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This house believes in Utilitarianism over its rivals.

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 2/6/2013 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 5 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 4,823 times Debate No: 29943
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (40)
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Hello, welcome to the debate.

The debate is simply as the resolution stands. No squirreling of terminology to change the intended purpose of debate, the division of labour is mostly on myself (though my opponent should present a counterplan).

The round structures should be as followed:

R1 - Acceptance and any opening remarks.
R2 - An explanation of your ethical system. There should not be serious engagement with the opposition's argument, though it can touch upon it.
R3 - A riposte to the opposition's ethical system.
R4 - Conclusion.

A normative ethical system is defined as a system that regards how to behave in moral life, giving practical solutions to ethical dilemmas. A normative ethical system which does not, or cannot, tell us what is moral, or specifically aims to make all normative ethical systems equal, is not a normative ethical system.

Only accept if you have:

1) An ELO of over 3500
2) If you've posted in the comments, and I stated explicitly that you are a good debater to whom the ELO standard need not apply.

If anyone breaks this rule, assume all 7 points goes to myself.

Finally, the judging is which argument was presented more convincingly. If you are not convinced, fine, but if you were more convinced by my opponent's argument yet remain a utilitarian, you should vote for them, and vice versa.

With that, I look forwards to seeing who will take part. I would also ask people to refrain from commenting on rebuttals to arguments in the comments section once the debate has begun until it has finished, as per common etiquette. Thank you, and I'll look forward to any debate.


Thanks for the debate Stephen. I will save my opening remarks for the next Round.
Debate Round No. 1


Firstly, I want to say thank you to my esteemed opponent for this debate. He has a great reputation as a debater, and I look forward to his certainly strong case.

We must first start with the basic principle of what is morality, or what is ethics. Of course, if ethics isn't anything, this becomes problematic. I assume to begin with ethics is a universally non-cognitive system which evaluates the rules we wish to govern our private lives by. That is, morality exists only in the community of persons. Similar to aesthetics or politics, without people morality simply cannot be. Ethics is also a governance system. Ethics governs the private life (our life of how we act and what we do and don't do etc.).

If ethics governs the self, it governs every individual, individually. Thus, ethics is the evaluation of one's own actions. Ethics is whether we should do what we do. As everyone has their own "ethic", if everyone lives by their ethic people will come into conflict. If we assume our private view is true for all, then we enforce this view onto others. This is known as a state of nature - people will assault each other for foods and lands and, as there is no public ethic, or politics, people will punish each other violently and act violently as a result, much more violently than people will think is fair. Thus, the state of nature will be seen by the aggregate as unfair. Even those who are successful in the state of nature will be in deep fear at all times: they are worried they will be stolen from, or hurt when asleep and cannot defend themselves, or that a more powerful person will come along and simply beat them. The weak, of course, will be even more fearful. Thus, the state of nature is not pragmatic as well.

People rationally then come together (as that is the alternative: stay apart or group together, and both will happen). People make an agreement: "You don't hurt me", the first person says. The second person agrees: he doesn't want to be hurt. And this incredibly crude system is created, a system of morality. This is a prescriptivist moral system: people coming together and stating imperatives both parties agree upon.

Let's take stock, and look at criticisms. One could contend this simply will not happen. However, this seems pointless to assume as given the thousands of years this certainly went on for, and the millions it theoretically could, there's very good reason to assume this will occur. One could criticise this as a normative judgement: they should group together, arguing this is a way of forming something like morality, but in fact is a bad or false moral system. I'll address this point now.

If it is a bad moral system, it's a system people reject. But why would one reject a system? Let's assume you value your freedom, and wish to preserve it. Or you wish to preserve your traditions. Or preserve your virtues. Prescriptivism accepts all of these, as when people come together, they all come together because they have something in common: a value they all wish to promote. This is where discourse ethics can slide in: you want to value discourse, or reason. My problem with discourse ethics is that it stops a step early: its assumption that discussion is good is because we like reason. It's our enjoyment, or happiness, that is why we came together. We want to protect this value.

Let's take stock, and look at criticisms again. You can reasonably argue that this is a system of relativism. The reasoning is clear: if it simply depends on who made the agreement, then ethics is just relative and there is no principle. However, the problem is that the principle of utility underlies everyone's barter. The brute fact is this: when people do something, they want to do it. Whether it's the lesser of two evils, whether it's only an apparent good, they do it because they want to. This principle is in every single action humans do, and as such it is not relative on who signs the contract. This is the motivation of action, and this is why people agree to an ethical system: they have a common ethical principle everyone abides by, and everyone has as a result the same moral virtue.

The moral virtue is the value of preference. This is key: you may dislike their values, but that is no impetus to stop them. Otherwise, people may similarly dislike your value and go against you, and kick you from society, or you may force back to a state of nature, which is worse. Something is good if it promotes the net preference. If their value goes against the net preference, then you can rightly condemn that ethical system. However, if people live their life in ways you do not like (e.g. commit euthanasia), you cannot morally stop them as their right to freedom is paramount.

Again, let's take stock. One can criticise this system as not consequentialist, but as deontological. Personally, I don't see the dichotomy, but many say this is a problem. Ethical systems like Natural Law, Kantian Ethics and Divine Command Theory all say there are moral laws which are morally required to be followed: "Do not steal" is usually a common one. The problem is that these ethical principles are not founded in anything, and are too rigid in many systems. Utilitarian ethics goes past this, and simply claims ontic goods. Ontic goods are goods which are not material or obvious, but values which ought to be promoted. So while giving money to charity is a good, the ontic good is generosity to good causes. Clearly, giving money to charity is usually good, but not always (giving money to the "Help us bomb Spain" fundprobably isn't a good use of money) but generosity to good causes is always good. The ontic good of utilitarianism is the principle of utility: maximise preference.

