Richard P. Mullin (Wheeling Jesuit University)

Deriving a Virtue Ethic from Peirce’s Theoretical Ethics

Discussion-Oriented Paper Presentation

Peirce maintained that while theoretical ethics is a legitimate pursuit, it cannot and should not try to deal with issues of vital importance. It deals with questions such as why we should be beneficent, honest, truthful, loyal, etc., but its investigations are not useful in trying to teach people, especially young people how to live their lives.  Practical ethics, based on instincts and custom is of vital importance, but is not scientific and should not pretend to be.

In this paper, I will argue that, in spite of Peirce’s disclaimer, the study of philosophical ethics ought to be, and is, useful for the vital interests of individuals and communities; and more specifically, that the metaphysical and anthropological insights of Peirce himself can contribute powerfully to this effort.  To do this will involve using Peirce’s insights in ways in which he did not intend and even cautioned against. To achieve this, I will first present Peirce’s argument against the practicality of ethics; next I will present a description of his architectonic showing the place of ethics.  The central part will be an analysis of Peirce’s notion of the summum bonum, reasonableness, to show the reconciliation between theory and his practice.  The conclusion will be an outline of a foundation for a Peircean virtue ethic.


 The Incompatibility of Practical and Theoretical Ethics: Reading Peirce’s description of ethics is disheartening to anyone interested in theoretical ethics. He insisted that it should be disinterested and therefore not attempt to be practical.  The pursuit of vital interests, by contrast, must avoid the hypocrisy of pretending to be scientific.  Vital interests by definition pertain to this or that individual life, but in the whole scheme of things are relatively insignificant.  People, such as clergy and teachers, who study ethics as a way of guiding their own lives, or the lives of others, must rely on tradition and instinct.  Philosophers, in turn, who investigate the meaning of the good, must do so objectively and disinterestedly and never pretend that their investigations can be of vital importance in guiding anyone’s life. Peirce bluntly tells his readers that he has "no philosophical wares that will make them better or more successful." (CP 1.621)  [1]

             Peirce described, as a task of practical ethics, a series of self-criticisms which all morally serious people must undertake to make sure that their conduct conforms to their ideals.  A moral action begins with a general intention that conforms to and promotes the person’s ideals. In a particular case, the person may make a resolution in keeping with the intention.  After the fact the first act of self-criticism is to reflect on whether the conduct was true to the resolution. The second question is whether the conduct was in accord with the general intention, and finally whether it was in accord with the person’s ideals.  A further and deeper meditation is to examine the ideals themselves to see if they are fitting for the particular person.  At each step a feeling of pleasure or pain accompanies the examination and reveals the fitness or lack of fitness  (C.P. 1.594 - 1.599). (Peirce, of course, was not a hedonist.  We do not live for pleasure, but pleasure and pain can serve as a symptom of fitness or lack thereof.)  But beyond this practical self-examination, the student of theoretical ethics may ask, "as a matter of curiosity," what constitutes the fitness of an ideal.  In case the reference to "curiosity" is not demeaning enough to dampen the zeal of theoretical ethicists, Peirce added the following sentence that is sure to get their attention. Opinion differs as to the wholesomeness of this study. But he concluded on a faintly positive note.  As long as the distinction between theory and practice is kept in mind, theoretical ethics is "more or less favorable to right living." (CP 1.600)

Scientific and practical thought are very different in their pursuit and progress. The purpose of science is to discover ideal eternal truths.  If scientists try to use science to further their own or others’ vital interests, the investigation becomes biased and fails as science.  Since philosophy is a branch of science, it too must remain disinterested and unattached to vital interests. The need to separate science from vital interests is based on the distinction between beliefs and opinions.  Beliefs are states of mind that we act on.  These include not only our common sense beliefs that control our everyday conduct, but also our deepest ethical and religious beliefs.  But neither the former nor the latter are based on reason.  Peirce’s analogy is that if you hear your sister call for help, you do not begin to reason out what it means for one person to hear another person’s call.  No, you respond immediately.  Likewise, if you encounter a religious experience which you interpret as the call of your Savior, you respond with action rather than with theological reasoning.  A scientific hypothesis by contrast, is an opinion. You hold it only tentatively and act on it only in the sense of testing it experimentally.  You are ready to let go of it if the experiment falsifies it.  To hold on to it as a belief would spoil science, just as a tentative opinion about vital matters would spoil your ability to act on them. 

