Dissertation, University of Michigan (2010)

Amanda Roth
State University of New York at Geneseo
Claims of progress in our ethical or moral beliefs and practices—as well as claims to ethical or moral regression—are commonplace in American social and political conversation. Often, such commentary involves a lamenting of the decline of “traditional” values in contemporary society or alternatively a rejoicing in the ways that we appear to have overcome prior prejudicial values. In this dissertation, I am concerned with the notions of progress and improvement that underlie such commonsense judgments. At a minimum, ethical progress requires the idea that some values or practices are better than others and hence that replacing some beliefs or practices with others can be a genuine improvement. Taking inspiration from the ethical works of John Dewey, I sketch an account of evaluative progress that conceives of this sort of improvement in ethical beliefs or practices in terms of problem-resolving. On my view, resolving a problem involves both offering an adequate conception of the problem and finding a problem-solution which lives up to the world and to the values we reflectively endorse. On my account, resolving problems is not simply a matter of finding the best means to a fixed end; rather, I conceive of problem-resolving as a dynamic process in which ends themselves are typically in flux. The sort of “dynamic deliberation” I have in mind, then, goes beyond mere instrumental reasoning, by not only allowing us to recognize conflicts between ends or means to ends, but in also providing a way to rationally revise or reject ends. Finally, in order for this sort of problem-resolving to make good on the idea of genuine improvement or progress, the process of solving problems must involve some sense of objectivity. I offer a procedural account of objectivity that emphasizes the role of the world in constraining our inquiry, involves a naturalization of ethical epistemology, and allows for objective inquiry to be undertaken by an individual or a community.
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