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Symposium. Pragmatist Ethics: Theory and Practice

The (Very Needed) Experimental Turn in Ethics

Belén Pueyo Ibanez


This paper is concerned with moral experimentalism, which I describe as the stance according to which moral inquiry is grounded not in objective foundations nor in our subjective inclinations but in our active encounter with things and events and in our communicative interactions with others. The notion of moral inquiry as grounded in objective foundations and that as based on subjective inclinations have traditionally been conceived of not as two independent possibilities but as the two poles of a dramatic Either/Or that has profoundly conditioned, and still does, our perception of and approach to disagreements and conflicts. When the pragmatists, particularly Dewey, advanced the idea of an experimental approach to moral issues, they put it forward as an alternative to these extreme positions and, therefore, as a way out of what they perceived, I think correctly, as a false and pernicious dichotomy.

The paper is divided into three parts: In the first section, I set the theoretical foundation of experimentalism as conceived of by the American pragmatists, in particular Peirce and Dewey. In the second part, and drawing mainly on Dewey’s Logic, I explore the procedural implications derived from the application of experimentalism to practice. In the third section, I consider the particularities of the application of experimentalism to the realm of ethics. As I argue, experimentalism is not only a promising approach to moral problems but perhaps the only effective remedy for the increasingly irrational attitudes with which they are today addressed.

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Author's notes

I thank Noëlle McAfee and John J. Stuhr for their very helpful comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this paper and for their continued support. I am also grateful to Sarin Marchetti, editor of this special issue, and two anonymous referees for their constructive feedback.

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1. Pragmatist Experimentalism

  • 1 I have provided a more detailed account of this distinction in Pueyo-Ibáñez 2021.

1Pragmatism is a word with many meanings. It is the name of a philosophical movement with a contested description, of a community of authors with indefinite boundaries, of a collection of themes without a unique center, of a variety of approaches without a clear hierarchy. It is not, in short, the name of a unitary and perfectly congruent system but rather of a toolbox – it is not there to be contemplated but to be used. Despite the variety of interests, perspectives, methodologies, and styles that pragmatism brings together, there is something that all those willing to call themselves pragmatists share, namely, a resolute opposition to what I call objectivism and subjectivism in ethics, and the commitment to developing plausible alternatives to them. I define objectivism as the stance according to which there is a set of agent-independent truths, permanent and universal, to which we have to necessarily appeal in order to solve our moral problems. Subjectivism is based on the assumption that moral judgments are just the product of our inclinations and preferences and, therefore, that it is solely on the basis of the degree of satisfaction each available alternative naturally elicits that individuals must make our moral decisions.1

2The possibility of a via media between these positions was initially envisaged by Charles Sanders Peirce, whose contribution to this question and to epistemology in general is indeed invaluable. I cannot explore here all the intricacies of Peirce’s philosophy of knowledge; however, it will be instructive for the purposes of my argument to revisit one of his earliest papers, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” in which he formulates, in the form of a reaction against Cartesianism, the fundamental theses constitutive of this alternative stance.

3Peirce opens the essay by launching a severe attack on Descartes’s methodological skepticism. “We cannot begin with complete doubt,” he writes; rather, “[w]e must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy” (Peirce 1992a: 28-9). In Peirce’s view, the old assumption that reason can provide us with a completely objective access to an independent reality and, therefore, that it is possible to ground our beliefs and judgments in a set of permanent and universal foundations is flawed, for, he suggests, it is only through the exercise of our prejudices that we can engage in the activity of reason. It is important to note that, in recognizing the centrality of prejudices in inquiry, Peirce is not merely suggesting that the activity of reason is inevitably affected by them but rather that it is actually possible because of them. Peirce’s claim that we “must” begin with our prejudices indeed suggests that what he is in fact defending is a complete reconsideration of the very meaning of “prejudice” by freeing this concept from the negative connotations that have traditionally been attributed to it. In his view, prejudices are not an external obstacle imposed upon reason but a constitutive, in fact crucial, element of reason itself – one that, of course, can and sometimes must be questioned and perhaps even exorcised but without which the activity of reason would be simply impossible.

  • 2 This point is emphasized by Hilary Putnam, who has characterized the argument that one can be both (...)

4This first point of Peirce’s argument is of the utmost importance, for in it he advances what would eventually operate as one of the fundamental principles, not only of his philosophical project but also of the entire pragmatist movement, namely, the principle of anti-foundationalism. Importantly, what this principle suggests is not that there are no foundations at all in which inquiry can be grounded but, simply, that these foundations are not immutable, nor unquestionable. The kind of anti-foundationalism Peirce defends, therefore, is that which, even though recognizing the limits of reason, still accepts the possibility of rational inquiry. Hence, it is not sheer skepticism that derives from anti-foundationalism but fallibilism – the idea that rational claims are perfectly possible but only qua open to criticism, revision, modification, and potentially even to rejection.2

5Peirce continues by expressing his opposition to the Cartesian thesis that individual subjects can set themselves up as absolute judges of truth. As he writes, “[w]e individually cannot reasonably hope to attain the ultimate philosophy which we pursue […] [I]f disciplined and candid minds carefully examine a theory and refuse to accept it, this ought to create doubts in the mind of the author of the theory himself” (Peirce 1992a: 29). This point of Peirce’s argument is directly connected to the previous one, for, if the activity of reason indeed involves the exercise of our prejudices, this means that we do not have intellectual access to things as they are in themselves but only qua mediated by those prejudices. It follows from this that the claims we individually make can only amount to the expression of the personal conclusions we can produce out of the consideration of that which is present to us at every given moment and not to any absolute truth that others should necessarily accept as such. As Peirce argues, assuming that something like this could be possible would not only be mistaken but also highly “pernicious” (ibid.), for such exercise in dogmatism would inevitably be conducive to a situation of profound and perennial conflict.

