Human Studies

, Volume 36, Issue 2, pp 259–275

Fallibility and Insight in Moral Judgment


Theoretical / Philosophical Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s10746-012-9252-y

Cite this article as:
Kaag, J. Hum Stud (2013) 36: 259. doi:10.1007/s10746-012-9252-y


This article investigates the relationship between moral judgments, fallibility, and imaginative insight. It will draw heavily from the canon of classical American philosophy, the members of which (from Ralph Waldo Emerson, to C.S. Peirce, E.L. Cabot, to Jane Addams, to John Dewey) took up this relationship as pivotally important in moral theorizing. It argues that the process of hypothesis formation—characterized as “insight” by Emerson and extended by Peirce in his notion of “abduction”—is a necessary condition of moral progress for it allows individuals to think through the boundaries of social and ethical life. In a world of unexpected occurrences and uncertainty, the ability to generate novel explanatory frameworks and normative ideals is a crucial, if normally underappreciated, moral faculty. This paper attempts to respond to this relative neglect.


EthicsAbductionPeirceFallibilityInsightMoral progress


This article investigates the relationship between moral judgments, fallibility, and imaginative insight. It will draw heavily from the canon of classical American philosophy, the members of which (from Ralph Waldo Emerson, to C.S. Peirce, E.L. Cabot, to Jane Addams, to John Dewey) took up this relationship as pivotally important in moral theorizing. This paper begins by examining C.S. Peirce’s concept of abduction, or the process of hypothesis formation, and make the claim that Peirce’s concept allows us to negotiate the turbulence of socio-ethical life and meaningfully confront the fallibility that this turbulence begets. It suggests that abduction (or hypothesis formation) is the necessary, if not sufficient condition, of moral progress. In order to make this claim, this paper sketches out in broad outline a pragmatic understanding of human conduct, drawing heavily on Peirce’s discussion of habit formation and adaptation. In so doing, I hope to expose the significant role that abductive inference can, and already does, play in our moral lives, specifically in order to transcend custom in order to realize right conduct. Abduction does not give us hard and fast moral principles to guide action, but rather allows us to see beyond the principles of the present, in order to extend moral concern to individuals and communities presently overlooked. In the second section of the paper, I will begin to provide a phenomenology of ethical abduction; in other words, I will describe the processes by which human beings employ abductive insight in constructing moral relationships with others. Peirce does not furnish this phenomenology and moral life, but his fellow American philosophers such as John Dewey, William James, and Ella Lyman Cabot do. Finally, and most controversially, I would like to suggest that abduction not only provides a description of how a vital part of ethical life works (the methodology of ethical conjecture), but may also provide a type of moral prescription. This prescription is not a determinate rule of duty, but rather of commitment to dwell with and in the ambiguity of a “maybe”.

The Moral Significance of a “Maybe”

Is life worth living? I believe that this is the most basic philosophical question. All of the twists and turns of systematic philosophy must eventually circle back on this central question concerning the conduct of life. It is the question that underpins the Platonic dialogues, that opens Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, that haunts Voltaire in Candide, and that inspires William James 1895 lecture “Is Life Worth Living”. James’s suggests an answer to this question that I would like to explore in a bit more detail: Maybe. Maybe, life is worth living. James understood how disappointing this answer might be in a scientific age that is bent on hard and fast answers. Maybe is neither hard nor fast. He anticipates his audience’s discontent by writing, “Maybe! Maybe!”… what use can a scientific life have for maybes? James responds to these imagined objections: “Well, I reply, the ‘scientific’ life itself has much to do with maybes, and human life at large has everything to do with them. So far as man stands for anything, and is productive or originative at all, his entire vital function may be said to have to deal with maybes” (James 1904: 26). This paper is about the ethical and epistemic significance of “maybes.” What is a maybe? Where does a maybe come from? And what function does a maybe serve in our moral lives? I will start by suggesting that James’s tentative answer to the most fundamental philosophical question is in fact a real answer. It is not a wishy-washy middle ground between “yes” or “no”; it is not ambivalent or apathetic. It is, I think, for James, the only answer that one can give in light of the human condition. This is because James believes that such a condition—fallible, provisional, halting, tragic—does not allow us to enjoy hard and fast answers for very long. For that matter, no general answer—either in the affirmative or the negative—can be given about life in the abstract. Since life, after all, is not lived in the abstract. In truth, the question should be re-framed as: “Is this life, or my life, worth living?” And to this most important existential question, James answers: “maybe”. In his comments concerning science and the ubiquity of “maybes,” he gestures to an interesting fact, namely that it is our ability to negotiate these the possibility of this existential maybe with our own actionable hypotheses about moral conduct that make life worth living. It is only in taking seriously the existential “maybe” that one can tentatively say “yes”. And so it is the process of forming hypotheses that James (like C.S. Peirce and Ralph Waldo Emerson before him) regards as central to his study of inquiry and morality. Each of us has the unique opportunity to explore our own hypotheses to the fundamental question of philosophy, and we do so, I will claim, by exploring meaningful hypotheses in the moral realm.

James’s discussion of this “maybe” resonates with Peirce’s interest in a type of reasoning that he described as abduction. Abduction is the “logic of the maybes”. According to Peirce, abduction involves the formation of original hypotheses, novel suggestions, or the first moves in a future plan of action. Abduction differs from induction and deduction and is described by Peirce as a three step process:
  1. 1.

