pragmatism or righteousness… which approach to use?

You know how Ned Stark is. Righteous, honorable, the good guy, the moral guy, the one willing to die for his principles. Other may call him the stupid guy, the one that was so blinded by righteousness and nobility that couldn’t think strategically.

The best way to explain Nedstarkism happens on one of the first scenes of the Game of Thrones series:

A deserter from the Night’s watch is caught by Winterfell men and altough he’s scared like hell by what he saw and the reason he deserted is more than understandable (I would run away as well if I see a White Walker), he gets decapitated because it’s the law, it’s the way it has been always done, regardless of common sense.

This is a debate that’s been going on in my mind for quite a long time. All my life I’ve been full of “Nedstarkism”: a term my wife coined to refer all the people that always choose “the right way” of doing things instead of the pragmatic way.

Marco Arment has a great post about this subject: Right vs. Pragmaticand I must say that thanks to that post I’m turning into a more pragmatic person every day, and I’m definitely happier.

Nedstarkism, when taken too far, lead to all kinds stupidity. The thing is, everybody has a different idea of what’s right, and how things are supposed to be. And when the reality hits our expectations with a brick, we get sad, or angry.

People expect things to be in a certain way, and when they become too axiomatized by the way things should be they tend to dumb down. Maybe it’s laziness of thinking about things in their own context and instead applying the same set of rules to everything.

Nedstarkism is what lead religious people to believe that gays are sinners or abortion is a terrible thing regardless of context. Nedstarkism is saying “it’s God’s will”, “it’s the law”, “it’s how everyone does it”, “this is what’s expected of you”.

Nedstarkism avoids change by definition. Because change require breaking the rules and creating new ones. Nedstarkism leans towards keeping values, keeping the status-quo.

Nedstarkism is what lead Ned Stark to tell Cersei Lannister about his takeover of the kingdom before he actually did it to give her a chance and be merciful, look how that turned out.

If there’s anything you can learn from Game of Thrones (SPOILER ALERT) is that Nedstarkism will get you killed [Oh! those poor poor Starks 🙁 ]. In a land where people are willing to play dirty you cannot proceed the righteous way all the time.

Nedstarkism leads to religious fanatism, to pride, to patriotism, to sports fanatism and all the stupid stuff that all these “isms” bring, like killing “in the name of God”, like killing “for King and Country”, like judging other people for where they miss in your set of values.

Pragmatism on the other way is a happier way of living. There is no expected way to do stuff, just take the more practical approach. Forget conventions and standards and look for a smarter way of thinking.

A good Game of Thrones example of pragmatism is Tyrion Lannister. He’s tricky, deceptive and smart. He always play for his own benefit, but deep inside he cares about the peace in the kingdom and the easiest way to solve the problems. No egoes, no family honor, no pride, no bullsh*t. Just pragmatism.

It’s a much smarter way to handle yourself through life. As long as you focus on the good in your heart, you’ll never be pragmatic for evil reasons.

Science is the best example of what pragmatism can do. True scientist know there are no universal truths, and that the few universal truths that we know so far (speed of light, evolution, and so) are subject to change when a new set of rules are discovered.

Science, in its purest form never judges, is curious, wants to learn more, know more, and knows there are no “right ways” to anything. It focus on the causes, it focus on research.

Always keep in mind that even your deepest values, might not be right. If someone disagrees with you, be curious about their thinking, don’t think you have to defend your position.

In science, everything is a hypothesis that can be proven wrong or right. And is always subject to change when new evidence comes along. That’s a very pragmatic way of thinking and look how far it has gotten us.

But being a complete pragmatic is much more dangerous. Excesive pragmatism will lead to corruption, will lead to egoism and to favor yourself in every situation no matter who gets hurt in the way. Being 100% pragmatic can be a lot more dangerous to society. Pragmatism in its more extreme way is Machiavelli’s “the ends justifies the means”.

So how can you choose between Nedstarkism and pragmatism?

I don’t have the answer yet, but I found some guiding principles that help me through choosign wether to be pragmatic or Nedstarkist according to the situation.

In general, be pragmatic all the time. Forget rules, expectations and conventions and think of the smartest, more practical way to handle the situation you’re in.

UNLESS

You might unfairly hurt someone else by being pragmatic: Your boss tells you that he’ll give you a raise if you help him create a situation that will get someone else fired. Don’t do it, avoid harm at all costs.

Some powerful entity uses its power against a weaker one. British power over India, animal mistreating, gender violence, NSA spying on the whole world, racism by law (Apartheid) or just a mean policeman threatening someone just because he has authority. If there’s a big injustice happening caused by the abuse of power, speak up. And please, don’t ever do it yourself.

It leads to corruption: You’re the major of the town and want to of assign that budget to the company of a friend that gave you money for the campaign instead of that other company where you don’t know anyone but you know they’ll do a better job. Don’t do it. Don’t let pragmatism corrupt yourself.

It ends in no benefit for anyone. You kicked that kid that is bullying your kid at school? How’s that helping anyone? Solve it as an adult, educate, provide a better outcome for everyone involved.

SO

Think of others before you take action. How will your actions affect other people involved?

Think of the planet before you take action: It’s easier to leave the lights on, it’s easier to throw that plastic bag in the woods while camping. Don’t, you’re abusing your power to harm a powerless one (nature).

Be and let be: Be yourself and do what you please as long as you don’t hurt others in the way. And let people be themselves as well, don’t judge them or compare to them. Tolerance is KEY. If any, be curious about how others see things, that way you’ll always learn more.

AND ALSO (the exception)

It’s OK to be evily pragmatic when it helps a big part of us: Have to decide wether to kill Hitler or let him escape? Kill Hitler. It’s OK, the best for the majority should always prevail.


If you let go your standards, rules and principles you might think that you’ll be worth nothing, that you might end up in hell or something. But the truth is that if you let go these rules and conventions you’ll be a lot more free, and a lot happier.

Don’t be a Nedstarkist unless you need to be. Pragmatism will lead to a happier, more practical life, less complications and less bullsh*t. You’ll see things for what they are and not what you think they should be. Your expectations about life will low down, and that will give you a lot of joy. We mammals get sad and angry when the reality doesn’t meet our expectations.Learn to control that.

Also be a Nedstarkist when you need to be. There’s nothing more satisfactory that to stand for what you believe in. But make sure that those beliefs are worth it. Nedstarkism can be very expensive for you and the others around you.

Am I contradicting myself? Maybe, or maybe you’re not being pragmatic enough reading this 😛

In general, loving and caring someone else is the one true thing you should always stand for. Everything else is probably worthless.

As with everything in life, try to find balance. In this case between the Ned Stark and the Tyrion Lannister within you.

If these words got into you, go share them with some Nedstarkist in need.