6But then, What does this mean with respect to the practical engagement of individuals in processes of rational inquiry? As I have explained, Peirce suggests that its very possibility requires not only abandoning the deceptive realm of absolutist objectivism but also the self-enclosed space of relativistic subjectivism. The question is: How can this be achieved? As Peirce suggests, a satisfactory answer demands the replacement of that individualistic approach characteristic of past philosophies with an intersubjective one in such a way that reasoning is recognized not as the endeavor of single individuals in isolation but rather of communities of inquirers working together.

7Fallibilism and the idea of community as the locus of reasoning constitute two of the primary operational principles on which the scientific method is based. It is for this reason that, Peirce thinks, this should be taken as a model for philosophical inquiry: “Philosophy ought to imitate the successful sciences in its methods, so far as to proceed only from tangible premises which can be subjected to careful scrutiny, and to trust rather to the multitude and variety of its arguments than to the conclusiveness of any one” (ibid.). By defending the importance of premises being considered not from a single perspective but from a variety of them, Peirce vindicates again the reality of knowledge as fallible and yet rationally grounded and draws attention once more to the crucial role of the community in its development.

8Of particular relevance for the purposes of this discussion is the introduction here by Peirce of an additional element – that of tangibility. Peirce elaborates on this issue not in this paper but in a subsequent one, the seminal “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” in which he states that the tangible and practical lie at “the root of every real distinction of thought.” As he crucially adds, “there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consists in anything but a possible difference of practice” (Peirce 1992b: 131). In saying this, Peirce makes explicit his opposition to traditional rationalism and defends the role of practice, as opposed to theory, as the true measure of reality.

  • 3 Of course, much more could be said about Peirce’s complex and continually evolving views on rationa (...)

9The fourth and final point of Peirce’s argument constitutes a variation of his anti-foundationalist thesis. In it, he expresses his categorical rejection of the idea that there is some unanalyzable ultimate that individuals can conceptually grasp. As he argues, every cognition derives logically from previous cognitions (Peirce 1992a: 30). This means that there is not any non-inferential ground on which knowledge can ultimately rest. This means, in other words, that there is no Archimedean point on which to rely or to which to appeal in the face of doubts and disagreements.3

  • 4 See Bernstein 1989, and Rorty 1980.

10The set of arguments Peirce develops in this paper are constitutive of what I think is a highly promising understanding of reason – one according to which rational inquiry is conceived of as grounded not in agent-independent, universal, and permanent foundations nor in our particular and idiosyncratic inclinations but in our active encounter with things and events and in our communicative interactions with others. The importance of this idea for the development of the pragmatist movement is unquestionable. Pragmatism can indeed be described, at least in its fundamental sense, as a movement devoted to the vindication of this premise and the exploration of its various implications.4 Importantly, this idea has also been regarded – by Jürgen Habermas, for example – as lying at the center of the drastic transformation that philosophy itself underwent throughout the 20th century – that which led it to what Habermas describes as a “break with the tradition” (Habermas 1992: 6). If we accept Habermas’s account, and I think we should, this means that what the pragmatists put forward is not a sui generis approach to the study of reason; rather, they anticipated what would eventually evolve into a generalized epistemological revolution. As Richard Bernstein states, pragmatist thinkers were, in that sense, “ahead of their times” (Bernstein 1989: 6). But what were the circumstances that led to this critical turn of events?

11Peirce was one of the first to defend a conception of inquiry as anti-foundational, practically grounded, and socially embedded. In doing so, he became one of the first to theoretically articulate a plausible alternative to objectivism and subjectivism. As Peirce himself knew, the possibility of such a divergent route, however, had already been considered and, in fact, amply explored centuries before, although not in the context of philosophical epistemology but of the sciences. I am referring of course to the development of the experimental method during the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries.

12As John Dewey explains in Reconstruction in Philosophy (Dewey 1982: 132-4), the development of the experimental method was not the result of a calculated planning but of a general transformation of the way of experiencing the world on the part of individuals, especially those with scientific inclinations. Dewey refers, more specifically, to the gradual emergence of an experimental attitude as opposed to a merely empirical one. The characteristic feature of this new approach, Dewey states, is that experience ceased to be regarded as a mere passive encounter with reality, as an enactment of customs, and as inevitably enslaved by the past to be viewed as a means to reshape the world and life, as oriented toward the future, and as a vehicle of progress.

13As Dewey explains, this transformative process was accompanied by the emergence at the end of the 19th century of a psychology based on biology by virtue of which a novel conception of the human mind was rendered possible. What this Darwinian account suggested is that the mind is not simply a passive receiving device but one of the various means by which individuals actively and purposively interact with, adapt to, and transform the environment (ibid.: 128-30). As Dewey maintains, the impact of this new approach to the study of the human mind was significant, for it showed that “[k]nowledge is not something separate and self-sufficing, but is involved in the process by which life is sustained and evolved” (ibid.: 129).

  • 5 The pragmatist experimentalism to which I am referring here should not be confused with experimenta (...)

14The occurrence of these transformative events had a powerful impact on epistemology, for it radically changed the manner in which philosophers – with Peirce and the other pragmatists at the forefront – approached the question of the relation of individuals to the world and of the nature and role of reason. The emergence of the experimental attitude opened the door to a conception of reason, not as an infallible means by which individuals contemplate reality as it is in itself and unequivocally identify the essential truths that govern the universe but as a regulatory instrument of human experience. The development of a psychology based on biology enabled philosophers to comprehend that there is no external position from which to neutrally observe and govern human activity. Rather, the intellectual processes by means of which we conduct our lives as well as the decisions, plans, and actions resulting from these processes are thoroughly affected by the environmental, organic, emotional, social, and cultural conditions in connection to which these processes occur and hence are transformed as these conditions change. The conclusion that the pragmatists and other philosophers after them drew, in short, is that reason is not a privileged means by which individuals observe an independent reality but a regulatory instrument that, being part of experience itself, is inevitably affected by its changing conditions. The resulting epistemological implication was the emergence of a conception of reason as experimental (ibid.: 134-5).5

  • 6 See Colapietro (2020: 77).

