How does pragmatic ethics define morality?

Pragmatic ethics is to the hard sciences (particularly physics) what moral relativism is to anthropology. It is an attempt to use the methodology of a scientific field to derive a framework for determining moral standards. In the case of moral relativism, that methodology is that since cultures define right and wrong differently, it is best to analyze behavior within the framework of the subject's culture. Similarly, pragmatic ethics attempts to apply the scientific method to morality. Pragmatic ethics falls under the larger normative ethics category of ethical relativism, which also encompasses moral relativism and cultural/descriptive relativism.

When a person removes God, the human soul, the afterlife, personal choice, and all other non-material considerations from his worldview, existence becomes bleak. If we are all cosmic accidents with no purpose in life other than the survival of our race and the propagation of our genes, then morality and right and wrong have no real meaning. The love of science becomes a religion. It explains life, it gives meaning to life (to discover), and it provides an excuse to ignore supernatural phenomena. It is reasonable, then, that such a person would use the methodology of science to attempt to derive a standard for human behavior. This is pragmatic ethics.

Pragmatic ethics takes evolution's basic beliefs and adapts them for use in the study of morality. Morality is then treated as science—something that can be analyzed for accuracy and changed when new evidence requires it.

In science - Fallibilism is Latin for "liable to err." It is the belief that we can never know anything for sure. Very likely, a future discovery will completely tear apart our most basic beliefs. Fallibilism is a general assumption in the scientific world—so prevalent that it is rarely mentioned—which is why scientists seem so sure about their findings one day and easily dismiss them the next. Of course, scientists do not hold to fallibilism universally; most evolutionists would not entertain the thought that evolution is not true. And "restricted" fallibilism claims that although we cannot trust what we experience with our senses, we can know and use the absolutes of mathematics and logic. Fallibilism teaches that nothing can be proven absolutely; it can be shown to be likely, or it can be completely disproven. This is why scientific discoveries are called "theories" and not "facts."

In ethics - From a moral philosophy standpoint, fallibilism means that although there may exist an absolute standard of human behavior, we will never know what it is. Coming at it from the other direction, no system or theory of morality, no matter how right it seems, can be proven without a doubt. Fallibilism does not reject the search for truth, as skepticism does. It merely says that although our search may lead us closer to the truth, we will never reach it. And it does not necessarily say that all our beliefs are false—we will just never know one way or the other. The deficit is in the ability of humans to understand the truths of the universe, not the truths themselves.

In science - If, as fallibilism claims, truth can never be known, then how do we function? If we can never know for sure if the icy road will make our car skid, or if our brakes will stop us in time, or even if our car exists, how can we attempt to drive? The scientific answer is to use a "model." Although a model can be as elaborate as the multiple dimensions of string theory, it can also be very simple and practical. It is basically a best guess as far as we know it, a metaphorical representation of the truth. We may act and interact with it as if it is true for all practical purposes, but the fallibilism in the back of our minds will remind us that future events and discoveries may show our model to be inaccurate.

In ethics - The most famous model in philosophy is Plato's shadows in his Allegory of the Cave. The truth exists outside the cave, but we cannot see or know it. Instead, we are left with pale representations. In ethics, all moral standards and frameworks are the equivalent of models. We will never know absolute good and evil; we can only develop a system based on the best information we have at the time. This point of view informs pragmatism in a significant way because it leads to the belief that humanity is responsible for developing the best morality it can. To that end, scholars and deep thinkers are to consider all the evidence and come up with a framework. This framework will change (hopefully toward the truth) over the years, but it will be our best chance at leading a moral life.

In science - The universe is big and human understanding is limited. We cannot know if a belief is true, although on occasion we may be able to know something is not true. The best way to function is to create a model of the truth that adheres to the facts as we know them. What factors should we consider in building this model? Experience and experiments are crucial. Validated prediction is even more highly valued. A theory gains credibility when a prediction based on that theory turns out to be true. This is used in pharmaceuticals every day. Science may tell the researcher that a drug will have a desired effect, but the proof is in the patient.

In ethics - Utilitarianism is the "prediction" of ethics. Utilitarianism says an act is good if it produces a good result. So, when the scholars and deep thinkers create an ethical model, they are aiming for what will produce the best result. Utilitarianism is not unique to pragmatic ethics; it is itself a major category of normative ethics under the name "consequentialism." There is another, slightly confusing, aspect of relativistic utilitarianism. The property of an object is defined only and completely by the effect it has on things external to it. Through a series of steps, this leads to the belief that the property of a person is defined by the impact that person has on the world; i.e.: there is no such thing as an introspective thought life or a first-person consciousness of oneself; our perceptions of thought and self are only the interactions of our physical being with our surroundings.

