became poor quarters, or did not even enter the passage at all. The rest of them set about translating the phrase “Make your dreams come true” into their own lives. Make your dreams come true - the sentence has nothing to do with fate, but everything with sober lifestyle.
Make something of it.

“They are reality designers,” says Birger Priddat, “colloquially we call something like an entrepreneur. These are people who are not satisfied with the fact that the world is not good enough or even bad, but who make the best of what they find there. ”This is not the glowing, passionate idealism with which one approaches“ his Thing “believes - until reality convinces you otherwise. Pragmatism follows the motto that what works is good.

That puts the passion and the feeling on the right track. They are there to inspire an idea, to inspire a vision, to make it take off - but the reason, which one attains by soberly considering the world and its circumstances, keeps things flying and on the right course.

Even if affects, passions and ideologies keep coming back - reason prevails, slowly but surely, says Birger Priddat: “In a complex world that is diverse, multicultural and often unpredictable, ideologies and their either / or lose Positions increasingly in value. You can no longer achieve enough through them. In the end, it is no longer worth being ideological. "

Pragmatism, on the other hand, the art of adapting one's visions to reality, constantly calls for collaboration, cooperation and consensus in the 21st century - that is, everything that behavioral economists have already recognized as the basis of all human activity. Only ideologues want an opposition between me and us.

Those who soberly pursue the implementation of their own personal goals have to come to terms with others - and will not distance themselves from them.

And if you really want to live your visions and keep as much of your passion as possible, you have to keep them alive through sober action.

7. Sobered up

Fast, dirty thinking, the world of ideology, knows friend and foe, good and bad. Pragmatic thinking includes the others in the calculation. This promotes consensus, the most important basis of social processes. A consensus aims to give everyone involved a right to the implementation of their life goals without insurmountable contradictions occurring.

Consensus accepts the diversity and diversity of human interests. It is a tool of pragmatic pluralism that enables maximum freedom in communities - an instrument that does not want everything, but what is feasible in each case. Don't let fairy tales tell you: that's the world.

The ideologies and doctrines of salvation, romantic world formulas and passionate appeals are always about “doing the only right thing”, fulfilling all wishes and “bringing all possible participants under one roof”; a size that won't fit anyone.

Pragmatism seeks the conversation, the deal. Therefore, like cool reason, it is indispensable for the functioning of organizations and societies. It cannot be said often enough: what works is good.

A great poet knew this 80 years ago, Erich Kästner. He wrote the lines that put pragmatism, the art of the practical, in the right light. It's easy to remember: There's nothing good unless you do it.
Does that sound sobering?
Then it's right. ---

* Daniel Kahnemann: Fast thinking, slow thinking, Siedler, 2012; 624 pages