• Kenneth Jacobs

Pragmatic Truths are Not Personal Truths

Updated: Nov 26, 2019

Pragmatic truths are beliefs with value––to you and not just me. The belief that "smoking kills" is an example. There is value in the smoking-kills-belief when we learn that cigarette smoking is the cause of 480,000 deaths annually (CDC.gov). We try to convince ourselves, our families, and our friends not to smoke cigarettes because the life expectancy of smokers is 10 years shorter than it is for non-smokers (CDC.gov). Assuming there is value in 10 more years of life, means there is value in the smoking-kills-belief. Smoking kills, then, is a pragmatic truth with means (quitting smoking) and consequences (longer life expectancy).

A personal truth is also a belief with value, but the value is egocentric. Take the example of the person who lives well into old age while still smoking. That person may have the personal belief that "smoking does not kill because it did not kill me!" You may adopt that personal belief, but on the whole, there is still a chance that you may be the 1 of every 5 deaths due to cigarette smoking in the United States. Is 1 in 5 a chance worth taking? If it is a chance worth taking for you, then you may decide to adopt the personal truth that "smoking won't kill me!" Adopt that personal truth if you like, but please don't disseminate that personal truth at the expense of other peoples' health!

Pragmatic truths are NOT personal truths because pragmatism assumes that we live in a world with other people. You may think for yourself and by yourself, but any actions emanating from those thoughts will likely impact those around you. Ruth Anna Putnam, in Taking Pragmatism Seriously, put it this way:

"So to take pragmatism seriously means to me, first of all, that I don't question that I live in the same world with you."

And a couple lines later:

"...I must take it for granted that the toe I would step on, were I not to take care, is the toe in which you would feel pain" (p. 15).

Together, these quotes point up pragmatism's commitment to considering the consequences of truths when everyone else is considered. We stomp on the toes of our fellow humans, for instance, when we deny climate change. The denial of climate change for one's own sake––for monetary and/or political reasons––is a personal truth that has costs for not just humans, but for the plants and animals that also play a role in managing our ecosystem. Climate change is a pragmatic truth, and rather then deny it, pragmatic people take aim at handling it for the sake of not just themselves, but for the sake of their families, friends, and all other worldly inhabitants (paws, hooves, fins, etc.).

Pragmatic truths are not masquerades for one's own personal goals. Pragmatic truths consider what it means to live in a world with other people by listening to the cries of those whose toes we may step on (unintentionally and hopefully not repeatedly). The next time we name a leader, politician, doctor, or teacher "pragmatic," we should ask ourselves: "Did they consider our toes?"

As a final note, please consider some of the additional qualifications for what constitutes a pragmatic truth. Truth is a complex topic that will always require examination and refinement. Below are some of those additional qualifications, which the Pragmatic Means blog will address with time.

  • Pragmatic truths are not absolute truths.

  • Pragmatic truths rely on the hard-work of investigators.

  • Pragmatic truths rely on continued and varied modes of inquiry.

  • Pragmatic truths are more comprehensive than what works for a lone individual.


Find the Taking Pragmatism Seriously chapter here: https://www.amazon.com/Pragmatism-Way-Life-Lasting-William/dp/067496750X