Theoretical ethics, as a branch of philosophy, therefore cannot be in the service of practical interests.  Peirce reminded his readers that no one can serve two masters.  Ethics can be practical or theoretical but not both.  Practical ethics is based on sentiment and tradition. Theoretical ethics is based on logic, but its development is hindered by the fact that philosophy is still in its infancy after two thousand years.  Peirce attributes this retardation to the fact that most philosophers are not trained in the method of scientific investigation, as Peirce was. Furthermore, even if philosophy were developed, there would be scarcely any people whose reasoning powers are sharp enough to use it.  There is a tendency on the part of most people to exaggerate their logical powers, yet lack of first class reasoning power does not prevent people from living good and successful lives.  The fact that most people are deficient in reasoning proficiency is not very important as they pursue their vital interests.  As Peirce summed up the common lack of reasoning power:

We all know highly successful men, lawyers, editors, scientific men--not to speak of       artists--whose great deficiency in this regard is only revealed by some unforeseen accident. (CP 1.657)

What of those few who are able to do higher mathematics?   Peirce says that their interests, as mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers is not vital, i.e. it is not about theirs or other individual lives.  Rather, according to Peirce, mathematicians, specifically modern mathematicians, are Platonists concerned with eternal forms.  Peirce cites, as evidence, conversation with mathematicians and of course he spoke from first hand experience as a scientist and philosopher.  Peirce describes the world of the mathematician:

The eternal is for him a world, a cosmos, in which the universe of actual existence is nothing but an arbitrary locus. The end that pure mathematics is pursuing is to discover that real potential world (CP 1.646).

The person who is drawn to such goals finds the vital interests of humans to be of little importance, and Peirce cautions:

But such ideas are only suitable to regulate another life than this.  Here we are in this workaday world, little creatures, mere cells in a social organism itself a poor and little thing enough, and we must look to see what little and definite task our circumstances        have set before our little strength to do.  The performance of that task will require us to     draw upon all of our powers, reason included, and in the doing of it we will depend not upon that department of the soul which is most superficial and fallible--I mean our             reason--but upon that department that is deep and sure--which is instinct. (1.647)

 Peirce did, however, attempt to build a bridge between the development of higher mathematical reasoning and the daily duties of humans.  In his philosophy of Synechism, the superficial rational part of the soul cannot be discontinuous with the deeper instinctive part.  Reason can have a part to play in the development of instinct because the deeper part can be reached only through the superficial part.

In this way, the eternal forms that mathematics and philosophy and the other sciences make us acquainted with, will by slow percolation gradually reach the very core of one’s  being; and will come to influence our lives; and this they will do, not because they involve truths of merely vital importance, but because they are ideal and eternal verities.             (CP 1.648)         

To sum up this argument, theoretical reasoning and practical ethics must be kept distinct.  Reason is not capable of governing our vital interests and instinct does it much better.  If science, including philosophy is put in the service of vital interests both are spoiled.  Science needs to remain disinterested so it can fulfill its function of discovering eternal truths. If it does so, it can slowly help instincts to grow and thereby to have a positive influence on our daily lives.  With this in mind, I will proceed to show how Peirce’s philosophy might have this indirect affect on our attempts to grow ethically and morally.


