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Pragmatic ethics

Pragmatic ethics

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Pragmatic ethics is a theory of normative
Normative ethics
Normative ethics is the study of ethical action. It is the branch of philosophical ethics that investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act, morally speaking...

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...

Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality—that is, concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, etc.Major branches of ethics include:...

. Ethical pragmatists, such as John Dewey
John Dewey
John Dewey was an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform. Dewey was an important early developer of the philosophy of pragmatism and one of the founders of functional psychology...

, believe that societies have progressed morally
Morality is the differentiation among intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good and bad . A moral code is a system of morality and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code...

 in much the way they have attained progress in science. Scientists can pause inquiry
An inquiry is any process that has the aim of augmenting knowledge, resolving doubt, or solving a problem. A theory of inquiry is an account of the various types of inquiry and a treatment of the ways that each type of inquiry achieves its aim.-Deduction:...

 into the truth
Truth has a variety of meanings, such as the state of being in accord with fact or reality. It can also mean having fidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal. In a common usage, it also means constancy or sincerity in action or character...

 of a hypothesis
A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for a phenomenon. The term derives from the Greek, ὑποτιθέναι – hypotithenai meaning "to put under" or "to suppose". For a hypothesis to be put forward as a scientific hypothesis, the scientific method requires that one can test it...

 and accept
Belief is the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true.-Belief, knowledge and epistemology:The terms belief and knowledge are used differently in philosophy....

 the hypothesis, in the sense that they act as though the hypothesis were true; nonetheless, they think that future generations or scientists on other planets can advance science, and thus to refine or replace (at least some of) their accepted hypotheses. Similarly, ethical pragmatists think that norms, principles, and moral criteria are likely to be improved as a result of inquiry
An inquiry is any process that has the aim of augmenting knowledge, resolving doubt, or solving a problem. A theory of inquiry is an account of the various types of inquiry and a treatment of the ways that each type of inquiry achieves its aim.-Deduction:...


Contrast with other normative theories

Much as it is appropriate for scientists to treat their discoveries as "truth" at a practical level, ethical pragmatists acknowledge that it can be appropriate to practice a variety of other common normative approaches (e.g. consequentialism
Consequentialism is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one's conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct...

, deontological ethics
Deontological ethics
Deontological ethics or deontology is the normative ethical position that judges the morality of an action based on the action's adherence to a rule or rules. It is sometimes described as "duty" or "obligation" or "rule" -based ethics, because rules "bind you to your duty"...

, and virtue ethics
Virtue ethics
Virtue ethics describes the character of a moral agent as a driving force for ethical behavior, rather than rules , consequentialism , or social context .The difference between these four approaches to morality tends to lie more in the way moral dilemmas are...

). However, pragmatic ethics also acknowledges the practical need for mechanisms that allow society to advance beyond such approaches, a freedom for discourse that does not take any such theory as assumed. In other words, pragmatic ethics enables "moral leadership", an activity where especially gifted moral thinkers raise the rest of their community to levels of morality that would not be attained purely through practice of already existing moral criteria. Such leadership may be necessary in machine ethics
Machine ethics
Machine Ethics is the part of the ethics of artificial intelligence concerned with the moral behavior of Artificial Moral Agents...

 where existing criteria are proving unworkable. Need blind admissions, free markets for persuasive technology, and legal protections for freedom of speech
Freedom of speech
Freedom of speech is the freedom to speak freely without censorship. The term freedom of expression is sometimes used synonymously, but includes any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used...

 have been examples of mechanisms which help empower moral leaders to effect social reform.

Furthermore, pragmatic ethics differs from other normative approaches theoretically:

1. It focuses on society, rather than on lone individuals, as the entity which achieves morality.

Although Socrates
Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he is an enigmatic figure known chiefly through the accounts of later classical writers, especially the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, and the plays of his contemporary ...

 may have contributed to the development of virtue ethics, he also identified as an ethical pragmatist when he defended himself as a social gadfly. He claimed that society (not just individuals) advances morally, that dissent from people like himself stirs such reform, and that such dissent therefore should be protected as morally valuable. Of course, social progress would be unlikely if everyone were a social gadfly, so pragmatic ethics can imply a division of moral labor, where moral leaders like Socrates, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. may appeal to the bulk of society in terms of individual morality (e.g. arguments of virtue ethics or consequentialism) to progress an agenda of social reform. In this case, other normative approaches are "true" in the pragmatic sense that they are tools which moral leaders can use to guide/manipulate others into advancing society as a whole. Thus, morality is achieved as a team: "all conduct is ... social."

