Pragmatic Morals

There are three major theories that are used in the contemporary world to explain how to decide what a person should do when confronted with a moral dilemma such as that presented by abortion. The first is the theory of obligation that is identified with Immanuel Kant and it is the theory that people often identify as containing the essence of all moral argument. The second is the Utilitarian theory identified with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The third is the pragmatic theory, which has John Dewey and Richard Rorty as its standard bearers. That is to put aside the outlier moral theory of C. E. Moore, who identified moral taste as somewhat the equivalent of aesthetic taste, or the ancient theories that tried to assess moral life as the exercise of an emotion, a singular one serving as the greatest good, as in the case of Epictetus, who saw the best course in life as the cultivation of resignation, or morality consisting of the long list of emotions that Aristotle dazzlingly reduced to a formula whereby the Golden Mean between two extreme emotions was the right emotion for people to pursue. The three major theories of the modern world do not provide a way to choose between them but they do provide distinct forms of reasoning for people to choose between.

Kant’s theory is usually formulated as the principle of the Categorical Imperative, one of whose versions is to treat all people as if they were ends in themselves rather than means to an end. A more penetrating view of Kant is to suggest that his theory is categorical in a different sense of that word. A person does what someone in that category or in that category of circumstance is obligated to do and that such a decision  is an either/or one: you are obligated to tell the truth to police officers or you are not, and Kant thought you are always obligated to do so. Similarly, you have a responsibility or obligation to support your children though you do not have an obligation to support strangers however much religions may say that you ought to look after strangers in your midst. That is an additional virtue rather than an obligatory one. You are obligated to take on the duties of the position in a bureaucracy to which you have been assigned but are not obliged to second guess the decisions of a higher up except in the extreme case when a boss is ordering you to do things that are so gravely inhumane as to constitute a crime against humanity or some such thing. You are a free person because you choose to do the right thing rather than the wrong thing as that is objectively established by looking at your role in society and the circumstances that obtain. It is a very lawyer-like kind of morality.

Apply this to abortion. There are a number of points at which life can be said to begin and any one of them can be the basis for a person or a group of people to take the position that this is the point that separates a medical procedure from the taking of a human life. That point can be the moment of conception, or the implantation of the foetus on the uterine wall, or the first fetal heartbeat, or when the mother can first feel the foetus move, or the ability of the foetus to live outside the womb, otherwise known as “viability”, or the moment when the baby’s head appears outside the womb, or even, as the Romans had it, when a baby of uncertain health survives a first night left in the cold outside the house. People weigh in at each of these points as the categorical one and get all worked up emotionally about how those who do not respect that distinction line are immoral. This is in keeping with the Kantian sense that people feel the rightness of a moral judgment, there being nowhere else to draw the line than where they have drawn it. How could people say implantation is the criterion to use even though that means most forms of contraception are then legitimate, when it is so obvious that a foetus is capable of becoming a distinct human being as soon as the egg is fertilized? George Will remarked recently that he didn’t know why viability was dispositive in the abortion debate. That cuts through the Gordian Knot of why any particular point is the crucial one, and so gets rid of an appeal to Kantian ethics, but what can arise in its place?

The Utilitarian view of ethics is usually identified with the maxim that society should promote the greatest good for the greatest number, though that does not answer how to balance off various interests which might be conflicting and still be of value, such as the family farm, which might be worth preserving even if very few people engage in that kind of livelihood. And it begs the question of how you establish that freedom of speech is in the interests of the greatest number rather than the vehicle that allows other goods to be achieved. A better conception of Utilitarianism derives from going back to its psychological premise, as that was stated by Jeremy Bentham. Every person is always involved in a number of lightning calculations about what will yield the most pleasure. Should you go across the street to your favorite diner or make do with the one on this side of the street because it is raining? Will feeding a friend or a stranger make you feel better or worse and can you afford to do it? Moral decisions are therefore like consumer choices and the satisfaction that comes from having put your kid through college is just another form of pleasure no matter how many heartaches it may also have provided. Morality is also therefore always a matter of degree in that just a few more drops in the opposing scale will change your mind even if those supposedly quantitative calculations are in fact only speculatively assigned weights. Will I be happier if I marry this girl rather than another one I have been courting? It is difficult to line up the kind of satisfaction one of them might provide as a mate with the satisfactions provided by the other.

