Pragmatism: What’s the Use?   /   Fall 2001   /    Articles

Values versus Norms

A Pragmatist Account of Moral Objectivity

Hans Joas

William James (1910).

Among contemporary thinkers, Hilary Putnam is one of the strongest advocates of “moral realism.” At least since the publication of his book Reason, Truth, and History in 1981, he has developed ingenious and sophisticated arguments against moral skepticism and in favor of the possibility of objectivity regarding moral questions. “But not every defense of moral objectivity,” Putnam writes,

is a good thing. We live in an “open society,” a society in which the freedom to think for oneself about values, goals, and mores is one that most of us have come to cherish. Arguments for “moral realism” can, and sometimes unfortunately do, sound like arguments against the open society; and while I do wish to undermine moral skepticism, I have no intention of defending either authoritarianism or moral apriorism.

And he continues: “It is precisely for this reason that in recent years I have found myself turning to the writings of the American pragmatists.”11xHilary Putnam, Words and Life, ed. James Conant (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994) 152.

For most experts on American pragmatism, Putnam’s view that pragmatism is both antiskepticism and antidogmatism is not really new; they were attracted to these American thinkers for exactly the same reason. But the fact that Putnam, despite earlier contact with pragmatist thinking in his student days, truly rediscovered it later in his life enables him not just to rephrase what the earlier pragmatists said, but to reconstruct and improve their arguments in view of possible objections so that a modified neo-pragmatism comes into sight—a neo-pragmatism that looks very different from Richard Rorty’s version.

The Rortyan version of neo-pragmatism has come to be perceived much more as a new and particularly radical form of value-relativism than as a contribution to the defense of moral objectivity. But Rorty’s position, whether it is defensible or not, cannot simply be identified with the intentions and the works of the historical pragmatists. Catherine Elgin’s formula “between the absolute and the arbitrary” is particularly apt to characterize the fact that the pragmatists were indeed anti-absolutists, but that this did not turn them into a species of valuerelativists.22xCatherine Elgin, Between the Absolute and the Arbitrary (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997). Many contemporary pragmatists are visibly relieved that Putnam’s reputation makes it easier again to mark the differences between Rorty’s thinking and the classical pragmatists and to draw the attention of a wider public to these differences. It goes without saying, however, that “being closer to the classical pragmatists” does not mean “being right,” though any difference between the contemporary pragmatists and classical pragmatism for which no explicit reasons have been given may initiate a process of reflection about the reasons for this difference.

In this contribution I will restrict myself to the question of moral objectivity and to a different confrontation, not the one between Putnam and Rorty, but the one between Putnam and the discourse ethics of Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel, which is also based on ideas stemming from the classical pragmatists. Both sides claim—with good reason—to be articulating the spirit of pragmatism today and both defend the possibility of moral objectivity, but they are also in serious dispute about the precise ways one can argue for moral objectivity on pragmatist grounds.33xJohn Stuhr misunderstands my intention here. I don’t take Putnam or Habermas or, for that matter, Rorty as representatives of classical pragmatism, but as brilliant and insightful contemporary thinkers who all try to make pragmatism vital again. I admire many of the thinkers Stuhr calls “head pragmatists,” and probably nobody can deny their enormous fruitfulness. See John Stuhr’s “Life without Spirituality, Philosophy without Transcendence” in this issue of The Hedgehog Review, n. 1. The topic I will be dealing with is the problem of the relationship between values and norms—terms which are often used almost interchangeably in the wider public but for which a clear distinction has been made in philosophy and social theory since around 1900. While norms refer to the obligatory and restrictive dimension of morality, values refer to its attractive dimensions. The problem in the context of a discussion about moral objectivity is whether such objectivity can apply to both dimensions of morality—norms and values—or to only one of them.

Discourse ethics is characterized by a sharp distinction between values and norms and by the view that moral objectivity can be reached on the level of norms, but not on the level of values. Norms, according to Habermas and Apel, can take on the character of universally valid statements of obligation, but values are said to remain in the necessarily subjective and contingent sphere of individual or collective commitments. Hilary Putnam finds this side of the discourse-ethical project unsatisfactory. In a talk he gave on the occasion of Jürgen Habermas’s 70th birthday in 1999,44xHilary Putnam, “Values and Norms,” unpublished manuscript, 1999. he criticized Habermas for having an understanding of values as subjective. Reiterating his argument about thick ethical concepts, inspired by Iris Murdoch,55xIris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge, 1971). Putnam tried to demonstrate that the meaning of such concepts cannot be neatly divided up into a purely descriptive part, on the one hand, and an attitude-indicator, on the other. This is to say, value-terms are neither reducible to merely descriptive terms nor are they conceptually dispensable when we talk about human actions. For Putnam, we can indeed have reasonable communication about values; a discussion of ethics restricted to norms deals with only one part of ethics. In Putnam’s view, it is “the sharp separation that Habermas posits between ‘values’ and ‘norms,’” which thus has to be criticized.66xHilary Putnam, “Values and Norms.”

My point is the following: I agree with Putnam that we can have reasonable communication about values, and that norms are only part of ethics. But I agree with Habermas that we should indeed make a clear distinction between the restrictive and the attractive side of morality, between norms and values. Hence, I disagree with Putnam when he says that this sharp separation between norms and values is the origin of the problems he finds in Habermas’ work. I need three steps to make my point. First, I will try to show that the classical pragmatists made as sharp a distinction between these two dimensions of morality as Habermas does but that this did not lead them to an understanding of values as completely non-cognitive or subjective. Second, I will demonstrate at least in a cursory manner why discourse ethics needs to restrict its claims. And, third, I will attempt to show at least briefly how our communication about values differs from a rational discourse about norms. It is my interest in the particular logic of our communication about values that motivates this whole endeavor; I will argue that there can indeed be communication about the “attractive” side of morality as well.

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