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What is Prudent Pragmatism?

William Bluhm & Robert Heineman show how to do ethics without foundations.

Nietzsche wrote finis to the idea of metaphysics as a cognitive enterprise. Few philosophers today would try to make a case for anything like Hegel’s Weltgeist or Plato’s Forms, although the latter remain alive and well among many mathematicians. Along with this collapse of metaphysical categories has gone disillusionment with ideas of absolute ‘good’ and ‘right’, the basic concepts of ethics. Yet we still feel the need in our daily lives to talk about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good and ‘bad.’ Political discourse in particular is infused with these terms, even in international politics. Thus thinkers have been at work to give ethical language a new philosophical underpinning.

The effort to find a new way to talk about morals began long before Nietzsche’s anti-metaphysical onslaught, when post-Enlightenment skepticism dealt a body blow to absolutist ideas. From Bentham (1748-1832) to the present, ‘utility’ has often been offered as a substitute for ‘good’, and ‘right’ has often been reworked as an efficiency term. But the results have been unconvincing. Bentham’s identification of the ‘good’ with the pleasure of the majority (i.e. ‘utility’) did not catch fire. Why would any member of a minority agree to such a proposition? J.S. Mill’s idea of utility as the happiness of man ‘as a progressive being’ was vague and unpersuasive. Above all, how are we to compare one person’s pleasure or happiness with that of another, if we are to try to provide the greatest amount of it?

Other utilitarians have tried different approaches. We have, for example, G.E. Moore’s assertion that ‘good’ is a simple notion – like ‘yellow’, which is directly seen by all who are not colorblind. But why, then, are there so many different perceptions of goodness? The most successful contemporary version of utilitarianism is not an ethics, but a theory of strategy: game theory and the theory of public choice. If, indeed, the only real world is one of scientifically measurable events, then all language about ‘right’ and ‘good’ is meaningless, as A.J. Ayer contended. We can give our attention entirely to the problem of winning, and forget our moral qualms.

In the face of this gloomy situation, alternative approaches to grounding ethical discourse have been attempted, such as C.L. Stevenson’s theory of ‘ethics as attitudes’; the work of the emotivists; and approaches which conceive of ethical parlance as ‘language games’. The work of Ludwig Wittgenstein is a leading case in point. But these are ultimately reducible to descriptions of tribal customs (mores), making ethics the products of particular times and places, and so, non-absolute.

All these efforts to reground ethical language are fairly abstract. They do not give guidance to flesh and blood people faced with personal or political moral dilemmas.

Utilitarians and deontologists (Kantian or duty-ethicists) in particular see their work as a search for a system of general rules. Their method features reasoning from general principles, to conclusions about particular cases. But this method of reasoning is procrustean. It does not take into account the importance of the particular circumstances of a case for moral choice. It also imposes preconceived and abstract ethical standards on those actually making daily decisions.

Ethics Unearthed

The schools of ethics we’ve described were created in response to the conundrum produced by the demise of grand metaphysical systems, and they are inadequate to the task. But there is an approach to ethics which predates the fatal critique of metaphysics, and which does not require a metaphysical foundation anyway. We have dubbed it ‘prudent pragmatism.’ Our label is new, but in its essentials the method we espouse goes far back into antiquity. It’s rooted in the broadest sort of human culture – what the Stoics called the consensus hominum: principles of right and good that have arisen from long experience, and which have been accepted by all peoples from time immemorial. In his Nichomachean Ethics (350 BC), Aristotle listspractices that are considered wrong in all cultures – such as lying, theft, murder, and adultery. In our time, the theologian Hans Kueng, drawing upon a comparative study of the Jewish Torah, the Islamic Qur’an, the Hindu Bhagavad-Ghita, and the Christian Sermon on the Mount, has made a similar finding. Other evidence for a basic universal morality can be found in the United Nations Charter or in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Prudent pragmatism is a situational ethic. It draws the principles relevant to a decision from the facts of the particular case. Historically, this method has been known by the name of ‘casuistry’. Early versions of it are found in the jurisprudence of the lawyers who constructed the Roman Jus Gentium [‘the Laws of the Peoples’] and in the body of principles built up by rabbinical schools out of the moral experience of ancient Israel. Casuists in Medieval Europe continued the tradition. They were the clerical judges of a system of Papal and Imperial courts who built codes of law by reasoning analogously and taxonomically from simple to complex cases. A very early example of this method is found in the sixth book of the Nichomachean Ethics, where Aristotle describes the method of practical reasoning as one of fitting particulars to universals (rather than starting with the universals). For example, the good physician, he tells us, is not one who works from abstract generalizations such as ‘White meat is healthy’. Rather, from his experience he has learned that chicken is healthy, and prescribes it, even though he might be ignorant of any general rule about white meats. The Common Law of England also flowed from the same methods and principles.

