What Is Pragmatic Ethics?

(Word count: 3465, excluding references)
James Liszka
Dept. Philosophy
University of Alaska Anchorage
3211 Providence Dr.
Anchorage, AK 99508
907-786-4457 voice
907-786-4309 fax

Interest in what is being called pragmatic ethics is emerging in the literature (LaFollette 2000; Light and Katz 1996; Rosenthal and Bucholz 1996; Minteer, Corle and Manning 2004).   As a formative theory, it would be timely to give it a systematic account, comparing  it with traditional  and contemporary ethical ideas.  Although most advocates of pragmatist ethics are rooted in the thought of Dewey, I will argue that Peirce may provide a more interesting, although complementary theoretical framework (Anderson 1999.

It will be argued that pragmatic ethics involves an evolutionary-based  teleological theory—although not wholly Darwinian in nature. 'Teleological' is often treated as a synonym for 'consequentialist', but it is important to make a distinction.  Consequentialist ethics measures the goodness of an action in terms of its effects, relative to some value ('happiness' in classic utilitarianism). Consequently, it is really an outcomes-based ethic. It does not involve movement towards an end, but a maximization of a value.

In teleological ethics, on the other hand, the goodness of an action is measured by how much it contributes to a certain end, function or purpose, and focuses on movement towards something in an on-going process. Classically, such teleologies are external, i.e., imposed from without--divinely, or by the order of things--or immanent, realized through an inherent nature. Plato and the Stoics are the clearest examples of the former, Aristotle's notion of entelecheia the prime example of the latter.  In Aristotle's perfectionism  the end of a thing is to become itself—a potentiality becomes an actuality, an internal finality. The classical reading of Aristotle's notion of eudaimonia  is that it is the realization of the perfective functioning (ergon) of the human psychē,  in accord with arētē or virtue.          

The teleology characteristic of pragmatic ethics, as we'll see, suggests an alternative to these two, namely that teloi emerge in the process of an evolving order.

Pragmatic ethics as a descriptive theory

Peirce provides a teleological framework for pragmatic ethics drawn from two important intellectual developments of the 19th century: the central limit theorem and  Darwin's theory of evolution, both of which continue to be counted as fundamental theorems of statistics and biology.  Peirce is also keen to show how they complement one another.

The central limit theorem states that random processes, such as rolling dice, the velocity of gas molecules in a closed container,   or sampling arbitrarily from a population, will express itself by the Gaussian power law—the familiar bell-shaped curve, or normal distribution as Peirce originally coined the term. Peirce likes to say that this theorem proves "chance begets order"(CP 6.297). More generously interpreted, the central limit theorem suggests that phenomena have a tendency towards self-norming, or as Peirce would put it, "...all things have a tendency to take habits. For ...every conceivable real object, there is a greater probability of acting as on a former like occasion than otherwise" (CP 1.409; see also CP 1.390 6.101, 6.280). Peirce calls these finious  processes, in that direction emerges in and through their interactive behavior (CP7.471; Short 1999).

The central limit theorem had enormous  import for Peirce. One important sense is derived from his work on calculating observation errors in astronomy. If all observations of a star are assumed wrong,  it is possible to determine the approximately correct position of the star, based on the central limit theorem and the method of least squares.  All observations are subject to error, but get self-corrected in comparison with more observations; the larger the sample of observations, the more likely the resultant line of best fit is the correct position of the star. Thus, truth emerges from the self-correction of error through a sufficiently long process of inquiry---the central theme of Peirce's theory of inquiry (CP 5.408).