The Place of Ethics in Peirce’s Architectonic: In his classification of the normative sciences, Peirce stated that Aesthetics, practics, and logic form one distinctly marked whole. (By practics, he meant what is generally called ethics. Except in direct quotations, or in contexts where Peirce’s distinctions is relevant, this paper will use the term "ethics" to refer to the science of correct actions.)   Peirce contended that the distinction between these sciences is secondary, but Aesthetics relates to feeling, practics to action, and logic to thought. (CP 1.457). In building his architectonic, he considered logic to be subordinate to ethics, since logic is nothing more than correct practice in the area of thought.  Ethics in turn is subordinate to esthetics.  This is because ethics needs to find the summum bonum and that is known through esthetics. Peirce showed a close

parallel between ethically good conduct and correct logical reasoning.  The essential character of each is brought under self-control by a series of criticisms.

The phenomena of reasoning are, in their general features, parallel to those of moral       conduct.  For reasoning is essentially thought that is under self-control, just as moral        conduct is conduct under self-control (CP 1.606).

 In the case of moral conduct, we begin with conduct that seems to be right, based on instinct and tradition.  This conduct is brought under criticism by ourselves and others if it is inconsistent. We then are obligated to modify our conduct to keep it consistent with our ideals.  In logical reasoning, we begin with a conjecture that seems to be true.  We criticize it to see if it is consistent with other propositions that we take to be true.  This is the role of deductive reasoning. In the case of moral conduct, in addition to being consistent, we need to look at what the effect would be if we carry out the conduct.  Obviously, harmful conduct is not good even if it is logically consistent with an ideal.[2]  So, in the parallel with reasoning, the logician or scientist has to see what happens if the line of reasoning is followed.  This is the role of experiment. (1.608) Therefore, the parallel between logic and ethics is, in Peirce’s estimation, perfect.

How does esthetics fit into this architectonic?  Ethics depends on esthetics just as logic depends on ethics.  Right reasoning is defined as reasoning that is conducive to our ultimate good. The logician needs the ethicist (Peirce uses the term moralist) to define the ultimate end. The ethicist only knows that the ultimate end is that which is admirable in itself without any other reasons.  The task of the esthetics is to define the admirable in itself  (CP 1. 611).  Peirce calls it the beautiful, but does not allow this to be an answer to

the question of what it is.  The task of analysis is to find the characteristics of that which is the most admirable -- admirable in itself.  He takes it as evident that it must be an ideal, and as such it must be general.  No particular thing and certainly no particular subjective feeling can be the most admirable ideal.  Since it is an ideal, it must be not only general but also unified.  There may be several admirable ideals, but there must be some character that constitutes the unity of the admirable itself, some quality that characterizes all admirable ideas.

 In describing the meaning of the most admirable ideal, Peirce gives an analysis of Reason itself.  The terms Reason, ideas, and general, are used almost interchangeably.  Reason is the process of generalization that manifests itself in nature and in the human mind.  The human faculty of reason is a manifestation of the general process of the evolution of the universe.  The term idea refers to this or that particular manifestation of generalization.  Manifestations are individual events that are included in a general idea.  Peirce states twice within eleven lines that: The very being of Reason, of the General, consists in governing individual events (CP       1.615). There are two momentous implication in this.  First, an idea must be embodied in order to be fulfilled.  Second, an idea can never be completely fulfilled.  Ideas are always incipient and growing.  There are always potential or hypothetical predictions that can be made from an idea. There are more possible manifestations than can ever be realized.  Peirce drew the parallel with the character of a human person.  Character consists in the ideas that persons will conceive and the effort they will make if the occasion calls for it.  But persons can never manifest all that is in them; they can never realize all of their potential.  The character of a person, which is a general idea, is like every other general idea in that its full manifestation would require more individual events than can ever occur.  Life is always dynamic and death is always tragic because there is always more to do for fulfillment.[3]

Through this discussion Peirce has brought us to the definition of the admirable in itself and to the ethical and logical implications.

