Interpretive Experimentalism: A Pragmatic Theory of Moral Norms and Judgment

Dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1996)

Todd Lekan
Muskingum College
Recently, some philosophers working in applied moral philosophy have concluded that the received rule-based normative theories are inadequate guides for deliberation about concrete moral problems for at least two reasons. First, such problems seem to involve heterogeneous considerations whose normative import can only be assessed in light of attention to the particular circumstances that occasion moral doubt and conflict. Second, moral norms seem to be subject to re-interpretation and modification as a result of reflection on moral problems. Thus, some argue that the concern in moral deliberation should be with interpreting the relevant particulars of cases, not attempting to deduce judgments from some fixed principle or procedure. One might think that focus on particular cases is tantamount to the rejection of normative theory. Resisting that conclusion, this dissertation develops a theory of moral norms and judgment that accounts for the primacy of the interpretive nature of moral judgment and the mutability of moral norms. The core idea of the theory is that we should conceive of moral norms as concrete socio-psychological entities. Like other kinds of practical knowledge, moral norms arise out of problem-solving events and are modifiable during the course of their use. ;The argument strategy of the dissertation is to first set out a general account of practical knowledge and value that undermines some fundamental assumptions about practical reason held by consequentialist theories and provides the groundwork for a theory of justification. Then I turn to the critical task of arguing against neo-Kantian attempts to consign interpretation to the level of "applying" moral norms, holding that the justification of moral norms must be accounted for by some fixed, formal testing procedure. My analysis shows that interpretation bears on the concept of moral justification in addition to moral deliberation. It also reveals the inadequacy of paradigms of moral reasoning modeled on the non-problematic cases of deliberation. I then offer my positive interpretive account of moral argument and justification. Finally, I work out implications of my view of moral argument for the special case of the practice of social criticism.
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