The 138th Annual Richard T. Merrick Debate

News, Weekly Debates

The Philodemic Society convened for its 138th Merrick Debate on Saturday, April 20. This historic part of Philodemic tradition is held each year to determine the best undergraduate speaker for the Merrick Medal, which is the only non-academic award that can be adorned at graduation. (More on the history of the Merrick Debate.)

Resolved: Pragmatism, not idealism, is the higher virtue.

Affirming the resolution are Mr. Patrick Spagnuolo (SFS ’14) of New York and Mr. Constantine Petallides (SFS ’13) of New York.

Negating the resolution are Mr. Samuel Dulik (SFS ’13) of California and Mr. Benjamin Snow (COL ’13) of Washington.

The esteemed judges invited to determine the winner of the Merrick Medal are:

  • The Reverend Pat Conroy, S.J., the 60th Chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives
  • Mr. Clark S. Judge, founding director of the White House Writers Group, Inc. and former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan
  • Ms. Rachel Kronowitz, founding partner and vice chair of Gilbert LLP and Board Chair of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation
  • Mr. Paul Sprenger, lawyer, philanthropist, and 2007 Washingtonian of the Year
  • The Honorable James Robertson, lawyer and former U.S. district judge
  • The Honorable Albert Wynn (L’77), former elected official in the U.S. House of Representatives, Maryland House of Delegates, and Maryland State Senate

Mr. Spagnuolo began the debate by describing a pragmatist as one who is willing to sacrifice their ideals when it becomes necessary to forge compromise and agreement. A pragmatist acknowledges that their personal ideals of the truth may not be the universal truth. They acknowledge that everyone has different conceptions and visions of how to reach truth. In contrast, idealism is “the most dangerous way to go,” as going along with one person’s idea and their dogmatic insistence on how it must be carried out can lead to disastrous results. He cited Chairman Mao Zedong of China as someone who was fervent in their belief that certain sacrifices must be made to achieve his ideal of a better society, but those sacrifices resulted in the deaths of 30 to 60 million people. Mao was convinced in the orthodoxy of communism — those were his ideals that he stood by intractably. Mr. Spagnuolo cited the obstinacy of idealists as the reason they alienate so many others: “Society is harmed by people putting abstract principles so far ahead of everything that they refuse to have any willingness to compromise.” He argued that the pragmatist is the truly brave one: “They are willing to realize that their own path to truth is not the only path.” Mr. Spagnuolo ended by remarking that the courageous who have come together and incorporated more than one point of view are the ones who have truly changed the world.

Mr. Dulik reminded the audience that the resolution is not constrained to policymaking or governance, but rather represents a fundamental human question. He cited Aquinas to define virtue as an orientation of the mind and the heart. “You’re forced to live out your virtues, so the unit of analysis of this debate shouldn’t be limited to what you do,” Mr. Dulik said. He contended that one must have idealism when advocating a position, but idealism can subsequently produce pragmatism. Further, pragmatism is anchored in idealism: “Idealism is the end of any pursuit. When you remove that end, you are walking around in circles.” Mr. Dulik also defended unrestricted idealism (without pragmatism) as a force that positively motivates society, asking the audience to imagine the bright eyes of an 8-year-old boy who declares his dream of becoming an astronaut. “We should not shut down those dreams,” he said. “We still want that idealism because it builds engines and innovations. It anchors our people.” He concluded with a pithy juxtaposition of the two values: “A pragmatist sees problems where an idealist sees opportunities. Idealism calls virtues to ring true in their truest sense. Pragmatism boxes them in and tamps them down.”

Mr. Petallides emphasized an important distinction in the debate: ideals should not be conflated with idealism. Neither the affirmation nor the negation has a monopoly on ideals, as one could be a pragmatist and stand for important values as well. The crucial difference is that “pragmatism does not hold onto uncompromisable positions” so it is the “most effective course of action to achieve the goal of an ideal.” Therefore, Mr. Petallides argued that pragmatism is relatively higher on the virtue scale than idealism, as the higher virtue is one that “allows us to get things done.” He contended that a pragmatist is willing to make advantageous compromises, to accept less in the short-term for more in the short-term. Mr. Petallides described idealism as the pursuit of goals in their purest form, such that anything less than full achievement of those ideals is unacceptable. “This level of perfection eludes us,” he said. “They should stand as goalposts for which we strive. Striving for the ideal is unrealistic.” He reminded the audience of how President Woodrow Wilson’s insistence on his ideals in the creation of the League of Nations prevented compromise with congressional leaders who disagreed with him, ultimately resulting in the defeat of the Treaty of Versailles in the Senate. “The more desirable trait in society is one that demands people to cooperate and see other perspectives rather than dig ideological trenches with No Man’s Land in between,” Mr. Petallides concluded. “Pragmatism can evolve and adapt to changing variables.”

Mr. Snow refuted the assertion that idealists cannot compromise: “An idealist is a person who abides by certain core principles. You can compromise towards your ideals; you just can’t compromise away your ideals.” He contended that idealists are motivated by a sense of humility, as they recognize that they do not know everything, so they must draw certain boundaries that cannot be crossed. Mr. Snow argued that idealism in fact produces better outcomes than pragmatism because “idealists can make guarantees.” He then described the nation’s founding as centered on idealism because it gives people the strength to make things possible. “My family fought in the American Revolution because they believed it was the right thing to do,” he said. “They held onto American ideals.” He ended by espousing the spirit of idealism: “An idealist doesn’t sell his soul along the way. Idealism is the strength and resolve to stand in the face of the world who tries to push you down, and to say ‘No.'”