    One is exposed to suprising fact, C

  2. 2.

    If A were the case then C would be a matter of course

  3. 3.

    Therefore, it is reasonable to suspect that A is the case.


It is important to note that abduction would not be required in a world of moral certitude in which conduct could be mapped out in a determinate fashion ahead of time. This is to say, that abduction would not be required in a world without surprises. For better and for worse, we do not live in such a world, and therefore abduction emerges as crucially important in making moral progress and, for that matter, in conducting work in the social sciences more broadly.1 Abduction is in the business of producing fruitful maybes in light of unexpected situations.

At first glance, examining the moral implications of abduction may seem to be an odd philosophical move since abduction, the art of guesswork, has usually been treated as an issue of epistemology. Indeed, Jaakko Hintikka has called it “the fundamental problem of epistemology” (Hintikka 1999: 91). I believe Hintikka is right, but I also believe that exploring the broader implications of abduction in the field of ethics is necessary if, as James says, “human life at large has everything to do” with the maybes of abduction. Indeed, Hintikka, who usually restricts his investigation of abduction to logic and epistemology, occasionally suggests that the problem of explaining abduction or ampliative reason may seep into other fields of philosophy. In a passage that is remarkably similar to James’s 1895 statement on the pervasiveness the “maybes” Hintikka writes that “all our science and indeed our whole life depends on ampliative reason” (Hintikka 1999: 93). If this is the case, the relationship between Peircean abduction and ethics deserves greater attention. Abduction may be the fundamental problem of epistemology, but this problem also seems to be a type of answer to the most basic of existential questions. Is life worth living: Maybe. In addressing this topic I would like to weave together three distinct strands of thinking. First, I will sketch out in broad outline a pragmatic understanding of human conduct, drawing heavily on Peirce’s discussion of habit formation and adaptation. In so doing, I hope to expose the significant role that abductive inference can, and already does, play in our moral lives. In the second section of the paper, I will begin to provide a phenomenology of ethical abduction; in other words, I will describe the processes by which human beings employ abductive insight in constructing moral relationships with others. Peirce, for the record, does not give us this phenomenology of moral judgment and therefore we are forced to turn to other corners of the American philosophical canon. Finally, and most controversially, I would like to suggest that abduction not only provides a description of how our ethical lives work, but may also provide a type of moral prescription. I argue that there is a type of morally significant certainty in “a maybe”. This argument will be advanced with the help of many figures from the American philosophical canon; the works of William James, John Dewey, C.S. Peirce, and Ella Lyman Cabot will figure centrally in the discussion.