15As I have suggested, pragmatist philosophers played a very significant role – albeit not unanimously recognized – in the development of this revolutionary process. Now, what makes their contribution so distinctive and valuable is that they embraced experimentalism, not only as a theory of knowledge but, more importantly, as the basis for a method of inquiry – one that, crucially, they did not conceive of as restricted to the realm of science and, therefore, as oriented to a limited set of questions but rather as potentially applicable to all areas of life and as potentially effective in the resolution of all sorts of problems.6 Among the pragmatists, it is perhaps Dewey who most emphatically defended the worth of experimentalism as a method, particularly in its application to social and moral issues:

It required over two centuries for the experimental method to reach a point where men were forced to realize that progress in science depends upon choice of operations performed and not upon the properties of objects which were alleged to be so antecedently certain and fixed that all detailed phenomena might be reduced to them. This conception of knowledge still dominates thinking in social and moral matters. When it is realized that in these fields as in the physical, we know what we intentionally construct, that everything depends upon determination of methods of operation and upon observation of the consequences which test them, the progress of knowledge in these affairs may also become secure and constant. (Dewey 1984: 148-9)

  • 7 For a critical assessment of pragmatist experimentalism, see Bernstein (1971: 226-9).

16Almost one hundred years have passed since Dewey wrote this. Throughout this time, unfortunately, the possibility that our moral disagreements and social conflicts might be experimentally addressed has only been considered within academia, but completely ignored, when not directly rejected, beyond it. As a result – because, like Dewey, I take this to be the main reason – a spectacular qualitative disparity has emerged between the practical results that have been achieved within the realm of science and technology and those, extremely weak in comparison, that have been obtained in the social and moral sphere. That the experimental attitude is strategically adopted in order to develop certain scientific and technological innovations but is arbitrarily abandoned when evaluating their very ethical implications – when this is done at all – is particularly ironic in this respect. The truth of the matter is that we have become accustomed to such disparity; accustomed to seeing how extremely demanding scientific and technological challenges are easily and very successfully met while we are incapable of handling the simplest of our disputes. It is precisely against such generalized indifference that Dewey reacted. His suggestion that the experimental method, which has proven to be so successful in other areas, could be employed in the realm of morals; that it is not restricted to scientists and engineers but available to all individuals in the resolution of our ordinary problems; that it could be used not only to expand our knowledge of the natural world and develop technological innovations but also to enable all of us to have more meaningful and fulfilling lives is, I believe, his most important legacy.7

17But, of course, there are significant differences between the kind of problems that drive scientific and technological progress and those of a moral character. This suggests that mere extrapolation is simply not enough; rather, a more profound analysis will be required in order to determine whether experimentalism is, as Dewey suggests, the most suitable approach to these phenomena. I will address this concern in the next two sections: first, I will provide a detailed description of experimentalism as a general method of inquiry and I will then analyze the particularities of its application to the realm of morals.

2. Experimentalism as a Method of Inquiry

18Experimentalism, I have stated, constitutes the practical expression of a conception of reason not as a means of contemplation or of individual self-expression but of direct and purposive engagement with a reality of which it is part and parcel; a conception of reason as grounded not in universal and permanent foundations nor in our particular and idiosyncratic inclinations but in our practical encounter with things and events and in our communicative interactions with others. This characterization captures the essence of experimentalism as linked to a specific epistemological paradigm; but what are the concrete procedural implications derived from its application as a method of thought?

19Dewey is one of the philosophers who has most systematically addressed this question. Let me begin by considering his overall definition of experimental reason or simply “inquiry,” as he refers to it: “Inquiry,” writes Dewey, “is the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole” (Dewey 1986: 108). Three are the fundamental premises on the basis of which Dewey formulates this definition – those with respect to which the contrast between his experimentalist approach and those of a more traditional orientation is most evident. First, inquiry has as its subject matter not a set of ontologically independent entities, as has been commonly assumed, but the experience of actual situations as they are directly lived. Second, the primary function of inquiry is not the identification of some fundamental traits by which those allegedly independent entities can be known but the purposive transformation of our interactions with those entities. Finally, the constitution of an experiential unified whole replaces the discovery of some essential truth as inquiry’s ultimate goal. Dewey was well aware that the development of a new theory about the nature of knowledge necessarily demanded the development of a new theory concerning its practical functioning. This is the reason why, as this definition reveals, he was not merely committed to a superficial reconsideration of some aspects of inquiry but to a complete redefinition of its internal structure. The height of his reformist ambitions will become manifest as I proceed with my analysis.

  • 8 For a critical assessment of Dewey’s theory of inquiry, see Stuhr 2002.

20Dewey conceives of the process of inquiry as comprising five main stages: the experiencing of an indeterminate situation, the institution of its underlying problem, the projection of a solution in the form of a hypothesis, the determination through reasoning of the potential implications of that hypothesis, and its practical testing on the basis of which to determine its plausibility (ibid.: 200-6). Let me consider them one by one.8

  • 9 For a concise and informative account of this aspect of Dewey’s theory of inquiry, see Hickman (200 (...)

