Pragmatic Ethics Essay Format

Pragmatism as a general philosophy arose as a distinct American revolt against Idealism in late nineteenth and early twentieth century philosophy (Commager 1950; Hollinger 1980). Inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution, Pragmatists in general emphasized the variations and struggles of the organism in meeting and coping with the environment (Almeder 1987; Ormerod 2006).

Initially inspired by Hegel, but later on “naturalizing Hegel” by building on Darwin, Dewey viewed this meeting and coping as a transaction between the organism and its environment (Bernstein 2010, p. 92; Frega 2015; Smith 1973). However, from Hegel he retained the notion of “the social organism [and] worked from the fundamental belief that individual self-realization, the central motif of his early and late ethical theory, is bound to the development of the whole” (Deen 2013, pp. 649–650, italics added; Zanetti and Carr 2000). Further, he retained from Hegel an emphasis on wholes and a rejection of dualisms. Thus, for example, he rejected the artificial distinction between stimuli and response, popular in early twentieth century behaviorist psychology (Dewey 1896): “the so-called stimulus, being the total state of the organism, moves of itself, because of the tensions contained, into those activities… which are called the response. The stimulus is simply the earlier part of the total coordinated serial behavior and the response the later part” (Dewey 1938, p. 30; Lee 1973).

On this basis, transaction as a balanced, coordinated and effectively integrated adaptation involves habits: flexible but ordered activities, established on the basis of past successfully consummated activities of exploration and search. However, these habits may at any point be disturbed by changes in the environment and in the human individual, as it grows and develops itself. In fact, the continuous dynamic of order—interruption—recovery is a fundamental feature of human experience, according to Dewey (1922, pp. 178–179; Smith 1973): “The truth is that in every waking moment, the complete balance of the organism and its environment is constantly interfered with and as constantly restored… Life is interruptions and recoveries…”

Such interruptions in the continuity of experience, understanding and acting lead to an indeterminate or problematic situation, seeded with doubt and full of uncertainty and conflicting tendencies. It is important to note that, to Dewey, indeterminacy is a characteristic of the situation viewed as a “contextual whole… [in which] an object or event is always a special part, phase or aspect, of an environing experienced world… there is always a field in which observation of this or that object or event occurs” (Dewey 1938, pp. 66–67; original italics). As such, indeterminacy is not reducible to the mental states of the individuals in that situation: “We are doubtful because the situation is inherently doubtful.” Attempts to clear up an indeterminate situation by only attending to the states of mind of the individuals involved would in fact encourage withdrawal from reality and other pathological symptoms. Instead, the indeterminate situation should be subject to a process of inquiry, bringing forth the phase of recovery (Dewey 1938, p. 105; Smith 1973).

Inquiry is defined by Dewey (1938), pp. 104–105 as “the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole.” As such, inquiry involves a “reflective evaluation of existing conditions—of shortcomings and possibilities—with respect to operations intended to actualize certain potentialities of the situation so as to resolve what was doubtful” (Thayer 1967, pp. 434–435). Moving toward determination of a problematic situation involves dialectically progressive steps toward searching out the constituents of a given situation and settle them by observation, develop ideas about possible solutions, and put them into operation (Dewey 1938; George 1973).

Inquiry primarily takes place in a social context, since human individuals are subject to shared problems and dependent upon each other for survival. Inquiry as a social process includes a community of inquirers who reach agreement upon consequences, and thus jointly confirm or correct results and outcomes of inquiry. Conducive to this process is democracy, and Dewey favored extending the reach of democracy from the political arena to other parts of society, such as education and industrial organizations. In this way, individuals would be enabled to use inquiry to critique and redevelop these organizations in social and intelligent ways (Deen 2011; Dewey 1938; Ormerod 2006; Williams 1970).

This was important to Dewey, because he saw an essential role for public and private organizations in sustaining human freedom and liberal democracy against the threats of modern technology and technocracy. These threats involved disorientation and confusion among citizens, which could lead to pervasive institutional change, and most importantly, to social and cultural instability (Evans 2000; Stevers 1993). Dewey was ambivalent about these organizations, in particular about the new industrial corporations of his days. On the one hand, he admired their efficiency and effectiveness, and saw important moral obligations for them in sustaining and reforming society. At least in principle, the societal division of labor in these corporations permitted ever more cooperation and exchange of goods and services, and thus afforded “one the fundamental expressions of the organic nature of society in which members are reciprocally ends to each other” (Dewey and Tufts 1908, p. 486). Even machine production could be viewed positively in this light, because “it is the machine which makes possible on a tremendously effective basis the division of labor and its social organization” (Dewey and Tufts 1908, p. 507; Deen 2013).

On the other hand, Dewey saw that these large corporations, and the capitalist economic system that sustained them, did not fulfill these moral obligations. On the contrary, their “exclusive reliance upon the profit motive and upon the supreme importance of wealth tends to distort the proper perspective for life as a whole” (Dewey and Tufts 1908, p. 488). This distortion was endemic to American society as a whole, with its emphasis on money and materialism:

Our materialism, our devotion to money making and to having a good time, are not things by themselves. They are the product of the fact that we live in a money culture; of the fact that our technique and technology are controlled by interest in private profit. There lies the serious and fundamental defect of our civilization (Ratner 1939, p. 405; Williams 1970).