The development of Reason consists, you will observe, in embodiment, that is, in manifestation.  The creation of the universe, which did not take place during a certain    busy week in the year 4004 B. C., but is going on today and never will be done, is this very development of Reason.  I do not see how one can have a more satisfying ideal of the admirable than the development of Reason so understood. (CP 1.615)

Such is the goal of esthetics, to describe the admirable which Peirce has identified as the development of reason.  The goal of ethics is to bring human conduct into service of such an ideal as the ultimate good.

Under this conception the ideal of conduct will be to execute our little function in the operation of the creation by giving a hand toward rendering the world more reasonable whenever, as the slang is, it is "up to us."  (CP 1.615).

The task of scientific ethics is to discover what it takes to embody the ideal.  In carrying the Peircean ideal beyond Peirce, ethicists will ask disinterestedly what practical women and men can do to make the world more reasonable when it is up to them.  How can actions in areas such as business, technology, health care, law, and education embody the ideal of reasonableness?  The task of logic is to contribute to the ethical work toward the ideal by following the methods which develop reasonableness most speedily.  Following Peirce’s method, ethicists first guess at what would be the best course.  Then their task is to deduce carefully and honestly the implications of their guess.  Finally, they critically examine the results of actions which follow from the implications of their hypothesis.  The task of self-criticism is to determine whether their ethical assertions do or do not contribute to the ideal of reasonableness.

 This can be illustrated by using a case that Peirce described.  In reviewing a book on ethics, Peirce cited an example that the author used.

A judge, let us suppose, has brought before him a case in which a man suffers injury for which he claim damages of another. "Take", he says, "the case where A’s cattle break out of their enclosure in spite of A’s having used all the care he reasonably could have used, or could learn to use, and destroy B’s valuable crop in an adjoining field."  (CP 8.159)                    

Peirce ridiculed the author, a professor Mezes, for basing his ethical analysis on the scholastic notion of proximate cause.  Peirce believed that such an idea has nothing to do with why the judge makes a decision, nor should it.  Peirce thought instead that the right ethical decision can be made based on common sense, and so gave us an example to illustrate and test his notion of ethical thinking.

...the real reason why the judge awards damages to B is that to allow a private person to undertake business humanly sure in the long run to injure his neighbors (and all the more so if  "he cannot learn to use" suitable preventive measure), and then to allow him to pocket all the profits, and make his neighbors  pay for incidental losses, would be to bring himself and his court into public contempt and into no little danger (CP 8.160).

Peirce saw that, in this case, a threat to the neighbor’s crops is part of the cost of raising cattle. The cattle rancher should pay this cost when it happens or carry an insurance policy that would cover it. This added expense would mean higher cost for the cattle rancher, but this is part of his real cost and should not be born by the neighbor, except to the extent that the neighbor buys beef and shares the increased cost with every other consumer.

 This case and its common sense solution, is an example of what Peirce described as conduct that seems to be right based on instinct and tradition.  The next step is a series of self-criticisms beginning with testing the idea for consistency.  If we carry out a Peircean analysis of this example, we would first look at the implications of our reasoning in this case and see if we could consistently follow it.  One possible implication is that a judge should not make a decision that would cause him to be held in public contempt and put in danger.  I think that such an argument would clearly be a straw man and common sense, or our knowledge of Peirce, would make it clear that this was not Peirce’s meaning.  Instead he meant that a judge should not make a decision that would cause him to be held in public contempt because it is so obviously unfair. Peirce=s assumption is that it is unfair for people to make a profit at the expense of  others without compensating them.  Would ethical people deliberately adopt a public policy that stipulated that anyone who conducted a business or industry or private activity that inevitably leads to harm to another should compensate the harmed parties for their loss, even if there is no negligence?  The answer, I hold, is clearly yes.  In the case that Peirce cited, the cattle rancher took all the pre-cautions that he knew, or was capable of learning, to protect the neighboring farmers.  What would this mean today for manufacturers who produce hazardous products or hazardous waste?  A victim of an unavoidable accident ought not bear the whole burden of a process in which others are profiting.  The persons whose activity caused the harm should assume the compensation as part of the expense of their activity. The result is that not only will innocent victims be compensated, but that even the most insensitive of business managers will have a strong incentive to protect workers, consumers, and bystanders.