21Experimental inquiry, as I have said, has its starting point in the experiencing of an indeterminate or uncertain situation. As Dewey argues, contrary to what is often believed, it is not the person experiencing the situation who, in a purely subjective manner, attributes the property of indeterminacy to it but rather it is the situation itself that has that trait (Dewey 1986: 109). What Dewey means by this is not that there are certain situations that must necessarily be experienced as indeterminate, always and by all individuals, but that, when a situation is indeed experienced as indeterminate, that is so because something in the situation made it so. In making this claim, Dewey exhibits his characteristic aversion to the traditional subject/object dichotomy: “The indeterminate situation comes into existence from existential causes, just as does, say, the organic imbalance of hunger. There is nothing intellectual or cognitive in the existence of such situations, although they are the necessary condition of cognitive operations or inquiry” (ibid.: 111). This is an important observation, for what follows from it is that it is only by effecting an actual change in the situation itself that it can be solved or elucidated.9 Dewey explains it thus:

We are doubtful because the situation is inherently doubtful. Personal states of doubt that are not evoked by and are not relative to some existential situation are pathological; when they are extreme they constitute the mania of doubting. Consequently, situations that are disturbed and troubled, confused or obscure, cannot be straightened out, cleared up and put in order, by manipulation of our personal states of mind […] The habit of disposing of the doubtful as if it belonged only to us rather than to the existential situation in which we are caught and implicated is an inheritance from subjectivistic psychology […] Restoration of integration can be effected […] only by operations which actually modify existing conditions, not by merely “mental” processes. (Dewey 1986: 109-10)

22Now, in order for an indeterminate situation to be transformed into a determinate one it is necessary, Dewey argues, to identify the concrete problem responsible for such initial indeterminacy. Crucially, whereas Dewey conceives of the property of indeterminacy as belonging to the situation itself, for it is due to existential conditions that, as such, are ontologically independent of the person considering them, the problem responsible for such indeterminacy must be purposively instituted by that person (ibid.: 111). Dewey suggests, more specifically, that the determination of a problem is not merely a matter of passive observation; rather, it presupposes and requires the active engagement of an inquirer in a deliberate process of selection and organization necessary to make the situation intelligible. An unexpected shaking of the ground, the recession of the sea, and the unusual behavior of some animals represent the constitutive elements of an indeterminate situation that requires to be clarified; existentially, they are what they are independently of what anyone may think of them. Whether or not these phenomena are recognized to be indicative of the imminent impact of a tsunami, however, depends ultimately on the manner in which they are approached and interpreted, that is, on which of these elements are identified as relevant and which as irrelevant, on which associations among them are created and which dissociations are established (ibid.: 111-2). The situation described by this example is fairly straightforward; on certain occasions, however, the circumstances to be assessed are so convoluted and the possible interpretations so varied that the institution of the underlying problem becomes itself a problem. This suggests that divergence of opinions, disagreements, and conflicts can emerge – in fact, they usually emerge – not simply at the level of problem resolution but also at the level of problem institution. That the consideration of existential conditions and the determination of problems are regarded in such experimentalist light represents a radical departure from previous approaches, particularly from those of an objectivist vein:

The history of the theory of knowledge or epistemology would have been very different if instead of the word “data” or “givens,” it had happened to start with calling the qualities in question “takens.” Not that the data are not existential and qualities of the ultimately “given” – that is, the total subject-matter which is had in non-cognitive experience. But as data they are selected from this total original subject-matter which gives the impetus to knowing; they are discriminated for a purpose: – that, namely, of affording signs or evidence to define and locate a problem, and thus give a clew to its resolution. (Dewey 1984: 142-3)

23The manner in which an indeterminate situation is addressed and interpreted has a decisive impact on the institution of its underlying problem; this, in turn, is crucial in the projection of a potential solution, for it is by reference to that problem that the hypotheses for its resolution will be formulated and that their plausibility will ultimately be determined (Dewey 1986: 112). Two interrelated questions emerge at this point: when are the operations of selection and organization considered to be properly carried out? And when is the problem behind an indeterminate situation considered to be successfully instituted?

  • 10 As Steven Fesmire suggests, the role of imagination is crucial in the establishment of analogies be (...)

24From a logical point of view, there is no way to know whether a situation has been properly interpreted and whether its underlying problem has been successfully identified until the solution posed to that problem is tested to be effective in transforming the initial indeterminate situation into a determinate one. In practice, however, the experiences each of us has had in the past and the knowledge we have gained and mutually shared over the years can – and, in fact, usually do – serve as a reliable source on the basis of which to accomplish this task in a reasonably successful manner.10 Very often, we base our analyses and conclusions on the past experiences we have directly had or on the knowledge we already possess; at other times, however, the complexity of the circumstances or our unfamiliarity with the issues in question demand us to rely on the experience and knowledge of others. Even in those cases, it is still each individual’s responsibility to actively identify the most qualified ally for every situation. This is also part of what it means to engage in a process of inquiry.

25An important lesson to be learned from experience is that, on occasion, especially in the face of unusual or novel circumstances, our initial assessments and conclusions or those of others can be inaccurate; sometimes they are entirely wrong. This, however, should not be taken as meaning that the possibility of carrying out the inquiry process in an effective manner is only a chimera. Recognizing our incapacity to know in advance whether a situation has been properly interpreted; recognizing that our observations and judgments are not impartial nor infallible; recognizing, in short, our intellectual limits does not mean that we must proceed blindly or abandon ourselves to sheer arbitrariness – there are facts we can take into account, experiences from which we can learn, and opinions on which we can rely. Adopting an experimentalist attitude means to trust our capacity for observation and inference while always remaining open to reconsidering our assumptions and beliefs. The apparent incongruity of this idea is dispelled as soon as we remember that the final goal of experimental inquiry is not to discover some ultimate truth but to transform experience into something intelligible and fulfilling.

  • 11 For a nuanced discussion of this issue, see Colapietro (2020: 80-1).
  • 12 As Hickman interestingly argues, the projection of an end-in-view requires the establishment of a r (...)

