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'Pragmatic Politics' as a Public Discourse: a Critical Appraisal


It is fashionable for political leaders to describe their ways of governing as “pragmatic” or for government officials to claim to adopt a “pragmatic approach” in policy-making. For instance, Mr. Donald Tsang, the Chief Executive of the HKSAR, used to identify himself as an ardent advocate and keen practitioner of pragmatic politics since the release of his 2006 policy address entitled “Proactive, Pragmatic, Always People First”. Even Barack Obama, President of the United States, advocated a “more pragmatic approach that is less interested in whether we have a big government or small government … [but] whether we have a smart, effective government” in his inaugural speech made in December 2008. But what it is to be pragmatic? What are the political and policy implications of the pragmatic approach? These are the questions to be addressed in this seminar.

The seminar will begin with the idea of pragmatic politics as understood and practiced by the HKSAR under the leadership of Donald Tsang. I will first explain his problematic understanding of pragmatic politics in light of the policy failures under his administration. Then I will turn to the understandings of pragmatism as used by some legal scholars (e.g. Richard Posner, Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003) and environmental theorists (e.g. Andrew Light and Eric Katz (eds.) Environmental Pragmatism. London: Routledge, 1996) in solving legal disputes and environmental controversies respectively. Finally I will judge to what extent their pragmatic approach, which is firmly built on the American pragmatic tradition founded by William James and John Dewey, can provide useful guidance for political deliberations and policy making.


Francis Mok is lecturer of the Dept. of Social Science of EdUHK. His teaching and research interests are political philosophy, moral philosophy, and applied ethics. Apart from the idea of pragmatic politics, he is currently working on issues including the moral foundation of public support of homeownership, the moral responsibility of civilian participants in the Cultural Revolution of China, and secondary school teachers' perception & practice of the notion of critical thinking.