The abortion rights movement has adopted both the Kantian and the Utilitarian modes of analysis. The movement stipulates, as a Kantian might, that life begins at delivery, though most people think aborting a late term foetus is wrong except under exceptional circumstances. But those who favor abortion also suggest, in good Utilitarian fashion, that the mother is the one who decides (at one time that meant with the consultation of her doctor) whether it is right to engage in an abortion, only the mother in command of all the information, such as whether the father was a lout, or whether she can afford to raise the child, or whether it interferes with her career, and so only she has enough information to make the Utilitarian calculation, even if she also happens to be an interested party in the debate and so it could be argued that she can’t be the judge of the matter except if you also argue that the unborn baby has no interests, is just a lump.  But that might seem to beg the question, which is what all Utilitarianism does because it does not distinguish one kind of pleasure from another, a satisfaction from a pleasure, a satisfied moral sense from an extra piece of pastry.

A Pragmatic approach to morality is usually dismissed as not being moral at all but looking only to what is immediately practicable, as when one says that expanding the Affordable Care Act to include more of the nation’s uninsured is a policy that can get done and so is preferable to Medicare for All, which would be difficult to transition to even if it is a more rational and cost efficient plan. But Pragmatism does have an analytic core. It is to look at every decision as a means to some end and then to what end that end serves until you run out of ends, which would never be the case, or just don’t want to pursue it beyond some inevitably intermediate point where the debate loses focus. Pragmatism is the view of the woman who defended her idea that the world sat on the back of a turtle by saying that it is turtles all the way down. There is no end to Pragmatic moral reasoning. I defend democracy by saying that it encourages individuality, even if that is a dubious proposition because the equality of the units does not mean the units are distinct, and I defend individuality by saying it was introduced by Jesus as the subjectivity that made people free, and defend that idea as inevitably evolving as civilizations became more mature. Sooner or later, the Pragmatic moral argument transforms itself into an argument about the way society has evolved and so is an objective argument rather than a subjective one, the “ought” always reduced to a description of what is.

That is what happens when Pragmatism is applied to the abortion debate. Women want the right to determine when and if they will have an abortion. This is a means to the end of giving them the same right as men to pursue a career or otherwise order their lives without being dependant on their biological natures, which is that they are the sex that carries the foetus. That equality of men and women is a means to the end of creating equality among all human beings, regardless of race, religion or gender, and that is a means to the end of the previously enunciated end of individuality or, if one wants to trace the line of causation only in the sphere of gender, back to how Adam and Eve were different in their natures, or why evolution came to favor sexual over asexual reproduction. After a while, the chain of causation loses interest because it becomes about other issues and, to a Pragmatist, that is fine, because it simply means that the particular moral debate is embedded in human history.

The trouble with theories of moral explanation is that they are of interest only to people who like to theorize and so do not describe how people actually reason about morality, and it would be very difficult to conduct survey research polls that would access how people really think, if they do at all, in the privacy of their minds. I doubt whether the chief legislators in Alabama who are debating a very Draconian abortion measure will catch up with what I say or have thought about whether their position is Kantian, Utilitarian or Pragmatic. I think that if you asked how one of them decided that life began at conception and asked him to provide Biblical or other sources for his belief, he would just become offended, falling back upon his righteousness, this being a question that in common usage you are not allowed to ask because people cannot be required to be scholars or philosophers, just as movie goers cannot be expected to explain very well why they liked a movie in that they are not professional film critics, though every one of them is an amateur film critic in that moviegoers do indeed offer opinions about whether and even why they liked a movie however uninformed or inchoate the opinion may be. I don’t know how to connect theories of moral reasoning with the practice of moral reasoning.