26The institution of a problem behind an indeterminate situation comes to acquire practical significance when it is used in the devising of a possible solution to it. Of course, the solution to a problematic situation can only be presented in the form of a hypothesis,11 for there is no way to know whether this solution will be effective until it is tested in practice. This means, to use Dewey’s words, that the end to be reached through inquiry can only be considered qua end-in-view.12 Now, as Dewey suggests, the fact that at this point in the process it is still necessary to operate at a presuppositional level does not mean that we must confine ourselves to pure conjecture:

There is a distinction between hypotheses generated in that seclusion from observable fact which renders them fantasies, and hypotheses that are projections of the possibilities of facts already in existence and capable of report. There is a difference between the imaginative speculations that recognize no law except their own dialectic consistency, and those which rest on an observable movement of events, and which foresee these events carried to a limit by the force of their own movement. There is a difference between support by argument from arbitrarily assumed premises, and an argument which sets forth the implications of propositions resting upon facts already vitally significant. (Dewey 1984: 63)

27Dewey, like Peirce before him, appeals to observable facts as key ingredients in the formulation of any hypothesis that is claimed to be rationally justified. Now, as I have previously stated, these facts are not to be regarded as fixed and independent entities; rather, they are the result of successive processes of intentional selection and organization by virtue of which certain portions of the raw material of experience are transformed into conceptual units to which a particular meaning is attributed. The formulation of a hypothesis that establishes the means to make possible the transformation of an indeterminate situation into a determinate one depends on these selective and organizational processes but also on the specific qualities that both the problem qua purposively instituted and the solution qua projected exhibit. It is important to note that, although necessary, these conditions are not sufficient so that a hypothesis can be claimed to be rationally justified; rather, this can only be determined, Dewey states, by considering its practical consequences. “[H]ypotheses are conditional; they have to be tested by the consequences of the operations they define and direct […] [T]heir final value is not determined by their internal elaboration and consistency, but by the consequences they effect in existence as that is perceptibly experienced” (ibid.: 132).

28Now, insofar as the formulation of a hypothesis is a form of prognosis – for it operates as a guide for future action – its final value must be determined by consideration of its practical consequences as being forecast. This means that the consequences that are meant to be pondered are those that the practical application of that hypothesis is projected to have, which, in a seemingly paradoxical manner, can only be accomplished by appealing to similar events occurred in the past and by considering the consequences that actually derived from them (ibid.: 138-9). In short, only a proposition that is oriented toward the future can be accorded the status of a hypothesis, but only a hypothesis that relies on past experiences can be rationally justified.

29The importance that is attributed to both past events and future possibilities is one of the most distinctive characteristics of experimentalism and one of the aspects with respect to which the differences between the experimental attitude and the objectivist and subjectivist ones become most apparent. Objectivism involves the establishment of a fallacious equation of what are no more than temporary events with permanent conditions and, therefore, tends to express itself in the form of an attitude of mere conformity to the past. In their complete disregard for present circumstances and future consequences, objectivists become condemned to perennial perplexity – for they are unable to assimilate the changes to which their lives are inevitably subjected – and continuous failure – for this prevents them from satisfactorily adapting to new situations. Subjectivism, for its part, entails an attitude of indifference toward everything that lies beyond immediate experience and, hence, tends to express itself in the form of a myopic fixation with the present. In their total disinterest in past events and future consequences, subjectivists become condemned to relentless confusion – for there is nothing that can support their speculations – and permanent precariousness – for this leaves them unprotected against the inevitably unpredictable vicissitudes of life. By defending an inquisitive and yet critical attitude toward both the past and the present in combination with a courageous and yet responsible orientation toward the future, experimentalism emerges as a promising alternative to these extreme positions, for it provides the means through which life can be subjected to intelligent control and still remain open to new possibilities. In reflecting on the significance and worth of experimentalism, Dewey writes the following:

We have noted how in consequence of this transformation the standard of judgment has been transferred from antecedents to consequents […]
If such changes do not constitute, in the depth and scope of their significance, a reversal comparable to a Copernican revolution, I am at a loss to know where such a change can be found or what it would be like […]
Neither self nor world, neither soul nor nature (in the sense of something isolated and finished in its isolation) is the center, any more than either earth or sun is the absolute center of a single universal and necessary frame of reference. There is a moving whole of interacting parts; a centre emerges wherever there is effort to change them in a particular direction. (ibid.: 231-2)

30My goal so far has been to give a detailed account of the methodological imperatives resulting from the application of experimentalism to practice. To that end, I have described the different procedures Dewey identifies as comprising the inquiry process. In finishing this paper, I would like now to consider the particularities of the application of experimentalism to the realm of ethics.

3. Experimentalism as a Method of Moral Inquiry

31There is in the experimental attitude a characteristic element of prudence. For it is not as definite diagnoses but as tentative observations that experimental inquirers present their analyses; it is not as final verdicts but as working hypotheses they put forward their conclusions. The experimental approach to a problem presupposes the recognition of one’s view as partial, conjectural, approximate, potentially wrong, as just one among a variety of possibilities.

32This attitude stands in radical contrast to that which is commonly adopted in the face of moral issues. There is indeed a certain arrogance and stubbornness in the way many individuals express their positions when such positions belong to this particular category. Very often, the manner in which they converse with others about what the most appropriate course of action would be in the context of a morally loaded situation reveals not a desire to expand, transform, and potentially refine their views but to obstinately defend them. The increasing radicalization of public discourse shows this attitude to be an upward trend. What is the reason for this? Why is it that epistemic modesty, which in some domains is considered a mark of excellence in reasoning, is so emphatically rejected in the moral sphere? Answering this question requires considering the very nature of moral problems, which, as I will show, is of a special kind.

