What is Pragmatic Ethics? How is it different from Ethical Pragmatism?
Pragmatic ethics is a phrase representing a school of thought that is sometimes erroneously called a philosophy. This phrase is used to characterize some aspects of human behavior by observing actions that have been taken in the past and reflecting on what others have done or thought. Ethical pragmatism is an actual philosophy for living that calls for, and, when applied, produces action, both in the present and for the future.
This distinction is most easily understood by an excerpt from E. Dennis Brod’s challenging and well-received book “THE ESSENCE OF ETHICAL PRAGMATISM” (The Common Sense Philosophy). As distinguished from other philosophies or schools of thought like the one referenced in the inverted phrase “pragmatic ethics”, ethical pragmatism is not a theory based on observations to which a label was applied so that academicians and theorists could debate who more accurately describes what others had done or thought. Ethical pragmatism is a blueprint for living. It can be used for the betterment of life at this very moment and for all moments to come. Pragmatic ethics, in a theoretical way, is about ethics. Ethical pragmatism, in a very real way, is about pragmatism.
In this landmark book, Brod explains how the philosophy, ethical pragmatism, can be used by individuals or institutions to provide the best method for incorporating common sense as a feature of all actions. At the heart of ethical pragmatism is a fundamental belief that all human life has value, and it fosters a technique for critical thinking through the use of a formal thought process laid out in the book. Ethical pragmatism requires having accurate facts and precisely identifying and defining goals. It demands ignoring all ideologies, dogmas, politics and corrupting influences. With those tools in hand, or more accurately, in mind, you, as an individual, as well as groups, governments and organizations of all kinds, through the practice of ethical pragmatism, can then objectively determine the most efficient way to reach desired goals and potentially enjoy greater success in all endeavors.
Here are excerpts of Chapter TWO
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The test of real and vigorous thinking, the thinking which ascertains truths instead of dreaming dreams, is successful application to practice.—John Stuart Mill
Pragmatism is not new. Aside from the many philosophers who have studied it, referred to it, analyzed it, and argued about it, humans have been learning about how to be pragmatic since they first became humans. They did it to stay alive and propagate our race. At some point when pragmatism was absent or when it did not help, some humans died out. The ones who survived may have been sufficiently pragmatic to overcome nature’s formidable challenges as well as the aggressive actions of other humans. These survivors became our ancestors.
It is important to note that in terms of ethical pragmatism, or, for that matter, any philosophy rooted in pragmatism, a meaningful discussion does not involve quoting writers and philosophers of the past. In a purely academic setting it may be desirable, even admirable, to spew forth concepts, verbiage—chapter and verse—with impeccably detailed attribution. The contents of this book, however, are not meant to prepare PhD candidates for oral examinations. For Ethical Pragmatism purposes, one’s thoughts and beliefs mean more than all the debate in the world. Finding the best way to act is based on accurate observations, unbiased conclusions, reason, logic, and, most of all, common sense.
Nevertheless, there is value in tracing some of the history contributing to Ethical Pragmatism as it has been developed. It is also helpful to distinguish Ethical Pragmatism from other forms of, and theories about, pragmatism. What follows is presented only to give some perspective on what other thinkers may have done and concluded in the past. These following paragraphs have only slight relevance to true ethical pragmatism, but it is interesting to note some common roots as well as differences.
By comparison, here are some definitions/explanations of simple “pragmatism” and its history:
The Oxford Dictionaries, (OED Online. February, 2016. Oxford University Press) say that pragmatism is an approach assessing the truth of the meaning of theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application, while Merriam-Webster, (Merriam-Webster.com.2015) defines it as a reasonable and logical way of doing things or thinking about problems that is based on dealing with specific situations rather than on ideas and theories.
In continuing to define pragmatism, Merriam-Webster adds the history of the American movement in philosophy founded by C. S. Peirce and William James in the nineteenth century. That movement was marked by doctrines holding that the meaning of conceptions is to be sought in their practical bearings, that the function of thought is to guide action, and that truth is preeminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief.
In the popular encyclopedia Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/), contributors recounting the conventionally accepted outlook, describe pragmatism as a philosophical tradition that began in the United States around 1870 rejecting the idea that the function of thought is to describe, represent, or mirror reality. Rather, it is stated, pragmatists develop their philosophy around the idea that the function of thought is as an instrument or tool for prediction, action, and problem solving. Pragmatists, therefore, contend that most philosophical topics—such as the nature of knowledge, language, concepts, meaning, belief, and science—are all best viewed in terms of their practical uses and successes rather than in terms of representative accuracy.
