Saturday, March 09, 2013

HH on Pragmatism

In a comment on the running debate on Pragmatism, HH asks:
What would your opinion be to the idea that deontological ethics may simply be the result of a long forgotten pragmatism. Where the pragmatic was the initial impetus but over time the pragmatic justifications fall away, perhaps once understood by everyone, and become the ethical rules or moral duties that people inherit. Even our moral/ethical instincts, it could be argued, are the result of the pragmatism required for survival.

Remember, a justification can be different from a causal history.

I suspect the causal history of our moral beliefs is more evolutionary than intentional. There is some sort of heritable variation, and some sort of selection process (which could be group selection, because ideas don't have the "filling the pool" barrier that genes do), and what we see in our actual cultural ideas is the result of that selection. I don't know how one would go about scientifically proving that's what actually happened, or precisely how we are where we are today, but conceptually, the idea of cultural and moral evolution seems straightforward.

Morality is, of course, a phenomenon of learning beings, and human intelligence is just soup-up learning, so it's likely that some of our moral beliefs are intentionally constructed, and we might have, for some of those, subsequently lost intentionality. But others may never have been intentional ever: they arose by chance, were inherited, and not yet selected against.

But the question is not how did we get the moral beliefs we have today. Instead, s what beliefs do we want preserve into tomorrow?

HH quotes the post:
That pragmatism says that sometimes people have preferences for outcomes that most other people would consider bad, it's doing the job that any meta-ethical system must do.
and asks:
I think I understand what you are saying but unless you are suggesting that popularity be the metric of how ethical a pragmatic solution is, you still have the problem of why any proposed outcome is more ethical than alternatives. Could deonto-ethics just be the initial position that violation of X core moral principles is a worse pragmatic outcome than other outcomes. Does pragmatism need to fiat assume what outcomes are better or worse before actions can be evaluated?

I avoid saying things like "popularity be the metric of how ethical a pragmatic solution is." It assumes there is some quality "ethicalness", which is ontologically distinct from but is hypothesized to be causally linked to another quality, "popularity." Because we can measure popularity, if the causal linkage were true, then popularity would serve as a proxy for ethicalness.

However, I start by saying I have no idea what "ethicalness" might mean, as an inherent property of actions or conditions, independent of our beliefs about those actions and conditions. Thus, the best I can say about popularity is that when making a social decision, c.p. the society will make the more popular decision.

What would you say is ,at least for you, the ultimate objective of ethics? Why be ethical?

I don't really worry about ultimate objectives. I'm just trying to make the world a better place, i.e. one that I would approve of more than I approve of the world we have. I'll let God worry about ultimate objectives.

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