This is the equivalent of the moral principle. While deontological systems have these moral laws which are rigid and lead to intuitively horrid events, the consequentialist approach of the principle of utility simply lacks this fault: its flexibility gives it its true advantage.

One may reasonably contend I have contradicted myself: I have said at the beginning that an example of a prescriptivist law is "do not hurt me", which is clearly not an ontic good, but now I say that it is only the ontic good that matters: maximise preference. This is a valid criticism. The solution is this: a wholehearted acceptance of these rules. Some subscribe to the utilitarian system known as Act Utilitarianism, where actions are to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. I do not see that as being easily logically derived. Instead, I accept Rule Utilitarianism, where following rules which can promote preference. However, I am not a Hard Rule Utilitarianism, meaning we should always follow these rules. Instead, I am a Soft Rule Utilitarian. Mill explains this well: "particular cases may occur in which some other social duty is so important, as to overrule any one of the general [rules] of justice [such as "do not kill"]. Thus, to save a life, it may not only be allowable, but a duty, to steal, or take by force, the necessary food or medicine, or to kidnap, and compel to officiate, the only qualified medical practitioner".

Rules are good to live by as rules provide order and promote stability and thus ease for justice to be done. However, they are not sacrament, and can be broken in order to promote a clear good. For example, killing people who disagree with your political views is a morally bad thing to do, I am sure we'd agree as a principle at least. However, if someone is a Nazi and is about to put their view into practice, I would say, in the words of Mill, we have not just a moral allowance but a moral duty to stop them.

The advantage of utilitarianism is we can make flexible moral judgements. It is a practical system due to the felicific calculus to evaluate moral acts, and it takes as central an equality of all men: “everyone is to count as one, none more than one” is a necessary conclusion of the system.

With this, I pass over to my opponent. Good luck.



Thanks Stephen. I want to briefly note that Stephen and I have agreed in the comments that this is a theoretical debate and voting should therefore not take sources into account. I have a lot of ground to cover so I'll get right to my argument.


The pragmatist Charles Peirce held that nothing was indubitable. Each thing was open to doubt, although not all things at once. Each thing could be doubted on the basis of other propositions that were, at that particular moment, not actually in doubt. Their turn could come later. The idea is that any proposition is only justified locally, in a specific time and place or historical and social context. Otto Neurath likened this situation to that of sailors who have to rebuild a ship at sea: while standing on somewhat rotten planks, they must repair and replace the others. Every plank sooner or later gets repaired. Everything is open to transformation. Nothing stays fixed.

Pragmatists thus push Kant's epistemology one step further, arguing that the "categories" through which experience is always interpreted are the creations of human subjects who cannot "step outside" their interpretive framework. In other words, epistemic access to reality is necessarily mediated by concepts and descriptions that precede that reality. Of course, this means different interpretive frames produce different beliefs and conceptions of reality. And because there is no independent or neutral mechanism for adjudicating between these different interpretive frames, pragmatists maintain that there are no absolute and certain foundations for knowledge.

The pragmatist thus recognizes that, for any general principle, there will always be an exception. And this is where a pragmatic ethics differs markedly from other ethical systems: whereas most normative frameworks attempt to provide an unchanging basis for moral action (ergo, moral absolutes), pragmatism eschews moral absolutes, not because it denies their existence, but because (a) there are too many potential non-arbitrary candidates and (b) because there is no neutral device, mechanical test, algorithm, or knock-down argument for determining which candidates are right and which candidates are wrong.

Wikipedia puts it quite forcefully when it says, "ethical pragmatists acknowledge that it can be appropriate to practice a variety of other normative approaches (e.g. consequentialism, deontological ethics, and virtue ethics), yet acknowledge the need for mechanisms which allow society to advance beyond such approaches." Indeed, Wikipedia says that a pragmatic ethics entails the following points: (1) a focus on society, (2) the potential to revise moral criteria, and thus (3) the potential for conflicting moral judgments across different times and places.

Why should anyone prefer ethical pragmatism to utilitarianism?

1. If "the advantage of utilitarianism" lies in its "flexibility," as Stephen claims, then pragmatism is obviously superior because it is even more flexible than utilitarianism. Ethical pragmatism recognizes that the facts of a situation make all the difference, and in different circumstances, entirely different actions may be appropriate. So while utilitarianism requires moral uniformity between people and across cultures, pragmatism does not.

2. Pragmatism understands moral advance as the product of an ongoing conversation and tradition of inquiry. In other words, pragmatism preserves what John Stuart Mill calls the "marketplace of ideas." The basis for moral action thus emerges out of the competition of ideas in free public discourse. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, imposes its principles on everyone without requiring continuous scrutiny and transformation in the public realm of discourse and competition.

3. Pragmatism is more practical than utilitarianism. This much is obvious from the credo: "do what works." The whole point of a pragmatic ethics is to establish a morality based around doing what works. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, require us to evaluate moral acts according to an exceedingly complex calculus, adding up all the happiness and unhappiness that may result from every alternative action. In reality, being a true utilitarian is nearly impossible, as very few people (if any) could actually perform the complex calculations demanded by utilitarianism. Moreover, utilitarians also run into the problem of moral paralysis, especially since a utilitarian calculus often produces moral judgments that conflict with our moral intuitions. Which brings me to my next point:

4. Pragmatism does not conflict with our moral intuitions; utilitarianism does. There are many well-known objections to utilitarianism on this basis alone. According to pragmatists, on the other hand, our moral intuitions themselves shift according to circumstance: over time, through the crucible of experience, what works becomes intuition. And when what worked in one context stops working in a different context, our intuitions naturally will change to reflect that different things work in different circumstances. Hence, a pragmatic ethics is more in tune with our moral intuitions precisely because moral intuitions are the product of pragmatism to begin with. They aid us in making quick and efficient yet moral decisions.