In the same vein, the Wikipedia contributors also describe the origins of the word as being from the Greek pragma, a thing, a fact, possibly coming from the word prassō, meaning to pass over or achieve. They further define pragmatism as a piece of technical terminology in philosophy referring to a specific set of associated philosophical views originating in the late twentieth century. However, the phrase is often confused with “pragmatism” in the context of politics (which refers to politics or diplomacy based primarily on practical considerations, rather than on ideological notions), and with a nontechnical use of “pragmatism” in ordinary contexts referring to dealing with matters in one’s life realistically and in a way that is based on practical rather than abstract considerations.
Dictionary.com (Pragmatism, Dictionary.com) stays in the mainstream of definition of pragmatism with references to both the basic definition and the philosophical movement by calling it a character or conduct that emphasizes practicality. It refers to the philosophical movement as a system having various forms, but generally stressing practical consequences as constituting the essential criterion in determining meaning, truth, or value.
As would be appropriate, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Pragmatism, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/, June 9, 2016.) expresses the philosophical aspects of the word/term/concept as follows:
Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected. Pragmatism originated in the United States during the latter quarter of the nineteenth century … it has significantly influenced non-philosophers— notably in the fields of law, education, politics, sociology, psychology, and literary criticism …”
It goes on to amplify the relatively recent use of the word by recounting the nineteenth century publications by William James (1842–1910), who seems to have pressed the word into service during an 1898 address entitled, “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results,” delivered at the University of California, Berkeley. The encyclopedia points out that James, to his credit, scrupulously swore that the term had been coined almost three decades earlier by his compatriot and friend C. S. Peirce (1839–1914). Significantly, as it is further reported, “Peirce, eager to distinguish his doctrines from the views promulgated by James, later relabeled his own position ‘pragmaticism’—a name, he said, ‘ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers’.” The third major figure of classical pragmatists is then mentioned—John Dewey (1859–1952)— after whose death the philosophy seems to have dissipated.
Regarding a previous paragraph’s statement about the alleged influence of the late nineteenth-century pragmatism movement on fields other than philosophy, I have my doubts. The people of that era who took those actions most likely did so from an innate belief and understanding about how to attain goals. In all likelihood they didn’t care or even know about James or Peirce. James and Peirce were engaged in debating the theory of whether an ideology or proposition is true if it works and other similar theories. The people who just got out there and did everything during that period were part of that great nineteenth-century enthusiasm causing a rise from mediocrity to bringing a great nation to the pinnacle of world success.
Some observers say elements in ethical pragmatism are similar to those in Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism. This is probably true, as it is with certain elements of the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century ideas in this area. The Ayn Rand Lexicon, commenting on the likes of Peirce, James, and Dewey, indicates that they held the belief that: (1) philosophy must be practical and that practicality consists of dispensing that with all absolute principles and standards, (2) that there is no such thing as objective reality or permanent truth, (3) that truth is that which works, and its validity can be judged only by its consequences, (4) that no facts can be known with certainty in advance, and anything may be tried by rule of thumb, and (5) that reality is not firm, but fluid and “indeterminate,” and “that there is no such thing as a distinction between an external world and a consciousness (between the perceived and the perceiver), there is only an undifferentiated package-deal labeled ‘experience,’ and whatever one wishes to be true, is true, whatever one wishes to exist, does exist, provided it works or makes one feel better.”
The lexicon goes on to describe a later school of more Kantian pragmatists that amended this philosophy as follows:
If there is no such thing as an objective reality, men’s metaphysical choice is whether the selfish, dictatorial whims of an individual or the democratic whims of a collective are to shape that plastic goo which the ignorant call ‘reality,’ therefore this school decided that objectivity consists of collective subjectivism—that knowledge is to be gained by means of public polls among special elites of ‘competent investigators’ who can ‘predict and control’ reality—that whatever people wish to be true, is true, whatever people wish to exist, does exist, and anyone who holds any firm convictions of his own is an arbitrary, mystic dogmatist, since reality is indeterminate and people determine its actual nature.
In spite of what appears in the preceding paragraphs, a philosophy can and should be something concrete and of value in everyday existence. As was indicated at the beginning of this chapter, Ethical Pragmatism was neither developed nor designed to be a mind-bending super-intellectual exercise. It is for real life in the real world, which is inhabited by real people with real needs, real challenges, and real goals.
