Pragmatism and Ethics

Pragmatism (at least in its “classical” form), as I perceive it, is based on the claim that theories are made for the sake of human action (no other species makes theories). The pragmatist does not assume that any substantial theory is better than another, but whenever a theory is considered it should undergo what one might call the pragmatic test: the theory must have some verifiable practical consequences if it is to count as a meaningful theory. By the same token, a disagreement between two theories, the consequences of which do not differ in practice, is not a meaningful disagreement. William James – one of the main figures in pragmatism – writes: “Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right” (Pragmatism, p. 45f).

Pragmatism is, in other words, directed towards action and power, and theories appear as instruments of action or as tools to change the world (or perhaps to keep it unchanged if that is one’s wish). In essence, it seems to be an instrumentalist philosophy of science, i.e. a theory where prediction appears to be the ultimate testing block. Of course, we can always predict things using “hunches” or “common sense”, but as a philosophy of science pragmatism concerns theories, i.e. more generalized statements. “The pragmatist,” to quote James again, “clings to facts and concreteness, observes truth at its work in particular cases, and generalizes”. Humans have always observed that things can be ordered into “kinds”, and “when we have once directly verified our ideas about one specimen of a kind, we consider ourselves free to apply them to other specimens without verification” (Pragmatism, p. 68, 208). Theories are Denkmittel (as James sometimes says) that helps us to “better foresee the course of our experiences, communicate with one another, and steer our lives by rule” (The Meaning of Truth, p. 62f).

Although pragmatism may look a lot like classic empiricism, there is the difference that on the latter view “the truth of a proposition is a function of how it originates in experience” (for instance, by sense impression), while pragmatism is only interested in what will obtain in the future. “In short, all beliefs are virtual predictions (hypotheses) about experience and, regardless of how they originate, their truth is a function of whether what they virtually predict, if true, will obtain in the future” (Robert Almeder, “A Definition of Pragmatism” [1986], p. 81).

It would appear that pragmatism does not have much to do with ethics. The only things James say about ethics in the book Pragmatism is the following: “‘The true,’ to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of behaving”, plus a remark about the “sentimentalist fallacy”, i.e. “to shed tears over abstract justice and generosity, beauty, etc., and never to know these qualities when you meet them in the street, because the circumstances make them vulgar” (Pragmatism, p. 222, 229). There are, however, a few things one should be able to conclude about ethics from a pragmatist perspective.

Firstly, one can not – on purely pragmatist grounds – assume or exclude any substantial normative propositions a priori, since pragmatism is a method for sorting out workable and unworkable theories – it is not itself a substantial theory about the world or about how we should behave (although it may exclude some substantial theories as unworkable, as discussed below).

Secondly, pragmatism is, again, concerned with theories, so a pragmatist ethical theory cannot be about singular intuitions or the like. Pragmatist ethics must involve some general propositions.

Thirdly, pragmatist ethics must be workable, in the sense that they can actually guide behavior. This excludes theories that give no guidance, too indeterminate guidance, or contradictory guidance. Probably we can also exclude theories that are too utopian, given present historical circumstances (such theories are “workable” in theory, but not in practice), although the early pragmatist (and fascist) Papini – and to a certain extent James himself – might have disagreed about that.

Fourthly, recommendations for action in particular cases must be deduced from the general theory in a clear way, since if ad hoc considerations are added in certain particular cases we do not have a workable theory. The same is, of course, true of scientific theories. If I claim that astrology is verified because I have derived successful predictions from it, I must be able to show that these predictions are actually deduced from the general astrological theory and that certain ad hoc assumptions – more compatible with traditional science – have not been mixed in along the way and are doing all the actual predictive work.

These four points seem to follow quite clearly from pragmatism. An additional fifth point could possibly be added, although it is probably more controversial, namely, that even though pragmatism does not assume any substantial starting point for ethical reasoning, it seems to be in line with the general tone of pragmatism that the starting point cannot be wholly arbitrary. There should be some connection to things that appear “significant” to human activity and life projects.

There should, in other words, be some kind of intuition about what is good for human beings (perhaps including other sentient beings) lurking in the background, rather than some arbitrary statement. A theory that begins with the fundamental principle that one should maximize the number of hats (rather than, for instance, the maximization of freedom, happiness or creative achievement) in the world might be “logically” workable, but it is hard to imagine how someone could have such an intuition about goodness.

This theory of ethical reasoning seems to be in line with classical pragmatism, and I believe it is a rather sound standard to judge ethical theories. It is a shame that some people who call themselves pragmatists these days have other ideas about what pragmatism entails for ethics. They often assume that pragmatism is an inherently “progressive”, “radical” or “contextualizing” theory when it comes to moral and political philosophy (and the main reason for this is the damaging influence of John Dewey). Some substantial theories of that kind are probably compatible with the pragmatist outlook, but so are other kinds of theories. One has to remember – something which James often underscores – that pragmatism is a method, not a specific doctrine about anything. Just as the only important thing for a scientific theory is that it is useful, or workable, the same should be true for ethical theories. They should give us clear and non-contradictory advice on how to act – advice that is deduced from some more general (and non-arbitrary) propositions. Otherwise an ethical outlook is not workable as a theory.


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