From Right to Left Charles Peirce, John Locke, David Hume. For Image Sources, Scholl Down to End Notes

Pragmatism, Deontological Ethics, and the Fact/Value Distinction

A Potential Basis for Moral Realism

As of late, I’ve been entertaining myself with American pragmatic philosophy. One thing of note is that it has some potential in the area of ethics. So far, it provides an interesting basis for the concept of truth, and a working methodology in the pursuit of it. One area of application is in the field of ethics. It’s in this post where I want to use a pragmatic conception of truth, to build a system of ethics informed by moral sentiments, and tempered by a deontological ethic.

The Pragmatic Theory of Truth

Pragmatic theories of truth differ from correspondence theories of truth, the latter of which are taken to be more common, in that they are normative and not descriptive. A correspondence theorist holds that a proposition is true when there is something in reality that the proposition is properly describing. For example, “My cat is on the mat” is true because it correctly describes a state of affairs, that (1) there is a cat, (2) I own it, (3), it is currently on top of a mat.

Pragmatist theories of truth hold that a proposition is true if it is useful. As Susan Haack notes in her research on C.S. Pierce and William James, ‘useful’ is not meant in the everyday sense of suiting one’s needs. Rather, it should be understood in the sense that it will meet our ends (be expedient in) in interpreting our data (empirical experiences) now and until needing correction by further empirical data [1]. Haack also notes that there are some elements of correspondence and coherence, since truths must not contradict one another, and they must first correspond to shared experience [2].

So the proposition “the cat is on the mat” is satisfied only when there is a correspondence of shared experiences of a cat I own being on a mat, but that is coheres with whatever else I believe to be true, and we must not have good reason to believe it requires correction.

A correspondence theory of truth is descriptive of a state of affairs; that is, it tells us what state of affairs exists that make a proposition true. A pragmatist theory is normative since it also tells us what ought to be true. Not only is there a cat on the mat, but it informs us on what ought to remain the case (since it would imply that it will not be overthrown by subsequent experience).

The Fact/Value Distinction

The distinction between matters of fact and values was first put forward by the British philosopher David Hume in his Treaties on Human Nature.

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprized to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence.
For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.
Thus the course of the argument leads us to conclude, that since vice and virtue are not discoverable merely by reason, or the comparison of ideas, it must be by means of some impression or sentiment they occasion [3]

Here “the ought” is a value, developed from our sentiments. “The is” is a state of affairs, an existing fact. It should be said that Hume doesn’t think that moral values become mere unimportant arbitrary dispositions, he wrote what he believed to be rational insights into ethics.

Collapsing the Fact/Value Distinction

Hume’s challenge of getting an “ought” from an “is” isn’t challenging on a pragmatic theory of truth; especially after you inquire about what a value is. If the question is “why ought we value a proposition dictating what ought to do”, the question can be answered by simply asking what one means by “value”. If by “value”, you mean have a certain emotional disposition towards it being the case, that’s more reflective of personal psychology.

If, however, you mean give it a value as in a “truth value”, we simply say “because we place a value on propositions as ‘true’ when they meet our criteria or definition of usefulness, be they either an “ought” or “is” statement”. If the sceptic does not place any personal value on truth (in terms of its pragmatic conception anyway), he denies values along with any descriptive statement.

Here we move onto our next set of questions.

(1) What do terms like good, evil, wrong , and right mean.

(2) Do they meet the criteria to have any truth value.

To answer the first question, terms like good and evil refer to the character of an individual (ex. John is an evil man), whereas right and wrong refer to specific actions (ex. rape someone is wrong). That is how the predicates are applied to the subjects. The question we ask now is, what is the process of determining proper character and proper action?

So the proposition “John is an evil man” is answered when we build a system of rules that has all the following criteria whereby the proposition can be called true because it proves useful. To prove useful, the system must,

(1) The system must be based on shared sense observation (meeting the correspondence element).

(2) The system itself must not entail contradiction (meeting the coherence element).

(3) The system must effectively further discourse and knowledge (meeting the expediency element).

An Empirical Basis for Meta-Ethics

The hardest part of pursuing a justification for this system is still in the correspondence element. We need a system whereby we have empirical data to inform us about what kind of action we ought to take. In moral epistemology, this is called moral sense theory (or sentimentalism). If we look at our own psychology, human beings do have a shared experience of psychological aversions to acts they deem morally wrong. Further, we also share praise for actions we think are praiseworthy.

Some might point to conflicting feelings between peoples and cultures, but that does little to stifle our sentiments, anymore than conflicting folk cosmologies do to stifle scientific cosmology. While many cultures do have conflicting experiences, and senses which are not infallible (see for example African tribes who identify the color blue with green) [4], this only shows that our sensory observations are necessary, but not sufficient for propositions to be true.

That is all well and good with the pragmatic theory of truth, because a correspondence element does not suffice anyway. There must also be an element of coherence and consistency as well. This is where a duty or deontological based ethic becomes helpful. Here, ethics comes from a duty we are obliged to fall through on as rational creatures. Immanuel Kant was one of history’s major proponents of this ethic.

