Practice, Judgment, and the Challenge of Moral and Political Disagreement. A Pragmatist Account, Lexington, Lanham, 2012, 230 p.
This book is a study in moral and political epistemology. Its aim is to clarify the function played within moral and political experience by what different philo- sophical traditions have termed “reason,” “reasonableness,” “rationality,” “thought,” “inquiry,” and “reflexivity.” This book draws inspiration directly (al- beit not exclusively) from the pragmatist tradition. It emerges from a general dissatisfaction with the standard accounts that contemporary philosophy, with its increasing epistemic emphasis, has recently been giving of reason. It also emerges from an equal dissatisfaction with the anti-intellectualistic response these standard accounts have sparked.
From the vantage point of the pragmatist tradition, both currents give rise to serious philosophical doubts and call for a general reconsideration of the forms and functions of reasoning in moral and political experience. Faithful to the pragmatist tradition, this book strikes a middle ground between the excesses of rationalism and those of anti-intellectualism, arguing to this end that our trust in the efficacy of reasoning is best vindicated through a radical re- conceptualization of its nature and scope. This reframing of reason makes in- quiry the essential frame of reference in seeking to understand the variety of forms of thought that agents rely on in dealing with moral disagreement and po- litical controversy.
To tackle this broad issue, I focus on a specific dimension of practical rea- son: the way agents construct agreement by participating in collaborative processes of inquiry. This dimension is important not only owing to the increas- ing degree of conflict in our pluralist societies, but also because disagreement and controversy are distinctive and inevitable traits of a pluralistic world. This is acknowledged by a wide range of theoretical literature, and one can easily find that disagreement has become the central theoretical theme of most contempo- rary moral and political theory. Disagreement poses a twofold challenge: it is at once a natural condition of modernity and a permanent challenge to our rational powers.
It is my claim that by developing an original understanding of how human thought acquires natural and cultural meaning, pragmatism has devised some of the most promising ideas for dealing with these challenges. Pragmatism’s van- tage point offers new ways to understand the place and scope of rationality with- in human agency and offers new solutions for dealing with rational disagreement along with new ways of conceiving the role of public reason.
As my argument unfolds, it will become clear that for the pragmatists ratio- nality should be understood as a trait of agency: regularity of habits, stability of beliefs, and a capacity to face new and unexpected situations through the prac- tice of judgment are some of its distinguishing traits. Through the reflective functions of thought, belief may (defeasibly) become “fixed,” and this empow- ers human agents to stabilize action, establish regular patterns of conduct, and find innovative solutions to specific problems. In these elements lie the corner- stones of a pragmatist theory of rationality at both individual and collective lev- el. It is around this conceptual bundle that the pragmatist tradition, despite its variety, has developed a general framework for understanding the place and scope of reason within human experience. Pragmatism, especially the variants developed by Peirce and Dewey, articulates this new understanding of rationali- ty as an immanent, evolutionary, fallibilist, problem-oriented, and self-reflective dimension of human experience. It fosters an understanding of philosophy as an epistemology of practice. As I contend, this achievement provides an important resource for contemporary philosophical work that deals with issues of moral and political—broadly practical—rationality both inside and outside the pragmatist tradition.
This book is accordingly intended to open lines of conversation between the pragmatists and others working in contemporary moral and political theory. By tackling issues of moral disagreement, public reason, pluralism, and relativism, I wish to convince the reader that a pragmatist approach fares better than many others, and to this end I engage in particular with perfectionism, critical theory, political liberalism, and other philosophical traditions.