The Principle of the Practical Effect


Pyrrho was a citizen of Elis in ancient Greece, born around 360 B.C. or so and, to the best of our knowledge, lived to be ninety years old. Pyrrho is important to the history of philosophy because he is considered to be the first great skeptical philosopher. Now it must be understood that Pyrrho was not just a “mere skeptic”; there were plenty of those around at that time, just as there are in today’s world. No, Pyrrho was a “systematizer” of what we can call “Universal Skepticism.” What this means is that he elevated skepticism from a simple belief to an organized philosophy.

Pyrrho’s philosophy was based on three fundamental opinions: (1) certainty of any sort is unattainable, (2) the wise man will suspend judgment and seek tranquility rather than truth, and (3) since all theories are probably false, one might as well accept the myths and conventions of his time and place. In other words, we cannot have sure knowledge about anything either through the use of our senses or the use of our reasoning power. We cannot say with any certainty that a material world of “hard” objects exists around us; everything is mere “appearance.” Furthermore, we have no guide to correct conduct except the customs and mores of our culture or society.

A few anecdotes regarding Pyrrho have been passed down to us including this one. It seems that he was once attacked by a fierce dog. Pyrrho reacted with fear and began to run from the dog, something that most of us would probably do in the same situation. However, Pyrrho was allegedly mocked by those who viewed the encounter because he was acting counter to what he claimed to believe, that is, that the external world was mere appearance and not “real.” It is said that he later apologized to his friends for not acting consistently with his own philosophy.

The above information about Pyrrho is simply introductory to the main topic I want to discuss in this essay and I begin with the following question: What good is a philosophy that cannot be lived? I would say that such a philosophy is not of much use and is most likely a false philosophy in the first place. So I want to throw out an idea which I think can be used as an indicator for evaluating a philosophy regarding its capacity to actually be lived in the real world, and not merely discussed in textbooks and classrooms where, after all, any fantasy is possible (and all too often taught as “the truth”).

Pyrrho claimed to believe that reality could not be known and that all we have to work with are “appearances.” But he could not always act consistently with this belief. This is a serious problem for the Universal Skeptic and for those who believe that all reality is simply an “illusion.” If the fierce dog is merely an “appearance” or an “illusion,” why run from it? If automobiles do not really exist as hard material objects, why jump out of their way? If illness and disease are not really “real,” why bother to go to the physician? And what about the pain of a broken leg or the fear of a destructive earthquake?

It seems obvious to most of us that hard material reality exists and we respond to it accordingly. Any philosophy which disputes this belief is going to be hard to sell to the ordinary person. And I think we can evaluate the worthiness, truthfulness, and utility of philosophies, including Pyrrho’s, by using a very simple principle which I call the “Principle of the Practical Effect.” This principle is not a proof and it is not, strictly speaking, evidence for the truth or falsity of any belief. It is simply a “criterion” which can be used to test a belief or a philosophy as to its capacity to be actually lived in the real world. By the way, this principle belongs to the realm of “Applied Philosophy,” rather than theoretical or speculative philosophy.

The Principle of the Practical Effect uses the following question to evaluate an idea, a belief, or a philosophy: What are or would be the actual consequences or “effects” in practical living if this or that idea, belief, or philosophy was accepted as true and then acted upon? We are really asking whether or not a particular philosophy (or idea or belief) can actually be lived. We may say we believe “X,” but can we live with the practical effects in which “X” would result?

I submit that Pyrrho’s philosophy fails the test provided by the Principle of the Practical Effect. No matter how much Pyrrho was committed to his belief, he simply couldn’t live consistently with the practical effects which are the result of that belief. This is the powerful hammer which destroys Universal Skepticism and any other philosophy which doubts the reality of the external world. You can say “an external material world doesn’t exist,” but try living that way.

The Principle of the Practical Effect can be applied to virtually any idea, belief, or philosophy. For instance, in the area of political or social policy, the principle can be very valuable. I have used it to criticize California’s “three-strikes” law and the national trend toward mandatory sentencing laws. In the first situation, California has imposed life sentences (or 25 years to life sentences) for “three-strikers” whose third crime is mere shoplifting and, in a few cases at least, where the second crime was not a violent crime either. When I first saw the California law, I predicted this would happen. I understand now that the law is under review and may be changed. In the second situation above, while I have no problem with sentencing guidelines for judges, I oppose strict mandatory sentencing laws because the “practical effect” of such laws is to deprive the judge of any discretion in sentencing regardless of any special circumstances which should, as a matter of justice and fairness, be taken into consideration.

Let’s now turn to an important issue in philosophy and psychology, one which has been controversial almost from the beginning of intellectual inquiry and which is very much alive today. The issue is “Free-Will vs. Determinism.” Do human beings possess a will which is free? Or is all human behavior determined by psychical or physical conditions over which humans have no control? The free-will doctrine is sometimes referred to as “Indeterminism.”

You may think the free-will question is no longer an issue today, that it is merely a historical curiosity. It is true that for the ordinary person there is not much of a problem. Most people are on the side of indeterminism and believe that human beings possess a free will and make free choices at least some of the time. But the determinists are around and many philosophers and psychologists, especially in the universities, teach and preach a deterministic philosophy. For instance, mechanical determinism is defended by extreme materialists, such as the followers of Thomas Hobbes and John Stuart Mill. Biological (physiological) determinism is defended by many psychoanalysts who follow Sigmund Freud and by the behaviorists who follow John Watson and his disciples. B.F. Skinner, one of the most influential psychologists during the latter half of the twentieth-century, promoted a particularly insidious form of behavoristic determinism. (The university where I took most of my undergraduate and post-graduate courses in psychology was dominated by Skinnerian behaviorists.)