33To begin with, there is no problem of any kind that can be compared to one of a moral nature in terms of scope and relevance. Indeed, the experience of facing a moral problem is often accompanied by the feeling that there is a lot at stake; the truth is that, usually, this is precisely the case. The reason for this is that moral inquiry does not have atoms, cells, concepts, sounds, or proportions as its subject matter but the actual lives of people – their needs, desires, expectations, disappointments, rights, and suffering. The recognition on the part of inquirers that the particular manner in which a moral problem is addressed and resolved can directly affect their lives and the lives of others; the recognition that there is certainly a lot at stake often has as a consequence the emergence of a limiting fear of failure and, with it, a delusional urge to find some fixed precept through the invocation of which those risks that are inevitably associated with this challenging task can be securely avoided. The impact of fear makes this process highly problematic in that it leads individuals to never question the chosen guiding principle, for, they think, this is the only way by which it can preserve its reassuring capability. Thus, whatever beliefs or values are on this basis taken to be true, are taken to be universally and permanently true. Fear acts in this manner as a powerful inquiry-stopper and as one of the fundamental causes behind the arrogance and stubbornness with which many individuals express their moral positions.

34A second feature of moral issues is the high degree of personal implication their resolution demands in comparison to other kinds of problems. Taking a stance on a particular moral question means not simply making explicit one’s view on a given state of affairs but revealing what kind of person one is. Indeed, positioning oneself with respect to questions such as economic inequality, same-sex marriage, or death penalty requires a much higher level of personal exposure than that which is required in the face of questions concerning, say, professional experience, hobbies, or culinary preferences. Moral inquiry, it can be concluded, constitutes an exercise in self-expression. Now, there is a substantial difference between taking this as meaning that self-expression is something individuals do while engaging in moral inquiry and taking it as meaning that this, in fact, represents the ultimate goal of moral inquiry. It is the latter assumption that creates considerable difficulties for the successful execution of the inquiry process. For, those who understand moral inquiry in this way face moral issues not as problems to be solved but as occasions for revealing who they are and, therefore, for expressing their allegiance to a pre-assumed set of beliefs and values that they take to be representative of themselves or of the social groups with which they identify. The way individuals determine their responses is thus by consideration not of their potential to solve the moral problems in question but of their potential to enable them to reassert their identity. The immediate practical consequence derived from this is that openness to others’ opinions and ideas, to different views or alternative interpretations is regarded as an act of disloyalty to oneself or to the social groups to which one feels to belong and, therefore, it is radically rejected as a possibility. Moral inquiry ceases in this way to be inquiry altogether and becomes an instrument of self-congratulation at the service of very concrete ideological agendas.

35The manner in which these two factors – the feeling of fear and the urge to defend one’s identity territory – influence the inquiry process is diverse. Whatever the case, there is something that all those prone to approach moral phenomena in these ways, that is, objectivists and subjectivists, share, namely, a predisposition to exclude ends from all evaluative processes and, therefore, to reduce moral inquiry to the determination of the most effective means by which to justify what is no more than a collection of uncritically accepted values and beliefs. As Dewey points out, it is indeed in the social sphere that the impact of such practices is most apparent: “In all fields but the social, the notion that the correct solution is already given and that it only remains to find the facts that prove it is so thoroughly discredited that those who act upon it are regarded as pretenders, or as cranks who are trying to impose some pet notion upon facts” (Dewey 1986: 490). As I explained in the previous section, involvement in any inquiry process that aims to be practically effective requires recognizing the hypothetical nature of ends and, accordingly, the need to subject them to active scrutiny. As Dewey writes, “[o]nly recognition in both theory and practice that ends to be attained (ends-in-view) are of the nature of hypotheses and that hypotheses have to be formed and tested in strict correlativity with existential conditions as means, can alter current habits of dealing with social issues” (ibid.: 490-1). Acceptance of this premise is the first and, indeed, one of the most important steps for the successful application of experimentalism to the social and moral realm.

36Now, even if one were willing to take this crucial step, there are still considerable difficulties that need to be confronted; difficulties significantly greater than those that ordinarily emerge in other inquiry contexts – for example, that of the sciences and technology – and that, consequently, make the handling of moral issues, even when experimentally done, an extraordinarily challenging task. One of the most evident among such peculiar difficulties, Dewey points out, is the “complexity” that characterizes these sorts of problems (ibid.: 481). By this, he is not referring to intellectual or technical complexities – for these are also typical of many non-moral issues – but to the vast number of factors that need to be taken into account in the resolution of moral problems and the intricate nature of their mutual relations.

37Moral inquiry is affected by the social and cultural circumstances in which it takes place in much more significant ways than scientific and technological inquiry are. The inquiry processes by which planets, viruses, plants, or human organs are studied or those by which mathematical models, computer programs, or building structures are generated can – and usually are – influenced by political decisions, economic circumstances, environmental demands, or by public opinion, among many other factors. Importantly, these influences exert their primary effect on the conditions in which these processes are carried out, whereas the impact they have on the processes themselves is only indirect. From a practical point of view, this means that these social and cultural considerations get, as a rule, excluded from inquiry. Dealing with issues such as injustice, discrimination, or intolerance, on the contrary, requires dealing not only with the problems themselves but also with the very conditions in the context of which they manifest themselves and those in the context of which they are addressed. The reason for this is that social and cultural circumstances do not simply surround these problems, thus exerting a certain amount of influence upon them, but rather constitute their very matrix.

  • 13 This, needless to say, presupposes a conception of moral inquiry as a task performed, not exclusive (...)