5. The process through which pragmatism evaluates moral acts has its parallel in science: as revolutionary new discoveries are made, scientific theories are revised and often-times replaced entirely by new theories (for example, the shift from Newtonian mechanics to Relativity and Quantum Mechanics). So on that note: pragmatic ethics is more scientific than utilitarianism. The point here is that pragmatism is more responsive to change than utilitarianism. A new discovery about the nature of things should obviously be reflected in the way we evaluate moral acts. Pragmatists respond to these kinds of changes better than utilitarians because pragmatists are able to develop new types of reasons for acting a certain way whereas utilitarians must evaluate moral acts using the same mechanism regardless of the circumstance.

7. Pragmatism is, epistemologically-speaking, more correct than utilitarianism. As human subjects, the nature of our consciousness is such that our understanding is always limited by the horizons of our experience. Human agents are always situated in particular contexts, and efforts to transcend or fully understand that situation are doomed to failure. Ethical pragmatism thus recognizes our position as human subjects with a limited understanding; utilitarianism (quite arrogantly) does not.

8. Pragmatism allows for multiple values to be given their due whereas utilitarianism chooses one value to be maximized, often to the detriment of others. For example, a pragmatist can put knowledge, justice, life, and love on an equal footing with happiness, whereas utilitarians will often make actions that benefit these other values impermissible because they decrease net happiness. And because there is no knock-down argument that says happiness is more important than knowledge or justice or life or love, pragmatism is thus more likely to fulfill the particular needs of particular people.

9. Pragmatism recognizes that, in some contexts, people should not be counted as equal; utilitarianism does not. For example, take the famous organ donor case: a doctor with three dying patients, all in need of organ transplants, has the chance to kill a healthy patient and using his/her organs to save the three. Utilitarians would say the doctor has a moral imperative to kill the healthy patient. Pragmatists, on the other hand, can employ different ways of thinking to conclude that killing the healthy patient is wrong.


The arguments I have been making all emphasize the same points: pragmatic ethics is better than utilitarianism because it does everything utilitarianism does but better, more flexible, more practical, more scientific, and more epistemologically sound.
Debate Round No. 2


Thank you. I'll start off by addressing my opponent's case, then reinforce my own.

Epistemic Basis

My opponent argues for pragmatism through an appeal to a broken boat and anti-foundationalism. There is a major problem here: knowledge is not like a boat, where all the facts are on the same level bobbing along. It is more like a ladder: there are conclusions high up, built on premises, which are in turn built on more premises all the way to its base. And this isn't really an analogy, it is how logic works. We have a conclusion, supported by premises, which in turn are supported.

We do not question this. Why? Because logic is indubitable. When we question the bases of logic, we reach contradictions or things we simply cannot comprehend. For example, when we question whether you can be pregnant without bearing child, we cannot imagine this working. We cannot imagine a green wall not having a speck of green. We have foundational truths which we cannot doubt - not because we'e not allowed to, but because we are incapable of doing so. This is a turn against anti-foundationalism: it simply follows that there are some indubitabe truths.

Moreover, another thing about ladders is that they end. The Munchhausen trilemma takes an argument, and looks at it. Does the argument ever end? Assume conclusion X is supported by Y, which is in turn true due to Z. There are four possibilities: either Z is regressively true (foundationalism), the system loops (coherentism, which my opponent seems to espouse), or there is an infinite regress, or nothing is true[1]. Ignoring the third and fourth option, my opponent espouses that truths indirectly prove themselves, as "there is no independent or neutral mechanism" for determining what is true, as "human subjects who cannot "step outside" their interpretive framework". I ask my opponent: how can a belief (albeit indirectly) prove itself? Also, ladders have a single rung which is a brute fact. However, coherentism cannot. I ask my opponent: how do things that seem to be brute facts, like "I am cold" or "I am", rely on other facts? Facts are derived from them, we do not derive them from other facts. Again, this is a turn against coherentism.

If these problems cannot be solved, my opponent's logical basis is inexistent, and thus his argument prima facie fails.

Meta-ethical basis

Meta-ethics is the study of what we mean when we say ethical statements. For example, what do we mean when I say "Murder is wrong"? I claim it is a prescriptive command: I am telling you to do something, that is, not murder. If prescriptivism is wrong, my argument fails. What is my opponent's basis? He tells us strengths of pragmatism is "Pragmatism does not conflict with our moral intuitions", and "pragmatic ethics is more in tune with our moral intuitions". This implies moral intuitionism. Moral intuitionism argues we cannot reduce our moral positions down to a sentence-formula for how to behave, as morality isn't a science we can perfect and tune, but instead a recognition of the morality we just know to be true. Similar to yellow, we cannot define yellow through description: we simply know what yellow is, just like ethics. There are a number of problems with this approach though.

Firstly, the "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" argument. Our intuitions are completely different person-to-person. There is a completely radical difference between our ethics. Everyone's ethics are different. But we don't have these disputes about whether something is yellow! Everyone knows what yellow is, even if they call it by a different name. The intuitionist meta-ethical stance is just plain false.

Seondly, not only do we disagree with each other on intuition, but we disagree with ourselves. I want to lose weight, which means not eating doughnuts, but God they taste soooo gooood...ahem. Our intuition disagrees so much that an ethical system based on it is self-contradictory.