Although pragmatic relativism with its scientific origins may seem simple and straightforward, practitioners cannot agree on the very definitions of the most basic concepts.

What works - Pragmatism denies the existence of God or a higher authority to which humanity is held responsible, so "what works" refers only to mankind, and ethics is based on the best for mankind. But, like all utilitarian-based philosophies, "what works" is nearly indefinable. Does it refer to what is best for the acting agent? Another person? Society at large? Who determines "what works"? Who gets to decide who the "scholars and deep thinkers" are? And what if their decisions don't "work" for a large segment of the population?

Reality - In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Rene Descartes imagines the creature the "Evil Genius." It is a being that puts thoughts into people's minds so that we only think we are having experiences when we are not. This is now a standard science fiction trope (see: The Matrix), and it is a great argument for the uncertainty of reality. Are we really here, having these experiences? Or are we brains in a jar, hooked up to electrodes? Or even just a few lines of computer code? We have no way of knowing. Reality is a problem for pragmatists. Should we base our morality on reality (which we cannot know) or on the cause and effect of utilitarianism? Is it better to strive toward truth or settle for what seems to work? (It should be mentioned that Descartes escaped fallibilism with three words: cogito, ergo sum. Regardless of the truthfulness of his thoughts, he could not think at all if he did not exist. If he could believe nothing else, he could be sure that he existed. This does nothing to ensure the truth of any other experience, and has been rejected by later proponents of pragmatism.)

Experience - As mentioned, pragmatic relativism has mainly been adopted by materialists—those who believe that everything in existence is material and there is no supernatural. Taking this to its logical conclusion, there is no God, but there is also no soul, no spirit, no consciousness, and no first-person perspective. In addition, there is no choice, no thought, and no feeling. Everything we think we think or feel is just a physiological response to external and internal stimuli. If this is the case, how can we trust what we seem to experience through our senses? How can we trust logic or even math, if thought does not exist? Even the logic in cogito, ergo sum is suspect in a world in which nothing can be proven.

Truth - Truth is not relative in pragmatic relativism; morality is. But we cannot know the truth. This leads to a huge problem. Pragmatists base ethics on evidence they don't believe in a reality they can't trust and a truth they can't know. And pragmatists cannot even agree on what truth is—is it what works, or is it what we are continually striving for?

The Bible and pragmatism have a handful of similarities. The Bible teaches that careful consideration will help us act in the right way (Hebrews 5:14). It teaches that we should follow the teaching of the wise (1 Timothy 5:17). And that man's knowledge is limited (Job 38:4). That is where the similarities end. The Bible has a lot to say about the core beliefs of pragmatic relativism, but not in a supportive way.

Knowing truth - The reality of the physical world, the validity of our sensory input, and the ability we have to correctly interpret the world is a given in the Bible. But the biggest problem the Bible has with pragmatic relativism is in the belief that the truth cannot be known. In John 8:32, Jesus says, "and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." Psalm 25:5 says, "Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long." And James 1:5 tells us how to find truth: "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him."

Knowing God is truth - The truth pragmatists say they are seeking is the very God they foolishly dismissed before they began their search. Exodus 34:6 (NASB) says, "Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, 'The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth.'" And Psalm 111:7 (NASB) says, "The works of His hands are truth and justice; all His precepts are sure."

Knowing the truth that God is the I AM - Pragmatists believe they can know nothing about the reality of our existence. The Bible says that God is existence; He is the I AM (Exodus 3:14). It is true that human senses cannot uncover all the mysteries of the universe. But we do have access to the wisdom of the God who embodies creation. By relying on (admittedly) flawed and limited human perceptions and intelligence and rejecting God's revelation, mankind will only drift further from the truth.

Humans can no more "evolve" closer to truth by their own power than we can evolve health and environmental wellness. We are too influenced by our fallen nature. We cannot know right and wrong, good and evil, or anything definitive about the universe without knowing God first. That is the key problem with pragmatic relativism. It is good and noble to use human faculties to investigate the best application of truth in our day-to-day lives. It is good and humble to admit that our limited abilities will never fully understand the truths of the universe, even when we feel compelled to live by them. But to preemptively dismiss the Creator of Truth is absolute foolishness. The pragmatists' rejection of God has blinded them to the very truth they claim to be seeking (John 12:40)

Related Truth:

What is the philosophy of ethics?

What does metaethics study?

How does applied ethics work?

How does normative ethics develop a framework for defining right and wrong?

How does consequentialist ethics define morality? What is consequentialism?

Return to:
Truth about Worldview and Apologetics