38That moral problems exhibit such a degree of complexity has severe practical implications, because the fact that their resolution requires taking into consideration such an impressive number of factors, all of which are intricately connected, imposes almost insurmountable limitations on inquirers’ capacity to isolate them and control the conditions in which to analyze them. Unlike scientific or technological inquiry, which is commonly developed in the convenient circumstances of the laboratory and with the aid of sophisticated instruments, moral inquiry can only be carried out in the convoluted and often disconcerting context of actual ordinary life with no more help than our observational and inferential abilities.13 The highly complex nature of moral problems makes the process of experimental inquiry a particularly demanding, often frustrating, and on many occasions unsuccessful endeavor. As Dewey maintains, this is no reason, however, to give up:

The conclusion that agreement of activities and their consequences is a test and a moving force in scientific advance is in harmony with the position that the ultimate end and test of all inquiry is the transformation of a problematic situation (which involves confusion and conflict) into a unified one. That it is much more difficult to accomplish this end in social inquiry than in the restricted field of physical inquiry is a fact. But it is not a fact which constitutes an inherent logical or theoretical difference between the two kinds of inquiry. On the contrary, the presence of practical difficulties should operate, as within physical inquiry itself, as an intellectual stimulus and challenge to further application. (Dewey 1986: 484-5)

39Now, let us say we were willing to respond to that stimulus and make the effort to address our moral problems by experimental means. What would we gain from this? In which way is experimentalism a suitable approach to moral problems? How is it more effective than competing strategies such as objectivism and subjectivism – those as an alternative to which the pragmatists advanced it?

40Objectivism, I stated at the outset, consists in the practical expression of the conviction that there is a set of agent-independent truths, permanent and universal, to which we must appeal in order to make our moral decisions. The adoption of the objectivist strategy entails the evident advantage of enabling individuals to achieve a complete degree of certainty in the face of moral issues, which has the additional benefit of producing the emergence of a satisfactory sense of security and control. Now, it is precisely this benefit objectivism allegedly provides that makes this methodological approach problematic, for it is only if its proponents commit themselves to never question the truths that are advanced under its provisions that it can preserve its reassuring capability and, further, it is only if all opposing voices are effectively converted or silenced that this method can have any practical sense at all. This explains why, historically, objectivists have shown no scruples in employing all means at their disposal – even manipulation and force – to make those truths prevail.

41Subjectivism is based on the assumption that moral judgments are just the product of our purely subjective inclinations and, therefore, that it is on the basis of the degree of satisfaction each available alternative elicits from us that we must make our moral decisions. From the point of view of subjectivists, it is not by reference to a set of agent-independent moral truths that we as individuals must conduct our lives but by simply responding to whatever particular need or motivation each of us experiences at every moment. The position held by subjectivists represents a radical shift from that held by objectivists, for what they defend is not the recognition of certain allegedly unquestionable truths but the recognition of the right of individuals to believe whatever they want to believe. On paper, the strategy put forward by subjectivists may seem appealing in that it appears to provide excellent means for individuals to realize their autonomy as moral agents. The consequences derived from the application of this strategy, however, are much more problematic than it might initially appear, particularly when the opinion held by different individuals with respect to a given issue conflict, for, according to the subjectivist view, the only way by which individuals can preserve their autonomy is by limiting the autonomy of others and, therefore, the only way by which they can remain free is by imposing on those others their idiosyncratic convictions.

42In summary, it is only through intolerance and discrimination that both objectivists and subjectivists can respond to the disagreements that naturally emerge in the context of communal life; it is only by disregarding and, when necessary, suppressing the heterogeneity of viewpoints that inevitably exists in the human world that they can make any sense of their own lives. Neither objectivism nor subjectivism seem to be adequate as a response to moral problems. Indeed, there is no factual evidence showing that any moral disagreement has ever been truly settled by applying any of these strategies to practice – truly in the sense of producing a voluntary and uncoerced consensus among the individuals involved. Even worse, there is ample proof that their adoption has in fact aggravated our preexistent social conflicts in extremely severe ways and that have even generated new ones.

  • 14 These, as Dewey argues, constitute after all a fundamental driving force of human conduct that, as (...)

43Unlike these unsuccessful and pernicious strategies, experimentalism constitutes a very effective methodological approach to moral issues. The fundamental reason why I deem experimentalism so suitable is that it provides excellent means for individuals to address our moral disagreements in a cooperative manner in such a way that the interests of all are taken into consideration. Unlike objectivists, who characterize themselves by their propensity to impose certain absolute precepts on others, experimentalists are open to a diversity of points of view. We do not favor any specific conception of moral truth, any concrete idea of the happy life, or any particular doctrine over others; rather, we defend a purely formal approach to moral phenomena – one that can be adopted by all individuals in all possible situations. Thus, instead of conceiving of moral norms and values as laid down from the outside, experimentalists believe that individuals and communities must be allowed to establish and put into practice those that we think can more adequately contribute to the intelligent direction of our individual and collective existence. Unlike subjectivists, who tend to reduce their moral decisions to what their idiosyncratic inclinations arbitrarily determine at every moment, experimentalists rely on the examination of observable facts and the formulation of rationally justified hypotheses. This does not mean that we are unwilling to take individual needs, desires, and motivations seriously,14 but we think that these can only be useful in the face of morally uncertain situations if they are subjected to critical appraisal and, therefore, if they remain available for reconsideration, contestation, and, ultimately, even for rejection. This is what makes experimentalism so valuable, for, by not restricting moral experience to a purely private phenomenon, we remain open to the possibility of deliberating with others, even with those who hold radically opposite views, so that our common problems and conflicts can be successfully addressed.

44In summary, unlike objectivism and subjectivism, which make us prisoners of our own preconceptions and arbitrary inclinations, experimentalism provides us with the means not only to flexibly adapt ourselves to the ever-changing circumstances of life but also to constructively transform them. It allows us to be less adamant about our own opinions and choices and more tolerant toward the views and actions of others, and it brings with it the promise of enabling us to work together so that we can conduct our lives in ways that are truly meaningful for all.