The second import of the central limit theory is that it shows all "laws"  are  habits with variations. Their indurate character is measured by the range of  deviations. Dynamic variations from the norm and can lead to subtle, sometimes dramatic changes in habits. This requires some mechanism of selection that allows for the prosperity of the central tendency, or some of its deviations. For example, when this concept is applied to thermodynamic concepts such as the gas behavior in a closed container—the second law argues that velocities of the gas molecules will settle around a normative, i.e., uniform velocity, best expressed by the Gaussian power curve. Yet, as Maxwell showed, precisely because it is a central tendency, there are variations in that velocity and, in principle, mechanisms---such as Maxwell's demon---that could select molecules in a manner that  take advantage of those deviations. Peirce notes the linkage to evolution theory--selection of variations from a norm will result in subtle, sometimes radical shifts and, cumulatively, over time, could result in a significant change in the fabric of things (CP 5.364):

The hypothesis suggested by the present writer is that all laws are results of evolution; that underlying all other laws ...is the tendency of all things to take habits....If law is a result of evolution...it follows that no law is absolute. That is, we must suppose that the phenomena themselves involve departures from law analogous to errors of observation. ....In so far as evolution follows a law, the law of habit, instead of being a movement from homogeneity to heterogeneity, is growth from difformity to uniformity. But the chance divergences from law are perpetually acting to increase the variety of the world, and are checked by a sort of natural selection and otherwise (for the writer does not think the selective principle sufficient).... (CP 6.101).

The central limit theorem and the theory of evolution are complementary in the sense that the former permits the possibility of variation, and the latter provides selection devices which perpetuate variations (CP 6.604; cf. Hausman: 2).

In this respect, Peirce identifies three kinds of evolution precisely on the basis of  their selection type: by fortuitous variation (tychism), mechanical necessity (anacasm)--either externally (by cataclysm) or internally (by immanence) (6.312)---or by deliberate effort and purpose (Lamarckism-agapism) (cf. Short 1999: 124; see.CP 6.307 for their typology and interrelation). What is noteworthy is that Peirce proposes a Lamarckian type of evolution  in addition to the Darwinian one. 

As we know, Darwin's theory accounts elegantly for the variety of species through relatively simple processes of variation and selection. The development of genetics provided, auspiciously, the detailed mechanisms for transmission of traits and their variations. Although Peirce recognized the power of Darwin's theory, he believed that the evolution of certain phenomena—especially cultural and technological ones---could not be fully explained by the fortuitous processes of natural selection alone. The development in the history of thought seems to outpace any form of biological evolution. Compared to the biological evolution from homo sapiens to homo sapiens sapiens  in a period of  roughly 200,000 years, innovations in technology have changed rapidly in a mere 4,000 years---a factor of  50. For this reason, Peirce believed that Lamarckian evolution was an appropriate explanation of cultural evolution (cf. CP 1.103-109) (Peirce also was aware of the Baldwin-effect, which could be an alternative or complementary explanation (6.454)). In this respect he stands in good company with several contemporary thinkers (Hodgson 2004; Hodgson and Knudsen 2004; Foster and Metcalfe 2003).  

As we know Lamarckian theory fails as an account of biological evolution. It claims there can be genotypic inheritance of acquired phenotypic characteristics in the evolutionary process. In Darwinian theory, the phenotype is an expression of a genotype; environmental pressures select phenotypes which reproduce the information expressed in their genotype to a next generation; mutations and fortuitous variations are passed on and feed into the success or failure of selection. As Peirce knew, Weismann (1883) showed that acquired changes to the body of an organism during its lifetime did not affect the gametes or sex cells of an organism (CP 1.105), demonstrating  a biological barrier to the transmission of acquired traits to the next generation.

However, Lamarckian evolution more easily explains rapid evolutionary changes in culture. According to Geoffrey Hodgson, Lamarckianism, as an account of social evolution, is not incompatible with  Darwinian-based biotic evolution. Darwininism could account for the emergence of learning capacity, which in turn feeds into the possibility of a Lamarckian-like process.  For Hodgson, the notion of habit is a key concept in the theoretical explanation of such change, and recognizes the contribution of the pragmatists to this notion (Hodgson, forthcoming).  The notion of habit provides an alternative to Darwinian explanations of cultural change, such as Dawkins's meme (Dawkins 1976;Dennett 1995;Aunger 2002). Although this debate cannot be pursued here, it is important to note that even a strong critic of Lamarckism, Daniel Dennett, argues that the theory is  a plausible account of  non-genetic inheritances (Dennett 1995).