Ethical Progress: The Movement from Custom to Character

In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle suggests that ethics is not a deductive science and therefore when one begins to get a picture of moral theory it is “necessary, perhaps, first to sketch, then to afterward complete the drawing” (Aristotle 2012: 12/ln. 1098a). So let us begin with the most general objectives of ethics and then turn to specific ways that abduction can help achieve these objectives. In the broadest of terms, ethics consists in our attempts to become better than we are. We are born into cultures and traditions that delimit the past and set constraints on the present. The problem that ethics faces is the challenge of working through these constraints of custom and habit in order to enact better modes of human conduct. This problem is seen clearly if we consider the triple meaning of the word ethos: First, ethos refers to the particular place that one is from (one might consider this a place of origin); second, it describes the habits and customs that define this cultural locus; and finally ethos refers to moral character. As we will see, it is by no means clear how one is to move from ethos, in the sense of custom, to ethos, in the sense of virtuous character. Aristotle is the first to explain how the various meanings of ethos create an inherent tension in the development of a moral life. He begins by noting that the vast majority of human conduct is rooted in habit or tradition. Given this fact, he suggests that one begins the study of ethics with a survey of the endoxa, or the generally accepted opinions that regulate human conduct. We should, in Aristotle’s words, “begin with what is known to us” (Aristotle 2012: 5/ln. 1095b). Aristotle does not give reasons for beginning with the study of the endoxa, but this position seems in line with his belief expressed elsewhere that the human mind, when oriented properly is apt to hit upon the truth of a matter. While this survey may yield aspects of ethical truth, it also reveals the inadequacy of these commonly held opinions. Upon close examination of the endoxa, a student of ethics will notice that they are deficient in two significant respects. Either the commonly held opinions contradict each other, and therefore are deductively deficient, or they fail to account for present circumstances and are thus inductively insufficient. In either case, the survey of ethical opinion terminates in a series of aporia or difficult puzzles. Getting out of these puzzles is a necessary step in the establishment of ethical character and involves the process of trial and error that Aristotle describes in the remainder of his Ethics. At this point, it is helpful to note just how close this Aristotlean understanding of human conduct is to the pragmatic conception of ethics that emerges in the late nineteenth century. As Richard Bernstein notes in Perspectives on Peirce, “conduct is closely related to Peirce’s central notion of habit,” habit being the general tendency to act in certain ways under certain circumstances (Bernstein 1965: 77). In a comment that echoes Aristotle’s belief that we begin ethics begins with “what is known to us,” Peirce states that “whenever we set out to do anything, we ‘go upon,’ we base our conduct on facts already known”. Our conduct is based upon the “already known” in the sense that each of us comes to ethical situations with what Peirce called a “storehouse of knowledge” accumulated from our personal pasts, but also in the sense that these personal “storehouses” are often filled with the commonly held opinions of the culture in which we are born. Peirce, and the rest of the American pragmatists, believe that these habits serve as heuristics that usually help us navigate our relations with others and our broader relationship to the natural world. Usually, however, is the operative word. At pivotal moments in the course of inquiry, habits lead us astray by confusing the general outlines of past experience for the clear and jarring realities of the present moment. At these points, habits leave us ill-equipped to effectively handle the novel situations that continually, but unexpectedly, emerge. Habits, set out as duties or laws, either contradict one another and therefore fail to provide clear guidance, or they provide guidance, but guide us into what Dewey would later call “problematic situations”. In both cases, we are confronted with the aporia, or puzzles that Aristotle first presented in his Nicomachean Ethics. It is in response to these puzzles that the necessity and definition of abduction becomes apparent. It should be noted that these puzzles are not theoretical games, but practical trials in which one comes to see either the way that rules for conduct conflict, or the way that they fail to account for the particularities of new situations. Let us consider several standard ethical dilemmas that highlight the first case in which one recognizes that certain ethical habits are mutually exclusive. We can, for example, think of cases where the duty to avoid lying conflicts with the duty of kindness (“Do you like this paper?” “Do I look good in this pair of pants? Or do I look fat?”), where the duty to preserve the physical well being of others runs counter to the call of compassion (“When is appropriate to end life support”), and where the drive to maximize the happiness of the community compromises our abilities to honor the rights of the single individual. The ethical dilemmas outlined above come about when one comes to realize that ethics cannot be governed by strict definitory rules, or, in Hintikka’s words, rules that “are validated insofar as they confer truth or high probability of each particular application of theirs” (Hintikka 2007: 45). In these cases, the established rules for ethical behavior do not deliver us to a “true” course of action. As Socrates notes in the Euthyphro, it is impossible to say that ethical behavior is what is pleasing to the gods, because, among other reasons, the gods cannot agree on what is pleasing (Plato 2012: 14; 11a–b). In light of this difficulty, Socrates provides a number of interrogating hypotheses, suggesting that another route of inquiry is required that fits the general strategy of ethical life, but that does not necessarily follow from a single pre-established rule. New questions need to be asked, new interpretations of the rules need to be provided, and novel answers need to be conjectured. According to Hintikka, this is where abduction takes the stage—in a question–answer stage of inquiry—often hypothesizing new reconciling principles that mediate the conflicts between established ethical theories. We should note that the work done by abduction in this description departs from the standard understanding of moral intuition in a significant respect. Intuition is often reserved for a type of unmediated sense for answers that have, in the past, been regarded as appropriate or correct. Exploring the concept of abduction is not an issue of “intuition pumping” to see what some or most people regard as true about a moral situation. This becomes clear if we remember two things about abduction. First of all, abduction is not unmediated, but, as Douglas Anderson has noted, is realized in the middle of things, only after one has considered at length the conflicting endoxa (Anderson 1987). Second, abduction, by definition, does not depend on some common sense as intuition does. I believe that Hintikka is making a similar observation when he asserts that abduction is not inference to best explanation but rather is defined by, and judged on the basis of, strategic principles (Levi 2012: 195). Strategic principles do not guarantee the truth of particular decision procedures nor explain a given set of facts, but rather create a general benchmark in a long-term plan of action. The novel questions that one asks and the conjectures that one explores can be judged only in terms of this wider strategy. Whereas intuition arrives at a moral sense that has been well-established—a type of common sense—abduction delivers one to provisional hypotheses that have yet to be tested in any thorough way. To this point, I have briefly addressed the way that ethical habits may prove mutually exclusive, but another problem arises in the investigation of the ethical endoxa, namely they frequently fail to account for the unique and unforeseen characteristics of an experienced situation. In these cases, the storehouse of habit cannot supply the ethical precedent to describe, account for, or explain the particular situation. In truth, there is always a bit of wiggle room in the application of general rules to particular situations—a fact that Peirce described in great detail—but in the cases at hand we find our habits radically out of synch with our experience. In these instances it is impossible, or at least unwise, to ramrod experience into the fixed form of our habits, or to drive our habits into the face of a relatively unforgiving world. In terms of our ethical lives, we are continually confronted with situations that defy our expectations. We repeatedly come into contact with other living beings that demand our attention, but we are often unsure about what type of attention is warranted. Let us consider any “outsider” or “nobody” in the social-political sphere. These individuals do not fit easily into habits that govern “normal” moral behavior. Our inability to apply ethical constructs to these situations often leads as an inability or unwillingness to regard the experience of these individuals as ethically significant. This, in turn, often results in the denial of the ethical status of these “outsiders”. It seems that the ethicist has two distinct courses of action in cases where she is confronted with unforeseen situations that cannot be immediately accounted for by the endoxa. First, she might reevaluate the habits of ethical life in search of existing principles that might apply to these new situations; second, she might be forced to establish wholly new principles to handle the experiential nuances of the present circumstances. In the first case, we might think of Peter Singer’s work in “Famine, Affluence and Morality” (Singer 1972) in which Singer asks his reader to reaffirm two well-established principles in handling an unaddressed moral question. Singer asks if his reader can agree to accepting two propositions: (1) That dying of disease, malnutrition and hunger are bad and (2) That one ought to help rectify bad situations when doing so does not commit one to making a morally significant sacrifice. These two points of endoxa—which most readers will readily accept—are then employed in arguing that a reader has a moral obligation to donate moneys to international relief efforts geared toward the eradication of hunger and disease. His argument can be described in the following manner:
  1. 1.

