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Justice and Objectivity for Pragmatists

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Carol Hay
University of Massachusetts Lowell
United States

The goal of this paper is to argue that pragmatists interested in social justice ought to be committed to certain objective, transcultural ethical ideals. In particular, I argue that we need an objective moral account of what counts as harm and flourishing for human beings. Pragmatists are usually characterized as rejecting the tenability of, or the need for, such objective standards. Instead, the question of whether a person’s life is going well or badly is supposed to be answered by appealing to the standards of that person’s community, appealing to ever-wider communities if necessary. The problem with this approach, I believe, is that it is far too easy to find historical and contemporary examples of communities that are committed to morally unacceptable (e.g., sexist or racist) ideals all the way up. The most deeply entrenched problems of social justice do not tend to occur because a relatively small community is committed to unacceptable moral ideals that can be checked against the better ideals of a larger social group. Rather, these problems occur because the largest social groups are themselves committed to morally unacceptable ideals. Without some kind of objective ethical standards, there can be no coherent way to criticize wide-scale, systemic, and institutional injustices.


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