The Problem of Moral Pragmatism


  • The most common “moral system” practiced in Western societies is moral pragmatism.
  • Fans say it is fast and dirty, easy and personal, and suited to a materialist society; all this is true, but pragmatism’s liabilities make it a very poor substitute for morality.
  • Pragmatism began as a truth theory in the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century.
  • Its premise was that immediate, personalized utility must be the test of a truth claim.
  • As a truth theory, it fails abjectly to establish an act of severance between determinations of truth and goodness, biasing both by a preliminary deference to desire.
  • It also fails to consider consequences beyond immediate ones, which will doom any quest for integrity.
  • Its pseudo-scientific warrant attempts to make ordinary experience a kind of experiment in violation of the strict limitations on experiences actually imposed by empirical practice.
  • In deriving from utilitarianism, pragmatism utterly fails to resolve conflict between persons, cultures, or even a single individual’s desires.
  • For all its opposition to religious authority, pragmatism suffers from the same emulsion of truth and goodness calculations, so it similarly disallows dispassionate judgment.
  • Pragmatists are unclear about whether pragmatism is a psychological necessity or a desirable moral guide, but if they assume the former contention, they have no need of the latter one, and if they assume the latter one, they are mistaken.
  • Pragmatism makes no concession to equity or justice, favoring expedience in all preferences, but in disregarding true moral ends, it produces an infinite regress of intention, a flaw it must be blind to since it only considers consequences as worthy of examination.
  • Its ease and simplistic valuations disguise its insufficiencies in Western cultures overflowing with available options to individual preference.

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. 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, and the air is thick with the odor of irony and cynical detachment. And pragmatism offers the indubitable advantage of all subjectivist ethics: it is contextual, personalized, and therefore according to its adherents closed to outside appraisals. “You do what you have to do.” This lazy aphorism, with its concession to force and action, sees the moral agent responding to circumstance with all the reasoning of an orange pip squeezed between two fingers. While this image captures the trajectory of pragmatic thinking perfectly, it surely fails to indicate a moral arc. Pragmatism, though awfully easy to do, is impossible to do well. It is a challenge even to conceptualize. Is it an epistemic theory or a moral one? If it seeks to prescribe how we might come to knowledge, does it therefore consider knowledge so tied to context that it becomes literally disposable once an experience concludes and so derived from that experience that it literally ought not be shared? And if morally prescriptive as well, does it advise responding to unique experience in any particular way other than what we desire in the moment? Or is it not prescriptive of finding truth and goodness at all and merely a theory describing one way of interacting with the world neither better nor worse than another? Perhaps it posits itself as the only way?

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?). If anything it is even more lax, for it does not even require that truth claims be non-contradictory but instead allows one to base reflection on the intensity of momentary desire. James seems to advise that we see experience so as to profit from it. In thus alloying our knowledge with our desires, pragmatism shares qualities with another term now enjoying very high approval ratings: belief (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief“). But if used as a knowledge finding mechanism, pragmatism must prove impermissible to reason because it approaches all experience as believers wish to approach their faith.  Allow me to explain why.

I find pragmatic truth theory both too expansive and too restrictive.

It is expansive in that it allows for immediate utility to determine personalized truth, a charge Bertrand Russell infamously called “the Santa Clause effect.” Whatever serves our interests in the moment becomes true for that moment, but since experience is private, only true for ourselves. This alloy of truth determination combined with a simultaneous search for utility utterly demolishes the ability to engage the dispassionate ratiocinative process commonly called “thinking” and biases judgments of truth with the desire for goods that should follow finding truth rather than direct it. This violates a necessary separation clause, the act of severance, that presents preference only after one determines truth in a moment of experience (see “The Act of Severance“). But because pragmatism pictures us entering an experience seeking to find some means to exploit it, we will quite naturally structure our comprehension of our situation to procure what we think it will offer us. It is just this kind of distortive relationship that empirical science finally banished from its practice after a centuries-long process of restrictive standardization. To structure one’s comprehension of the true by a simultaneous employment of one’s desires is, as mentioned, the very definition of “belief” ( see “Can Religious Belief Be Knowledge?“) which is fine for questions not open to our knowledge but disastrous for those that are. Distortions of reality are not conducive to the utility that pragmatism values, much less to a clear-eyed framing of preference that morality requires.

Pragmatic truth theory 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 immediate 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 dispassionate curiosity that should frame investigations, a practice so common to the human sciences as to be a defining trait. 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). It is a task both impossible to implement and certain to lead to all the errors of scientism (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”). We are still enduring the results of an era in which only scientific outcomes were considered valid, one consequence being that all moral issues — those seeking truths about ultimate goodness rather than the data of experience — are reduced to the very subjectivist and experiential valuation that pragmatists accord to their moral theory.

What I am saying here is that we cannot divorce pragmatism as a truth theory from its moral implications for the very simple reason that the two-step process of determining truth and utilizing that determination are fused into a single and immediate preference in pragmatist practice. It is the very reason pragmatism is so quick and convenient in the welter of decisions we face in every moment of consciousness, and not coincidently the reason it is so ineffectual to guide them. The culture draws a bright line between truth and goodness 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. But that very power is drawn from the act of severance that pragmatism denies in favor of a premature closure that distorts the truth of an experience from its potential goods.

