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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Moral Obligations to Future Generations

The question about moral obligations to future generations is sometimes approached in a backwards manner. In those instances it is simply assumed that we must have some moral obligations to future generations, and if a moral theory leads us to think that we do not, then there must be something wrong with the theory in question. This is, as I said, a backwards way of doing ethics, since the question about about future generations is all about application. To apply a theory we must first know what theory we endorse, not the other way around.

Now some people reject utilitarianism, since – they claim – utilitarianism cannot account for our moral obligations to future generations. I think that is a bad reason to reject utilitarianism. If one wants to reject it, one should argue against the theory itself and not make it stand or fall with one particular application of the theory. But destroying utilitarianism as a theory does not, of course, establish that we do have duties to future generations, because that should be defended as an application of a different theory, and not simply assumed.

But is it actually true that utilitarianism does not entail obligations to future generations? My answer would be no, at least not when it comes to the type of hedonistic utilitarianism that I endorse. It is true that this kind of hedonism sees no value in maximizing the pleasure of people not yet born. I believe in maximizing the pleasure of people who live right now. This is, thus, a kind of average utilitarianism, and it differs from “total” hedonism in that we can’t just make more and more babies to raise the sum of happiness (provided that the new babies will have lives that are more on the pleasure than on the pain side of the spectrum – lives “barely worth living” as some would say). By the same token we do not have to care about the potential pleasures of those unborn people.

In theory, the average view might advice us to simply use up all the world’s resources to enhance the pleasure of the people living right now. And if this was the last generation living on earth this would surely be the right conclusion. But as soon as a new baby is born, its pleasure must matter to us. If we can expect that this baby will live to the age of eighty, then we must at least make sure that her or his quality of live does not diminish sharply when our own generation is gone. Right, you might say, but do we only have to care about one generation after us? I would reply that this is no small thing. Since new babies are born all the time the horizon of obligation keeps moving forward at the same rate. Whatever point in time we pick it seems that we must always make sure that the world will be a hospitable place to live 80-90 years from now.

So while it is wrong to claim that hedonism implies obligations to future generations (if by this we mean unborn generations), it still implies an obligation to provide a good future for newly born generations – which, as argued above, is a constantly moving target. And it does imply robust protection of our environment, at least until we all perceive that the planet is doomed and we deliberately stop procreating (or move to another planet). This should, however, not be a decisive reason for an environmentalist to endorse hedonism. As I see it, environmentalism is applied ethics (unless we are talking about “deep ecology” and  the like), which means that one should first decide which ethical theory is most reasonable, and then let the theory lead one to whichever conclusion on the environment that the original premises warrant. It seems kind of intellectually dishonest to start with the conclusion and then construct the premises.

Philosophical Hubris and Meta-Aggression

It is perfectly natural that people should disagree about philosophical issues. We all know that it is virtually impossible that total agreement will become reality when it comes to, for instance, moral questions. And I, for one, believe that there is no “truth” about ethical questions anyway (a position known as non-cognitivism). This non-agreement and pluralism of values is something that must be accepted as a fundamental fact, especially in modern societies. These conflicts must, thus, be solved by some procedure which produces winners and losers in the struggle of values (this is the case in every social context, regardless of whether a state exists or not). I think the most fair procedure is a majority vote, since if there is no objective truth about which values are correct, what other reasonable way could there be to determine collective decisions?

Nevertheless, some people would not accept this. They believe that some values are objectively better than others, so it would be unfair if every value would be able to compete on equal terms in a majority decision. This attitude I have named meta-aggression (for article reference, see the Author-page on this blog). It is fairly well established, at least in libertarian circles, what “aggression” is: to invade someone’s personal sphere by physically harming them or taking their possessions. The standard form of libertarianism is all about rejecting aggression (unless it is performed as retaliation for previous aggression).

This non-aggression principle is, however, only one of several possible values. Some people believe that aggression (as defined by libertarians) is sometimes justified, for instance by taxing people for purposes they have not consented to. Now those who endorse the non-aggression principle would claim that the second group is engaging in unjustified aggression if they proceed with the taxation. The second group may, however, claim that the libertarians are unjustified in resisting their aggression. It is this kind of resistance – if it is defended on the (false) grounds that non-aggression principle is “true”, while the opponents’ principles are “false” – that I would like to call meta-aggression.

It can also be called a sort of philosophical hubris, i.e., using a controversial (and, to my mind, false) metaethical position to claim some kind of political privilege. Of course, this kind of hubris is often expressed in less sophisticated ways than through explicit metaethical argument. One of the most insidious ways is to argue as if there is some self-evident “default” position in ethics. The burden of proof is, then, on those who want to argue for something else than this default position. Another way in which this hubris can be expressed is simply through ridicule or scorn (rather than dispassionate argumentation) against alternative positions. A third way is the silent treatment, i.e., simply not discussing other ethical positions, because they are simply not worth mentioning.

Of course, this kind of hubris is not always something dangerous or especially deplorable. But when it is used in the political arena (and turned into meta-aggression), then it becomes dangerous and deplorable, because it is often directed against the political procedure that I find the most fair, namely majority rule.

Michael Huemer on Political Authority

In his 2013 book The Problem of Political Authority Michael Huemer attempts to defend the idea that states have no legitimate authority and that we should therefore move to an anarchic (anarcho-capitalist) society. I recently read this book, and although it is generally interesting and well-written I have some criticisms to put forward.

Firstly, I believe that a refutation of political obligation to be a kind of misplaced enterprise, because the existence of an obligation is not really something we can prove or disprove. Whether you have an obligation to obey the state, or any other individual or group of individuals, is something that only you can decide. Everyone – a private individual, a representative of the state or a firm – can make suggestions or demands to anyone else, but only you can decide whether you have an “obligation” to obey them. Thus, the state can (and does) exist without there being any “absolute” obligation to obey it. And the question whether the state should exist or not cannot really hang on the question whether political obligation “exists” or not.

