Friday, January 23, 2009

That which works

Back in oh, freshman year of college or so, I had to do a paper on an important psychologist, with emphasis on his or her philosophy of treatment. Not wanting to go with the obvious, I chose William James, functionalist, who summed up his own therapeutic philosophy as "doing that which works." I'm a fan of that kind of thinking in many cases, but I do think it needs to be tempered by sane judgment and ethics. President Obama is taking a functionalist approach, it appears:

In practice, we know what this [Obama's statement was "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works"] means: Obama wants more federal spending, more federal regulation, more federal mandates, and more federal prohibitions. It means the president—like all presidents—wants more power.

And objecting that the Constitution limits his power, or that more federal or presidential power is inherently corrupting or destructive—that’s out of line. The only legitimate question to ask about the new powers the president wants is “whether it works.”

But that raises another question: Works for whom?

Tim Carney's question isn't the only one. Parents and schools could make a case for corporal punishment's "working" because yes, conditioning does actually "work" in terms of specific behavior change; does that make spanking, caning, hitting with a belt, ruler, or wooden spoon the right way to change a child's behavior? Or is it simply the expedient (and sometimes most satisfying) way, with possibly harmful longer-term consequences? (Not intending to get into a spanking debate; it was just the first example that springs to my mind. My parents spanked, wooden spoon method usually, and not frequently or as their first choice; they are kind and thoughtful people who believed with all their hearts that (a) they were acting in our best interests, and (b) they would do us worse psychological damage if they struck with a hand, because it'd personalize the action. My husband and I don't spank, which makes discipline of our children very challenging and repetitive sometimes, but we believe the research is in and have made our choice.)

So my question is not "Works for whom?" but "At what cost?" We've just been through seven years of argument about the cost of Bush's foreign policy decisions to our status in the world, our national identity, the Constitution... Are we supposed to pass on that question when the maker of the policy is not Bush?

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