Critical Pragmatism: A New Approach to Professional and Business Ethics
Abstract:Major contemporary conceptions of ethics such as discourse ethics and neocontractarian ethics are not grounded in a sufficiently pragmatic notion of practice. They suffer from serious problems of application and thus can hardly be said to respond to the needs of professionals and decision makers. A main reason lies in the tendency of these approaches to focus more on the requirements of ethical universalization than on those of doing justice to particular contexts of action – at the expense of practicality and relevance to practitioners. If this diagnosis is not entirely mistaken, a major methodological challenge for professional and business ethics consists in finding a new balance between ethical universalism and ethical contextualism. A reformulation of the pragmatic maxim (the methodological core principle of American pragmatism) in terms of systematic boundary critique (the methodological core principle of the author's work on critical systems thinking and reflective professional practice) may provide a framework to this end, critical pragmatism.
Most approaches to professional and business ethics, different as they are, share a basic assumption: They seek to ground ethical practice in ethical theory. There is nothing wrong with this idea, except that it doesn't work. Regardless of which theoretical conception of ethics we use, ethical practice requires strong judgments about the situation at hand: Why and in what way does this situation pose an ethical problem? What are the relevant circumstances and considerations? How should we weight conflicting concerns? Whose concerns are they, that is, who should be considered a legitimate stakeholder? Ethical theory can (ideally) provide us with basic principles or general norms of ethical action; but, because there is hardly ever a single right way to define an ethical problem, general norms cannot tell us which specific concerns and stakeholders “count” in a concrete context of action.
Document Type: Research Article
Publication date: January 1, 2006