In the floor speeches, Mr. Donovan (COL ’13) described how Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was co-opted by the British to intervene in Iran because he was “blinded by his staunch anti-communist ideals and unable to see the minutia of geopolitical conditions.” Conversely, President William Jefferson Clinton embodied pragmatism when he accepted for incremental compromises in the fight for LGBTQ equality such as DADT, despite his passionate ideal that LGBTQs should have equal rights. He allowed for a less-than-perfect compromise in the short-term so that the next generation of pragmatists could win marriage equality and further LGBTQ rights. Chancellor Randy Drew (SFS ’10) described idealism as “a tough gig,” but believed that idealists move us forward as a society more so than pragmatists. Ms. Miller (SFS ’14) cautioned the Society to avoid conflating ideals and idealism: ideals are the end goal and pragmatism/idealism represent distinct methods of reaching that. In response, Ms. Wynter (COL ’14) pointed out that the resolution does not say “idealist” or “pragmatist,” but rather the concepts of “idealism” and “pragmatism.” She contended that both virtues can exist within the same person, so the question surrounds the goals that motivates their actions. Ms. Melendez (COL ’13) posited that “doubt is not the opposite of faith,” so pragmatists don’t necessarily have less faith in their ideals, but they give themselves room to doubt them. “Holding fast to our ideals makes us brittle and ignores our internal human fallacy,” she said. Mr. Desnick (COL ’13) denigrated pragmatism as over-inflating the desirability of compromise: “There are objective ideals towards which we should strive, which we can determine through reason. Compromise is not an ideal.” Thus, pragmatism cannot be a virtue because compromise is never the best solution we should strive to attain.

Returning the spotlight to the keynote speakers for their closings, Mr. Snow championed idealism as the higher virtue that allows us to “move mountains and win wars.” He said that there won’t be constant clashes of ideals because we must be picky when it comes to choosing our ideals: ideals should come from the gut and should represent the fundamental principles of humanity, equality, and liberty. Finally, he pointed out that “not everyone needs to be an idealist” for idealism to be a higher virtue, but that our greatest leaders were. “Once you give up your ideals, you have nothing left,” he said.

Mr. Petallides emphasized that pragmatism can hold any of the laudable ideals that have come up today on the floor, as “acting in service of an ideal does not make one an idealist.” He presented Javert from Les Misérables as the paragon of idealism, who holds up the ideal of law and justice so staunchly that he ends up committing suicide. “After he realized that the ideals to which he clung were flawed, Javert could not function. He could not function in a world in which his ideals have been sullied,” Mr. Petallides contended. Similarly, idealism is dogmatic blindness that cannot bend when faced with opposing ideals.

Mr. Dulik began his closing by retelling the story of Ruby Bridges, an African-American child who went to school with white children accompanied by members of the National Guard, after the Supreme Court constitutionally mandated integration. He believed that her and her family’s idealism in equality and fairness motivated them to take this brave stance despite the overwhelming social obstacles. He reminded the audience of what Georgetown chaplain, Father Kevin O’Brien, has taught him: “The world should make your heart break. You should be horrified by some of the things that you see beyond the manicured gates of Georgetown.” In response to this heartbreak, Mr. Dulik said that we must act with deliberateness. We must act with agape, a self-giving love that puts others first, before personal ambition: “Agape is the ultimate ideal. It should anchor our idealism to make sure our laws and institutions live up to it.”

Mr. Spagnuolo provided a devastating rebuttal to Mr. Dulik’s Ruby Bridges story by pointing out that the white supremacists who sought to exclude non-whites from public institutions were also idealists. “If those white supremacists had considered that maybe they were wrong, if they didn’t draw their arbitrary line in the sand, maybe things could have gone better,” he said. There is an obligation for each person in this world to stop and critically examine their ideals: are they actually in line with the good? Are they actually applied correctly in certain instances? Idealism fosters a dogmatic blindness that prevents such self-reflection. Mr. Spagnuolo argued that because we don’t live in a world where everyone believes in and practices the same thing, conflicts are inevitable and therefore the necessity of compromise is inevitable. He proclaimed, “Pragmatists can achieve compromises that are perfect, beautiful, and brave.”

In the end, the audience voted 43-21 to affirm the resolution. The keynote speakers presented the Father James Ryder Gavel for the best Merrick floor speech to Mr. Desnick. After much deliberation, the judges awarded the Merrick Medal to Mr. Dulik. Congratulations to both members!

Thank you to all of the judges, speakers, and spectators for making the 138th Merrick Debate an memorable event.

ELD,
Chloe J. Krawczyk

One thought on “The 138th Annual Richard T. Merrick Debate

  1. So far as I can tell, the only Merrick debate that did not involve appeals to emotion and outrageous allusions was one around the turn of the last century involving a Merrick debate about fisheries, a debate which comes down to us because even then it was regarded as one of the worst of all time.

    I am much more offended that alumnae year after year take speeches from the undergrads at Merrick. This is the capstone of their year, their chance to compete for the Father Ryder award and their chance to show the judges and alums how well our tradition of eloquence is being preserved. As brilliant and distinguished as we alums are, we shouldn’t encroach upon their day.

    In all, I am extremely proud of the efforts of the undergraduates, both the keynoters and floor debaters as well as those who spent countless untold and thankless hours organizing it. Well done.

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