As Peirce says, "Lamarckian evolution is...evolution by the force of habit" (CP 6.300). "Habit...forces [new elements] to take practical shapes, compatible with the structure they affect, and in the form of heredity and otherwise, gradually  replaces the spontaneous energy that sustains them. Thus, habit plays a double part; it serves to establish the new features, and also to bring them into harmony with the general morphology and function of the animals and plants...." (CP 6.300).  Habits are bridging mechanisms between the biological and socio-cultural domains. The purposive drive of  individuals contributes directly to the reinforcement or change of certain habits, which are then passed on generationally in the form of local institutionalized practices.

Habits are not dispositions, but as Dewey argues, "...the cooperation of organism and environment....Walking implicates the ground as well as the legs....They are things done by the environment by means of organic structures or acquired dispositions (1922:14)."  Peirce says "the stream of water that wears a bed for itself is forming a habit" (CP 5.492).  The point is that, even if the capacity for a habit is immanent to an organism, habits are not. They are formed in the interstices between organism and its habitat. Virtues and vices, Dewey says, "are working adaptations of personal capacities with environing forces" (1922: 16). Dewey believes habits start as an activity by someone which "sets up reaction in the surroundings others approve, disapprove, protest, encourage, share and resent." So, in this respect, "conduct is always shared" (1922: 16-17).

As shared, habits are formed through the convergence of the behavior of individuals within their environment, so is a finious process. Brushing one's teeth is not a disposition in the person but, rather—figuratively speaking—a channel dug into the fabric of people's immediate internal and external environment. The very presence of equipment and the establishment of habitat for brushing suggests a history and effort of institutionalization, offices for its practice, and teaching for ourselves and our children. In effect, the brushing habit is a capacity realized in the organization of the environment in which it is exercised, its institutionalization in the larger culture.

This easily translates to moral habits. Moral agents are already habituated. Although it is always possible to deviate from these moral habits, they constitute the bulwark of the working part of moral life, and are ingrained in institutions and practices. In a well-ordered society, most people are not in the habit of killing; practices and institutions are established to mollify frustrations, anger, conflict, and, individuals have acquired mental and emotional habits that do the same thing--- reinforcing and being reinforced by institutions and practices. Habits provide us with an ethica utens,  a ready-made repertoire of actions and conduct (cf. CP 2.186,2.189). As Peirce says,

the pursuit of a conscience, if one hasn't one already...seems to me an aimless and hypochondriac pursuit. If  a man finds himself under no sense of obligation, let him congratulate himself. For such a man to hanker after a bondage to conscience, is as if a man with a good digestion should cast about for a regiment of food. A conscience, too, is not a theorem or a piece of information... acquired by reading a book; it must be bred in a man from infancy or it will be a poor imitation of the genuine article. If a man has a conscience, it may be an article of faith with him that he should reflect upon that conscience, and thus...receive a further development. But it never will do him the least good to get up a make-believe skepticism and pretend to himself not to believe what he really does believe...[CP 8.45].

Most people act morally on the basis of existing habits; it is only when habits fail  to address novel situations, or  external and internal conflicts that genuine moral deliberation takes place. Deliberation, however, is not a monotonic process, but eclectic. Dewey says we are not consistently rational maximizers, or even satisficers, but use methods appropriate to our sense of ourselves as moral agents, contextualized to the practice and situation: "The office of deliberation is not to supply an inducement to act by figuring out where the most advantage is to be procured. It is to resolve entanglements in existing activity, restore continuity, recover harmony, utilize loose impulse and redirect habit" (1921: 199).

Analogous to the behavior  of gas particles, moral agents fitted by the capability of self-correction are similarly finious.  Their interaction will produce a norming, and under the assumption that everyone is wrong, yet capable of correction, a vector will emerge, not determinately, but in the very process of norming (cf. Hausman 1993: 176)—what Dewey calls "the mutual modification of habits...." (1921: 39). This is not a natural selection theory, but a  conscious selection theory---the tendency towards a result is itself the result of controlled selection by agents (CP 6.156-7).

