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Pragmatism is a branch of ethical philosophy focused on deliberation and testing, using observation and realistic modes of action to determine ethics. There are three dominant authors in this field of ethics--John Dewey, C.S. Pierce, and William James. Deweyan pragmatism is by far the most common in LD. This framework is particularly strategic because unlike most ethical theories, it is not answering the question of what is ethical, but rather asking how we determine what is ethical, which means most frameworks do not disprove pragmatism.

Deweyan Pragmatism

The Deweyan version of pragmatism equates roughly to the idea of pluralism, or deliberative democracy. It prioritizes the ability to listen to voices and deliberate over the best mode of ethics. The framework supports actions that are consistent with the voicing and discovery of new ideas. We can look at a few examples to show how this framework operates:

1. Topic: The Member Nations of the World Trade Organization ought to reduce intellectual property protections for medicines

Pragmatism would most likely affirm here--intellectual property is definitionally the ability to exclusively keep your ideas to yourself--if you think of a medicine formula, no one else can use it. This is inconsistent with a theory that says we should be able to communally deliberate and express ideas because it prevents other people from experimenting with the medicine and building upon it, which prevents them from engaging in that scientific inquiry.

2. Topic: A just government ought to recognize an unconditional right of workers to strike

Once again, pragmatism would probably affirm. Strikes are the ability to refuse working in the name of some demand. This is a form of deliberation and voicing of ideas against employers who are suppressing or oppressing their workers, which is inherently a good form of idea creation.

3. Topic: States ought to ban lethal autonomous weapons

Once again, this would probably affirm. LAWs are definitionally robot weapons that can attack without a human controlling them. This means they make decisions on their own without having humans deliberate on what the correct choice is, which actively excludes idea testing. Additionally, it comes with the intent of violence which prevents deliberating in a rational manner with others, and prefers antagonistic attitudes where others are enemies, not where they are simply allies helping us find the best solution to a problem.

Next, we can look at some justifications for why this framework may be true. We'll go as per the syllogism present in the example below:

The framework starts with an evaluation for how the framework debate should operate--in other words, every framework debate relies on some philosophical assumption that only a certain framework can explain. In this case, it claims that there is inevitably disagreement in philosophy, but rather than saying that one is right and one is wrong, we should recognize the possibility that both of them may have value that can be important to ethics.

Then, in part 2, starts the actual syllogism (where you justify why your framework is true in a logical chain of events). According to Pierce, every syllogism must start with a starting point of ethics--this pragmatism framework chooses the starting point of meaning. Every framework is inevitably based on how we understand it, but that understanding only makes sense in a specific context. When we attempt to describe the world, we inevitably base it on observations such as something being hard, soft, red, blue, etc. The reason we know that, for example, in the context of a window, we need something hard to break it is because we have some form of experience with hard and soft things, and it has become a habit through observation that hard things are more likely to break windows. We apply these to our particular situations/contexts, the same way me knowing whether I need something hard over soft may apply to a window, but it wouldn't apply to me needing something to sleep on.

The syllogism then goes on to read the Serra evidence. Following Pierce, we understand the world through observation, but my observations alone would be incomplete because my experiences are limited. We should be taking the experiences of as many people as we can to create a more holistic account of the world, which is why we need to allow for deliberating and the voicing of ideas.

The framework then gives several reasons to prefer it, which won't be as in depth in this page, but tldr: (1) philosophy inevitably has limits--only pragmatism can revise those limits through deliberating over new ideas that weren't previously thought of (2) pragmatism is NOT an ideal theory that ignores oppression, but starts from the assumption that the world is imperfect and that violence exists, and to stop it, we should revise systems of domination like capitalism and patriarchy to make people's voices heard (3) violence takes place in social forms, so we should use our experiences as a way to motivate ourselves and others not to oppress people and use it as a method of education--the world is constantly changing as we learn new things so we cannot create a stable conception of ethics, but must use experiences to revise it for the better

Piercean Pragmatism

Less common in LD, Piercean pragmatism, often dubbed 'scientific pragmatism,' focuses less on deliberation and more on experimentation. As the Pierce evidence in the first affirmative was discussing, Pierce believes that ethics is a question of using what we learned in the past and applying it to the future. The same way the things we learn in kindergarten about basic addition are then applied to real life word problems in middle school, we learn different conceptions of ethics through observation (e.g. values like respect, honesty, and trustworthiness in school) and apply them to the specific moral situations we face in real life.A few examples:

1. Topic: In a democracy, voting ought to be compulsory

This affirms--when more people vote, more people share their experiences which allows for more experimentation. Under scientific pragmatism, the more we experiment, the better it is--more people voting means more accurate results under the law of large numbers, so it allows for a more objective result for who should win an election.

2. Topic: The United States ought not consider standardized tests for undergraduate admissions decisions.

This could negate--standardized tests are objective, which allow for accuracy in a scientific sense--we should experiment with standardized tests and see when they can be a useful tool in the toolbox rather than rejecting them altogether.

Now for the framework itself--we won't go card by card, but here's the gist of the syllogism.

1. Ethics is an attempt to find truth i.e. which action being good is a true statement

2. Truths are only defined by experience and how we understand truth

3. Experiences determine truth, but the only reason we can determine anything from our experience is through observation and practical difference--look at the rock example from the first form of pragmatism

4. The alternative to experience is rules that we apply regardless of the specific context

5. Rules fail--we have to apply the rules to our particular circumstances which means they can always get misinterpreted since there are infinite possible instances a rule must apply in but you can only foresee and cohere a finite amount

6. Rather than rules, we must test principles and naturally learn them, so we know what to do naturally by habit--the same way there's no point in me memorizing a formula if I don't know how to use it

7. Experience necessitates deliberative democracy because (1) we combine the observations and experiences of people and (b) it allows for flexibility since we can change ethics as we learn new ideas under deliberative democracy, the same way our observations constantly change how we view our experiences (back then we thought Earth was flat--we did some experiments--we learned it's not)


For copyright purposes, I won't post the pdfs here but all of the articles are cited as cards in the examples. I would suggest reading Pierce, Serra, and Glaude from the Deweyan pragmatism aff example and Lekan from the second example.

Some debaters on Circuit Debater who read pragmatism include Hunter NP, Cypress Woods AZ, and Greenhill (2016)


File:(CD) Deweyan Prag Example.docx

File:(CD) Piercean Prag Example.docx