While moral sentiments provide the shared empirical data, deontological normative ethics provides systems of rational and consistent thinking to construct a method of sorting the empirical data that we, as rational beings, need to remain consistent with. Natural Law theories can also be considered as such, since they derive duties from human nature.

Divine Propertarianism and a Method of Tempering Our Sentiments.

In this blog, I have advocated for John Locke’s propertarianism -hence known as divine propertarianism — as the basis for my own deontological ethics. However, this position is not the only one available to us. There are plenty of deontological theories in the ethics literature that could potentially do the trick, and that should be up for debate among ethicists. What’s necessary is that the initial axioms have to be universally binding so as to keep our sentiments consistent on the pain of arriving at irrationality and contradiction.

Divine propertarianism is the notion that all men are the property of God, and as such he endows us with rights and responsibilities to other beings. To argue for the position, we being with an initial premise, and work our way down. The initial premise begins discussing human beings, their needs as non-self sufficient beings, and from this, we deduce God’s existence as the best the entity which organizes of our claims to things necessary for our lives.

P1 — Human beings are conscious, rational, non-self-sufficient beings
P2 — Conscious, rational non-self-sufficient beings are those which value something other than themselves.
C1 — Human beings are those which value something other than themselves.
P3 — Those which value something other than themselves either have claim to that something by (1) their own authority (2) the common consent of all beings making claims (3) God’s authority.
P4 — Neither (1) or (2).
P5 — (3).
C2 — Those which value something other than themselves have claim to something by God’s authority.
C3 — Humans have claim to something by God’s authority.

Half way through, God is posited as a necessary entity. God is the only viable authority to justify our claim to things necessary for our survival. If we were to act as our own authority, all people can easily exert their power over one another. The common consent of other people would entail that any non-consenting parties -as long as they maintained enough power- could just as rightfully revoke their consent and hitherto exercise their power.

God, on the other hand, can lay claim on all of creation, since without his labor, none of it would exist. Further, such control would also seclude the right of humans taking control of one another, since a human being has no right to claim what is rightfully God’s property.

Two criticism for this view I can see already are,

(1) How the ultimate authority would be the God of nature and not, for example, Zeus.

(2) What right does God have over his creation?

The grounding for (1) is argued well by Edward Feser. He writes,

God created the universe ex nihilo — out of nothing, without the use of any pre-existing materials — and so there is no question of anyone having any pre-existing claim to the materials he used, for he didn’t use them in the first place. His rights over what he created, including us, are accordingly absolute…after all: perhaps a Hobbesian tyrant could claim that in enslaving us, he was merely taking control over our bodies, which even God doesn’t have an absolute right to since they are composed of matter he didn’t Himself create [4]

This would mean God would be outside time and space, since he would have to pre-exist before matter. God would also have to be omnibenevolent and omniscient, so as to grant the assurance of fairness to the equal claim of our persons, and access to his property without any distrust of character or ignorance.

Since all humans have equal claim to take control of what we need, no man’s claim is greater than another, everyone has potential ownership, provided that we show respect for God’s property. As Locke says in his maxim,

“The fundamental law of Nature being that all, as much as may be, should be preserved” [5]

It is by following this maxim, whereby we show respect to God’s property, both sentient, and not. Humans, being the rational creatures of God, have to bare responsibility to themselves first (since that is what he has most control over), family second, friends third, and so on. While they may give their lives for a cause or in defense of another, it must be given in proportion. While the preservation of another human life is of the same value, a brute animal is not.

The second objection, regarding what rationally binds us to respecting God and his property, is that unlike any human (or groups of them), God is a being that can satisfy all our essential desires, and do so eternally. These include our desires for justice, happiness, peacefulness, etc. For any desire or sentiment we have to not respect God and his property, we have greater reason to do so just for the fact in God, we have greater potential for fulfilling our desires. Even though God couldn’t do it in this life, there is the afterlife where it could just as well be done.

Having God (not to mention the afterlife), as a necessary postulate provides a basis that is, as far as I see, stands up to serious objection. Given that, now we can both organize our claims to the necessities of life, while tempering our moral sentiments.

A Basis for Future Knowledge

The last quality is expediency, that is to say, it must do a good job in discovering further knowledge, and having real world application (not to mention, it should be open to falsification). In terms of how ethical systems operate to give us new information, this should be in terms of being adaptable to newer circumstances.

In terms of how this can be used to create newer projects of garnering knowledge, it would work along the lines of economics, with an emphasis on ecology. By doing this, this ethical system rounds up the necessary criteria to provide us with moral propositions we can render as truth.

End Notes

[1] Haack, The Pragmatist Theory of Truth, 234

[2] Ibid, 232

[3] Hume, A Treaties on Human Nature, Link

[4] Feser, Locke, Kindle location 2020–2040

[5] Locke, 2nd Treaties of Civil Government, Link

Image Sources

C.S. Pierce — This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official dutiesunder the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code. See Copyright.

David Hume — See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Locke — Sir Godfrey Kneller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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