The Unintended Consequences of Our Pragmatism

We’ve all been conditioned to be pragmatic. Whatever gets us to our goal is what we want. Whatever saves time. Whatever scratches the itch. Whatever works.

Leaders are often chosen because they’ve mastered this pragmatism. Whatever is strategic. Whatever produces results. We are goal-oriented and practical. Never mind the ethics or values we’ve compromised.


photo credit: Mr_Stein via photo pin cc

In our work with schools around the world, we’ve found an intense pragmatism in students, that leads them to cheating on tests, lying to their teachers and betraying the trust of their fellow-students as they work on team-projects. The most recent national surveys of secondary schools students reveal that the majority of teens in America cheat on tests.

How could this happen? Students tell us they know that cheating is wrong, but in order to get the grade they need to produce the GPA they need to get the scholarship they need to get into the college they want to attend—they have to cheat.

The same is true for lying to others—it’s a means to an end. And the end justifies the means. It’s also why they betray peers. It’s all a way to get what they want. And we have taught them this:

  1. Ethics are compromised. We want progress.
  2. Commitment is lowered. We want options.
  3. People are used. We want speed and production.

Sadly, the consequences are emerging in our culture. Relationships with a very low trust factor, even in marriages. Employees who don’t stay long in a job. A huge law industry to handle all the lawsuits from breeched contracts.

Why not begin turning the tide on this issue. While pragmatism isn’t all bad, if we learn pragmatism before we establish a set of personal ethics, we will compromise those ethics. When our vision forms before our values do—we will eventually sabotage our value system in order to reach our goal. Here’s my recommendation:

  • Work with your young people to create a list of personal core values.
  • Ask your students about their motives: Why do they do what they do?
  • Discuss with them how their goals should benefit others not just them.
  • Help your students to see the big picture and to see the long-term outcomes of their decisions.

Let’s add principles to our pragmatism. Your thoughts? Leave a comment below.

The Unintended Consequences of Our Pragmatism