Title: Pragmatic Ethics and Normative Naturalism


Type of Submission: Traditional Paper


Is it possible to construct a viable ethic based on the practice of science? In Values and Science, Larry Laudan speculated whether his notion of normative naturalism, the model of methodological and axiological critique used to explain the apparent progress in science, could be adapted to moral theory. No one has appeared to take up that challenge. In the meantime, some versions of pragmatic ethics—an emerging theory of interest---have argued that the normative conditions by which scientific inquiry is facilitated are also the normative conditions best suited to enable us eventually to converge toward right ethical norms. The purpose of this paper is to show how normative naturalism and pragmatic ethics might serve to correct each other toward that result. I argue that by incorporating normative naturalism into its repertoire, pragmatic ethics can enlist the sciences in an empirical approach to ethics that avoids the naturalistic fallacy, and in a manner that has very practical application to our practices and institutions.


Pragmatic Ethics and Normative Naturalism


            Is it possible to construct a viable ethic based on the practice of science? In the Epilogue to Values and Science, Laudan speculated whether his notion of normative naturalism, the model of methodological and axiological critique used to explain the apparent progress and success of science, “could be adapted to deal with extrascientific axiologies, such as those of moral theory.”1 As far as I know, no one, including Laudan, has followed up on that speculation. In the meantime, some versions of pragmatic ethics—an emerging theory of interest---have argued that the normative conditions by which scientific inquiry is facilitated are also the normative conditions best suited to enable us eventually to converge toward right ethical norms2—a position reflected in classical pragmatic thinkers, such as Peirce and Dewey.

            Most observers have noted the epistemological hegemony of science as a standard of knowledge, and the quite remarkable facility of consensus and agreement that arises in science despite rapid changes in theory and discoveries. As Laudan puts it succinctly: “science has been successful at producing the epistemic goods,”3 an echo of Peirce’s claim that “scientific investigation has had the most wonderful triumphs in the way of settling opinion.”4 If there is a normative component of inquiry that contributes to its success, it would be worthwhile exploring its applicability to the moral sphere. The purpose of this paper is to show how normative naturalism and pragmatic ethics might serve to correct each other toward that result.




Normative Naturalism

            Laudan proposed normative naturalism as an antidote to a relativistic trend that evolved from Quine’s epistemological naturalism. By demoting epistemology and choice among theories to matters for empirical psychology, Quine reduced epistemology to a purely descriptive account of theory preference.  Laudan suggests that the radical pluralism of Lakatos and Feyerabend are Quine’s logical children.5 The trend in epistemological relativism was reinforced by Kuhn’s historical account of the incommensurability of paradigms, and the Duhem-Quine thesis of the under-determination of observational evidence--the claim that no theory can be logically refuted or proved by any body of evidence.6 The ultimate puzzle for Laudan is the contradiction between philosophers’ claims that there are no criteria for theory preference, and what appeared to be relative consensus in theory choice in the scientific community---that despite significant dissensus in science, scientists are in fact able to achieve meaningful consensus.7

            Laudan’s strategic solution is to address what is missing in these philosophical accounts---a prescriptive account of theory preference. Consensus in science is not based on what Laudan calls the “Leibnizian ideal,” a belief that theories can be decided rationally just on the basis of evidence.  Rather consensus is often reached on evidence framed by certain goals and aims, axiological issues as well as certain methodological norms.  Yet, such an attention to norms and values seems to run counter to the naturalistic bent of most epistemologists after Quine. Laudan’s normative naturalism is born to address that very issue.

            The great advance of Laudan’s normative naturalism is to avoid the fatal step of reducing the ‘ought’ to the ‘is’—thus incurring the wrath of the naturalistic fallacy--while attempting to find a way to evaluate normative statements within  parameters respectable to naturalists. The key is to argue that normative claims---‘ought’ statements—can be articulated instrumentally as hypothetical imperatives---‘means-ends’ statements---which can then be evaluated empirically. The claim that ‘we ought to do X’ can be analyzed as a hypothetical imperative, ‘If Y is your aim, then you ought to do X’, which is warranted in case doing X is more likely than its alternatives to produce Y, and not warranted otherwise. As he writes: “it is clear that such rules, even if they do not yet appear to be truth-value bearing statements themselves, nonetheless depend for their warrant on the truth of such statements.”8 “I am more inclined to see normative and descriptive concerns interlaced in virtually every form of human inquiry. Neither is eliminable or reducible to its counterpart; yet both behave epistemically in a very similar ways, so that we do not require disjoint epistemologies to account for rules and theories.”9 What warrants a hypothetical imperative is that it reliably produces the end-in-view. For Laudan’s purposes, this leads to the claim that all scientific methodological rules can be re-cast as hypothetical imperatives that are warranted by statistical evidence, so that methodology is just as empirical as science.10  