Contemporary scholars such as Julius Kovesi, Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin have contributed importantly to the methodology of prudent pragmatism. (See e.g. Julius Kovesi, Moral Notions, 1967; Albert J. Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, The Abuse of Casuistry, 1988.) They all focus on the importance of an exhaustive description of the facts surrounding a moral dilemma, and on the idea that the relevant values emerge from this scrutiny (an interesting twist on the ‘fact-value dichotomy’.) For example, only an examination of the circumstances will tell us whether a given instance of killing constitutes murder or justified homicide.

In some cases involving conflict, an examination of the facts may yield a ‘complete moral notion’ (Kovesi’s language) which does not fit the established canon but which is nevertheless morally persuasive. Suppose for example that terrorists have seized an airplane in flight. To regain control of the plane the pilots tell the hijackers that they are running low on fuel, even though this is not the case. The pilots know they are near an airfield with an elaborate security system, and that landing there would give them a good chance of overpowering the terrorists. To Kovesi this would not be a lie, but what he would call a ‘saving deceit’. The facts point to the governing value: the saving of lives.

Why do we refer to our method as a kind of pragmatism? Not because we subscribe to the full philosophy of John Dewey, Richard Rorty, or any other well-known exponent of the philosophical school of Pragmatism. Nor do we think that meaning rests only in consequences. In employing the term, our intention is rather to stress the need for practicality in moral decision-making – in the need to come to grips with the everyday dilemmas of public life – and further, that we do not need a metaphysical basis for doing so. Pragmatism focuses on the facts or circumstances of a case, and on practical outcomes – what works within the value system we espouse (which is the settled, shared value system of humankind).

Prudent Illustrations

Let’s illustrate prudent pragmatism by examining the ethical issues involved in surrogate motherhood. An article in the New York Times National for December 13, 2009, described a case in which an infertile couple obtained an egg from one source, sperm from another, and hired a third person to carry the child to term. Legal complications arose when the surrogate mother discovered that the woman for whom she had contracted to carry the child was mentally unstable. The surrogate decided that in view of this she would adopt the child herself, even though she already had a large family. This case points to an ethical problem with the procedures of surrogacy allowed by the law: Was the procedure compatible with the dignity of human life? If not, we should conclude that the law allowing it is contrary to moral values, and ought to be revised. The bioethicist George Annas is quoted in the article as remarking that commercialization of surrogacy has led to “seeing children as a consumer product.” We can see from this case that everyday choices utilizing the latest technology are creating situations that produce moral dilemmas.

How would a prudent pragmatist deal with a surrogacy case? The first step would be to seek an analogy for surrogacy in established legal/moral practice. Adoption seems to be an appropriate institution to use as a model. From the adoption model we would then elicit some maxims to guide us in the drawing up of rules. One might be: ‘Follow the same procedures as those embodied in law for establishing the qualifications of candidates for adoptive parenting.’ Another might be: ‘Treat the requisite egg and sperm with rules analogous to those employed in adopting a child from a mother or from a foundling home.’ Here, the closest equivalent to the surrogate mother would be the person or institution from which a child might be adopted. From this analogy we could establish a monetary payment to the surrogate mother similar to the sum paid to cover a birth mother’s costs, or the expenses of a foundling home. In this manner we should be able to draw up a full set of maxims to specify rules for the entire procedure of surrogacy.

