The Problem of Moral Pragmatism

A number of people I know are proud to consider themselves moral pragmatists. They seem to think their outlook superior to either a rigid ideology or religious orthodoxy. I get the impression they view themselves as more ethically agile in this very busy world than those burdened with rules and systems. In this postmodern zeitgeist it is all too easy to see the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of those who profess to follow creeds and movements. After all, the great moral crusades of our age have largely ended in either disappointment or relapse, haven’t they, and our air is thick with the odor of irony and detachment. And pragmatism offers the indubitable advantage of all virtual circles: it is contextual, personalized, and therefore according to its adherents beyond criticism. “You do what you have to do.”

I think they’re wrong, that pragmatism, though awfully easy to do, is impossible to do well. As a moral methodology, it is neither methodical nor moral. It takes a bit of patience to see why.

We can first dispose of Pragmatism as a truth theory. We may use William James’ words as suggestive of Pragmatism as epistemology. “Ideas … become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience…. Any idea upon which we can ride, any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, saving labor; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true instrumentally.” We can easily see the roots of the coherentist virtual circle in this vision, for it sets up private usefulness as the sole criterion for truth (see “What is the Virtual Circle?). I find this position both too expansive and too restrictive. It is expansive in that it allows for utility to determine truth, a charge Bertrand Russell infamously called “the Santa Clause effect.” Whatever serves our interests therefore becomes true with no means of distinguishing immediate from long-term consequences or of resolving conflicts between individuals’ conflicting interests. It is also too restrictive in that in equating truth with use, it cuts off from our concern any question not currently instrumental and pits the instrumental value of a judgment against our means of determining that value. It has frequently been charged that Pragmatism values scientific methodology but would spurn the pure science that directs so much of scientific research. Or perhaps it would stimulate that research but for reasons divorced from the intellectual curiosity that should initiate investigations. I have previously commented on the opposite problem, so clearly illustrated by John Dewey’s emphasis on treating ordinary experience as a kind of empirical experiment (please see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences“), a task both impossible to implement and one certain to lead to all the errors of scientism (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”). We are still enduring the results of a zeitgeist in which only scientific outcomes are considered valid, one being that all moral issues—those seeking truths about goodness rather than the data of experience — are reduced to the very subjectivist and experiential valuation that Pragmatists accord to their moral theory. The culture draws a bright line between truths and morality for the very simple reason that even the most cynical postmodernist or the most devout religionist cannot deny the truth-finding powers of empirical science. So they reserve their scorn for its complete inability to direct goodness choices other than in the simplest matters of utility, clutching that indisputable but fatuous power with all the desperation of swimmers drowning in a maelstrom of doubt.

Should we accord their makeshift morality the dignity of analysis, we can place their arguments in the tradition of Bentham’s Utilitarianism (see “Three Moral Systems“), and see their impact on later twentieth century movements like relativism and subjectivism. The essence of all these arguments is that moral theory is synonymous with rather than separate from instrumentalism. In other words we think something morally good because we find it provides us with a means to an end that we find useful. It is important that we define “instrumentalism” clearly because much depends on our understanding of the term.

We use the term “good” in an instrumental sense when we actually mean “useful” (What Do we Mean by ‘Good’?”). So a hammer is a good tool to drive a nail. A bridge is a good bridge if it carries the traffic it was built to carry. Such appraisals are prosaic, provided we can judge the final cause of a thing by the formal cause, the effect of its performance against the purpose for which it is performed. In some cases, we can see a problem in limiting moral judgment to the instrumental. As Dostoevsky noted, an axe is a good weapon with which to murder your landlady. So clearly, instrumentalism and morality are not always synonymous. But while some instrumental judgments are clearly not moral, it is still an open question whether all moral questions are instrumental. Pragmatists base their moral theory on an affirmative reply. Are they right?