This instrumental and prudential approach to methodology, however, is incomplete since it must also recognize a way to address the warrant of ends and aims. If there is no address to the validity of ends, such as simplicity, elegance, or accuracy of prediction, hypothetical imperatives can easily lead to relativism and subjectivism, since there is no justification for choosing one end over another--thus one theory over another. An epistemology without an axiology would just displace the relativism of Lakatos and Feyerabend higher up. In ethics, prudential advice for how to go about committing genocide can be just as warrantable as advice for how to attain peace, if all we are concerned about is whether means are likely to achieve ends.  Laudan makes strong note of this, emphasizing that,  “We thus need to supplement methodology with an investigation into the legitimate or permissible ends of inquiry. That is, a theory of scientific progress needs an axiology of inquiry, whose function is to certify or de-certify certain proposed aims as legitimate.”11 Indeed “methodology gets nowhere without axiology.”12

Part of the problem, according to Laudan, rests with the hierarchical nature of the instrumental approach: evidence is warranted by method (means), method by aims---but what warrants aims or ends? Laudan’s solution is the “reticulate” view of  epistemology, whereby theories, methods, and aims form a network of mutually correcting processes that allow the system to settle into a coherent whole. Although we cannot spend the time here examining the illustrations, Laudan backs up his claim with s a number of historical examples.

Laudan ends his study by suggesting that there are two general ways to “certify” ends. First, an end may be criticized as utopian, that is, unrealizable. An example is the abandonment in science, particularly emerging in the 19th century, of the aim for certain knowledge. The second is said less clearly and somewhat differently in various texts,13 but I think a fair general interpretation is to say that an end may be criticized if it fails to accord with the values and aims that are really operative in the actual practice of science. Laudan’s historical example is the lip service of 18th century scientists to the goal of formulating hypotheses with no reference to unobservable entities, contradicted by their actual practice.14


Pragmatic Ethics

Pragmatic ethics is a collection of recent approaches to the study of ethical life.15  Among its core theses is the centrality of habits, understood as evolving patterns of  cognition and behavior integral to human practices. Habits are not simply internal dispositions but consistent patterns that result from the interaction of person and practice (or organism and environment) 16 We must and do rely on the body of ethical habits in our ethical life. In Peirce’s terms, moral habits provide us with an ethica utens,  a ready-made repertoire of actions and conduct. 17 Because of the evolving character of habits, pragmatists approach ethics fallibilistically rather than foundationally. As long as an ethical habit continues to work reliably to produce good consequences, there is no reason to doubt it; yet, even in those cases, we cannot prove their reliability with certainty. 

Because habits are so integral to practices, the intellectual work of pragmatic ethicists is to articulate those which are conducive to the further development or reinforcement of good habits. In this regard, there is a theme among some versions of pragmatic ethics—as inspired by Dewey and Peirce---that privileges the highly successful practice of science. The argument is that there is something inherent in the practice of science that makes it a worthy model for ethical and political life, that  the normative conditions by which inquiry is facilitated are also the normative conditions best suited to enable us eventually to converge toward right ethical norms. Certainly, Dewey’s notion of the “great community” promotes a strong connection between genuine democracy and the experimental method.18 In “The Fixation of Belief,” Peirce notes not only the reliability of science in the long run to settle opinion, but demonstrates clearly how scientific practice implicates a community of a certain sort.  Recent pragmatists promote this view as well.  Putnam implies that because democratic-like norms are necessary for successful experimental inquiry,19 not only should inquiries about ethical matters emulate these norms, but ethical communities should as well.20 This echoes Dewey’s concern that although society readily applied  scientific results to its needs and problems, it had not taken to heart the need to incorporate the normative structure of scientific practice into society—a result that would be essentially democratic.21 Even Rorty seems to admit the influence of some scientific values on his notion of conversation.22 Misak  and Liszka have used Peirce’s theory of inquiry to show that normative structures found in communities of inquiry addressed to matters of truth, should be analogous to deliberative, participatory communities addressed to ethical matters.23 Habermas’s24 and Apel’s25 communication ethics is inspired by Peirce’s notion of the community of inquiry,  the idea that there are norms implicit in the very process of  providing arguments for any normative claims.