    In every case, death by starvation is bad.

  2. 2.

    All people have a moral obligation to help end bad situations when no morally significant sacrifice is incurred in the process.

  3. 3.

    Death by starvation is currently occurring (Singer presents the case of the Bengali famine in the early 1980s).

  4. 4.

    Most members of the developed world could help end the situation in described in (3) through monetary donation without incurring morally significant sacrifices.


Therefore, said members of the developed world have a moral obligation to donate monies to relief efforts.

At first glance, this argument appears primarily deductive in nature. There are, however, abductive aspects that underpin its deductive structure. Singer’s argument is novel to the extent that it constitutes a new application of old principles. Generally speaking, we might think of John Dewey’s description of the imagination, a process often associated with abduction. Dewey writes that, “When old and familiar things are made new in experience there is imagination” (Dewey 1986/1934: 277). More specifically, we should attend to Hintikka’s observation that the choice and ordering of presuppositions and premises in a deductive inference is not determined by a mechanical procedure. Like abductive inferences on the whole, there is no recursive function that guarantees the optimal choice of the premises of a deductive proof, rather the best choice is evaluated strategically on the basis of a possible future plan of action. The novelty of Singer’s discussion hinges on the abductive insight that delivers him to the unique set of premises that motivates his argument. The unique ordering of Singer’s premises consititutes a moral “maybe,” a best guess at achieving an optimal outcome. It is worth noting that there are many ways to manipulate premise (in terms of content, order and instantiation) that could have delivered one to the same conclusion. Indeed Arthur Schopenhauer arrives at the same conclusion in the first chapter of his Studiesin Pessimism by employing very different principles as the premises of his argument (Schopenhauer 1891: 9–30). Singer’s argument, however, is not Schopenhauer’s and his redeployment of time-honored principles is tailored in order to solve a new moral dilemma. It is in this respect that it is an argument that looks like something we have never seen before. In some cases, however, the re-application of moral principles is not adequate to account for the unique aspects of a morally problematic situation. In John Dewey’s words, it is simply not possible to make the old and familiar “new in experience”. Another way of stating this comes from William James in his discussion of percepts and concepts when he notes that, “since the relations of a concept (whether epistemic or moral) are of static comparison only, it is impossible to substitute them for the dynamic relations with which the perceptual flux is filled…they can only cover the flux in spots and incompletely” (James 1921: 81). The inadequacy of ethical concepts to cover novel experiences may be so obvious and so problematic that new concepts must be found. So how do these moral discoveries occur?

Before venturing an answer to this question, a brief comment concerning the hopes for moral progress seems appropriate. Such a hope runs counter to ethicists such as Bernard Gert who assert that today’s principles of morality are sufficient to account for any possible future situation. Along these lines Gert writes: “We do need to understand how common morality applies to new situations, but there is no need for moral advances. Common morality, together with an understanding of the new situations created by scientific discoveries and technology, is sufficient to deal with any problem with which we are confronted” (Gert 2004: 149). In contrast, I have begun to flesh out an argument that indicates that the “understanding of new situations” entails the realization that moral advance is required through the invention or radical re-articulation of ethical principles. As Ralph Waldo Emerson says in his journal at the age of twenty-eight, “If I had lived earlier, before some moral discoveries were made, I could not have sustained the independent fashion of living I do for less than the support of a garrison of guards” (Emerson 1909: 400). Emerson, contra Gert, notes that there have been crucial steps in moral progress that could be classed as genuine discoveries that allowed “plain gentlemen” of nineteenth century America to, in Emerson’s words, “live better than any person, not a gentleman or a knight, in the eleventh, twelfth or thirteenth centuries” (Emerson 1909: 400). With this comment in mind, I will turn my attention to potential candidates for the “moral discoveries” to which Emerson refers and examine their relation to abductive reasoning. In truth, there are countless points of moral progress that could be the focus of my study but I will concentrate on only one that is reflected in the work of Jeremy Bentham. The case of Bentham’s development of utilitarianism demonstrates the way that novel theoretical framworks are necessary to handle changing social circumstances and how one arrives at these novel frameworks only by way of the conjectural guesswork of abduction. Bentham’s articulation of utilitarianism in the late eighteenth century bears several marks of abductive inference. First, Bentham’s moral creativity was funded by a wealth of diverse experiences. He read Epicurus as an adolescent, adopting the Greek’s position on hedonism and value. He studied Hobbes as an early teen appropriating Hobbes’ conception of human nature, and at an early age he reviewed the writings of the British Moralists including Cumberland, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Gay, and Hume. To say that Bentham simply restated Epicurus, Hobbes, or Shaftesbury, however, would be very much like saying that Picasso’s early paintings were mere reproductions of the works of Cezanne or Lautrec. Epicurus does not universalize his happiness principle in the way that Bentham does. Hobbes maintains psychological egoism throughout his writings while Bentham moves away from this position in his later works. Cumberland and Gay were, at root, theological thinkers, a fact that separates them from Bentham’s work. Hume concentrates on the evaluation of moral character while Bentham focuses on the evaluation of acts. Bentham diverges from all of the aforementioned moral theorists and did so to respond to particular moral crises that he experienced as an English jurist. The moral systems that gave rise to the ethical habits of Bentham’s time continued to be rooted in natural law and natural right, principles that he sought to replace in the development of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism began with several very educated guesses. First, Epicurus’ insight about the value of human happiness should be universalized in order to insure agent-neutrality and impartiality. Second, Hobbes’ description of human nature could be applied to a theory of action. Finally, Hume’s discussion of the value of utility could underpin a system of justice. The unique integration of these guesses constituted the moral hypothesis that became classical utilitarianism. The radical nature of this hypothesis can be seen in a comparative analysis between utilitarianism and earlier theories, but perhaps it is equally sufficient to attend to the practical consequences of adopting this hypothesis as a guide for action. Bentham’s theoretical discovery translated into progressive moral actions that were well ahead of their time. He advocated for the rights of women, slaves and criminals. He supported the decriminalization of homosexuality, the right to divorce, and began to open the discourse on animal rights. All of these activities, guided by Bentham’s moral insight, deviated from the ethical customs of eighteenth century Europe and were accepted more fully only after the passage of two centuries and countless legislative acts. Bentham’s project does not attempt to reapply old principles to new situations but rather develops novel principles in order to place morality on a genuinely new footing. In his moral theorizing we hear Ezra Pound’s injunction to “make it new”.

