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Experimental Action and Inclusion: The Ethics of Pragmatic Humanism

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Part of the Studies in Humanism and Atheism book series (SHA)


How can we know what is right and wrong without referring to objective moral values? Pragmatic humanism suggests grounding moral obligations in the demands of sentient beings and the basic principle of preventing harm. Thus, it advocates a minimal and negative ethics with an experimental character: the moral order is the result of an ongoing process that aims at including and integrating a maximum of demands. Yet, exclusions and failures are unavoidably part of this process and have to be dealt with. Pragmatic humanism offers no ready-made solutions to moral problems but fosters moral autonomy.


  • Ethics
  • Morality
  • Values
  • Evil
  • Relativism
  • Inclusion

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-02441-3_5
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  1. 1.

    In reminiscence of Samuel Beckett’s famous “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

  2. 2.

    Some of the fundamental definitions of Jamesian pragmatism are characterized by way of negation, not affirmation: rational is that which is not irrational, true is that which is not failing. In both cases, the main principle is that of thinking (and, in the wake of it, acting) undisturbed.

  3. 3.

    For example, the philosopher Kai Nielsen spends the first half of his Ethics Without God (1973) in showing that morality is independent from religion and believers aren’t morally better than non-believers. Only then he elaborates on his humanistic ethics. See also more recently Law 2011, 71–86: Law distinguishes (and elaborately responds to) three kinds of popular challenges put forward by religious believers: (1) How can there be good without God? (2) How can we know what is good without God and religion? (3) Will we be good without belief in God? Furthermore, Law enfeebles the argument of religion as “moral capital”.

  4. 4.

    The danger of moral relativism as the only possible alternative to moral realism is a popular argument of conservative thinkers, but also emerges, for example, in the late work of Thomas Nagel (Mind and Cosmos. Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press. 2012, see especially chapter 5) and Ronald Dworkin (Dworkin, Ronald. 2013. Religion Without God. Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press, especially 10–21). Dworkin states that “values are as real as trees or pain” (13); they have “full independence: the world of value is self-contained and self-certifying” (16).

  5. 5.

    Schiller’s ethical reflections do not differ noteworthily from those of James. Yet, not only are they even less elaborate and systematic, but they are also more personalistic, so that I will focus mainly on James’ writings. For a short overview of Schiller’s theory of values, see Abel, Reuben. 1955. The Pragmatic Humanism of F.C.S. Schiller. New York: King’s Crown Press, 127–129.

  6. 6.

    This passage is echoed in Dostoyevsky’s atheist figure Iwan Karamasov who wants to give back his entrance ticket to heaven in the face of one innocently suffering child.

  7. 7.

    For further reading, see Pihlström, Sami. 2013. Pragmatic Pluralism and the Problem of God. New York: Fordham University Press 2013, 104, 107; Franzese 2008, 28. For James’ dealings with utilitarianism, see Herms, Eilert. 1977. Radical Empiricism. Studien zur Psychologie, Metaphysik und Religionstheorie William James’. Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Mohn, 209–224. Kai Nielsen’s humanist ethics is also inspired by utilitarian principles but goes beyond pure pleasure versus pain calculations which he deems unacceptable (Nielsen 1973, 48–64). Generally, humanist ethics tend to have an affinity to a utilitarianist ethical approach in the sense that they give weight to the consequences of actions rather than following the commands of a moral authority; see Law 2011, 86–88.

  8. 8.

    Human flourishing is often named as a central principle of humanist morality; see, for example, Law 2011, 2, 89, 91.

  9. 9.

    Kitcher presents a (purely natural) detailed story of how ethics was “invented” and evolved in the course of the cooperative effort of the human species to build a stable social life.

  10. 10.

    See also Franzese 2008, 27: “Morality is a historical outcome of the life of the human race and moral unification, if it ever happens, will obtain through the same historical process humanity has carried on thus far, a diverse self-adjustment within the different moral communities represented in the world.”

  11. 11.

    The first imperative is inspired by the work of Katrin Wille, who suggests grounding pragmatist ethics in the idea of change; see Wille, Katrin. 2016. “Ethik der Veränderung. Überlegungen im Ausgang von John Dewey.” Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie. Vol. 64, No. 3, 380–409. The second imperative can be found in Marchetti 2015, 103–116.

  12. 12.

    See, more extensively, James, William. 1979 [1880] “Great Men and Their Environment”. In The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. The Works of William James. Vol. 6. ed. Frederick H. Burckhardt/Fredson Bowers/Ignas K. Skrupskelis. Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press, 163–189.

  13. 13.

    The objection of being a “belated ethics” was raised in a colloquium at the Philosophy Department of the University of St. Gallen (Switzerland). Though I do not share the demand for an a priori ethics, I take the liberty of borrowing the well-coined term.

  14. 14.

    Thus, evil can be described as a threefold relation: it is for someone, by means of something, and as something, that is, as something evil. Furthermore, the classic distinction between moral and natural evil may still be drawn for analytic reasons, but doesn’t function as a leading category anymore; see Dalfehrt, Ingolf U. 2011. “Die Kontingenz des Bösen”. In Das Böse. Drei Annäherungen. Freiburg/Basel/Wien: Herder, 9–52, especially 9–13.

  15. 15.

    The German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz coined not only the term “theodicy” but also the phrase “the best of all possible worlds” in his “Essays of Theodicy on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil” [“Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l’homme et l’origine du mal”, 1710]. Richard Swinburne is a contemporary British philosopher of religion and Christian apologetic. He tries to justify belief in a (Christian) god and the coherence of classical divine attributes; see, for example, Swinburne, Richard. 1979. The Existence of God. Oxford: Clarendon Press, or 1994. The Christian God. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  16. 16.

