Chapter 10. Postmodernism : Pragmatism
Section 2. Pragmatist Ethic



William James credits Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914) with originating the movement by means of an article "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" published in the Popular Science Monthly for January of 1878.  Pragmatism is generally considered to be the first and only philosophical school of thought or tradition to have emerged in North America.  The term was originated by C.S. Peirce,  who would later term his form of the new movement "pragmaticism" in order to distinguish his ideas from those of the most famous exponents: William James and John Dewey.  G.H. Mead and F.S.C. Schiller were lesser known members of this tradition in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when it flourished.   The original formulation of pragmatism by Peirce applied to epistemology (the idea that knowledge must be tested by its usefulness), but the concept was quickly extended by James. Pragmatism in ethics is a form of consequentialism as presented in this work.  The focus of pragmatism is on the resultant actions while utilitarianism emphasizes usefulness.  Pragmatism, according to William James, is derived from the Greek word pragma, which means action and serves as the basis of our English words practical and practice.(Greek pragma = "action" while Latin utilis = "use"). Pragmatism established human needs and the practical interests of humans as the basis for judgment and evaluation.  Pragmatism rejects any form of absolutism and universality of thought.  Pragmatism fosters a form of relativism. Pragmatism in ethics rejects the idea that there is any universal ethical principle or universal value.  It holds for ethical principles being social constructs to be evaluated in terms of their usefullness.

Pragmatic Ethics by Hugh LaFollette  


For pragmatists the matter of ethics is approached practically.  Our practices are our habits. In pragmatic ethics there is the Primacy of Habits, which empower and restrict.  They explore the Social nature of habits and the relation of habit to will.  For them Morality Is a Habit and being fallibilists, pragmatists know that no habits are flawless.  They also hold that Morality is social and that Changing habits for moral reasons is necessary.

Features of pragmatic ethics :

“Embracing a Pragmatist Ethic

A pragmatic ethic is not based on principles, but it is not unprincipled. Deliberation plays a significant role, albeit a different role than that given it on most accounts. Morality does not seek final absolute answers, yet it is not perniciously relativistic. It does recognize that circumstances can be different, and that in different circumstances, different actions may be appropriate. So it does not demand moral uniformity between people and across cultures. Moreover, it understands moral advance as emerging from the crucible of experience, not through the proclamations of something or someone outside us. Just as ideas only prove their superiority in dialogue and in conflict with other ideas, moral insight can likewise prove its superiority in dialogue and conflict with other ideas and experiences. Hence, some range of moral disagreement and some amount of different action will be not be, for the pragmatist, something to bemoan. It will be integral to moral advancement, and thus should be permitted and even praised, not lamented. Only someone who thought theory could provide final answers, and answers without the messy task of doing battle on the marketplace of ideas and of life, would find this regrettable”

John Dewey Reconstructs Ethics  Dr. Jan Garrett

Public Hearings / Hearing Publics: A Pragmatic Approach to Applying Ethics, by Kelly Parker

Pragmatism insists both that theory is a necessary guide to any practice, and that what we discover in practice must feed back into and modify our initial theories. William James stated the implication of this view for ethics when he wrote "there is no such thing possible as an ethical philosophy dogmatically made up in advance."(2) Ethical theories are invaluable cultural constructs, but as with other kinds of theory, even their most fundamental features must be subject to modification when novel problems encountered in practice demand it.

Defense of Pragmatism in Ethics by Paul O'Brien

Freedom and the Moral Life: The Ethics of William James  By John K. Roth 157 pp. Philadelphia, Westminster Press,1969.

Why is the Philosophy of Pragmatism Important?   A Christian Critic of Pragmatism and its impact on Ethics


Shook, John R., editor Early Critics of Pragmatism

These volumes reprint five of the most significant critiques of pragmatism written before World War I, along with a selection of contemporary responses and replies. Each author was a formidable philosophical critic. James B. Pratt was educated at Harvard; initially attracted to James's pragmatism, he soon became a member of the Realist movement. Paul Carus, the editor of The Monist, and Albert Schinz, a scholar of language and literature, deplored pragmatism's relativism. William Caldwell was a product of the Cornell school of idealism. John T. Driscoll appealed to Thomistic scholasticism for his critique of pragmatism. They all participated in the heated controversies over pragmatism during its first decade, and drew on this experience to sum up their views in their books reprinted in these sets. These are key texts for understanding the context of pragmatism's years of greatest vitality.


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