For reasons I hope become clear, I would like to pursue the Peirce route to this connection between scientific and ethical practice, beginning with his Popular Science article, “The Fixation of Belief”,26 where he discusses which among the various “methods” is the most reliable for fixing beliefs in the long run. He argues that methods which attempt to fixate belief by exclusion, either by isolation, or by authoritative imposition, or by intellectual dogmatism, will all fail in the end. He advocates the scientific method as the most likely to be successful, primarily because of its strong self-corrective nature: Not only does it entail an openness to belief-hypotheses, but it insists on public, transparent, and repeatable tests for beliefs. Moreover, as opposed to other methods, science does not rely on the authority of the inquirers, but has an ontological commitment to appeal to something thought to be real and independent of the inquirers’ beliefs.

However, in light  of Peirce’s more mature notions of  methodeutic or formal rhetoric,  this call to method should be understood more broadly than usual. Methodeutic has the goal of showing how reliable methods of inferencing (deduction, different forms of induction, and logics of discovery) all fit within the larger framework of the practice  of scientific inquiry, understood as engendering a certain kind of community with certain kinds of norms and presuppositions; as cultivating certain sentiments and virtues  in  practitioners; as privileging certain forms of communicative practices, and as involving a historical identity and direction.27   Practices of inquiry must be evaluated as a whole in this regard, and draws on similar holistic approaches as found in the reticulate theory. Based on our understanding of such communities, the method of authority, for example, generally speaking, will  engender communities with norms that favor strong hierarchies, emphasize the virtues of obedience and loyalty, discourage curiosity, and cultivate a trust toward authority; stress top-down, asymmetrical communicative practices, and predict an exclusive apotheosis for its members. The method of authority might converge belief quite quickly and for large numbers, but Peirce’s point is to stress that the corresponding practices of inquiry of such a type ultimately yield inherently unreliable results.


But for all the sentimental rhetoric in favor of the scientific method, Peirce’s position is still rather prudential, suggesting science as the best means to fix beliefs in the long run. But the instrumental appraisal doesn’t get to the heart of why we should adopted the norms of the scientific community. Indeed, he seems to suggest that the method of authority is the most widely and frequently used, and the most successful at relieving doubt (at a price) and fixing belief in at least the short run. In response he can only again recommend prudentially: “if it is [mankind’s] highest impulse to be intellectual slaves, then slaves they ought to remain.”28

Peirce’s prudential approach to the “Fixation” article leaves him in a unsatisfactory situation similar to the very reasons that Laudan made a call for the “certification” of ends. Peirce does address this issue in later work on what he calls the normative sciences (but I must make a cautionary note: Peirce engaged in some tentative and preliminary discussion of his normative sciences, and alternates between somewhat contradictory positions. This permits, in my view, license for “fair use” of the better ideas).

For Peirce ethics consists in right action, which is action in conformity with ends we are prepared to adopt as ultimate [my emphasis].29 The normative sciences analyze the problem of how, with given means, a required end is to be pursued,30 but also the study of the ends themselves.31 What constitutes an ultimate end is variously and tentatively defined by Peirce. His attempts to define it in terms of intrinsic esthetic value are interesting but very sketchy, alluding to themes in Kant’s Critique of Judgment and Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man.32 I will forego these attempts in favor of other criteria that has more relevance to Laudan’s notions.

One of the best expressions of this test for an ultimate aim is that it is “capable of being pursued in an indefinitely prolonged course of action.”33 In this vein “the problem of ethics is to ascertain what end is possible.”34 Thus, “an aim which cannot be adopted and consistently pursued is a bad aim. It cannot properly be called an ultimate aim at all.”35 Sometimes Peirce speaks about the “fitness” of ideals in this respect.36 Interpreted more generously, the test for an ultimate aim is whether it can be realized in the pursuit of the practice for which it is an aim. Those that can be adopted consistently, are those that, when put into practice, are viable, sustainable, ubertous, and successful in the long run. Thus, the ultimate test of right actions is not that they can be purely conceptually  justified but—in the classical parlance of pragmatism---the pursuit of such ends “work”.37