But is there anything inherently moral about novelty or novel moral hypotheses? American pragmatism often gets a bad rap for fixating on making “progress” and pursuing “newness” at the expense of reflective and longsighted analyses. This reputation is at least partially deserved. What is to say that certain abductive moves, which seem initially on target, will not eventually go widely off the tracks, producing unforeseen consequences of questionable moral status. This is a very important criticism of my argument, and of pragmatism on the whole. While I do not intend to respond to this criticism in any systematic way, a few cautionary remarks are warranted. Pragmatism, despite being caricatured as a type of crass instrumentalism, has often relied on meaningful strands of idealism to create a type of moral backstop against ill-founded moral hypotheses. Both Peirce and Dewey held that truth was to be found “in the long run,” which meant that any abductive move of the present had to be tested and retested against future experiential circumstances. By the same token, these new steps in ethical theory had to be tested against the well-established principles of the past. This is not to say that abduction is worthless or that all hypotheses are equally valuable (far from it), but rather abduction’s worth should be understood realistically as the necessary (but not sufficient) condition of moral progress. Abduction is a provisional first step that exists in the borderland between insight and moral inference. Viewing abduction as a step in the “long run” of moral progress is one way of insuring that the second, third and fourth order effects of a hypothesis are taken into account in the evaluation of the hypothesis’ value. Another way of guarding against rogue hypotheses is to assume what Peirce often called the “musing” attitude. At first glance, it seems that musing does not fit well with the serious business of ethics, but Peirce suggests that musing is the only way to respond to novel situations in a sensitive and reflective manner. Musing, for Peirce, is an orientation toward the world that is both passive and active, receptive and engaging (Peirce 1966: 358–379). It allows one to remain intimately engaged in the flow of experience, but, at the same time, detached in such a way as to avoid being swept along in its habitual currents. Such an intimate-detachment allows one to articulate new guesses that might mediate unexpected situations or to identify the slightest variation in experience that might make a big difference in moral decision making. This poetic description does not seem helpful at first, but as we see in the next section, a certain musing attentiveness ensures that the guesses (abductions) of everyday life are grounded in the most concrete and detailed cases of experience. While the “long run” view of truth or progress tests the conceptual staying-power of moral hypothesis, the commitment to muse tests the appropriateness of moral guesswork in light of the nuances of particular situations.

Abductive Insight and the Mundane Discoveries of Ethical Life

The foregoing discussion of the role of abduction in the history of moral theorizing might lead one to think that the power of moral invention is restricted to only a select number of individuals, to the Peter Singers and Jeremy Benthams of the world. I believe that this would lead us astray, or at the very least to lead us to overlook the robust role that abduction plays in the ethical conduct of our daily lives. I will briefly turn to the writings of Ella Lyman Cabot in order to flesh out the vital role that abductive insight plays in our everyday affairs with others. I would maintain that it is in these mundane affairs of the everyday that ethical principles are upheld or abandoned.