In practical terms, norms result from an effort by communities of moral agents to select for better norms,  to engage in a process of the "fixation of habits" (CP 5.430). Under the right conditions the tendency is for those agents to select better. In this regard there is a parallel, for Peirce, between convergence towards a true belief and a right norm(CP 1.108). This Lamarckian-process thereby distinguishes itself from Darwinian ones by this conatus for improvement---which  Peirce sometimes whimsically calls "evolutionary love,"  and which captures Kant's original sense of 'pragmatic': 'pragmatic' knowledge "aims at improvement" (1798:4), according to self-adopted purposes (1798: 238), and which the human species can work  "...only through continuous progress within an endless sequence of many generations" (1798: 240).

Living in the milieu of  social Darwinism, Peirce characterized its ethos as a competition among individuals for survival, the selection process prospering the fittest  (CP 6.293), and foregoing the less fit (6.296). Peirce depicts Darwinism as a zero-sum game among gamblers in which each generation will become smaller but, at the same time, richer (CP 6.15).  Lamarckian processes emphasize cooperation instead as the primary mode of inheritance because of the very nature of the formation of habits—which requires the behavior of individuals converge to some degree.  Darwinian processes only require individuals to successfully reproduce. For Larmarckism the lack of cooperation is the anomaly to be explained; for Darwinism, cooperation is the anomaly.

Pragmatic Ethics as a Normative Ethics

Pragmatic ethics is in part a descriptive theory arguing that ethical norms emerge through a finious process created when norms correct against each other, a process parallel to Peirce's convergence theory of truth: just as the history of thought shows  fixation of belief, human history shows the fixation of habits.

But in order for pragmatic ethics to be effective, it must also provide a normative theory, establishing criteria for the evaluation of habits and emerging norms. Dewey's rather vague criteria  is not very helpful: we should  promote habits that simply promote the development of habits (cf. 1921: 293).   Nor are his followers much more helpful. La Follette, for example, attempts the trick of suggesting that pragmatic ethics  "employs criteria but is not criterial," which is patently paradoxical.  In effect, the descriptive aspect of  pragmatic ethics says that self-norming happens; that—comparable to Newton's first law---habits have a tendency to remain in place until met with a force that opposes them;  and that the result of such disruptions is that a second, self-norming process results. If this is the case Pragmatic Ethics is in danger of being committed to these morally doubtful claims:

  1. whatever dominant norm emerges is the right norm.
  2. whatever norm persists is the right norm.

To counter their obvious flaws, it must be supposed that:

  1. The right norm will eventually emerge as a central tendency, but not all central tendencies will be right.
  2. The right norm will persist, but not everything that persists should be counted as right.

Thus, although the presence of central tendency and persistence is a necessary condition for the rightness of norms, they are not sufficient conditions. Some of this criteria for the sufficient conditions can be found in Peirce's  theory of inquiry. If there is a parallel between the fixation of beliefs and the fixation of ethical habits, then the methods by which norming takes place matters. Following his ideas in "The Fixation of Belief," norming by exclusion, authoritative domination, and dogmatic norming allow us to discount certain kind of norms that happen to achieve dominance. In scientific observation, this would be comparable to excluding observations of stars by fiat, or by the fact that they happen to disagree with yours. Second, the scope of such norms should matter. Analogous to scientific practice, the smaller the sample, the less reliable the results. The law of large numbers suggests that the results of sampling become more accurate as the sample increases in size. Thus, the more inclusive the norming process, the more likely the results will be the right norm. Both Peirce and Dewey share the normative ideals of a certain type of community necessary for proper inquiry—both scientifically and ethically. However, Dewey's notion of the public, and the proper constitution of public discourse may be a more appropriate substitute for  the more restrictive sense of scientific community found in Peirce  The connection  here with Habermas's and Apel's notions of discourse ethics are also worth exploring.