 The purpose of this analysis was to demonstrate how Peirce’s common sense approach to ethics might work.  Of course the whole edifice is based on what Peirce calls "sentiments" such as fairness and benevolence.  Without such sentiments, a person could ignore the fate of others, calculate the chance of being a victim himself, and be willing to take the risk for the sake of lower prices.  The ethicist must assume these sentiments, but cannot produce them if they are missing.

Peirce’s architectonic shows the dependency and parallelism between logic and ethics. Just as in scientific reasoning, we begin with a guess, draw out the implications by deductive reasoning and use experiment to see if the predicted results came out, so in ethics, we start with an assumption based on sentiment and tradition, use logic to deduce the implications of our maxim if it is consistently applied, and then estimate the consequences to determine the universal feasibility of our original principle.

 Finally, just as logic is dependent on ethics, so ethics is dependent on the science of the admirable in itself, aesthetics.  Peirce defined the admirable in itself as the development of reason.  The next section of this paper will show what the ideal of reason meant to Peirce in terms of his notion of evolution and its social and ethical implications.


Love and Evolution: Peirce worked on a philosophical world-view that was comprehensive enough to include and integrate a physical and biological theory of evolution with the ethical teachings of Jesus (and the Buddha).  In fact, he saw these as aspects of the very same process. The process is expressed in his idea of  "The Law of the Mind" and is based on his metaphysical theories of Synechism, Tychism, and Agapism.  The latter three terms mean that the reality is characterized by continuity, chance, and love.  Each of these can be understood in the context of Peirce’s  "Law of the Mind."

...there is but one law of mind, namely, that ideas tend to spread continuously and to affect certain others which stand to them in a peculiar relation of affectability.  In this           spreading they lose intensity, and especially the power of affecting others, but gain generality and become welded with other ideas (CP 6.104).     

This process is not merely something that happens in the minds of humans, but is the process of the universe itself.  When Peirce referred to matter as an expression of mind, he clearly did not mean that it is an illusory or unsubstantial mental phenomenon.  He saw mind as the fundamental reality.  Both the material world and what we ordinarily call mind, in the sense of human mental phenomena, are aspects of the same larger reality.  So the spreading of ideas and their affecting others occurs in the human mind as we learn and acquire habits.  But this law also describes the physical evolution of the universe as matter grows in complexity and integration.

The term Synechism means that there is a continuity among all ideas.  Every idea is connected to some other idea so that, at least indirectly, all are connected to the whole.  Tychism, from the Greek tyche -- chance, means that the universe is not locked in a mechanical determinism.  Instead there is room for real change and therefore for real growth.  Not all change is growth.  Left to chance alone, things are more likely to fall apart.  Evolutionary growth and development is possible because of the force of agape -- love.  Ideas may be forced together by mechanical necessity, in which there is accumulation but not real growth, or they may fall apart by the disintegrating power of chance.  But evolution occurs when they come together by an attraction toward real growth.  Physical and biological evolution as well as the social integration of human society are all possible because of this power.

Peirce argued that only love can produce growth.  He illustrated this by the example of a creative human idea.  Creative people see an idea as if it were a child.  They nourish it as they would a flower in their garden.  In so doing they enable the creation to reach its perfection.  He applies this to the gospel command to love your neighbor which means to ardently desire to fulfill your neighbor’s highest impulse.  This process is the foundation of an evolutionary philosophy that explains the whole development of the universe.

Love, recognizing germs of loveliness in the hateful, gradually warms it into life, and makes it lovely (CP 6.289).