The capitalist system in fact prevented a rational, intelligent organization of society, to the extent that it represented a waste of labor and resources by alienating workers from their work and its fruits, by failing to provide them with an opportunity to contribute their physical, intellectual and moral energies to the attainment of the common good, and by restricting production in the name of profit maximization where expansion of production would be desirable and necessary for society as a whole (Deen 2013; Evans 2000; Williams 1970):

Making things is frantically accelerated; and every mechanical device used to swell the senseless bulk. As a result most workers find no replenishment, no renewal and growth of mind, no fulfillment in work. They labor to get mere means of later satisfaction. This when procured is isolated in turn from production and is reduced to a barren physical affair or a sensuous compensation for normal goods denied. Meantime the fatuity of severing production from consumption, from present enriching of life, is made evident by economic crises, by periods of unemployment alternating with periods of exercise, work or “over-production” (Dewey 1922, p. 272).

The development of the corporations should not be separated from developments in society and technology. Extolling the virtues of capitalism and its captains of industry distracted attention from the basic fact that

the entire modern industrial development is the fruit of the technological applications of science. By and large, the economic changes of recent centuries have been parasitic upon the advances made in natural science. There is not a single process involved in the production and distribution of goods that is not dependent upon the utilization of results which are consequences of the method of collective, organic intelligence working in mathematics, physics, and chemistry. To speak baldly, it is plain falsehood that the advances which the defenders of the existing regime point to as justification for its continuance are due to mere individualistic initiative and enterprise. Individualistic initiative and enterprise have sequestered and appropriated the fruits of collective cooperative intelligence… Without the aid and support of organized intelligence they would have been impotent (Ratner 1939, pp. 360–361).

To remedy this situation, Dewey envisioned an “intelligent social control of production,” restructuring corporations into vital, experimental and democratic organizations that should be able to solve societal problems through dialectical cooperation between managers, employees and citizens in a community-like fashion (Deen 2013, p. 651; Stever 1993).

The #StrategyAndEthics series began with the observation that discussions about strategy and ethics tend to take place separately. Both strategy and ethics are taught to varying standards of quality in military institutions around the world. However, the two areas tend to be taught as distinct rather than inextricably connected subjects (the one exception to this is perhaps in Germany).[1] Too often, strategy discussions are seen as dominated by pragmatism, while discussions about ethics are considered more abstract or theoretical. This is true though the serving practitioners who I have the privilege of teaching, often having served back-to-back tours since 2001, are normally all too aware of the implicit connection between the two.

Despite the conscious, or unconscious, separation of the two areas, I will take this opportunity to demonstrate just how pragmatic and useful the Just War Tradition has been and continues to be when thinking about strategy. While there is a lot more to the subject of military ethics than the Just War Tradition, it represents a fund of practical moral wisdom that has evolved over time to reflect the changing character of war. What is often missed by people who approach it as an abstract theory, rather than as a true tradition, is that as part of this evolution, it has incorporated prudential calculations that acknowledge the crucial importance of context when determining a correct course of action.

In brief, the Just War Tradition demands that actions that can cause harm to others (i.e., going to war) can be undertaken only if there is a compelling, morally justifiable reason—a just cause. They must be undertaken with the right intentions and authorized by those who have the legitimacy to sanction the suspension of the normal rules prohibiting this kind of action. The harms that the action may produce in both the short and long term must be proportional to the injury that has been suffered, and there must be a reasonable prospect that the actions will lead to success. Finally, you must be confident that there are no alternative options that may do less harm and still produce results, i.e., war must be a genuine last resort. In addition to these ad bellum requirements, there are also certain in bello principles to take into account, concerned with how war is allowed to be conducted. Specifically, one should be discriminate to ensure that any harm to the innocent is limited, and any harm must be proportionate to the aim that is being legitimately pursued.

By establishing a clear and realistic objective at the outset, mission creep can be avoided and war can be kept firmly as an instrument of policy rather than its master.

There are pragmatic reasons why each of these criteria should inform policy formation and consideration about using violence on behalf of a given community. Given issues of brevity, the essentially pragmatic nature of the Tradition will be demonstrated by focusing on only two of the possible examples, one from each level of the criteria.[2] Firstly, at the ad bellum level, few people would deny that it is sound strategic planning to ask what a war is trying to achieve before embarking upon it.[3] Consistent with this, the Just War Tradition demands a clear idea of what success in this context actually means. Note that success is not the same as victory, even though the two are often confused. One can normally achieve one’s objectives without having to utterly destroy one’s opponent. For example, in 1939 Finland defended itself against the Soviet Union even though it was clearly not going to win. However, the Finns almost certainly obtained significantly better terms when they did finally capitulate five months later, than they would have achieved if they had not fought at all.[4] It is difficult not to see this as success even if it was clearly not a victory. The link between Just War thinking and sound strategy can be demonstrated in this area by Clausewitz, who stated, “No-one starts a war—or rather, no-one in his senses ought to do so—without being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it. The former is a political purpose; the latter its operational objective.”[5] By establishing a clear and realistic objective at the outset, mission creep can be avoided and war can be kept firmly as an instrument of policy rather than its master. The normative concern is certainly not at odds with the strategic one.

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