I believe that this is consistent with Laudan’s criteria for certifying ends (indeed Laudan acknowledges Dewey in this respect38). In this sense a normative claim, that is, a claim that we ought to do something, x, can be translated pragmatically as a combination of three claims about means and ends, namely, that doing x is likely to bring about certain outcomes y, and bringing about y is likely to realize a certain end, z; but, finally, that z is an end that can work in practice. Peirce, in fact, in manuscripts outlines an account of what he calls pragmatics, as a study of these matters in the context of human practices 39  

This is an interesting alternative to the categorical approach to certifying ends. When operationalized, Kant’s imperative suggests the following test for right action:

1. Form a hypothetical imperative: I am to do X to bring about Y.

2. Make (1) into a maxim (prudential rule) of action.

3. Generalize the maxim: Everyone is to do X to bring about Y.

4. Imagine the generalized maxim in (3) as a law of nature, that is, a law that must be followed.

5. Consider the result when (4) is combined with other existing natural laws and human conditions and dispositions.

5. If the result is inconsistent or absurd, then one should not act on (1).


Considered in this manner, it could be said that the ‘ought’ is reduced to a series of ‘is’ statements as well, although the important difference is that it employs purely conceptual tests (for consistency), with some slippage of empirical testing, but with  an outdated notion of law-like universality to model moral laws.40  The pragmatic approach is to argue that the true test is not conceptual inconsistency (although as Laudan himself notes that could be part of it41), but that it turns out to work in practice, i.e., practical translations—this of course is consistent with the sense of  the pragmatism of the pragmatic maxim.





            Peirce and Dewey claim that the norms and values that operate within the scientific community are a critical part of its success; pragmatic ethics suggests that these norms should be modeled for communities generally, with the same purpose of generating success in ethical life. Larry Lauden’s work affirms that, indeed, it is the norms and values manifested in the historical practice of science that are critical to its success, but finds a way, through the theory of normative naturalism, to devise their empirical test---without reducing the normative to the empirical. By incorporating normative naturalism into its repertoire---a view not unlike Peirce’s own account---pragmatic ethics can enlist the sciences in an empirical approach to ethics that is not naively naturalistic, and in a manner that has very practical application to our practices and institutions.


1. Laudan 1984: 138.

2. See Misak 2000; Liszka 2005.

3. Laudan 1987: 28. 

4. Peirce CP 5.384.

5. Laudan 1984: 20.

6. Laudan 1984: 15.

7. Laudan 1984: 22.

8. Laudan 1987: 24.  

9. Laudan 1990: 56.

10. Laudan 1987: 25.

11. Laudan 1987: 29.

12. Laudan 1987: 29.

13. Compare Laudan 1984: 50, 103; 1990: 47.

14. Laudan 1984: 56ff.

15.  See Talisse 2005; Liszka 2005; Minteer, Corle and Manning 2004; Bellantoni 2003; Hester 2003; Tollefsen 2000; Cooke 2003; Fesmire 2003; Arras 2001; LaFollette 2000; Mahowald 2000; McGee 2000; Misak 2000; Rorty 1999; Anderson 1999; Fins, Baccetta and Miller 1998; Posner 1998; Light and Katz 1996; Rosenthal and Bucholz 1996; Putnam 1995; Michalos 1995.

16. Dewey 1922: 14.

17. See Peirce  CP 2.186,2.189.

18. Dewey 1927c.

19. Putnam 1994: 64

20. Putnam 1995: 223.

21 Dewey 1927: 637-638.

22. See Rorty 1999:82.

23. Misak 2000:5; Liszka 2005.

24.  Habermas 1990.

25. Apel 1973.

26. Peirce CP 5.358ff.

27. See Liszka 1996;2000.

28. Peirce CP 5.380. 

29. Peirce CP 5.130.

30. Peirce CP 4.240.

31. Peirce CP 1.573; 1.191.

32. Peirce CP 5.130.

33. Peirce CP 5.135.

34. Peirce CP 5.136.

35. Peirce CP 5.134.

36. Peirce CP 1.600.

37. See Dewey 1927a: 173-174.  

38. Laudan 1984: 40; 1990: 47; 1990a: 134.

39. Peirce MS 1345.

40. See Peirce CP 5.133.

41. Laudan 1990: 50-51.




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