2. It does not hold any known moral criteria as beyond potential for revision.

Pragmatic ethics may be misunderstood as relativist
Moral relativism
Moral relativism may be any of several descriptive, meta-ethical, or normative positions. Each of them is concerned with the differences in moral judgments across different people and cultures:...

, as failing to be objective, but that is like suggesting that science fails to be objective. Ethical pragmatists, like scientists, can maintain that their endeavor is objective on the grounds that it converges towards something objective
Scientific realism
Scientific realism is, at the most general level, the view that the world described by science is the real world, as it is, independent of what we might take it to be...


3. It allows that a moral judgment may be appropriate in one age of a given society, even though it will cease to be appropriate after that society progress (or may already be inappropriate in another society).

As an example, although Thomas Jefferson fought to end slavery, he also did not free his own slaves
Thomas Jefferson and slavery
Thomas Jefferson, a world-famous advocate of liberty, lived in a slave society; he had a 5,000-acre plantation and owned hundreds of slaves during his lifetime. He relied on slavery to support his family's lifestyle...

, claiming that to do so before society as a whole reformed would result in harm for both the freed slaves and the union. Ethical pragmatists realize that stable social reform takes time (in this case, Jefferson expressed that idea in consequentialist terms). This implies a "transition period" during which, although the social reformer has a clear agenda for society as a whole, he/she judges individuals representing each side of the shifting ethical debate as equal, a seeming (temporary) pluralism.

Whether these theoretical differences ultimately lead to different practical results remains to be seen.


Pragmatic ethics has been criticized as committed to pragmatic epistemology
Pragmatic theory of truth
Pragmatic theory of truth refers to those accounts, definitions, and theories of the concept truth that distinguish the philosophies of pragmatism and pragmaticism...

, but it is no more attached to any particular school of epistemology than is science. Similarly, it is criticized as conflating normative ethics
Normative ethics
Normative ethics is the study of ethical action. It is the branch of philosophical ethics that investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act, morally speaking...

 with descriptive ethics
Descriptive ethics
Descriptive ethics, also known as comparative ethics, is the study of people's beliefs about morality. It contrasts with prescriptive or normative ethics, which is the study of ethical theories that prescribe how people ought to act, and with meta-ethics, which is the study of what ethical terms...

, as describing the way people do make moral judgments rather than the way they should make them. While some ethical pragmatists may have questioned the distinction between normative and descriptive truth, the theory of pragmatic ethics itself does not conflate them any more than science conflates truth about its subject matter with current opinion about it.


Interviews by psychologists such as Lawrence Kohlberg indicate that humans typically learn to practice consequentialism at the earliest age, followed by virtue ethics and deontology. Since ethical pragmatists build upon these forms of moral reasoning, pragmatic ethics would likely be learned later in life, and would therefore be less prevalent in the general population. Kohlberg's sixth stage is consistent with pragmatic ethics in that it includes skepticism about current norms, but Kohlberg did not have sufficient data to clarify this or later stages well. Future measurements of the prevalence of pragmatic ethical reasoning might benefit from asking subjects about scenarios where the reasoning of ethical pragmatists is most characteristic (as in the cases of Thomas Jefferson and Socrates, described above). Even if pragmatic ethical reasoning is unfamiliar to the general population, it may nonetheless be important as a framework for moral debate among elites, especially regarding such topics as free speech, moral education and ethical leadership/decision-support.

Lack of prevalence can yield practical problems for any normative theory. For example, Wallach and Allen suggest that one would have to use a sort of Turing test
Turing test
The Turing test is a test of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour. In Turing's original illustrative example, a human judge engages in a natural language conversation with a human and a machine designed to generate performance indistinguishable from that of a human being. All...

 to determine whether a machine's behavior is sufficiently moral for certain purposes. This would involve having human judges compare the morality of a machine's behavior to that of humans. If the machine forecasts future ethical norms (much as machines forecast financial markets and horse races), any human that has not learned to apply pragmatic ethics might (incorrectly) judge that machine's behavior as unethical. Similarly, such a judge might condemn even a human social reformer as unethical, much as many contemporaries condemned William Wilberforce
William Wilberforce
William Wilberforce was a British politician, a philanthropist and a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. A native of Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire, he began his political career in 1780, eventually becoming the independent Member of Parliament for Yorkshire...

for attempting to abolish the slave trade.