V. Pragmatism: Ethics as Problem-Solving

A. Reconstructing Ethics

-most contemporary ethicists believe that we need elements of both utilitarianism and deontology in determining public policy:

-we need to follow principles in our actions and know how to follow rules intelligently

-we must take consequences of what we do into account in mapping out our plans

-we need to make sure we protect the interests of individuals and minority groups

-we need a means of evaluating competing goods so that we can choose between them

-this is the problem of modern ethics, and it boils down to two tasks:

-first, how does one go about evaluating a particular end-in-view (i.e., goal, aim)

-second, how does one go about evaluating rules (e.g., principles, duties)

B. Ethics as Inquiry

-in whichever philosophical camp you happen to be, it is important to remember that ethics is inquiry directed towards the resolution of moral problems

-as such, it is a science: it takes note of certain states of affairs, identifies problems in many cases, proposes hypotheses for solving them, and then tests its hypotheses (empirically as well as theoretically)

-put simply, we consider what the problem is, what brought it about, and how we can get rid of it

-John Dewey (1859-1952) proposed a model for rational problem-solving that, according to him, is just as valid in ethics as any other field of inquiry

-this model, which I will adopt, can be applied to the evaluation of any goal (end)

-it is also applicable to the evaluation of rules

C. A Model for Evaluating Ends

-the following model, taken from Dewey's Human Nature and Conduct, does two things:

(1) it describes the conditions under which we project goals

(2) it prescribes how to evaluate any given goal

Stage 1: The Problem: activity has been interrupted or slowed

-e.g., car won't start

-e.g., failing a class

Stage 2: The Wish: (this is the part we're all good at!) imagine a future state of affairs where the problem is gone

-e.g., car's going

-e.g., 'A' on report card

Stage 3: Taking Aim: reflect on why the problem exists and guess as to how you can remove it

-bad starter? ----> get new one

-not studying? ----> study more

Stage 4: Testing: first theoretically, then physically, consider these two questions:

1) will this goal solve the problem? (is it a good means?)

2) will it create new problems equal to or greater than those with which we began? (is it a good end?)

D. A Model for Evaluating Rules

-the same model can be used to make descriptions of and prescriptions on rules:

Stage 1: Problem: social activity is not running smoothly or it's not running at all

-e.g., high crime rate

-e.g., running out of landfill space

Stage 2: Wish: anticipate the problem disappearing

-e.g., crime diminishing

-e.g., more space available

Stage 3: Hypothesis: consider the source of the problem and guess how to remove it

-laws too lax ----> stiffen laws and penalties

-decaying too slowly ----> incinerate waste

Stage 4: Testing: first theoretically, then physically, consider the two questions:

1) will it solve the problem? (is it sufficient?)

2) will it create new problems? (is it necessary?)

E. Theory, Rationality, and Problem-Solving

-it is the contention of John Dewey and many other philosophers that a theory is only as good as its application

-we engage in inquiry, and all its abstraction, for the purpose of resolving some concrete difficulty (either directly, or, more often, indirectly)

-in the foregoing models, we begin with some concrete problem, inquire-- sometimes very abstractly-- as to how it came about, consider what might be done to solve it, and then try our idea(s) out

-this is the process that we all go through in reflecting on a problem; and the only difference between everyday reflections and scientific is in the control and rigor with which we test hypotheses

-this process, whether on the everyday level or on the scientific, is the paradigm of rationality

-we begin with a question (how to remove the problem), not a foregone conclusion, and inquire so as to solve the difficulty, independent of any arbitrarily personal desire.

-as we move through the various issues confronting us, we will do well to follow this model in reaching rational solutions