Prudent pragmatism does not produce moral judgments that have the validity of mathematical demonstrations or of empirical science. This is why Aristotle placed ethics in the realm of practical rather than pure reason. Its judgements may always be debated, refined, or called into question in honest debate. There is always the possibility that another relevant fact may be adduced that will color the conclusion. Prudent pragmatic judgments are therefore tentative and subject to revision as new evidence indicates the need. As public policy decisions, they should be the result of community discussion, not of isolated individual judgments. Prudent pragmatism in policy-making presumes a context of moral consensus and of a working deliberative democracy. (See John S. Dryzek, Discursive Democracy: Politics, Policy, and Political Science, 1990; John S. Dryzek, Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations, 2000.)

If they are to judge well, prudent pragmatists must also possess the virtue of prudence. This is the product of inherent character, of sound moral upbringing, and of long experience. (Aristotle remarks in one place that while the young may excel in a discipline like mathematics, it is the old, or those who have behind them a long and rich experience in public life, who will excel in moral judgment.) Sound ethical judgment therefore requires more than a sound method. It requires moral virtue. The approach which says that ethical judgements are best made through the cultivation of a good character is called ‘virtue ethics’.

Prudence is especially required for the adequate performance of a particular aspect of the prudent pragmatist method: the weighing and balancing of alternative courses of action. In the realm of public policy, many if not all moral decisions require the balancing of competing values. In writing anti-smoking legislation, for example, a balance must be struck between the freedom of the individual smoker to enjoy his cigarette and the right of the public to protection from second-hand smoke. Another example is the right of an accused person to due process of law versus the right of the community to protection from criminal activity. A present example of an urgent kind, is the right of the community to safety from terrorism versus the rights of persons with Middle-Eastern features to freedom from harrassment. In none of these cases is there a slide-rule technique for finding the right policy. Rather, the need is for prudent judgment which finds a balance between individual interests and those of the community at large.

The American Example

We believe that practical democratic politics has, and indeed must have, an ethical component. We know, however, that legislators often lack this or that virtue. Socialization processes frequently fail to produce prudent leaders. Political art must therefore supply this want through a competent political process. Well-constructed constitutional procedure and wisely articulated policy processes may aid prudent pragmatic decision-making. The weighing and balancing that takes place in the halls of the American Congress is an example.

Over the centuries, the American system of government has featured two opposing orientations: one of individual interest, and the other of communitarian concern. The Founding Fathers built into the constitution protections for individuals, and for the diverse community of thirteen original states – a diversity that has increased exponentially. Minority protections are most salient in the Senate, where each state has two Senators, no matter how large or small its population. The interests of the small states are therefore given representation far out of proportion to their populations. In the Twentieth Century the Senate moved to protect minorities even further with the introduction of the filibuster, which allows unlimited debate by a minority of the Senate (41 Senators), thereby killing almost any bill by holding the floor until the majority give up on their voting intention. In recent years the use of the filibuster has become so common that it is almost accepted that 60 votes will be needed to pass any kind of controversial legislation. The Senate has thus evolved an extra-constitutional majority for much of its legislation. Its aim is to force elected policy-makers to negotiate and seek consensus in their formulation of decisions.

Virtue ethics has been challenged by the findings of ethics experiments recently analyzed in a book by Kwame Anthony Appiah, Experiments in Ethics (2009). One experiment carried out in the 1920s involved a large sample of American schoolchildren. It showed that children who displayed great honesty at home, and adhered strictly to parental mandates even when unobserved, were nevertheless ready to cheat on tests at school. Their virtue was not consistently displayed. Other experiments cited by Appiah showed that people act charitably when in a good mood induced by pleasurable experience, but not when they are not pleasurably stimulated. Still others showed that Good Samaritanism is not easily forthcoming when a person has an appointment to keep.

It is not clear why Appiah should have been disturbed by these findings, or that they challenge the assertions of virtue ethicists. The claim of virtue ethics is that people of character, whose virtue has been developed and nurtured by adequate moral training, will behave in a virtuous way. It makes no such claims about the behavior of samples of the general population. Psychology does not trump ethics. Good ethical judgement may still be cultivated. People may become pragmatically prudent.

© William T. Bluhm & Robert A. Heineman 2011

William T. Bluhm is Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Rochester, and Robert A. Heineman is Professor of Political Science at Alfred University, both in New York state.

• A detailed exposition of prudent pragmatism in the context of American political culture may be found in our classroom text, Ethics and Public Policy: Methods and Cases, Pearson Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2007.

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