Pragmatic Ethics

In Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory. Blackwell. pp. 400--419 (1997)
Pragmatism is a philosophical movement developed near the turn of the century in the of several prominent American philosophers, most notably, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Although many contemporary analytic philosophers never studied American Philosophy in graduate schoo l, analytic philosophy has been significantly shaped by philosophers strongly influenced by that tradition, most especially W. V. Quine, Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam, and Richard Rorty. Like other philosophical movements, it developed in response to the then-dominant philosophical wisdom. What unified pragmatism was its rejection of certain epistemological assumptions about the nature of truth, objectivity, and rationality. The rejection of these assumptions springs from the pragmatist's belief that practice is primary in philosophy. Meaningful inquiry originates in practice. Theorizing is valuable, for sure, but its value arises practice, is informed by practice, and, its proper aim is to clarify, coordinate, and inform practice. Theorizing divorced practice is useless. Pragmatism is at once both familiar and radical. Familiar in that it often begins with rather ordinary views; radical in that it often sees in those views insights that philosophers and lay people miss or misunderstand. A pragmatic ethic employs criteria without being criterial. It is objective without being absolutist. It acknowledges that ethical judgements are relative, without being relativistic. And it tolerates - indeed, welcomes some moral differences, without being irresolute. Precisely what each of these means, and why pragmatists hold them, emerges throughout this paper. I begin with the first since it sets the stage for introducing other pivotal pragmatic ideas. Ethical theorizing begins when we think about how we ought to live. Many people assume that means we must look for moral criteria: some list of rules or principles whereby we can distinguish good from bad and right wrong, or a list of virtues we try to inculcate..
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