In integrating evolution with ethics, Peirce offered a solution to the problem of evil.  He attributed the solution to the elder Henry James who wrote that while it is tolerable for us in our finite creaturely love to love others for their conformity to ourselves, yet the highest creative Love is for what is most bitterly hostile and negative to itself (CP 2.287).  Peirce referred to the Gospel of John which he saw as an early expression of an evolutionary philosophy.  According to this Gospel, God is Love.  Hatred cannot be the contrary of the Love that is God.  If this were the case, then Satan would be coequal with God.  Peirce contended that evil is a defect as darkness is a defect of light. This is, of course, a traditional position in Christian philosophy, but Peirce integrated it into the whole of his evolutionary philosophy.  Hatred and evil are Amere imperfect stages of {agape} and {agathon}, love and loveliness (CP 6.287).  Love limited to self-love, would be no love at all.  God loved hatred and evil as imperfect stages of love.  "Love your enemy," therefore, is not just an ethical command  (a seemingly irrational one), but is the reason for the creation of the universe.

This view of evolution is drastically different from the then prevailing view of Darwin. Peirce described Darwin’s view as tychistic, meaning that the prevailing force is not agape, --love, but tyche -- chance.  In criticizing this view he gave a scorching critique of the ethical values of his time.  While acknowledging the strength of Darwin’s argument for evolution by natural selection, Peirce contended that its wide reception was not due to its scientific validity. Writing twenty years after the publication of Origin of the Species, Peirce pointed out that Darwin’s thesis was not proven then and seemed less hopeful than when it was first published.[4]  Peirce attributed the acceptance of Darwin to the fact that his theory encouraged what Peirce called the philosophy of greed. (Not that Darwin’s own science was influenced by this philosophy.)  If all higher life forms are dependent on a process of accidental variation, and survival is based on the self-interest of individual organisms, then there is justification for a social and economic order in which individual humans are allowed and even encouraged to seek their own self-interest.  Such a policy, according to this theory, would bring about progress whereas a policy based on sentiment would lead to the degradation of the human race.

Peirce predicted that the nineteenth century would be remembered as the Economical Century.  In describing the thought characteristic of the age he wrote:

Well, political economy has its formula of redemption, too.  It is this: Intelligence in the service of greed ensures the justest prices, the fairest contracts, the most enlightened conduct of all the dealings between men, and leads to the summum bonum, food in plenty and perfect comfort.  Food for whom?  Why for the greedy master of intelligence        (CP 6.290).

The economists, of course, did not include Peirce’s final sarcastic sentence in their justification of self-interest, but argued that all are better off following self-interest than they would be if they allowed sentimentalism to cloud their judgment.  Peirce unabashedly defended sentimentalism. He pointed out that it received a bad name during the French Revolution, and that it is generally associated with either irrational violence or cheap dramatic performances.  Sentimentalism is disdained as an inability to think logically and unwillingness to face facts.  But as a doctrine, it means that "great respect should be paid to the natural judgments of the sensible heart."  Peirce saw the scorning of sentiment to be a blindness which would have terrible repercussions. He predicted that the economists will be shaken out of their complacency too late.

The twentieth century, in its latter half, shall surely see the deluge-tempest burst upon the social order -- to clear upon a world as deep in ruin as that greed-philosophy has long plunged it into guilt (CP 6: 292).

Peirce’s prediction was wrong only in that the tempest-deluge came in the first

half of the century in the form of revolutions and two world wars. Peirce’s evolutionary philosophy is based on a very different model than the Darwinian idea; Peirce based his theory on love rather than chance.  The ethical implications are therefore much different.  As he summarized the difference between his view and Darwin’s;

The Origin of the Species of Darwin merely extends the politico-economical views of progress to the entire realm of animal and vegetable life.... As Darwin puts it on his title page, it is the struggle for existence; and he should have added for his motto: Every individual for himself and the Devil take the hindmost!  Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, expressed a different opinion (CP 6.293)... Here then is the issue.  The gospel of Christ says that progress comes from every individual merging his individuality in sympathy with his neighbors.  On the other side, the conviction of the nineteenth century is that progress takes place by virtue of every individual’s striving for himself with all his might and trampling his neighbor under foot whenever he gets a chance to do so. This may accurately be called the Gospel of Greed (CP 6. 294).

