On common ground

How nice, to walk into the lecture hall last night for Robert Kane‘s TPA keynote and be greeted unexpectedly by an old friend I’d thought was lost to sunny southern California! Professor C. was my teaching colleague when we were both part-timing Vandy’s computer ethics course a few years ago, before Pepperdine hired him and his Cornel West-variety of pragmatic theism away from us. But turns out he left his heart in the mid-south, and now he’s back teaching at David Lipscomb University and (he told me at the “spirited reception”) about to release a new book.  Welcome home, buddy!

And then my old Vandy mentors Tlumak and Hodges and my old cohort and roomie (now Dr. Epistemology, aka Mr. Infinite Regress, lately also wearing an Associate Dean’s cap in Huntsville) materialized. Suddenly it was Old Home Night in Furman Hall, our old common ground. Speaking of which…

Professor Kane’s keynote did not disappoint. Drawing heavily on his latest book Ethics and the Quest for Wisdom, he developed the thesis that “openness” is the key to “common ethical ground in a pluralist world.” In the process he addressed the very issue we were tussling about the other day in EEA: how to admit and embody the pluralist’s insight that there’s no one right way to live, while skirting free of the relativist’s trap of abandoning the quest for truthful wisdom.

We lift from ourselves the burden of proving our view right and all others wrong and place the burden of proof on everyone equally to prove their ways of life right or wrong by how they live and act and not merely by abstract argument.

This sounds pragmatic to the core, to me. But Kane didn’t mention James or his “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (1891) last night, the seminal essay that begins:

The main purpose of this paper is to show that there is no such thing possible as an ethical philosophy dogmatically made up in advance.  We all help to determine the content of ethical philosophy so far as we contribute to the race’s moral life. In other words, there can be no final truth in ethics any more than in physics, until the last man has had his experience and said his say. In the one case as in the other, however, the hypotheses which we now make while waiting, and the acts to which they prompt us, are among the indispensable conditions which determine what that “say” shall be.

Must ask Kane about that, as the TPA’s concurrent sessions kick off in just a couple of hours. If you happen to be reading this in middle Tennessee, you have time to get there. Y’all come!


Postscript. Nice note from Prof. Kane:

I  enjoyed reading your blog and am stimulated by it and the quote from James to reread his “Moral Phil and Moral Life” paper again, having not done so for a long time. I had in fact noted the connection between the ethical and value theory of my talk and the tradition of American pragmatism generally, including James, in my book, Ethics and the Quest for Wisdom from which the talk was drawn, and I include the relevant passage in the attachment added to this message. But I did not cite that specific essay by James or the quote you give from it. Though I will do so in future and will mention you alerted it to me when I do so.
I have also referenced pragmatism, and James in particular, in my work on free will over the years. And I also include in the attachment the longer passage from my book The Significance of Free Will, which is cited in the other quote from my Ethics and Quest book, in which I relate these value notions and pragmatism to free will. I was surprised to see that I had added a footnote in the SFW passage that specifically cites James and his collection of essays that includes “The Moral Phil…” essay.
Thanks again for the kind words and references.



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