We may assume that religious morality would reply that they aren’t. Their absolute morality stipulates the divinity’s will as determinative rather than the moral agent’s (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?“). Religions command. They do not contextualize or subjectivize or find their justifications in experience. Believers seek to isolate their moral judgments from those governing utility or quality, drawing a clear distinction between hypothetical and prudential reasoning and moral commandments. Now there are powerful counterarguments to this position, most notably those raised by Plato and Kant. I have explored their arguments against divine command morality (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge”) . Even if they find those arguments convincing, I think divine command adherents would still find obedience to God’s will more than arbitrary or contextual, and they would surely admit that the lure of a happy afterlife is a strong instrumental stimulus to obedience. So are the Pragmatists correct in seeing religious morality as instrumentalist?

I don’t think they are. Were religionists obeying what they take to be God’s will solely for their own salvation, were they attempting to placate an angry God to lessen His wrath, then their moral values might be called instrumentalist. But that does not seem to be the intended motive of their moral behavior. They wish to please God, to make Him happier, never mind the bothersome theological implications of that wish. Though their initial allegiance might be based on the kind of rational trust that Kant and Plato identify, they maintain that allegiance on grounds of authority, trusting in the truth of the dogmas or holy books that stipulate what is good (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”). Their morality sets a higher goal, and the lip service religionists pay it indicates they find it worthy of value though inseparable from other considerations of self-interest.

This distinction introduces what might be a jangling thought to Pragmatists. Do they operate out of a moral theory or a psychological one? Certainly, people often act on instrumental motives, but is Pragmatism claiming that they must do so or that they should? I would say the answer to that question is a split decision, with some Pragmatists espousing their outlook as a desirable moral position and others claiming that other supposed moral systems devolve in practice into instrumental, contextual choices regardless of the moral agent’s judgments. I suspect we could clarify the nature of this debate by asking Pragmatists to be clear on their answer to this question. Should they say, “Well, that is what people actually do regardless of what they claim to be doing,” I think you have ample grounds for challenge. That leaves those who consider Pragmatism a real moral position, albeit a very, very flexible one.

To those folks, I would respond with a series of questions.

First, “are you judging your present intentions or anticipated outcomes?” The Utilitarian tradition from which Pragmatism evolved was an avowedly consequentialist moral system, meaning it judged the morality of action based on outcomes rather than intentions. Granted, as one faces the moral fork in the road, she only has her intentions. She cannot know even immediate outcomes with any certainty. Pragmatists might acknowledge this truth by honoring their own intentions motivating choosing, but one of the many deficiencies of their outlook is that they can’t offer the same option to other moral agents facing other kinds of forks in the road simply because they tout the contextualized nature of moral agency, and they can never be in someone else’s mind at the moment of moral choice. In practice, this limitation on intentionality vivifies Longfellow’s sour maxim: “We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing; others judge us by what we have already done.” Of course, the first test of any moral system’s worth is the principle of equity, and this bit of self-deception is the first violation of equity Pragmatism stands accused of. There are others.