Peirce, in developing a theory of physical and biological evolution based on agape, was providing a cosmic vision, integrated with both science and religion, that would justify a public policy and personal ethics that ran against the prevailing culture of his time.


A Peircean Virtue Ethic: How would people live their lives if Peirce’s evolutionary metaphysics were a belief? This is of course the pragmatic question, and it asks about the ethical implications of  Peirce’s philosophy.  Following the pragmatic method, we can take Peirce’s philosophy as a conjecture, a guess, and ask what are the implications of its being true.  Would it lead to a lifestyle that is consistent and whose consequences are acceptable to our ethical instincts? Peirce believed that the deeper part of the soul consist of instincts rather than reasoning, but held that the deeper part can be affected by the superficial cognitive part.  Rational ideas can become beliefs and thereby affect our feeling and our action.  Our reasoning affects our beliefs precisely by determining an ultimate end which, according to Peirce, is reasonableness.

Belief in reasonableness as an ultimate aim affects all of the actions of anyone who really believes that it is the ultimate aim.  It leads those who hold it to act reasonably in every aspect of their life.  Peirce was not talking about a conversion experience, but about the slow process of habit formation.[5]   Reasonableness is the process of generalization by which ideas connect with other ideas to form more general ideas.  As ideas become more general, they incorporate more and more individual events. (1.615) Beliefs lead to actions which produce further beliefs and actions.  Reasonableness grows, according to the Law of Mind and works toward a unity within the individual as well as among individuals. The unity within the individual develops as the rational ideas "percolate" to the deeper sentiments where they produce the general virtue of self-control, but also such specific virtues as "devotion, courage, loyalty, and modesty."[6]

But these habits not only integrate the lives of individuals who cultivate them. They also enable such individuals to overcome their self-centeredness and live together in society. The sentiment that leads to moral "goodness must be, a generalized conception of duty which completes [our] personality by melting it into the neighboring part of the universal cosmos. " (CP 1.673)[7].  Those who deliberately cultivate the habit of reasonableness as their ultimate aim, not only develop the admirable social and personal virtues, but consciously strive for reasonableness among individuals.  In other words, they would work for social unity.

Peirce’s statements about unifying society and of individuals melting into neighboring parts of the cosmos are likely to cause alarms to go off among some of our contemporaries.  They might raise the question of whether Peirce’s philosophy would naturally lead to a centralization of as many people and resources as possible, for example the kind implemented by Vladimir Lenin or by Henry Ford.  The centralization that took place in government, industry, and technology in the twentieth century, either the Marxian form or the liberal democratic form, did not resemble Peirce=s ideas.  A Peircean unity would look very different.

The law of the mind works not by a central power dominating everything beneath it, but by parts being attracted to neighboring parts to form ever more inclusive unities.  Peirce made a distinction between power and force.  Force is the physical ability to change things, or as Peirce put it, the specialty of force is spoiling things.  Power, by contrast, is the exertion of attraction by an ideal.  The basis of self-control is the ability to open ourselves to the attraction of ideals. This ability in turn is dependent on the ability to be open to that which confronts the self.  The confrontation may be with a thought which is perceived as foreign.  Reasonableness opposes the natural tendency to seen the foreign as an enemy that must be avoided or destroyed. Reasonableness and love enable us to be attracted to ideas and persons who otherwise would be seen as objects to be destroyed lest we be destroyed.