Finally, this contradicts with his original case against foundationalism! If foundationalism isn't true, then there aren't these self-obvious things which we just know to be true. Yet that is precisely what intuitionism claims! There are these self-obvious facts. I am sure I am accidentally misprepresenting my opponent's ethical position, because this is too glaring a contradiction to ignore.

Again, if any of these problems cannot be resolved, then my opponent has no logical basis for his argument and his argument prima facie fails.

However, an interesting problem arises as I agree with my opponent that meta-ethically we are non-cognitive. This agrees with my starting foundation of my argument. Unless he can provide either a cognitive approach to morality or disprove the validity of my case, my argument is prima facie rationally justified.

The normative ethical systems

Firstly, utilitarianism claims exactly that "situation make[s] all the difference, and in different circumstances, entirely different actions [are] appropriate". I made clear "Utilitarian ethics goes past this". However, pragmatism goes beyond flexibility: it is unable to make ethical judgments at all. We have no ability, from the information my opponent provided, to judge any situation, and what makes an action moral or not, other that it being "pragmatic". That's not an explanation. Utilitarianism, however, gives situations with what to do, and I made clear what they are, such as when stealing is moral or immoral.

Secondly, my opponent's claim utilitarianism doesn't promote discourse is simply comical: he cites a utilitarian to give credence to his idea! If we did not listen to people's ideas, people would be unhappy. However, there are some ideas that should not be publicly repeatedly heard, like "kill all the jews". Utilitarianism is compatible with quietening (thought not silencing) other voices to get jobs done. By contrast, my opponent, in his words, contends pragmatism "requires moral uniformity between people and across cultures" of promoting discourse. He contradicts himself with his values: firstly uniformity is wrong, now the lack of uniformity is wrong... certainly pragmatism allows us to say anything we want to criticise others, and if that includes contradiction, so be it!

Thirdly, is pragmatism more pragmatic than utilitarianism? Imagine you worked in a nuclear power plant. You have no idea what to do. There are two men telling you how to operate the factory. The first man, a pragmatist, says "do what works". You have no idea how to proceed! I wouldn't! The second man, by contrast, is a utilitarian. He explains how the plant works (via explaining meta-ethics as I have done), and how to operate it (via the felicific calculus of evaluating things based on the net preference created). Who has been more practical and useful here? If the utilitarian, then clearly the fact that utilitarianism answers your questions gives it a massive boost in its favour.

My opponent then commits to another absolutist value-statement: science is better than all else. In all fields? I'll happily claim ethics isn't a science, as it doesn't follow a scientific method, nor has my opponent shown it has. Utilitarianism is similar to science, though, in the sense that it has a method. Pragmatism has no evaluative method to weigh up actions, because it simply cannot. Utilitarianism asks how to live your life, not how do magnets work. It's not rocket science, pun intended.

Points seven and eight are irrelevant, as I addressed them in the first round. Preference utilitarianism is value-plural, and my argument doesn't presume infallibility (or even correct knowledge) anywhere among those taking part. Though a valid criticism in other ethical systems, it is not a problem in my presentation.

Finally, my opponent claims pragmatists can conclude killing the healthy patient is wrong. I say, conclude it. My opponent has made no moral claims, because pragmatism doesn't make them. He cannot even claim this is wrong.

I await my opponent's next case.

1 -



Robert Nozick offers a compelling response to Pro. He explains, "the fact that a particular theory has a fixed point does not show that this very same point must or will be held fixed by every plausible theory. And it does not show the theory under consideration is unable successively to transform itself by using its own then accepted standards, so that this point and even these very standards get modified." [1]

Nozick thus shows that there are different kinds of logics with different foundations. The point is that these so-called "foundations" are always conditional (they are assumed but never proven), and these foundations can be doubted if a different set of assumptions are taken as a starting point. Pro claims that, even so, at least the simplest law of non-contradiction must be indubitable. Again, Pro is wrong.

Nozick himself emphasizes that "logic and reason would not crumble if the law of non-contradiction is given up." Furthermore, the law of non-contradiction itself is a formal determination bereft of any content: what is and is not a contradiction will vary depending on distinctions that are already in place. A contradiction must be a contradiction between something and something else, and the shape of those somethings will always be the product of an interpretive act.

Even abstract logical operations, including the law of non-contradiction, rely on an interpretive framework which is itself open to doubt. Pro's claim that there are indubitable truths is therefore false. Every single truth can be doubted on the basis of a different set of assumptions, and this applies even in the case of logic and reason.


I never said truths prove themselves. I am saying that every belief is the product of a certain set of assumptions which must be established as a starting point on faith alone (see Nozick above). Even statements like "I am" rely on interpretive determinations about what it means to identify yourself as something that exists (not to mention a fully-functioning language necessary to utter or think "I am" in the first place). Within a different paradigm or interpretive framework, given a different set of assumptions, a statement such as "I am" may be false. Point is, there are no indubitable facts that prove themselves; every fact relies on some other fact which is itself open to doubt on the basis of other plausible facts.


The typical pragmatist employs what Aristotle calls "practical reasoning": an understanding of your goal, a survey of alternative ways of reaching it, a calculation of likely consequences, an effort to identify the relevant considerations, an analysis of what happened last time, and so on. The pragmatist thus employs many forms of moral reasoning, including the use of our moral intuitions.

This does not mean pragmatism is the equivalent of moral intuitionism. Pro's argument equivocates between the meaning of "moral intuitions" and the philosophical doctrine known as "moral intuitionism," and thus Pro attacks a straw man. Even though pragmatists may appeal to their intuitions, they nevertheless make it a point to continuously analyze and revise their moral positions on the basis of practical reason.