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Anderson Elizabeth, (2015), “Moral Bias and Corrective Practices: A Pragmatist Perspective,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 89, 21-47.

Bernstein Richard J., (1971), Praxis and Action: Contemporary Philosophies of Human Activity, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.

Bernstein Richard J., (1989), “Pragmatism, Pluralism and the Healing of Wounds,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 63 (3), 5-18.

Colapietro Vincent, (2020), “Pragmatist Portraits of Experimental Intelligence by Peirce, James, Dewey, and Others,” in Steven Fesmire (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Dewey, New York, Oxford University Press, 75-98.

Dewey John, (1982), Reconstruction in Philosophy, in The Middle Works of John Dewey, volume 12: 1920, ed. by Jo Ann Boydston, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill., Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey John, (1984), The Quest for Certainty, in The Later Works of John Dewey, volume 4: 1929, ed. by Jo Ann Boydston, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill., Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey John, (1986), Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, in The Later Works of John Dewey, volume 12: 1938, ed. by Jo Ann Boydston, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill., Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey John, (2008), Ethics, in The Later Works of John Dewey, volume 7: 1932, ed. by Jo Ann Boydston, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill., Southern Illinois University Press.

Fesmire Steven, (2003), John Dewey and Moral Imagination: Pragmatism in Ethics, Indiana, Indiana University Press.

Habermas Jürgen, (1992), Postmetaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays, transl. by William Mark Hohengarten, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press.

Hickman Larry A., (2007), Pragmatism and Post-Postmodernism: Lessons From John Dewey, New York, Fordham University Press.

Koopman Colin, (2012), “Pragmatist Resources for Experimental Philosophy: Inquiry in Place of Intuition,” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 26 (1), 1-24.

Moody-Adams Michele M., (1997), Fieldwork in Familiar Places: Morality, Culture, and Philosophy, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Peirce Charles Sanders, (1992a), “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” The Essential Peirce, volume 1 (1867-1893), edited by Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel, Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 28-55.

Peirce Charles Sanders, (1992b), “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” The Essential Peirce, volume 1 (1867-1893), edited by Nathan Houser & Christian Kloesel, Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 124-41.

Pueyo-Ibáñez Belén, (2021), “Moral Inquiry Beyond Objectivism and Subjectivism,” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 35 (2), 165-75.

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Rorty Richard, (1980), “Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 53 (6), 719-38.

Stuhr John J., (2002), “Power/Inquiry: The Logic of Pragmatism,” in F. Thomas Burke, D. Micah Hester & Robert B. Talisse (eds), Dewey’s Logical Theory: New Studies and Interpretations, Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press, 275-86.

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1 I have provided a more detailed account of this distinction in Pueyo-Ibáñez 2021.

2 This point is emphasized by Hilary Putnam, who has characterized the argument that one can be both fallibilistic and anti-skeptical as “the unique insight of American pragmatism” (Putnam 1994: 152).

3 Of course, much more could be said about Peirce’s complex and continually evolving views on rational inquiry; this, however, would go far beyond the scope of this paper. My goal here is simply to set a theoretical foundation for experimentalism, on the one hand, and to credit Peirce for his enormous contribution to its development, on the other.

4 See Bernstein 1989, and Rorty 1980.

5 The pragmatist experimentalism to which I am referring here should not be confused with experimental philosophy or X-Phi, although it is true that they share some common features. For a very informative analysis of the similarities and differences between them, see Koopman 2012.

6 See Colapietro (2020: 77).

7 For a critical assessment of pragmatist experimentalism, see Bernstein (1971: 226-9).

8 For a critical assessment of Dewey’s theory of inquiry, see Stuhr 2002.

9 For a concise and informative account of this aspect of Dewey’s theory of inquiry, see Hickman (2007: 213-5).

10 As Steven Fesmire suggests, the role of imagination is crucial in the establishment of analogies between the experiences of the past and those of the present. See Fesmire (2003: 58).

11 For a nuanced discussion of this issue, see Colapietro (2020: 80-1).

12 As Hickman interestingly argues, the projection of an end-in-view requires the establishment of a relation between what is existentially there and what is hypothetical envisaged, between the concrete and the abstract. Now, this process of abstraction, he states, is never an end in itself, “but instead a tool for developing new meanings that can be brought back down into the realm of concrete, existential experience.” As he concludes, “inquiry is undertaken for the sake of effecting change in a concrete, existential world; it is there and only there that abstractions are determined to have succeeded or failed, that is, to have been useful or not” (Hickman 2007: 216).

13 This, needless to say, presupposes a conception of moral inquiry as a task performed, not exclusively, not even primarily, by philosophers but by all individuals, especially by those affected, directly or potentially, by a particular moral problem. Contrary to what some might believe, this does not represent an obstacle to its exercise and success but rather an undeniable advantage, for it allows a plurality of voices, particularly of those who are in a situation of disadvantage, to be heard. The work of moral philosophers should be considered, in this sense, a mere contribution – one as valuable as any other – to a much more inclusive inquiry process. For some insightful and elegant discussions on the nature of moral inquiry and the role of philosophy, see Anderson 2015, and Moody-Adams (1997: 176).

14 These, as Dewey argues, constitute after all a fundamental driving force of human conduct that, as such, should not be ignored. As he writes, “the real object of moral judgment is a union between thought and purposeful desire […] There can be no separation morally of desire and thought because the union of thought and desire is just what makes an act voluntary” (Dewey 2008: 188-9).

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Electronic reference

Belén Pueyo Ibanez, The (Very Needed) Experimental Turn in EthicsEuropean Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy [Online], XIII-2 | 2021, Online since 20 December 2021, connection on 28 February 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Belén Pueyo Ibanez

Emory University

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