Before moving forward, it is necessary to give a bit more background on the work of Ella Lyman Cabot. Cabot served on the governing board of Radcliffe from 1902 to 1934 (Cabot House at Harvard still bears her name) and was one of the first women to serve on the Massachusetts Board and Education. She was a “special student” at Harvard and Radcliffe between the years of 1891 and 1906. She took thirteen graduate level philosophy classes under famous teachers such as Hugo Munsterberg, George Herbert Palmer, William James, and Josiah Royce. She and her husband Richard Cabot were, without exaggeration, Royce’s closest students. Kaag has recently outlined her place in the American philosophical canon in detail in Idealism, Pragmatism and Feminism (Kaag 2011), but a brief remark is warranted. Richard Cabot was the son of James Elliot Cabot, who was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s literary executor and biographer. Both of the Cabots (Richard and Ella) inherited Emerson’s interest in imaginative insight and intuition. They were not alone in this; Peirce’s development of abduction is often regarded as an extension of Emerson’s work on genius, insight and imagination. The Cabots, unlike Peirce, however, were singularly interested in ethics, and more explicitly, “social ethics”. This was a field that they single-handedly launched in the first decades of the twentieth century and it was one that attempted to unify philosophical ethics and the social sciences. They founded (and funded) the Department of Social Ethics at Harvard for nearly 20 years, and Richard Cabot started the first department of Social Work at Mass General Hospital at the turn of the century. They were in the business of making pragmatism truly practical, embodying the idealism of Josiah Royce and other idealists in concrete social reform. They were deeply and abidingly interested in applying Emersonian insight to the everyday affairs of moral living. Ella Lyman Cabot wrote six books on ethics, teaching, and politics between the years of 1906 and 1933. These books, although largely forgotten in today’s field analytic philosophy, were well respected by the members of the American pragmatic movement, including John Dewey and Jane Addams and, interestingly, received favorable reviews from adherents to the philosophical idealism that held on through the early years of the twentieth century, most notably William Torrey Harris.

If we turn to Cabot’s writings we find an ethicist who described in detail the close relationship between morality and abductive insight, which she, following Emerson, often described under the heading of imaginative insight or creative sense. In her Everyday Ethics, published in 1906, Cabot writes that, “When we define imagination as the power to follow the spirit and trend of any fact, we begin to see how essential it is to all work, how necessary an ally in moral life. It is a lantern that throws light on the path ahead and keeps us from the double danger of standing still or stumbling” (Cabot 1906: 204). Here Cabot states clearly that the imagination is the engine of moral progress, but it remains unclear what she might mean when she states that the imagination is the “power to follow the spirit and trend of any fact”. This statement, however, comes into sharper focus when Cabot describes a specific example in which this unique power is used. Cabot writes:

Often my friend begins a sentence and I finish it. If I do this rightly it is because I know my friend. Imagination (like abduction) must always work on the basis of sound knowledge. But not only must my friend know my character,—she must also pay the strictest attention to what I am saying just now. We all know those provoking people who complete our half-finished sentences by some interpolation of what we used to say, who cannot distinguish our ten-year-old maxim from this our newborn idea. They have memory, but lack imagination. To know what I mean now you must listen to these particular words as I speak them and see where they point. If you are following, you will know that they point somewhere, as all facts do. (para. mine; Cabot 1906: 204)

In this case, following “the spirit and trend of any fact” involves following “what I am saying right now” and looking beyond these words to a newborn idea that is not yet articulated. This is abduction plain and simple; it is achieved, to harken back to the previous section, through the processes of musement that Peirce finds so important in the development of new hypotheses. As Cabot states, accomplishing this task is not the responsibility of memory, which retrieves knowledge from the storehouse of inductively plausible and deductively valid conclusions. Instead, it is the job of the imagination, or abductive insight, to attend to the spoken words of the present moment, to notice their unique character, and to leap to a meaningful conclusion that might explain these words. Peirce provides a formulation of abduction that helps us unpack Cabot’s statement. Revisiting the definition of abduction described in the introduction of this paper, Peirce writes that in abduction, “The surprising fact, C, is observed (or in this case heard); But if A (the meaning of the utterance) were true, C (the utterance) would be a matter of course, Hence, there is reason to suspect that A (said meaning) is true” (Peirce 1987: 245; CP 5.189). When Cabot refers to the “spirit” of any fact or utterance, she is referring to its meaning which is never fully spoken and is only grasped by a listener through the act of abduction. This act of abduction points us back to the intent of the speaker, but also points toward the trend of the fact by directing us forward to the future meaning of the utterance. That is to say that we take a first stab at understanding the speaker’s purpose.

An additional comment on Cabot’s discussion of the moral imagination seems appropriate at this point. Cabot’s prose is tailored to a classroom setting in which a teacher would employ Everyday Ethics in the development of particular lessons. The pedagogical tone of her writing occasionally masks the philosophical sophistication of her thought. This is, after all, a woman who took a decade worth of graduate level philosophy classes with the best and brightest at Harvard at the turn of the twentieth century. With this in mind, several points in this passage deserve special attention. (1) When Cabot suggests that, “the imagination must always work on the basis of sound knowledge” her insistence brings the power of the imagination into contact with the epistemic category of “knowledge,” therefore avoiding the mistake that previous thinkers made, namely the mistake of placing the imagination against forms of reason. For Cabot, the imagination, like Peircean abduction, keeps knowledge on the move, yet must always attend to the body of information that has been culled from immediate and previous experience. Here we should remember Peirce’s comment about aduction that was described earlier that, “whenever we set out to do anything, we ‘go upon,’ we base our conduct on facts already known”. (2) In personal interactions, the imagination must proceed from the knowledge of “character,” the cultivated virtues and dispositions of the friend. This being said, it dwells not in the past, but rather in the “now-ness” of the current situation. It is in this sense that the imagination is attuned to the “new-born idea” rather than to the 10 year-old maxim. (3) Like any new-born, the idea that the imagination identifies is future-directed, always on the way, always becoming. It is the imagination’s distinctive ability not only to identify the idea as a fact, but anticipate the idea as a purpose that outlines a future course of action, a novel development, and an end in sight.

