Pragmatic Ethics


Morality in the western tradition is derived from a divine command model in which there is a powerful ruler who tells us what to do.


·        Overtime this model was secularized and Reason was substituted for God.

·        But the continuing assumption is that morality is imposed on us from an external source—God, Nature, Reason, society, tradition, family or whatever.

·        Hence the primary question for traditional-conventional morality is: “Why be moral?  Why should one do something that is not in one’s interest?

·        Plato initially articulated this question in Book II of the Republic and it is a question that persists today.  It is continually occasioned by the understanding that morality is not something that one readily embraces; one must be persuaded that it is in one’s interest to be moral, yet morality is often a rejection or constraint on interests.  The latter are understood to be distinct and often in conflict with morality.


The pragmatists reject this tradition and understand good conduct as interest satisfaction.  Morality and interest are not in conflict, for morality—broadly speaking—is interest fulfilment.


For the pragmatists: Practice is primary; theories serve practice; they are instrumental.


·        Practice (or habit) is a complex, ongoing activity that is composed of many sub-sets of activities that serve our interests.

·        A habit is an enduring response to a felt need that enables one to achieve his or her ends-in-view (=objectives, or that which would satisfy a felt need).

·        Habits are constituted by conditions and consequences that have become means and ends.

·        Habits are modifiable; hence we can, to some extent, exercise control of our behavior:  Important!  One can implement one’s will by modifying habits!


Now back to morality:  in a general sense anything that affects one’s well being is a matter of morality; but specifically:  a moral issue arises when there is a conflict of interests, when we have two or more goods we would like to achieve.


We then must determine which one is the stronger, greater, more important to our well-being interest.


So intelligence and education become important.  One must be able to deliberate in such a way as to take into account relevant information and select criteria that will enable one to determine what is the better course of action.




·        obligation disappears!

·        subjectivist!

·        relativist!

·        naïve!


Obligation:  Yes, there is no purely external command to obey, but pragmatists reject the traditional-conventional model.  But no, we have obligations, ones that have arisen in the course of living and are explainable in terms of psychology and culturally.  These are our obligations, and we take them seriously.  But we do not regard them as imposed upon us absolutely.


Subjectivism: Yes, the agent is the apparent decision maker, but, no, the agent is a social self.  We are not isolated, atomic, units, free of obligation and influence.


Relativism: Yes, pragmatism, is anti-essentialist, anti-foundationalist, etc, but there are criteria that arise in situations that enable one to make rational choices:


·        Diggins and the requirements for being an intellectual historian

·        ME and you and the requirements of the teacher-student situation


So pragmatism


·        employs criteria but they are situational—not apriori, universal

·        makes use of other moral theories (LaFollette 415)

·        realizes that there may be a variety of habits reflecting diverse interest; hence pragmatism is tolerant, even supportive of diversity

·        has no moral theory in the sense of a comprehensive, ahistorical account of morality: “meaningful theory cannot exist distinct from practice” (LaFollette 418) but it does make use of theories in the service of practice and it has a general sort of account of morality or theory in the sense that it offers an understanding of morality and recommendations about what we should do.

·        but it is revisable, open to modification.


When one finds oneself in a problematic situation, one inquires.  This is the pragmatist approach.  Specifically in a morally problematic situation one has competing attractions, goods, ideals and must choose.


One makes this choice in a way similar to utilitarians and other consequentialists:  Over the long run and in the wider context what is one’s best interest?  Which action would satisfy the most or the most important of the competing goods?


Say, I want to lose weight but I have the impulse to snack.  So a consideration of the long term would lead one to forego the snack.  But let’s say one indulges himself—repeatedly.  Then the pragmatist would call attention to the means-ends continuum and question if the snacker really had as an end-in-view—losing weight.


But this is misleading, for it reinforces the perception of ethics being individualistic and subjectivist.  The pragmatic ethicist would also want to look at the social conditions that have contributed to the formation of the impulsive snacker who wants to lose weight.