Even should we leap that powerful psychological hurdle and insist on the equity that must be the foundational rock of morality, we face insurmountable difficulties on the issue of consequences. Frankly, I don’t see any solution other than self-deception for this one. As William James put it, “’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 our behaving. Expedient in almost any fashion; and expedient in the long run and on the whole, of course.” But here the problem for Pragmatism becomes coterminal with the failure of Utilitarianism. How can you possibly project consequences sufficient to make a moral choice? Of course, you see those loitering right there at the fork in the road, and their immediacy might make them loom larger in your moral valuation just as egotism falsely exaggerates the importance of persons near us because they are near us. In truth, equity demands the egotist to value the stranger’s justice as much as his own or that due his loved ones. Such is the nature of equity (see “Empathy: A Moral Hazard”). The Pragmatist faces a similar confusion, for the issues at the moment of choice might seem more important than the more distant consequences, many of which she could never project from her current moral vantage point. The Pragmatist John Dewey made a seeming virtue of setting up moral choice as the solving of immediate problems, the removal of “indeterminancy” from the present environment by choosing expedients that resolve or clarify the problem situation. But we all have experienced “solutions” that were well-intentioned but based on incomplete awareness of problems or ignorance of consequence; these might have seemed the best instrumental choice at the moment and yet make bad situations worse. To value the short-term because it is the short-term may very well be the definition of “short-sighted” and it accounts for the unsavory connotations of words like “expedient.” The Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham sought to calculate in advance all the goods and bads a choice would produce. He called the goods “hedons” and the bads “dolors.” Such tender neologisms could not resolve the impossibility of forecasting the rippling effects of choice beyond immediate prediction unless one carried a crystal ball and a calculator. This weakness of Utility was not repaired by Bentham’s successor, John Stuart Mill. The Pragmatists of the next generation resolved the issue simply by ignoring it and elevating expedience as the moral criterion for choosing! Their claim to practicality seems particularly inappropriate in light of their failure to resolve this simple issue of eventual consequence. Now I will grant that this curtain of ignorance falls over all moral systems. Deontological systems like Kant’s view this issue as so debilitating as to make only intentionality a factor in morality rather than consequences. You don’t have to go that far to see the moral hazard of valuing only immediate consequences, which is what Pragmatists pride themselves on. Indeed, that decision is the worst one available precisely because it so limits questions of valuation to the most immediate of outcomes without regard for consistency that would result from applying rule-based moral judgments. These base their method upon what might be called “the utility of furthest ends,” projecting intentions to the consequential horizon and applying rules of equity that refuse to privilege proximity of persons or time in their calculations of moral choosing. As this requires far more thought than most persons care to expend on the thousands of moral choices we all face daily, all rule-based systems employ maxims to facilitate choosing or require the effort to encourage habits to accomplish the same goal. Mill’s effort to apply such maxims to Utilitarianism failed so spectacularly that Pragmatists barely made the effort and surrendered quickly to the simplistic lure of instant and thoughtless response to circumstance.

Second, “how do you resolve moral conflict?” The Pragmatist considers contextualization and personal experience indispensable determinists of moral choice. We can imagine that no two pragmatists face the same choice even in the same situation, for their prior experience and virtual circles will so mold the plastic circumstance they face as to produce different moral problems and options. The result is sure to be conflict and disagreement, not only on moral choice but even on identifying moral context. So in social and political dispute, whose framing of expediency and the moral solutions it offers should prevail? Indeed, the Pragmatists themselves disagreed on the answer to this one. The first Pragmatist, Charles Peirce, recognized the difficulty of resolving moral conflict and chose community standards as the arbiter of disagreement, but this only worsens the problem. First, should we assume that larger communities trump smaller ones, the same majoritarian solution proposed by Utilitarians? In such cases, what operates to protect the moral values of minorities, particularly since Pragmatism uses the same kind of value system for determining truth? And if individuals have to concede to community values, doesn’t that erase the contextualization and individualization that Pragmatists value above all else? And since current culture is hardly composed of only Pragmatists, whose axiom should triumph when they come into moral conflict with those who operate from a different frame of reference? (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”)  It is telling that later Pragmatists did not embrace Peirce’s solution to the problem of moral conflict. William James and John Dewey both appealed to the wisdom of the scientific method to resolve controversy, but questions of moral goodness are precisely the kinds of questions that empiricism cannot answer.

I think Pragmatism is a very popular moral position today because we lead such frantic lives in which we face a materialist culture of preference that regards all goodness issues as consumerist matters of personal preference. Other moral systems have performed so poorly that cynics see only postmodern values systems that forbid any real and objective moral structure (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”),but these failures have spotlighted the abject inability of existing moral systems to resolve conflict or direct public pursuits. In truth, the coherentist virtual circle that postmodernism projects as the model of intellectual and moral evolution is so incoherent and self-contradictory that only a moral outlook as disjointed as moral Pragmatism could be made a part of it.



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