Here, we catch a first glimpse of the way in which abductive or imaginative insight is integral to the apprehension of the purposes and ends of others. To my way of thinking, this apprehension forms the hardcore of ethical life. Cabot’s discussion does not restate the command to recognize the ends of other people as real and morally important, but rather focuses on the method by which we come to recognize these ends and thereby recognize others as moral agents. This focus on method has been routinely ignored in traditional reading of Kant’s moral ideal, namely that we regard individuals as ends in themselves rather than means. In pragmatic terms, the ability to regard individuals as ends rather than means, seems to turn on the practical matter of discerning the purposes and ends for which another individual strives. To regard a person as an end in itself, one must recognize that this person has his or her own ends and purposes. To do so requires an abductive move to hypothesize the ends of another person on the basis of statements and actions made by this person. Granted, we occasionally ask our friends what purposes they have and the matter is settled quite quickly, but it is often the case that abductive steps stated above are required to arrive at another individual’s ends and thereby regard that individual as an end in herself. It is interesting to note that Cabot is very much aware of where she stands in relation to Kant on this point. She states that without imaginative or abductive insight the ethical imperative that has grounded traditional deontology remains an empty formalism. In a paper written for Josiah Royce in 1900, she criticizes Kant along these lines, writing, “Take first a type of ethics where the form of ideals is accented exclusively. The code of traditional Sunday school ethics is abstractly universal and therein lies its instability. The children are told to be good, to indefinitely love one another…something of the same character is seen in the Kantian code” (Cabot 1900, folder A-139: 370). Cabot explains that two vital components are left out in both of these codes. First, neither Kant nor the Sunday school teacher account for the special character of each student. Second, neither aims to foster the capacity to see the inner meaning of the unique individuals that each of us encounters, at first as strangers, in our daily lives. To regard these strangers as ethical agents and patients involves a kind of guesswork that catches sight of their inner lives, their hopes and purposes, by way of small hints of external information. When Kant suggests that we regard others as ends in themselves he has placed a tall order. It is not that others are to be regarded as a set of generic ends, but that they are those types of beings that can set ends for themselves, ends that are singular and unique and never fully known to us. Cabot seeks to respond to this ethical demand by noting that it is through abductive insight that we get a picture, albeit a partial one, of another person’s capacity and intent to set ends for themselves. This picture develops slowly over time or in sudden bursts, but is always constructed in rough outline first and then filled in with a tentative hand that is guided by the small markings that have already shown themselves on the page.

In a notebook dated 1908, Cabot elaborates on the way that the imagination elaborates on the facts of a given situation in order to grasp its meaning. She writes that, “Imagination is a natural connecting link between ethics and religion (for) the imagination sees any fact in all its meanings and so, as far as it goes, sees as God sees”. Cabot describes the imaginative extension involved in meditating on a primrose. Through the lens of abduction the primrose “means botany … means a poem, means beauty, means color, means a power to transform to Burbank, means laughter to a gleeful child, means industry to a florist, means the coming of spring, means a brave precursor of summer, means the light of the past in sudden memory or the call of the future” (Cabot 1908, folder A-139: 278). Let us pause on these words for a short time. Does this description of a primrose simply stand as the purple prose of a woman who longed for a bygone Victorian era? Perhaps, but this sort of accusation may demonstrate something significant about our own time. Could it not be that cynicism, arguably the defining characteristic of the modern day, cannot stomach the idea of the imagination? Why has it become so distasteful for a primrose to mean so much? Cabot suggests that the growth of human life depends on the plurality of meanings that abductive insight explores. In William James’s words, the imagination and abduction “thickens” things up. This is not simply a matter of enriching personal experience, which could be viewed as a shallow and isolating bourgeois pursuit. For Cabot, the imagination, or Peircean abduction, thickens things up in the sense that it gives things—oftentimes small things—substance and significance. Such insight, grants us the possibility of establishing an ethical and aesthetic regard for those people, places, things and ideas that are often overlooked in the routine of daily life. Cabot demonstrates her points with examples drawn from her experience with children (not her own) to highlight the way that the imagination can enliven the deadening routine of the everyday. In a journal in the late 1890 s, she describes a summer afternoon with her young students and the rapturous joy of a 4 year-old who had lined up and counted a row of three cherries in her outstretched hand. Cabot writes: “And again I knew that we are dull, stupid and blasphemous not to see the overwhelming joy of three cherries all in a row between our fingers” (Cabot 1908, folder A-139: 278). This comment is anticipated in a very early reflection that Cabot gives in 1891 when she writes about the relation between imagination and realization, that is the abiltity to see the inner meaning of things, commenting that the workings of society seem so devoid of this power of seeing: “What a vast thing realization is and how little we attain it in anything. Society is almost purposely blind” (Cabot 1891, folder A139: 230). Turning back to Peirce in order to unpack the significance of Cabot’s comment: it is only through our imaginative attunement, through the musement that Peirce described as the movement of abduction, that the ordinary can be realized as aesthetically rapturous, and the mundane can be regarded as sacred.

