Pragmatic Ethics: Rethinking Environmental Practice and Social Change

Sorgen, Jeremy, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Jenkins, Willis, AS-Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Ochs, Peter, AS-Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Mathewes, Charles, AS-Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Zigon, Jarrett, AS-Anthropology, University of Virginia

How can academic ethics support public processes of social change? My dissertation examines the evolving field of environmental ethics as a site for critical developments in public ethics. I use the methods of philosophical analysis, historical survey, and community-based research to identify barriers to public participation in ethics and to model a “pragmatic ethics” attuned to place-based contexts and grassroots strategies for making social change.

I use John Dewey’s logic of inquiry, especially his framework of the “problematic situation,” to interpret developments in environmental ethics around the “anthropocentrism debate,” which centers on the nature and status of environmental values. Nonanthropocentrism, a species of post-humanism, advocates for the cultural embrace of nature qua nature, while humanism emphasizes the importance of human values. My survey of the field demonstrates how intrinsic value theory and environmental pragmatism, representative schools on either side of the debate, both depend on a “deontic” practice of ethics, even as later pragmatists shed this deontic tendency in favor of approaches that are empirical, policy oriented, and publicly engaged.

Turning to scholarship at the intersection of climate ethics and environmental virtue ethics, I further diagnose deontic ethics as the formal practice of conceptual analysis that severs moral problems from their social contexts and moral theories from their practical applications. The result is an expert-driven model of social change that fails to include and therefore alienates democratic publics. Ethics in this mode has no means by which to achieve public participation or institutional efficacy. Reviewing Dewey’s own experiments in moral thinking, I surface resources for the public reconstruction of academic ethics. Central to this project is Dewey’s theory of habits, which offers interpretive guidelines for contextual studies of social values and behaviors.

I apply this interpretive framework for “pragmatic ethics” to the coalfields of rural Pennsylvania to examine a partnership between faith-based organizers and environmental policymakers at state and federal levels. Following one year of fieldwork, I use interviews and participant observation to investigate different grassroots strategies for making social change and how ethicists can fruitfully participate in grassroots projects of social, environmental, and economic reform. I determine that ethicists who foreground grassroots projects as the drivers of social change can help those projects with their interpretive tasks and, over the long term, build a compendium of social knowledge that can offer guidance to reform projects.

This project makes a critical contribution to various subfields of environmental ethics and puts the field into conversation with the political contexts of environmental justice. Moreover, by creating avenues for academics to collaborate with grassroots activists and policymakers, it also advances efforts to make the environmental humanities public facing. Finally, by showing how philosophers and theologians can promote normative goals by working with grassroots coalitions, it articulates conditions for public ethics.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Environmental Ethics, Pragmatism, Public Ethics, John Dewey, Climate Ethics, Environmental Justice
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