The primary point I was attempting to make in R2 is that pragmatism is more practical than utilitarianism in part because pragmatism is more in tune with our moral intuitions than utilitarianism. I explained this is a good thing because it helps us make quick and efficient moral judgments.

For example, utilitarians cannot deal well with novel situations in which there are no applicable "rules of thumb," as no one can actually perform the complex calculations required by utilitarianism on the spot. This inevitably leads to moral paralysis, as utilitarians are unlikely to use their moral intuitions out of fear they will conflict with the correct moral judgment. Pragmatists, on the other hand, can fall back on their moral intuitions, thereby avoiding moral paralysis when other forms of moral reasoning are doomed to failure. It is better to act, the pragmatist reasons, than remain paralyzed.

This does not mean that pragmatists establish their moral intuitions as the sole source of moral knowledge (often pragmatists will derive moral knowledge from a utilitarian calculus). The point is, pragmatism is about making practical decisions in the moment, while also demanding that we refine our moral positions over time as best we can. In some sense, it could be said pragmatism relates to moral intuitions in the way science relates to untested theories: it is a starting point to be used practically until further experience, experiment, and contemplation can refine or revise these intuitions.

Normative Ethical Systems, or Why Pragmatism is Better Than Utilitarianism

Pro's claim that pragmatists are "unable to make ethical judgments" is patently false. Just because pragmatism is more "flexible" than utilitarianism does not mean pragmatists are unable to have moral positions: it is a simple matter of using practical reason (defined further in the Meta-Ethics section). The pragmatist can safely say that stealing is immoral in X case and moral in Y case. The difference is that pragmatists are constantly ready to revise their moral position (under the belief that human understanding is fallible) whereas utilitarians are not.

To put it another way, pragmatists make conditional moral judgments because it is practical to do so. The key point here is that pragmatists nonetheless preserve the "marketplace of ideas" by continuing to revise their moral judgments as new discoveries are made (and for the record, just because a utilitarian coined the phrase "marketplace of ideas" does not mean utilitarians preserve it).

The utilitarian calculus is supposed to produce moral absolutes, so once moral judgments are made, why would utilitarians continue to scrutinize and revise them? The answer is, they wouldn't. If Pro claims they would, it would imply the utilitarian calculus does not produce moral absolutes, in which case Pro is actually a closet pragmatist.

Pro's "nuclear power plant" analogy completely and utterly misrepresents pragmatism. The pragmatist would not simply tell the man "do what works." The pragmatist would teach the man how to operate the plant, and then (and this is the most important part as it locates the primary difference between utilitarianism and pragmatism), the pragmatist would tell the man that there may possibly be better ways to operate the plant. The pragmatist would tell the man that he should therefore constantly refine how he operates the plant on the basis of his experience, whereas the utilitarian would tell the man that there are no better ways to operate the plant.

I never said "science is better than all else," Pro is yet again misrepresenting my argument. I said a pragmatic ethics functions similarly to science insofar as it responds to new discoveries by revising its moral criteria. Thus, the argument I made in R2 was that pragmatists respond to change better than utilitarians.

Pro claims that the version of utilitarianism he defends is value-plural. This still does not address my point: if a utilitarian places multiple values on an equal footing, then the utilitarian calculus is doomed to failure. It would be unable to produce a coherent set of moral judgments. There will inevitably arise situations where one value must be chosen over others. Pragmatists can do this, as a matter of practical concern, while maintaining equality.

It is practical and reasonable to give each individual certain basic rights (John Rawls has justified these rights through practical reason). This is a fact about our society. And this is why pragmatists conclude that killing a healthy patient to save 5 lives is immoral. Utilitarians, on the other hand, advocate killing an unwilling healthy patient to save 5 lives. I find this result utterly detestable.

[1] Robert Nozick, Invariances
Debate Round No. 3


Epistemological Basis

My opponent's rebuttal simply is a quotation from Nozick, but are based on his misunderstanding on foundationalism. Foundationalism says brute facts of the quality "I am", "I think", "There is the physical", "Others exist", and "we could understand each other" exist indubitably. This allows the formation of many things: the existence of propositions allows for the existence of arguments; the existence of arguments allows for the existence of logic and reason; the existence of the physical allows for science; the existence of others (even if just extensions of ourselves or another being) allows for politics and ethics.

Moreover, without this basis, the logic and reason do crumble without the laws of logic, such as non-contradiction, because it can be derived from the other two. If it is removed, the other rules must as well. And for them to be removed, so must our brute facts. And if they are removed, we cannot believe anything. Indeed, my opponent has put himself into a corner: to prove his position, he must recreate logic and reason with a different set of assumptions from the ground up to justify his argument that it is possible. I claim it is not. The burden is on my opponent on this case.

Furthermore, he still relies on coherentism: "every fact relies on some other fact" is the same as "the truth of any (true) proposition consists in its coherence with some specified set of propositions"[1], aka coherentism. This makes all three of my criticisms still stand. He cannot show what the premise "I am" relies on, as such it promotes foundationalism, not coherentism. And even then, foundationalism still stands: my arguments for it remain untouched. The closest to a criticism of the regress argument (which claims a regress of argument must stop at some point, and the stopping point is a foundational brute fact) has been "every fact relies on some other fact". However, this is impossible. An argument regressing forever doesn't work: it must stop at some point, as an infinite chain of justification is impossible in theory, yet alone in practice.