Should we accord pragmatists’ makeshift morality the dignity of analysis, we can place their arguments in the tradition of Bentham’s utilitarianism (see “Three Moral Systems“) and see the impact on later twentieth century movements like relativism and subjectivism. William James, the man who gave pragmatism its name, dedicated his highly influential 1890 work The Principles of Psychology to utilitarianism’s most famous theorist, John Stuart Mill. The essence of all these arguments is that moral theory either must be or ought to be guided by 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 a pawnbroker. 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. Faith’s 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 hypothesize or find their justifications in experience. Utility frames its deliberations in terms of hypotheticality. If I want x, then I must do y. During the long reign of authority, such practical deliberation was considered a threat to trust and a violation of the divine command that powered religious adherence, and so morality was defined in an oppositional sense to hypotheticality. Religion defined it in categorical terms founded upon divine will. “Thou shalt” is divine command’s preferred grammatical structure. The distinction between hypotheticality and categoricality was regarded as so fundamental as to build a wall between what persons find useful and what they find morally good, and so “utility” was cleaved from “morality.”  Believers seek to isolate their moral judgments from those governing utility or quality, drawing a clear distinction between hypothetical, prudential reasoning, and moral commandments. Now there are powerful counterarguments to this position, most notably those raised by Plato and Kant who object to a divine command morality (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge”) . Even if congregants find those arguments convincing, I think divine command adherents would still find obedience to God’s will more than hypothetical or contextual. They find a solid connection between the categoricality of God’s word as true and God’s will as good, so their commitment to religion’s distinctive understanding of “morality” is unlikely to be shaken. But pragmatists, who share a similar emulsion of the true and the good but one ordered on their own sense of hypotheticality, wish to challenge religious categoricality. They charge congregants with self-delusion, accusing them of acting out of self-interest in their desire to avoid God’s wrath and hellfire and be granted a heavenly reward. If I want to be saved, I should accept Jesus. What could be more self-interested, more hypothetical, more pragmatic? For all their mutual admiration of belief, pragmatists want to reveal religionists’ own hypothetical position by saying that the faithful are equally self-interested and guided by undistilled experience, that their vaunted certainty in God’s commands is merely cover for the same pragmatic calculations built upon the same circumstantial uncertainties that power pragmatism’s own position. Implicit in their accusation is the charge that “morality” itself is a hypocritical and futile effort to veneer utility, obscure uncertainty, and deny the force of self- interest.

Their argument has at least some force, but it also 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. Pragmatism as a moral theory would argue that because each experience is unique, it would do no good to game out longer-term potential consequences. And that is a recipe for moral flightiness that Peter Pan would admire.

Other founders of the movement recognized the flaws in James’s logic. John Dewey made a seeming virtue of setting up moral choice as a methodology of solving immediate problems, the removal of “indeterminacy” 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.” Pragmatism’s founders often debated in their Metaphysical Club the reasons for Utilitarianism’s ultimate failures, which were coming into focus as the Victorian Age began to face its other crises (see “The Victorian Rift“). 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” and urged simple arithmetic as a moral method of choice. 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, who wished to muddy the moral waters further by introducing “quality” of pleasure into the mix, which was to Bentham’s calculations what linear algebra is to simple addition. The pragmatists of the next generation resolved the issue of longer-term consequence by simply ignoring it and favoring immediate expedience as the sole moral criterion for choosing! Their claim to practicality seems particularly inept 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 while at the same time prejudicing all calculation by the power of seeing experience as the “narrative” of our own interests at the moment. Wouldn’t we be more likely to actually get what we need if we base our methodolgy upon what might be called “the utility of furthest ends,” projecting intentions to the consequential horizon appropriate to the importance of the preference we are engaging only after understanding the reality in which the preference might be satisfied? And wouldn’t public morality benefit from applying rules of equity that discourage our propensity to see other persons as the means to satisfy our own interests and the public square as the battleground in which we fight for space to gratify whatever desires now move us to preference?

As this requires far more thought than most persons care to expend on the thousands of moral choices they 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. But in light of what I said initially, we must recall that not only is the effect distorted but also the cause, since the pragmatist has already surrendered her appraisal of the truth of a situation to expedience before further surrendering her response to the same distortion. But fast? You bet!

And a problem emerges as soon as we come into contact with another pragmatist. On what grounds of mutuality could moral conflict be resolved? 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. And since their desire factors in even before they enter that common space, we can be sure their preferences will produce dispute that their “method” cannot resolve. The result is certain to be endless 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 (who later called himself a pragmaticist to distance himself from the deficiencies that are so obvious to others’ formulae), 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 (seeThe Axioms of Moral Systems)? To be fair to him, Peirce had a special community in mind, the emerging professionalized scientific community. And if natural science could respond to every question of truth and every issue of goodness, and if scientists could form the high priesthood of expertise on every subject, Peirce’s preferred community might have satisfied his ambitions. The entire history of the twentieth century demonstrates his error as Western societies sought out the purported expertise of the new empirical practitioners. It is telling that later pragmatists did not embrace Peirce’s solution to the problem of moral conflict. William James and John Dewey both sought to have non-scientists master the scientific method instead. It is telling that it was the human scientists, the psychologists James and Dewey, who deceived themselves into trying to turn us all into amateur experimentalists in pursuit of a science of goodness. This appeal to the goodness-finding prowess of empiricism cast its wicked shadow over the entire twentieth century as other means of consensual moral comity failed repeatedly (see “Cultural Consensus“).

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 contemporary cultures to resolve conflict or to 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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