Experience, Moral Truths, and Principled Pragmatism: On Diana Heney’s Toward a Pragmatist Metaethics
The nature of truth is a perennial philosophical question, and it seems yet more difficult and pressing when the question is focused on the nature of moral truth. Saving the appearances in our moral lives—in particular, that there are disagreements in, ways to be wrong about, and instances of correct action and deliberation in ethics—is regularly taken to be a desideratum of a successful theory of ethical judgment. The challenge, always, in living up to these requirements is finding just what it is for ethical claims to be true or false, and for disagreements about a moral concept to be about the same thing. It is tempting, comparing the cognitive program in the empirical sciences with that in ethics, to say only the former has any clarity or claim to truths. Moral truth risks being seem as more a will-o-wisp rather than something real.
Diana Heney’s Toward a Pragmatist Metaethics is a work that is designed to address the truth problem in ethics in a way that takes the practices of moral disagreement, ethical reflection, and public deliberation about what it right and wrong seriously. Heney’s book is comprised of two arcs of argument. The first is a genealogy of the pragmatist metaethics she takes to be most defensible—one that winds its way through Charles Sanders Peirce’s theory of truth, William James’s orientation toward “vital matters,” John Dewey’s focus on context and the role of inquiry, and Clarence Irving Lewis’s model for developing a normative science. In the process of this line of finding what is living and defensible in the long and contentious history of the pragmatist program for ethics, Heney produces her own thoroughly pragmatist, and decidedly Peircian, account of ethical judgment and truth. What emerges is a theory of moral truths that is focused on lived matters in moral experience, and maintains an orientation toward ongoing inquiry.
With this pragmatist program in place, Heney weighs in on two pressing problems in metaethics: the cognitivism-noncognitivism debate, and the particularism-generalism debate. At the core of the first debate is the question of whether there can be moral truths and what constitutes them. Heney marshals a number of arguments in favor of the cognitivist side, that there are moral truths: that cognitivism is true to the “phenomenology of moral judgments” (93), that cognitivism is consistent with the “truth norm when we utter assertions” (95), and finally, that cognitivism is the only option for handling inference from moral claims (98). The pragmatist character of this cognitivism is striking, since the moral truths emerge from our practices of moral deliberation and public judgment, and the case for those truths is rooted in those first-order practices.
Heney’s contribution to the generalism-particularism debate is unique. Particularists hold that not all (and perhaps very few) moral judgments depend for their justification (and truth) on there being moral principles. Instead, the particularist argues that moral decision-making is a matter of developing discernment and producing judgment in case-by-case instances. This particularist view is one that has been very appealing to many pragmatists, as it seems it is an extension of the Deweyan focus on context and the Jamesian view that the moral universe is not made up in advance. However, Heney breaks with this arc of the pragmatist particularists, and instead argues for a form of what she calls Principled Pragmatism, one that identifies the role that general moral rules play in even highly contextual decision-making. Heney begins with the observation that particularism, in making none of the reasons extendable beyond the case and agent in question, threatens the practices of shared moral deliberation (129). Generalism, in contrast, reflects the moral principles entrenched in everyday practices of correction and deliberation. Further, it shows that general truths are indispensable for articulating what it is to learn and improve morally (134)—how else could judgment improve by case studies, unless there is a theme to unify them?
Heney’s book is at once a tour of the moral philosophies of four of the great pragmatists and is a significant contribution to pressing issues in contemporary metaethics. Both her track through the history and her take on the current problems are novel (and so inviting controversy), and this is why I am very pleased to bring this group of scholars together here at Syndicate Philosophy to discuss her exciting new book.