Secondly, Huemer’s argument is built upon the idea that we should simply take normal people’s moral intuitions and apply them more consistently. He believes, for instance, that most have the moral intuition that using force is (almost) always immoral. Therefore those who hold this intuition should realize – upon reflection – that the state is also immoral. There are (at least) two criticisms one can make regarding this methodology. First, is it really the case that people have the intuitions Huemer assumes? Personally I believe he overstates the “deontological” character of people’s intuitions. Second, it seems inconsistent on Huemer’s part to urge people to be more philosophical when it comes to the application of their moral intuitions, but not to be more philosophical when it comes to scrutinizing the intuitions themselves.

My third general criticism connects to the point I just mentioned. Huemer seems to assume a controversial metaethical theory which says that there is moral knowledge to be found and that the key to this knowledge is to be found in people’s intuitions. Since this metaethical view is not elaborated in The Problem of Political Authority I cannot really make any deeper criticism of it. But personally I am a rather convinced non-cognitivist in metaethics, so I am very skeptical of this intuitionist moral realism. Contrary to Huemer, I never start a moral argument from common intuitions, because I don’t think they have any special status when it comes to “truth”, and because I believe our unreflective intuitions are mainly formed by our cultural context. And I believe that moral philosophy should question principles that we have simply received from our social environment.

Anyway, I believe that although Huemer does not successfully argue for the wrongness of the state, he is right to reject many common defenses of the state, for instance social contract theories. Personally I believe you can’t really argue for any “absolute” obligation to obey the state or any other organization or individual. All reasons to obey or disobey are ultimately dependent on subjective preferences. I believe there are good moral reasons to obey the laws of a (perfectly) democratic state and no moral reasons at all to obey a dictator, but this belief is based on some assumptions that are not questions of fact or knowledge – if you do not subscribe to those assumptions then you may not share this belief. (Of course, there might be prudential reasons to obey a dictator, just as an anarchist may have prudential reasons to obey a democracy.)

Intuitions in Moral Reasoning

One of the most common objections to hedonism (except the objection that assumes that another specific moral theory is the correct one, and therefore hedonism must be false) is that it leads to conclusions (recommendations for action) that are very unattractive to our moral feelings, or intuitions.

It has been claimed, for instance, that if there existed an “experience-machine” – in essence a sort of Matrix-like device that isolated you from the outside world – which would give you all the pleasurable experiences that you wanted, we would have the intuition that it is wrong to get into it (because, at least according to Robert Nozick, we want our experiences to be “authentic”). And since the hedonist, presumably, would claim that we should live our lives in this machine, then hedonism must be wrong.

Of course, the hedonist could easily claim that it is hard to see a realistic scenario where it would be right to go into the machine permanently. But leaving such empirical matters aside, can it really be the case that an ethical theory can be falsified simply because some people intuitively feel that certain applications of the theory is wrong? Are there any ethical theories who would survive such a test? Presumably, all ethical theories have applications that at least some people find intuitively unattractive.

To make sense, ethical reasoning sometimes has to challenge our  intuitions (which are usually reflections of the prejudices of our cultural surroundings). It may feel appalling to me to kill a human being; but what if I can save the lives of ten (or twenty, or a hundred) people by killing one person? It is not obvious here that moral intuition has to take precedence over ethical theory.

There is, of course, a choice to be made here. You can turn your back on ethics and simply do what your intuition tells you to do in every situation. But if you stick with ethics it seems you have to leave your intuitions behind, except for the intuitions that are needed to ground a theory (a hedonist, for instance, need the intuition that pleasure is good and pain is bad to get the theory started). And if you choose the latter course, then your opponent should be entitled to treat your intuitive objections as foundational to your own theory. If, like in the example above, you claim that a hedonist recommendation violates the intuition that authenticity in life is important, then you should be able to show how the intuition of authenticity is foundational to your own theory, and that an ethical theory can be built upon it. Because in order for an ethical discussion to be fruitful, ethical theories should only have to compete with other theories, not with piecemeal moral intuitions.

I sometimes think of this as a “time out” view of ethical discussion. In some sports, teams are allowed to take one time out per game. The same should apply to ethical debates. If you raise an intuitive objection then you should make sure that it is a foundational intuition, because you won’t be able to raise any more intuitive objections. A libertarian, for instance, could legitimately raise the objection that you cannot kill one to save ten, because it is intuitively wrong to use force against anyone. This won’t cause any problems because this intuition is the foundation of the whole libertarian theory (at least in its standard form). It might cause problems if you, for instance, reject a utilitarian application because it seems “disgusting” to you. Could you really build an alternative ethical theory from the foundation of disgust?

Why allow for only one time out? Could we not have several different foundational intuitions? This kind of pluralism (as opposed to monism) can work, provided that your pluralistic theory doesn’t give you contradictory advice in a specific situation, because an ethical theory that simultaneously tells you to do A and not-A is not really of much use. Alternatively, you can place your foundational intuitions in a hierarchy; but that is also difficult, because it seems that you would need a kind a meta-theory to justify the ranking in question. And that meta-theory would, in fact, be the (monistic) foundation of your ethical theory.

The kind of “deductive” ethical reasoning I am adhering to is nothing really strange, at least if you look at many classical works in the field. The last few decades, however, something called reflective equilibrium has taken over as the most preferred method in ethics (and political theory). This method claims that we should go back and forth between our theories and our moral intuitions, sometimes revising our theory, sometimes our intuitions – without any clear instructions how they should be reconciled. Needless to say, moral views arrived at through reflective equilibrium can be hard to falsify.