    This is especially true after Auschwitz. Following thinkers like Theodor W. Adorno, Hannah Arendt, and Hans Jonas, Susan Neiman prominently elaborated on that point and the threat evil poses for our rationality in her Evil in Modern Thought. An Alternative History of Philosophy (2002, Princeton: Princeton University Press). On Arendt, Jonas, and Levinas and their considerations on evil in the light of the holocaust, see also Bernstein 2002, 163–224. Yet the idea of justification and reconciliation remains very attractive, which is why Emmanuel Levinas speaks of the “temptation of theodicy”, in its religious as well as in its secular version; see ibid., 168–174.

  17. 17.

    The term “anti-theodicism” is introduced by Sami Pihlström; see Pihlström 2014.

  18. 18.

    This finite god is, for James, the only god possible within the pluralistic universe; see also James 1977, 140–141, 130–131. Similarly, Hans Jonas chooses to keep a theological framework as well and, following the cabbalist idea of tzimtzum, suggests a god capable of suffering, becoming, and caring who is not omnipotent, but dependent on us humans; see Bernstein 2002, 184f., 196–199.

  19. 19.

    Kolenda names “selfishness, shortsightedness, greed, fear, jostling for power, and plain ignorance” (Kolenda 1976, 97) as motives for evil ecological actions.

  20. 20.

    “When we are consciously doing evil to others, we are destroying the good in ourselves as well” (Kolenda 1976, 92). Kolenda gives the examples of murder and war, in which those who kill are brutalized.

  21. 21.

    For more on the subject of acknowledgment, see Pihlström 2014, 35–36, 105–107.

  22. 22.

    Strikingly, Schiller himself has a “theodicist fall-back” and steps back from his own humanist imperative to rely only on human resources and demands for universal salvation to keep up the moral universe; see Schiller, F. C. S. 1903. “Concerning Mephistopheles”. In Humanism. Philosophical Essays. London: Macmillan and Co., 166–182, especially 181–182. In contrast, James is a bit more modest: “For practical life at any rate, the chance of salvation is enough” (James, William. 1985 [1902]. The Varieties of Religious Experience. The Works of William James. Vol. 12. ed. Frederick H. Burckhardt/Fredson Bowers/Ignas K. Skrupskelis. Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press, 414).

  23. 23.

    For further considerations on the idea of moral holidays, see Pihlström 2014, 49–53.

  24. 24.

    It is these unsolvable conflicts of competing goods, or rights, not the mere existence of hardships, that are tragic in the original sense. Against a—still common—reading of pragmatism as a philosophy of optimism and optimizing, Sidney Hook prominently pointed out that the recognition of the tragic is central to the pragmatist tradition; see Hook, Sidney. 1974. Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life. New York: Basic Books.

  25. 25.

    The theologian Helmut Peukert developed, following Walter Benjamin, the concept of “anamnetic solidarity”. We must remember the victims and their stories, thereby taking on responsibility; see Peukert, Helmut 1984. Science, Action, and Fundamental Theology. Toward a Theology of Communicative Action. Cambridge: MIT Press [1976. Wissenschaftstheorie – Handlungstheorie – Fundamentale Theologie: Analysen zu Ansatz und Status theologischer Theoriebildung, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp].

  26. 26.

    My suggestion to transform moral philosophy into a critical science follows Franzese’s reading of James’ essay “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”, which has been misunderstood as a specific moral philosophy in itself. Rather, it presents “a critical analysis of the conditions of possibility of moral philosophy” (Franzese 2008, 17; see also 3–4, 11–18, and for a detailed analysis of James’ essay, see 28–35). Over against the dominant view that philosophers should stay “pure” (i.e., neutral and disengaged), the pragmatic understanding is that to “be a philosopher is to be a human being concretely engaged in the ‘problematic situations’ of life” (Pihlström 2005, 95). Thus, we have to problematize even the notion of “applied” philosophy; see Pihlström 2005, 85–97.

  27. 27.

    Philip Kitcher suggests “philosophical midwifery” to bring forward the ethical project (Kitcher 2011, 370).

  28. 28.

    The role of moral autonomy for humanist ethics is highlighted, for example, by Stephen Law, who advocates philosophy programs at schools in order to meet the corresponding demand to raise critical thinkers; see Law 2011, 88–90, 108–118.

  29. 29.

    Marchetti suggests reinterpreting William James’ ethics as “hortative” and therapeutic. For a more detailed elaboration of this meta-philosophical turn, see Marchetti 2015, especially 9–35, 75–83, 252–257. For a critical discussion of the potential role of philosophy in therapy/counseling, see Pihlström 2005, 97–107. Especially William James’ philosophy can be read as trying to heal his own melancholic mindset, induced by insight into the absurdity of life; see Gunnarsson, Logi. 2010. “The Philosopher as Pathogenic Agent, Patient, and Therapist: The Case of William James”. In Philosophy as Therapeia, ed. Jonathan Ganeri and Claire Carlisle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 165–186.

  30. 30.

    For a further elaboration on the ethical relevance of William James’ reflections on habit, attention, will, and belief in his Principles of Psychology, see Marchetti 2015, 117–157.

  31. 31.

    “The deepest service the therapist can do to people who experience the problem of life philosophically is perhaps not to cure them (so that the problem would disappear) but to encourage them to find ways to live with the fact that the problem cannot be resolved” (Pihlström 2005, 106). See also Marchetti 2015, 248–252.


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Honnacker, A. (2018). Experimental Action and Inclusion: The Ethics of Pragmatic Humanism. In: Pragmatic Humanism Revisited. Studies in Humanism and Atheism. Palgrave Pivot, Cham.

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