There are two major differences between what can be read regarding other ideologies incorporating the word or concept of pragmatism and the subject of this book, the philosophy of ethical pragmatism. They are as follows:
First—That Ethical Pragmatism is, in fact, pragmatic. All the energy historically expended by scholarly predecessors in their efforts, theories, conclusions, and uses connected with pragmatism were academic. Basically speaking, these individuals were not very pragmatic. Ethical Pragmatism works now, will continue to work, and, if applied in life situations, will improve the existence of life in our universe.
Second—That there is the addition of a very important modifier, the word ethical, to the term for the philosophy.
A third, less significant, but nonetheless interesting difference between what has been related about pragmatism and other pragmatic philosophers and the teachings of Ethical Pragmatism belongs more in a philosophy class than in this book. These historical philosophers tended to use the outcome (theoretical, of course) of an act to define and validate their pragmatism. In other words, the result determines whether the act is pragmatic. In a classroom, this leads nowhere. Ethical Pragmatism does not bother to define itself, because it is not relevant to getting something to work or to work better. Ethical Pragmatism simply evaluates the result without attempting to validate or define the act. If the desired goal is achieved, the exercise is over. If the goal is not achieved or requires modification, another act is sought until there is success.
People, governments, businesses, armies, groups, teams, institutions, and organizations are all continually making pragmatic determinations and decisions upon which they act. We get vaccinated so we don’t get the disease. We put money in the parking meter so we don’t have to pay a fine. We get to work on time so we don’t lose our jobs. These acts by individuals and more complex acts by institutions and others are so common we do not even give the slightest thought as to how they came about. These are acts of “inadvertent pragmatism.” To a large measure, acts of inadvertent pragmatism are so routine and without harm that they pose no problem for society. They differ, however, in two very significant ways from Ethical Pragmatism: First, Ethical Pragmatism requires analysis and a conscious, deliberate evaluation before an action is taken, and second, these acts have not applied the ethical standard as Ethical Pragmatism does. On a small scale this may not cause any difficulty, but the trouble begins when governments or any large entities act without the proper observations, analyses, and evaluations necessary to draw the right conclusions (see chapter 7, “Cause and Effect”). This process is a required component of Ethical Pragmatism, but it is not more important than the imposition of ethics as Ethical Pragmatism defines them. Whether the process of analysis and evaluation is undertaken, whether the act is inadvertent or not, the ethical standards must be applied.
Inadvertent pragmatism is an unconscious and often automatic action. The true Ethical Pragmatism rag does not need to convert everyday functions into an exercise in Ethical Pragmatism. However, in order to practice Ethical Pragmatism in a manner that addresses challenges that transcend the ordinary, such as those obviously requiring a conscious decision before action is taken, it is necessary to engage in critical thinking. Critical thinking is more than making a technical observation and analysis. It requires the conscious abandonment of all corrupting influences. Politics, religion, and ideologies have no part in this. There are numerous ways to approach any set of circumstances. One particular thought process is described in chapter 7, but any method will suffice if it involves an accurate observation of reality combined with an analysis meant to support action that will produce the desired result.
When we are speaking about consciously applying Ethical Pragmatism principles, it means applying it to everything—systems, laws, government actions and programs, institutions, the weather, entertainment, health, education, clothing, food, shelter, relationships, and on and on. Anything you can observe with any of your senses is a candidate for improvement, innovation, or some conclusion that will be helpful in leading your life.
The ethical component of pragmatism is mentioned repeatedly for a good reason. “Ethical” may only be a modifier of the core of the philosophy, but it is essential. Pragmatism, in and of itself, can go nowhere but to ruin. It must be tempered by a set of subjective values based on a group of assumptions or hypotheses. In this case, the principal hypothesis is that all human life has value. Just think of pure pragmatism being applied in any number of situations without the ethical component. Do you have competition? Kill your opponents. Do you want to reduce the costs of caring for the sick? Kill all the sick people. These are extreme examples, but societies have done things like these out of expediency and practicality; that is, pragmatism. Thus the ethical component of Ethical Pragmatism requires that all ends consider, and ultimately employ, only those means that accommodate the basic humanitarian morals and values of our society. This is not an obstacle—it is a noble part of seeking and finding the great goals capable of being achieved by mankind.