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SAAP Annual Meeting 2018

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American Pragmatism, Moral Evolution, and Social Reform

For Herbert Spencer, ethics was evolutionary; for William James, it was experimental. I will argue in this paper that for the second cohort of pragmatists it was both: in the years around 1900, John Dewey, G. H. Mead, Jane Addams, and W. E. B. Du Bois developed a view of moral and social progress as experimental evolution. Although they rejected the teleological approach of Spencer, who saw ethics as proceeding to a specified evolutionary endpoint, they still employed a modified version of his organism-environment framework. Their application of this framework to ethics led them to a distinctive picture in which moral and social evolutionary progress was guided by economic and sociological research.

Trevor Pearce
UNC Charlotte
United States


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