- Toward a Pragmatist Metaethics by Diana D. Heney
This closely reasoned philosophical study develops two metaethical positions: (1) a pragmatist view of truth in ethics and (2) a pragmatist view of principles in moral inquiry. To reach these notions Heney gives a close reading of Peirce, James, Dewey, and C. I. Lewis. In the process she engages with current debates in ethical theory.
Heney makes a strong case for the importance of metaethics, the inquiry into the meaning of and justification (or lack thereof) for ethical terms and propositions. She focuses on the primacy of practice, which implies consideration of how groups and individuals deal with moral discourse, moral disagreement, and value-laden experience.
I will first elucidate her constructive position in part 2 and then give the historical background from Peirce to Lewis in part 1. The first issue Heney addresses is the question of truth in ethics: Do we have reason to treat moral judgments as capable of being true or false? In contemporary metaethical discussion, there are basically two camps, cognitivists and noncognitivists. Noncognitivists hold the view that moral sentences are not “truth-apt”; that is, they are not appropriate candidates for assessment as “true” or “false.” Cognitivists think, for example, that the statement “slavery is morally wrong” is true; indeed, it is true across geographical and cultural contexts. This judgment has certain marks of truth: “It is stable, immune to future recalcitrant experience, and (when it is a product of inquiry) secured by a method that stands up to social pressure” (92). Importantly, in a pragmatist view of truth, the fact that we can assert that some moral statements are true does not grant them mysterious or transcendental status. Heney’s strategy here is “to appeal to features of our shared moral life to argue that the pragmatist view of truth is perfectly placed to intervene in this debate, that our experience of the phenomenology of moral judgment is of a cognitive enterprise, and that our assessment of such judgments as expressed in both private deliberation and public discourse hold[s] moral assertions up to a norm of truth” (91).
When we engage experience we find that the phenomenological feel of first-order ethical inquiry is that of being engaged in a cognitive enterprise—of trying to get our answers right. The noncognitivist analysis of moral assertion [End Page 93] fails to reflect how moral discourse is experienced. Heney cites David Wiggins, who frames moral discourse as involving two claims: (1) judgments of morals are cognitive in their aspiration (they are aimed at truth), and (2) this cognitive aspiration need not necessarily go unachieved. Heney’s point is that when the first-person phenomenology of moral judgments is considered from a pragmatic perspective, both of these standards are met.
In addition to this phenomenology of the first-person feel of moral assertions, Heney notes that Peirce adds the claim that assertion functions to stimulate the hearer to make an answer. An assertion makes a claim about how things are and elicits a response to that claim. To conceive of moral assertions, as emotivists do, as a report of one’s own attitude and a demand for the other to report her attitude as a way of explaining moral discourse fails to do justice to the richness of moral discourse.
Heney points out that in making an assertion, we take “responsibility for the truth of what is asserted” and are “prepared to accept the consequences if we are proven mistaken. . . . [W]e place ourselves under a truth-norm when we utter assertions,” and it “is appropriate for the asserter to ‘pay the price’ if she asserts falsehoods” (95).
As for Wiggins’s second criterion for moral cognitivism, that the cognitive aspiration of moral judgment is sometimes achieved, Heney notes that even in nonhomogeneous communities, there is often agreement (widespread and settled belief) about particular cases such as slavery and genocide. When disagreement about such cases arises, we ought to respond with inquiry. Heney notes that while the classical pragmatists were generally moral...