Meta-ethical Basis

The problem is not solved. My opponent contends that his theory uses intuition, and this makes it stronger. This is an illogical chain. Just because something appeals to intuition, doesn't make it right. In fact, I contend it makes it more likely to be wrong: intuition told us the earth was flat, the sun rotated around the earth and Dynamo went to Hogwarts. Only applying reason defeats this lunacy. Even partial embrace of intuition is bad. In the words of Twain: "All the consciences I have ever heard of were nagging, badgering, fault-finding, execrable savages!" The Enlightenment, which rejected intuition as a source of knowledge, interestingly brought about common law, democracy, chartism, classical liberalism, constitutionalism and the prides of society. But I digress: pragmatism doesn't give us an answer to what we mean by ethical statements.

Normative basis

firstly, I wish to point out my opponent admits "often pragmatists will derive moral knowledge from a utilitarian calculus". Even pragmatists admit that the calculus is a brilliant way of solving moral dilemmas. Moreover, this is the cosest we get to a clear answer on how to solve ethical dilemmas. For those interested, the calculus weighs up six values:

Intensity --How intense is the pleasure or pain?

Duration --How long does the pleasure of pain last?

Certainty --What is the probability that the pleasure or pain will occur?

Fecundity --What is the probability that the pleasure will lead to other pleasures?

Purity --What is the probability that the pain will lead to other pains?

Extent --How many persons are affected by the pleasure?

(There's also propinquity, but I reject it as a factor).

My opponent contends pragmatism is better as it does not "lead to moral paralysis" due to the "complex calculations required by utilitarianism on the spot". However, the solution has been solved decades beforehand. Two-tiered utilitarianism by Hare points out "moral decisions should be based on a set of 'intuitive' moral rules, except in certain rare situations where it is more appropriate to engage in a 'critical' level of moral reasoning." It is a variant of soft rule utilitarianism, claiming we should follow rules when rushed (tackling a criminal, for example, to stop them getting away), but should put in criticial thought when possible (e.g. invading Iraq). This solves the moral paralysis problem.

My opponent also contends pragmatists nonetheless preserve the "marketplace of ideas" ", yet utilitarianism does not. It should make us at least slightly suspicious that this idea originated from utilitarian thought - after all, why would a utilitarian promote it as moral if it does not fit in with utilitarian morality? Simply put, it necessarily does. My original case in fact makes explicit that a marketplace of ideas is needed for morality to take place: it needs value-plurality to promote preference. Moreover, if we were to promote people's preference, we need to know all the options, and which idea to "buy into". Thus, we need a free "marketplace" to see each "idea". Thus, utilitarianism necessitates a marketplace of ideas. Pragmaists, of course, can simply embrace fascism if bored. In other words, utilitarianism promotes tolerance and democracy, while pragmatism simply does it because when it suits it.

Moreover, my opponent claims the calculus produces moral absolutes. This is so false that it is just insincerity rather than genuine ignorance at this point: no utilitarian ever claimed it produces moral absolutes. It is a consequentialist system, where the right thing to do depends on the situation. I made this clear in R1 devoting an entire section to this issue.

Moreover, let's revisit my nuclear power plant example. I agree my opponent tells us of many ways to operate the powerplant, but which one is best? Again, we're told 'it just tells us', nothing substantial. The fact of the matter is utilitarianism is open to improvement: that's why the theory is founded on the principle of "people coming together and stating imperatives both parties agree upon".

Finally, my opponent claims pragmatism, not utilitarianism, grants rights. But utilitarianism does grant rights. We have rights like we cannot be killed randomly: this is fundamental to the system. However, it recognises, in extreme, terrible circumstances, the breaking of human rights (a tragic thing in itself) is needed for the greater good of, for example, saving hundreds of lives. By contrast, pragmatism has no reason to hold onto these rights: if it is practical to steal this man's wallet, screw his human right to life, kill him and take it! As long as you're not discovered, it's fine. It suffers from the Gyges Problem: if you have a Ring of Gyges, a ring that turns you invisible and diverts all blame away from yu, pragmatism commands you to steal and pillage and rape and kill to your heart's content. Utilitarianism stops you.

Does Utilitarianism tell you to kill the one to save the five? That depends on how highly you value the precedence of human rights. The fact that these rights order society, and if people could kill like this there would be permanent outrage, mistrust of doctors and people would die indirectly in their droves as a result of not getting treatments out of fear of their bodies being pillaged, I'd say the doctor, via utilitarianism, cannot kill these people. If it was 500 though? Or 5000? What if the man killed was a warlord in an African country abusing human rights himself? In these cases, I'd say the killing is justified. Pragmatism has no upper hand.

To conclude, pragmatism doesn't have a leg to stand on epistemologically or meta-ethically. It's appeal to intuition ruins the argument's persuasive power, and allows us to commit immoral action whenever we feel like it. As such, I urge a vote PRO. Thank you.

1 -;


Pro has continued to misrepresent what I am saying. Hopefully our readers see through Pro's false claims but just in case I will do my best to clarify my position yet again.

Theories rest on some fixed point and this point gives rise to a whole set of beliefs. Pragmatism recognizes that this "fixed point" is not necessarily the same for every argument or theory. The Nozick quote I cited in R3 explains this idea quite well:

"The fact that a particular theory has a fixed point does not show that this very same point must or will be held fixed by every plausible theory. And it does not show the theory under consideration is unable successively to transform itself by using its own then accepted standards, so that this point and even these very standards get modified."

When I said that facts rely on other facts, what I meant in the context of my argument is that our beliefs are dependent on a "fixed point" which itself is open to transformation. These fixed points can transform themselves using the very standards they give rise to, and thus in the process of transformation, the very standards that produce change in the first place can end up modified. Pragmatists maintain that everything is open to transformation. The fixed point in any system can change producing a change in the system itself. Pro never addresses this.

