Last time I reviewed Dr. Robert Pasnau’s essay Snatching Hope from the Jaws of Epistemic Defeat where he discusses radical skepticism and offers his response -the hopeful affirmation of evidence-based credence – arguing the goal of finding truth and avoiding error is trumped by the importance of being able to live a full life within the bounds of uncertainty. I enjoyed reading his article and appreciate his solution to the problem of skepticism, but today I wish to offer an alternative to mere hope.
It seems to me the practical philosopher should not choose wholeheartedly to embrace propositions based on credibility alone. Rather I think we must choose courses of action within our uncertainty that offer the best outcome should we be wrong, that is, pragmatic conduct. I offer three examples of increasing uncertainty.
First, absolute evil – take for instance whether the blinding of innocent animals is good or evil. While this seems self-evident, the radical skeptic may derive an argument I cannot that this action is justifiable or desirable. Pragmatically however, I choose not to blind innocent animals as there is no apparent value to me as a person; the choice not to commit this apparent evil has no untoward consequences.
Second is the near certain proposition that I should try to make a good life for myself within the limit of not interfering with this goal for others. I may be wrong; in fact, making a good life for myself may be impossible, but by attempting I have only the possibility of making a good life for myself in which case my life is good, or failing in which case I am no worse off than if I thought I should not make a good life for myself. Pragmatism succeeds again (although hope might here as well).
My last example comes from the plot line of The Bhagavad Gita where Arjuna, the protagonist, must decide between his duty to his side in a battle where the opposing side includes his friends, teachers, and even family (alternatively you may consider choosing the union side in the American Civil War). It appears impossible to determine whether duty to some of our friends and family is ethically correct compared to avoiding harm to others of them– here we have almost no level of certainty. The pragmatic solution is to do both. While we have a duty to provide service to our side, we can choose service that does not entail harming others – we can choose to be medics, or unarmed messengers, staff personnel, or other non-combatants – many of which involve opportunities for the epitome of heroism and sacrifice.
The reason I took on the project to develop practical philosophy from the teaching of the great thinkers was to offer ethical balance in conduct within the framework of a life full of uncertainty. Hope is a valuable human emotion, but a meaningful life requires virtue, and that demands we factor in the uncertainties in reality. In that sense I would consider myself, following Pasnau’s lead, a pragmatic epistemic defeatist, although I dislike the term.