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  • What Experimentalism Means in Ethics
  • Eric Thomas Weber

The factors which have brought society to its present pass and impasse contain forces which, when released and constructively utilized, form the positive basis of an educational philosophy and practice that will recover and will develop our original national ideals. The basic principle in that philosophy and practice is that we should use that method of experimental action called natural science to form a disposition which puts a supreme faith in the experimental use of intelligence in all situations of life.

—John Dewey and John Childs, "The Social-Economic Situation and Education" (1933)

In the past, ethical theories have been presented as self-sufficient and holistic. Philosophers have historically been either deontologists, consequentialists, virtue ethicists, divine command theorists, or some other particular theorist to the exclusion of other points of view. In John Dewey's American Pragmatism we see a shift that has gone underappreciated in moral theory, one that I will defend in this essay. Dewey was an experimentalist. In this essay, I will show what I take experimentalism to mean in moral theory. This is important to do, since the very idea of undertaking moral experiments sounds a bit unnerving. The reason one might have this [End Page 98] feeling is due to the history of unethical experimental practices that have become famous, such as in the Tuskegee syphilis experiments or Stanley Milgram's well-known psychological studies.1

To allay fears about the experimentalist's approach to ethics, I will begin with a description of experimentalism's basis in good scientific practice. Surely there have been scientists who have done wrong, but good science learns from the mistakes that others have made and follows a set of important rules for inquiry. Next, I will discuss some of the ways in which experimentalism is an outlook and spirit that America profoundly values in its history and government—the American experiment. Then, I will offer an example of the theoretical flexibility necessary for experimentalism as we find it in one of John Rawls's early writings and in the ethical tradition generally. In "Two Concepts of Rules," Rawls presents a sobering defense of utilitarianism in the legislative rule-establishing task.2 He offers a way to see utilitarianism's consistency with a deontological outlook on punishment and the adherence to rules that we set for utilitarian reasons. Finally, I will conclude with some examples of the ways in which American public policy can be approached with the experimentalist method that so many industries adopt already. For when industry wants to maximize profits responsibly and carefully, businesses find test markets, set up realizable experiments, and perform careful science with profit as their incentive. When a test market does well in one region, similar tests are undergone elsewhere to see whether widespread implementation of products or services would be a good idea. Similarly, in public policy, we frequently bring to other states and sometimes to the federal government those practices and programs that are extremely successful at a particular local level. What will drive inquiry into the best decisions for public policy will not be the profit motive, however, but the noble goal of moral growth.

I. Experimentalism's Origin in Scientific Practice

To understand the meaning and value of experimentalism in moral theory, it is important to see why experimentalism in the sciences is as successful as it is. As Dewey put it, "Experimentalism is the cause of the victories won by science in the physical field, while the social field is kept as a preserve sacred from the free use of experimental procedure. The result is unbalance, distortion, and misuse of the physical fruits of science."3 To make [End Page 99] use of the greatest lessons of the sciences, we must recognize some key scientific attitudes and approaches.

In an essay called "The Development of American Pragmatism," Dewey notes that the father of the experimentalist pragmatic movement, Charles Sanders Peirce, came to his remarkable idea given his own scientific background.4 Scientists, even of the highly theoretical kinds, must explain their hypotheses in terms of conceivable future testing. Without the process of the confirmation of hypotheses, science can only make...


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