Furthermore, pragmatists say there is no independent epistemological mechanism for determining which "fixed point" is ultimately correct. The reason for this is because the means by which we know the world is limited by our inability to step outside our own perspective. We our human beings, and as human beings our understanding is limited by the horizon of our experience. We can only see the world from our limited perspective, and as such our understanding of the world will always be mediated by our experience of it. We cannot evaluate or judge our beliefs in a neutral way that is not limited by our location in time and space. I made this argument in R2 yet Pro has continued to ignore it.

Instead, Pro claims without any substantiation whatsoever that "brute facts" must exist. The lack of substantiation for Pro's claim is sufficient evidence to dismiss the claim but the problems with Pro's argument do not stop there. Pro's point is a complete misrepresentation of my position because I never said "brute facts" cannot exist. What I said is that we do not have epistemic access to these "brute facts" and therefore no way of knowing with absolute certainty which beliefs are correct and which beliefs are wrong. This does not mean that these brute facts don't in actuality exist. We simply cannot know what they are.

Pro claims I must "recreate logic and reason with a different set of assumptions from the ground up to justify his argument that it is possible." I this this is an abusive burden that cannot be met in the short space of a debate. What I can do is make reference to authorities on the subject like Robert Nozick, as I did in R3, and offer examples of what are known as "paraconsistent logics" through a reference to the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy:

This link provides the example of discursive logic by the logician Jaśkowski, a non-adjunctive logic by Rescher and Manor, preservationism by Jennings and Scotch, and a bevy of other paraconsistent logics. I highly recommend readers take a look at them. Since this is a side point to the debate, I will not discuss them in detail except to make my point that the law of non-contradiction is not essential to logic or reason.

Pro's claim that pragmatism is the equivalent of coherentism is false. I already explained that pragmatists affirm "fixed points" that serve as conditional foundations. This counters both coherentism and infinitism as an objection.

Pro claims that an appeal to intuition is more likely to make something wrong. His argument is that, because some intuitions are wrong, therefore appealing to intuition is more likely to make something wrong. Pro's argument fails because 1) there are many intuitions that are correct, 2) most ethical intuitions (the relevant ones to this debate) are correct, 3) intuitions change to reflect advances in knowledge, and 4) Pro has not shown there to be any recurring pattern or correlation whatsoever between something being wrong being the result of an appeal to intuition. I would argue that, when it comes to ethics, our intuitions are right more often than they are wrong.

Pro is correct that pragmatists may choose to derive moral knowledge from a utilitarian calculus. This may or may not happen depending on the circumstances. The point here is that the form of moral reasoning chosen depends on the circumstances. If it is discovered at some point in the future that there is a better way to establish a moral judgment, then pragmatists will choose that over utilitarian forms of reasoning. Whatever works best is what will be chosen.

Pro claims moral decisions should be based on "intuitive" moral rules. The irony of this claim is that Pro has spent a good deal of his time arguing that appeals to intuition are flawed and incoherent. This puts Pro in a double bind. If Pro accepts his argument that appealing to intuition makes something more likely to be wrong, then Pro implicitly admits that utilitarians will often act immorally. Furthermore, if we accept that appealing to intuitions are an acceptable practice, then utilitarians still run into the problem of the eventual conflict between our ethical intuitions and the utilitarian calculus. There will eventually be a novel situation (as I explained in R3) in which people do not know what the utilitarian calculus would say. If that person then follows their intuition and their intuition conflicts with the judgment of the utilitarian calculus, Pro would in effect be saying that utilitarians are allowed to act immorally because it is the only practical solution. Which is exactly why I now claim that Pro is a closet pragmatist, since Pro is choosing the practicality of an action OVER AND ABOVE the judgment of the utilitarian calculus.

I think this point weighs so heavily in my favor that I want to say it again. Pro has chosen to adopt a modified utilitarian framework in which the practicality of an action is more important than its morality according to the utilitarian calculus. To put it another way, Pro is choosing what works as opposed to the maximization of utiltiy. This is pragmatism, not utilitarianism.

Pro claims utilitarianism is open to improvement. It may be the case that utilitarians are open to improvement but they are not open to change: utilitarians will always believe in the moral imperative to maximize utility. This will never change, and if advance and improvement means adopting a different form of moral reasoning, then utilitarians will always fall short. Point is, pragmatists are flexible and more responsive to change. Pro's arguments thus fail.

The Ring of Gyges problem does not apply. Pragmatism is not the equivalent of ethical egoism. Further, Game Theory and Evolutionary Biology both show that, even if egoism is accepted, agents will cooperate, not harm others.

This problem applies to utilitarianism however. If a doctor has the option of sacrificing a healthy patient without being discovered to save 5 lives. utilitarians would say the doctor should do that. This is not an acceptable ethical result. It shows that quantifying human life and happiness does not produce ethical results.

Since Pro's conclusion comes back to intuition, I will too. Pro invokes pragmatism's appeal to intuition as its greatest fault. Yet if what Pro tells us is correct, utilitarianism appeals to intuition as well. This calls the logical consistency of Pro's argument as a whole into question.

Pragmatism is better on every level, epistemology, intuition, logical consistency, flexibility, openness to progress, and practicality.
Debate Round No. 4
40 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by Stephen_Hawkins 4 years ago
You say pragmatism tells us what widths. Well then, as a pragmatist, what widths? And how do you know?

Normative theories tell us what is ethically right or wrong. A normative theory must have a methodology of doing so. What is that of pragmatism? All that ever was established of it is that it does not have faith in consistency.