Now, indeterminism (or the free-will doctrine) does not maintain that all human acts are free, or a matter of free choice. The indeterminist doesn’t have to do that. All the indeterminist has to show is that at least one human act is free. Should this be the case, then determinism as a doctrine is shown to be false, since it requires that all human acts are determined by conditions over which human beings have no control. Common experience clearly shows us that many human acts are influenced by inner or outer forces which are beyond our immediate control, but this fact alone does not defeat the indeterminist argument. There are even some human beings whose actions always seem to be beyond their control (and psychologists often refer to them as sociopaths or psychopaths), but this fact alone does not defeat the indeterminist argument.

This is not the place, however, to argue the truth or falsity of either indeterminism or determinism. I am firmly in the indeterminist camp and the arguments in favor of the free-will doctrine have been presented elsewhere. What I want to do here is apply the Principle of the Practical Effect to the determinist’s doctrine and see if such a doctrine can be put into actual practice, as is suggested by many philosophers and psychologists today. Keep in mind that the Principle of the Practical Effect does not judge the truth or falsity of an idea, belief, or philosophy, but is a criterion by which to evaluate whether or not the implementation of a particular doctrine can be lived in the real world we actually inhabit and provide an adequate guide for human beings in achieving their proper end or goals.

So, for the moment, let’s assume that determinism is true and we are prepared to implement this doctrine in everyday life. Human beings do not have free-will. Human behavior is determined by conditions beyond the control of human beings. Since we human beings have no control over what we do, we also, of course bear no “responsibility” for our actions. How, after all, can we be held responsible for that which we are “forced” to do by some inner or outer condition over which we have no control?

Human beings ordinarily live in social groups and interact with other human beings. Over the course of thousands of years, human beings have organized institutions to deal with various aspects of human behavior. Among those institutions are courts of law, legislative bodies, religions, and so forth. Legislative institutions pass laws in an attempt to regulate certain human acts and declare particular acts as “criminal.” Violators of these laws are subject to prosecution in courts of law. Religions declare certain human acts as “sinful.” Society in general reacts to what it considers “unethical” or “immoral” human actions. Furthermore, even individual persons cry “unfair” or “foul” when confronted with certain actions perpetrated against them by other individuals. And the justification for all of the above is a solid belief that human beings possess free-will, that is, that they are to be held “accountable” for at least some of their actions.

Now we put the determinist doctrine into practice. We apply the Principle of the Practical Effect. What happens?

  • First, all the laws regarding human acts passed by the legislators become moot. Why pass a law when it won’t make any difference in the first place? People will do what they are compelled to do by forces beyond their control. Any legislation, then, becomes impossible to justify.
  • Second, the entire criminal justice system must be abolished. Why have police departments when there are no laws to enforce? Why have courts when there’s no one to prosecute?
  • Third, the very idea of “unethical” or “immoral” behavior becomes meaningless. How can a person be judged “unethical” or “immoral,” or, for that matter, “sinful,” if he or she cannot help doing what he or she is doing? How can any person be properly held “responsible” or “accountable”? The words “responsibility” or “accountability” would have to be dismissed from our language.
  • Fourth, fifth, and sixth…fill in the blanks with your own extensions of having determinism put into actual practice.

This, then, would be the real world into which all of us would be plunged if the determinist’s doctrine is implemented in real life. This is why determinism as a doctrine does not, in fact, have a life outside the textbook or the classroom. The doctrine of determinism cannot be “lived” in real life, or at least it cannot be lived in such a way that human beings can achieve their hopes and dreams, their proper ends and goals, and so forth. The modern philosophers and psychologists who are promoting the doctrine of determinism in our universities and through their books are promoting philosophical nonsense and pseudo-science. Their theories will not pass the test of the Principle of the Practical Effect. Their theories are at best fantasy and at worst intellectual insanity.

Keep in mind, however, that the Principle of the Practical Effect does not “disprove” the doctrine of determinism. Nor does it “prove” the doctrine of free-will or indeterminism. All it is is a criterion for judging the practical adequacy of a particular idea, belief, or philosophy. I might go further and say that the Principle of the Practical Effect is a good tool to use to determine (no pun intended!) whether or not an idea, belief, or philosophy is worth considering at all or whether it’s worth the time involved in discussing it. It is why I no longer am willing to engage in lengthy discussions about the existence of an external material world, or whether we human beings can really “know” anything or, for that matter, whether or not we have a free will.

The fact is that human beings are truly free in at least some of their choices. This is all that is needed to establish the “truth” of indeterminism. Arguing endlessly about this matter is pointless, in my opinion. The determinist’s doctrine does not stand critical evaluation, and the Principle of the Practical Effect certainly shows us what would result from really believing in and implementing such a doctrine. Philosophy must be capable of providing truth and guidance in ordinary life; otherwise, philosophy is a useless enterprise.

I think the Principle of the Practical Effect can help us in important ways. Using this criterion, we can separate those philosophies which cannot really be lived from those which may provide both the theoretical and practical knowledge we as human beings need to live a good and happy life. Furthermore, it can help us decide whether a particular idea or belief in philosophy, politics, and even empirical science, is worth discussing seriously in the first place.

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.