Pierce’s notion of agapistic evolution of society, therefore, does not mean a central power collectivizing and thereby stifling individuals.  On the contrary it means that individuals continue their own actualization and that of their neighbors by overcoming hostility and uniting in larger communities.  The process is ongoing and never complete for the individual or society. The process is powered by the attraction of reasonableness which it in turn promotes.

(Our interests) must not stop at our own fate, but must embrace the whole community ...This community, again, must not be limited, but must extend to all races of being, with whom we can come into immediate or mediate intellectual relation. (CP 2.654)[8]


Continuity of Practical and Theoretical Ethics: This paper began with the contention, that contrary to Peirce’s disclaimers, his own ethical theory is very valuable for our vital interests.  The conclusions did not contradict Peirce, but hopefully clarified an important aspect of his thought.  His contention was that practical vital matters and the truths of science must be kept distinct.  The kind of ethics that is needed to solve important vital issues is best derived from instinct and tradition.  To attempt to be scientific would hobble a person who needs to make decisions right now.  The claim to do this scientifically is pretentious at best.  On the other hand, if ethics is a branch of philosophy and therefore scientific, it cannot be subservient to any vital interest.  Such is Peirce’s argument and it stands.

But over time, even scientific ideas make a difference and serve a purpose for our vital interests.  Reason is on the surface of our soul.  The deeper part of the soul, which consists of habits developed by the interaction of instincts and tradition, is better at making vital decisions. But the ideas of reason can percolate to the deeper regions and influence them.  This is precisely the reason that ethics must be free of any kind of self-interest.  In order to be beneficial, ideas must be true.  That is why Peirce takes the scientist as a paradigm of ethical conduct.  The same self-criticism that produces right thinking also, when applied to conduct, produces right action.  In Peirce’s architectonic, logic depends on ethics which in turn depends on aesthetics.  The science of the summum bonum, that which is admirable in itself guides the choice of what aims are deliberately chosen.  The summum bonum is the growth of reasonableness.  If this idea reaches the deeper part of the soul, conduct will be chosen which promotes reasonableness as a deliberately chosen end.

Although this may seem to be an abstract and overly intellectual idea, Peirce showed that it is nothing less than the agape which is the principle of evolution and the crowning achievement of the Gospels.  Ideas spread and connect with each other and that which was foreign and hateful is made loveable and beautiful and brought into communion.  The theoretical ethicist contemplates this idea to the point that it becomes the guiding principle of all thinking, acting, and feeling.  Thus in this slow, indirect, but inexorable manner, the ideals of philosophical ethics touch and affect vital interests.

[1] Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. All references are from the Electronic Version, InteLex Corporation. The volume and paragraph will be given in the text.

[2]Biographer Joseph Brent argues that  "(t)here is nothing in this view to prevent us from being constant liars, consistent adulterers, or persistent cads." Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993) p 343. However Peirce demonstrated the parallel between conduct and reason in each of the three steps of his logical method. The conjecture must seem true and the conduct fine. Deductive reasoning is then used to show the consistency of each. Finally, certain ways of reasoning recommend themselves because if persistently carried out they must lead to truth. And so, after self-criticism to make sure our conduct is consistent with our ideals, "we consider what the general effect would be of thoroughly carrying out our ideals.(CP 1.608).

[3] Vincent M. Colapietro, Peirce’s Approach to The Self: A Semiotic Perception of Human Subjectivity (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989) p. 76.

[4]Vincent G. Potter S. J. points out that when Peirce wrote this, Lamarckism was considered to be a viable scientific alternative. Charles S. Peirce on Norms and Ideals (Worcester: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1967) p.177. As Potter points out, the question at hand is not whether further evidence would support Darwin, but rather, why Darwin was so enthusiastically accepted before the evidence was in. 

[5] John K. Sheriff, Peirce's Guess at the Riddle: Grounds for Human Significance (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994) p 69.

[6]  Sheriff p 87

[7]  As quoted by Sheriff p 87

[8] As quoted by Sheriff, p 80.