Around 1999 or 2000 I first began to articulate my ethical philosophy in an online debate forum. I called it “Pragmatic Ethics,” because the fundamental principle is that while we can’t simply say, “This is right, that is wrong,” we can say, “Pragmatically, this is better and that is worse.” I formulated this philosophy as a middle ground between God-given moral absolutes and moral relativism. I developed this ethical philosophy from the ground up on my own. Imagine my shock when a fellow debater on that forum pointed me to an online document summarizing a philosophy of ethics known as “Ethical Pragmatism,” which was nearly identical in substance to that which I had developed, though differing somewhat in terminology! It was simultaneously gratifying and disconcerting to find that my analysis was not only not original, but had even been worked out decades before. It was gratifying in that it demonstrated that the analysis I had arrived at had been useful to others, but disconcerting because it made it seem that I hadn’t actually done anything new. But it was new to me. The fact that I worked it out myself meant that I’d drawn my own conclusions rather than having been directed dogmatically by the thoughts of others, which I can only view as a positive.
Ethical Pragmatism is, as the name suggests, the portion of a larger philosophical system called Pragmatism that deals with ethics. The other branches of Pragmatism covering epistemology, ontology, and so on, have some serious problems, and I do not subscribe to those views. However, my reading of Ethical Pragmatism suggests that it is largely independent of those other branches, so I will leave them aside for the time being. Further, in this essay I am going to go through my own development of the ideas rather than the party-line of the philosophy, and thus will continue to call this philosophy by my own term, Pragmatic Ethics, or PE for short.
I have already developed in other essays my views on morality versus ethics, the origins of the ethical imperative, and a bare-bones model for the origins of ethics as a social evolutionary process. PE rests on the foundation provided by these ideas, so I recommend reading through those essays before this one if you haven’t done so already. The main points from these essays that we need as this foundation are:
- Absolute morality, in practice, isn’t absolute. There is no way to avoid human interpretation, and therefore a system of ethics that acknowledges this and works within that framework is superior to one that pretends absolute morality is possible.
- We are all burdened with an ethical imperative. When I make an ethical choice, I am, in essence, affirming that choice on behalf of all of society. It is therefore incumbent on me to be extremely deliberate in all such choices.
- Ethics naturally arise in society through a process of social evolution. Through the competition of alternate ethical systems, society determines that some such systems work and others don’t. This happens regardless of whether or not the members of the society recognize that this is what happens.
Descriptive Societal Pragmatic Ethics
In its most basic form, PE is little more than the acknowledgement that point #3 above is happening within and between societies. This form of PE, which I will call Descriptive Societal PE, is an explanatory theory that develops how and why ethical systems arise and evolve. Such a theory is useful as far as it goes, but it doesn’t by itself do much of the philosophical heavy-lifting required to determine what is right or wrong.
Descriptive Personal Pragmatic Ethics
Turning PE toward the individual, what I will call Descriptive Personal PE, does a bit better. This is also still just an explanatory theory, but by focusing on how Descriptive Societal PE plays out in individual choices, it gives us more leverage in understanding, and therefore modifying with particular ends in mind, how we make ethical choices. The philosophers that developed Ethical Pragmatism leaned heavily on the concept of “habit,” using it as a relatively neutral term that describes patterns of behavior in ethical situations. Moral teachings, in this view, come down to instilling habits. As with most other passed-on knowledge and behaviors, we stand on the shoulders of our forebears; our ethics are, to a first-order approximation, those that we were raised with. These ethics can be changed (see below), but it requires work.
Applied Personal Pragmatic Ethics
We can change our learned habits, but there is more to it than just deciding to change; we have to identify the conditions that produce and sustain our habits, alter those conditions, and substitute new, hopefully more productive habits in place of the old. Understanding the evolutionary processes that produced our moral systems gives us the tools that help us identify both what we might want to change, and the elements that we must pay attention to in order to make such changes. Consider, for example, someone who, for moral reasons rather than health reasons, decides to become vegetarian. It isn’t easy, and significant habits have to be challenged and new habits developed.
Applied Societal Pragmatic Ethics
The same concepts of personal habit can be applied to the larger society. High taxes on tobacco, stiff penalties for drunk driving, and incentive programs for staying in school can, slowly, change societal habits. When I was a child, seat belts were occasionally worn. Now, most people feel naked when in a car without their seat belt on. The understanding we gain from the earlier types of PE can help guide society-wide efforts to engineer new norms.
The fundamental principle of Pragmatism is that “practice is primary,” meaning that there is no philosophy independent of what we actually act out in our lives. Ethical criteria result from our attempts to live morally as we decide on the best actions given our circumstances. As we discover new information about ourselves and our world, and as our world changes around us, those decisions about what is best can be revised, just as should be expected of an evolutionary ethic.
Add to this that our human inability to foresee the outcomes of our actions, and we are left facing the stark truth that a simple list of moral criteria is insufficient to the task of living ethically, at least in the traditional sense. Pragmatic criteria are not external rules, but are tools we can use to make informed judgments. We learn from past actions. We try to identify morally-relevant aspects of those actions. We work to integrate what we have learned into our habits, and use this new knowledge as a lens through which we can view our present world.
Pragmatists do not dismiss the criteria from other moral theories out-of-hand. After all, if something has become ensconced as a moral principle in one system of thought, it arrived there by an evolutionary process which means that it had features that helped it survive in our marketplace of ideas, and those features may indicate that the principle has something valuable to it. And if it spans many moral traditions (e.g., the principle of reciprocity, a.k.a., the Golden Rule), then that value is more certain.
So Pragmatists employ ethical criteria, but pragmatic ethics is not a list of criteria. Pragmatic Ethics does not demand moral uniformity between people or cultures, but yet it demands that ethical systems be compared and judged against each other. Ethical advancements, to a Pragmatist, come through dialogue and competition, tested by experience. Moral disagreement is valuable, because it provides the raw materials from which progress can arise.
Pragmatic Ethics, in Summary
I will cite the article my fellow-debater pointed me to as a summary of these ideas. “1) Some moral habits are better than others; some are worse than others. We can give reasons for these respective evaluative judgments. 2) Because we are fallible, we do not always know which moral habit is best. That is why we allow people considerable latitude in setting their own habits. It permits the individuals to choose, and the society an opportunity to witness experiments in moral living. But this does not mean that all habits are equal. 3) Because our environments change, a moral habit that is serviceable now may be inappropriate later. But that does not alter the fact that it was once serviceable, and is no longer. All these claims would be taken as commonplace were it not for the assumption that moral absolutism and moral relativism are our only options. Absolutists assume relativism is a wolf at the door of ethics: unless we have one unique set of determinable moral principles, then the wolf will enter and devour the hapless progenitor of morality. Relativists agree with absolutists about the status of morality without absolute principles; they just think there are no such principles. Pragmatism helps us understand why these are not our only options – why the three considerations above reflect our best understanding of the moral life and explain why this provides all the objectivity we need, even if it does not provide the certainty we occasionally want.”
One should be wary of absolute moral principles. One should be just as wary of the conclusion that a lack of absolute principles justifies any actions. Ethics must be, perhaps not relative, but at least contextual. A given situation can have many relevant ethical principles. Multiple competing goods and multiple competing bads must be weighed. And short-cuts such as God-given tablets of rules are likely to lead to poor decisions, and in the end it is the decisions that matter.