The Certainty of a “Maybe”

Perhaps it seems like our work here is done. To make moral progress both theoretical and practical, to understand the ends of others and thereby come to regard these individuals as morally significant beings, to realize the ordinary as aesthetically rapturous and the mundane as sacred. This is to have succeeded. But I am not so sure. When William James asks us whether life is worth living, I think we are at our most honest and most ethical if we answer cautiously—Maybe. Moral progress, like the success of any form of abduction reasoning, is not guaranteed. Our attempts to recognize the purposes and ends of others are always provisional and fallible. Despite our best efforts, the ability to see beauty in the ordinary proves painfully lacking. Dewey, following Peirce, is right to suggest that the precious moments that give our lives meaning are at once both stable and precarious. These moments are precarious precisely to the extent that they involve abductive processes, the formation of hypotheses that help us tentatively navigate a world of possibility and risk. These moments are stable in two important respects. First, abduction occasionally gives rise to stable habits of action, but more importantly, the “maybe” of abduction always abides, remains the enduring quality, in the ebb and flow of human experience. Most of us overlook this second point—that the risky business of hypothesis formation underpins large swathes of our lives. Our oversight allows us to give a firmer, but less honest, answer to James’s existential question. “Certainly!” we shout, “Life is worth living!” The volume and repetition of this affirmation reflect a confidence that only authority can bestow. Peirce and James, following Socrates, would like to temper our confidence with humility. At the end of the “Fixation of Belief” Peirce encourages us to be suspicious of any belief that is grounded in the method of authority. He suggests that this suspicion is warranted to the extent that authority rests on moral injustice, the silencing of dissenting perspectives that might speak truth to power. I have suggested that it is in the living out of the “maybe,” in the conjectural process of abductive reasoning, that ethical life is realized. In our attempts to secure truth in the ethical sphere, we may neglect the way in which the inquiry is itself a mode of ethical behavior. Indeed, I would go farther. Inquiry—musing, curious, attuned, expectant, cooperative, bold, determined, fallible, adaptive—is the appropriate mode of ethical behavior for beings like us. I am by no means alone in this suggestion that was first made by Plato. Euthyphro’s moral shortcoming is not his inability to supply hard and fast answers to Socrates’ questions concerning the good, rather it is his unreflective willingness to accept ethical customs as unquestionably true. Socrates suggests that Euthyphro has closed the question of ethics before it could be opened in any meaningful way. Euthyphro closes the question of the good before genuinely new hypotheses can be proposed or explored, cutting short the play of abduction before it could grant the possibility of insight.

With all of this said, a lingering concern still bothers me. It is one that keeps me up many nights and wakes me many early mornings. This concern can be summed up with a question that John McDermott has repeatedly asked in his teaching and writing: Why bother? Abduction does not always provide meaningful insight. Forming new hypotheses that have only a chance of making us more ethical—that seems to be such risky business. So why open myself up to the “maybe?” I am still not sure. And if I am not sure I can be darn sure that you are not. Perhaps you feel that I need some firmer justification for placing abduction at the center of my ethical thinking, some metaphysical basis for hinging ethical knowledge on something that looks so much like intuition. Perhaps a last attempt is warranted. I will try to stick to the facts:
  • One: It seems to me that we are all fallible creatures, the types of creatures that screw up in any number of different ways. Our irrepressible ability to screw up turns on the character of a “maybe”. Whether we like it or not, we are constantly in the process of exploring our own maybes, taking chances with the lives that we lead. We take chances in the epistemological sense, that is certain, but fallibility for Peirce and James was not strictly a matter of epistemology. Both of these thinkers seem willing to make an ontological claim that buttresses their epistemological work, namely that “we are fallible”. My life as an individual, our life as a species, exists as one big delightfully scary “maybe”. As Peirce notes, nature deals in maybes also. So much for the first point.

  • Two: Ethics, if we understand it as the attempt to be better than we are, arises at once as an attempt to cope with our fallibility. It is for this reason that the story of Cain and Abel follows on the heels of the story of the fall. If I am not mistaken, every ethical decision that we make is to be understood against the backdrop of our finitude. Every ethical decision should be tailored to respond to the threat of futility and vanity that haunts our existence as fallible and finite beings. As James writes in a diary entry from 1878: “Religion at its base is the affirmation that all is not vanity”. I would say the same of ethics, save for the fact that ethics is always a partial and ongoing affirmation. Ethics, at its best, primes us to view the “maybes” in our lives as opportunities for growth. The risk is real but so too are the potentialities. In the words of Ella Lyman Cabot, a study of ethics should encourage us to view “chance as my chance” (quoted in: Kaag 2011: 40). So much for the second point.

  • Three: In our everyday lives we are petrified of point number one—of the fact that we are finite and fallible. We spend large chunks of our lives fleeing this fact or girding ourselves against it in any number of ingenious ways.

  • Four: This act of fleeing is futile in two significant respects. First, no amount of fleeing can deliver us from the grave maybes of our lives. Second, our attempts to gird ourselves against fallibility may lead us to overlook the need for, and processes of, ethical life. Indeed, it seems that the fallibility that each of us face is in fact the commonality that may—and I do emphasize MAY—unify our ethical communities.

  • Five: To say that my life is a maybe is at once to say that my life is finite and pressing, and at least to suggest that the choices that I make may determine the outcome of this option. It is only in facing the maybe of abduction that I can become responsible.

So maybe. Now let’s get to work.


John Kaag and Sarah Kreps have recently published an analysis of pragmatism’s methodological contributions to the social sciences, concentrating on the topic of abduction. See Kaag and Kreps 2012.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012