Secondly, utilitarianism would say the ten happiness 'hedons' minus five negative hedons or argoria (if my Greek is what it used to be) gives u us a net of five, which is clearly larger than three units of good and no units of bad. This can be applied across board. The answer is explicit. With regards to tragedies (I assume you mean in drama), the utilitarian is not daunted by the fact that sometimes we enjoy being sad, as we know it is theatre and watching it gives us a great sense of happiness, qualitatively larger than that of being momentarily sad by a negative event depicted on film. Again, it is a case of net happiness. Another example: I enjoyed eating a sandwich today from Subway, and that it is u unhealthy detracted from my gain in happiness. It still made me happy to eat it though, because of other factors - the more important ones - like taste.

Now, apply this to pragmatism. Very explicitly here, in a form of [ pragmatist rule], [pragmatism applied] ,[conclusion] apply pragmatism to a real example. Let's say a simple one like justifying proportionate taxation. On what grounds could it be justified for the pragmatist? Note when FourTrouble tried to do this, he appealed to every ethical theory BUT pragmatism. Go clearly from pragmatism to whether we ought to have proportional taxation or not. In reality, this should be easy for any normative theory to attempt to do (even if it does not solve the issue), but I cannot see how a pragmatist reasons without h appeal to something like utilitarianism.
Posted by Bullish 4 years ago
I am not very well versed in philosophy, and I apologize if anything I say happen to be blazingly idiotic.

Constructive empiricism is normative. Trying what works tells us what works, and that is enough to make pragmatism normative. To criticize that finding what works is does not work is what is contradictory. The methodology of maximization in utilitarianism may be normative, but it's inflexible. It may well be that the final goal is to praise a god. Pragmatism is more flexible while it remains normative. The methodology of finding what works is itself is not circular, it is objective; saying pragmatism is circular is like saying observations are circular. Further, pragmatism does not disregard either reason or consistency; if reason and consistency are what works, then it works; base level observations of good and bad do not require reason (I think you agreed to this in you debate arguments). I do agree that pragmatism shows us that utilitarianism currently works the best.

But I must mention that utilitarianism doesn't tell us everything -- what is maximal happiness? Is 10 units of good and 5 units of bad better than 3 units of good? Is it the ratio or the quantity or the difference or the minimization of bad? If you call desire an ontic good, then wouldn't you be contending quantity? If you contend quantity, then wouldn't 10 units of good and 100 units of bad be objectively better than 8 units of good and 0 units of bad? Pragmatism lets us work this problem out. Humans have this tendency to watch tragedies. This means that what makes us sad makes us happy, which is a paradox that utilitarianism cannot solve, bur pragmatism can. Yes, watch tragedies, because it works.
Posted by Stephen_Hawkins 4 years ago
Then surely it is not a normative theory, and to phrase pragmatism as a rival to utilitarianism is akin to saying empiricism is a rival to utilitarianism. It is just not criticizing the motion? If there is a search for the final goal of what is the right thing to do, then there is a methodology to do so. If there is a methodology, as I propose there is, that methodology is utilitarianism. As I stated in the debate, the primary virtue is preference (though if you asked me now, I'd more explicitly call desire an ontic good), and the methodology is its maximisation.

With pragmatism, I understand and agree that we ought to aim to work out what is morally valuable, and why. However, the methodology is what is under scrutiny, then: what is morally valuable about finding what is morally valuable? This itself seems circular: to justify why it is morally valuable requires an appeal to what we know as morally valuable. This may be done by another ethical system, or it may be done by intuitionism, but it cannot, to use the analogy, fix the rotten plank by using another boat entirely! It has to stick to some methodology of evaluating what is right or wrong. Pragmatism fails to state its methodology, except that it will change the methodology if reason does not let it conclude whatever it wants by using a certain principle. Other ethical theories will accept some strange consequences, but pragmatism would rather discard consistency, and therefore reason, itself. I see no way around this problem, if we continue to believe reason is valuable.
Posted by Bullish 4 years ago
As I understand it, the final goal is to find the final goal.
Posted by Stephen_Hawkins 4 years ago
Bullish, tell me what the final goal of pragmatism is. Utilitarianism is maximising utility. It's very simple and obvious. By contrast, Pragmatism discards whatever ethical theory it wants to for egoist reasons: if you want to be an egoist, say it up front and one can go through all l the ethical objections to egoism. Pragmatism by contrast supposedly has an objective moral standard (or quasi-realist at least), so that standard must be explicitly stated or else be hidden in a quagmire of avoiding debate or criticism.
Posted by Bullish 4 years ago
What I got out of this is that both the Utilitarian and the Pragmatist do not conflict other than on what utility is. I feel as if pragmatism is more flexible, because it is utilitarian, except more flexible on the final goal.

I'm converted.
Posted by Beginner 5 years ago
"I this this is an abusive burden that cannot be met in the short space of a debate."
From my perspective, there is an undeniable implication declaring FT's ability to actually fulfill the abusive burden given a removal of spatial parameters.
Posted by FourTrouble 5 years ago
Yea, let's do that. As it is, I doubt we'll get the debate read by very many people.
Posted by Stephen_Hawkins 5 years ago
deez, my point wasn't referring to moral intuitions, though, it was referring to all intuitions. This includes, by necessity, moral intuitions, and the fact that my opponent instead denied it relied heavily on moral intuitions yet then argued that moral intuitions played a large part implies, to me, a drop of a case.
Posted by deezycbaby 5 years ago
Well, I agree that they are conflicting intuitions but I am saying are not moral intuitions as we commonly think of. I suppose under a utilitarian model that the intuition which maximizes one's utility is the action we morally ought to do but we do not usually view eating a donut or abstaining as morally obligatory. I think a more intuitive example would be stealing to feed someone who is starving.
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