Joseph Brent's Peirce: The Question of Ethics

Kelly Parker
Department of Philosophy
Grand Valley State University
Allendale, MI 49401-9403
Email parkerk@gvsu.edu

In the concluding chapter of Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), Joseph Brent asserts that a certain "moral blindness" kept Peirce from the position of leadership in American academic philosophy that he would otherwise have attained. Brent argues that this blindness was not merely a tragic personal flaw, but is symptomatic of a corresponding flaw in his philosophical system.

Specifically, Brent objects that Peirce's synechism "cannot provide a way to distinguish good from evil. If the principle governing ethics is harmonious continuity (or generalized habit), whatever is, is best in the long run" (Brent, 343). Peirce's philosophy, in short, cannot adequately ground ethics as Brent conceives ethics.

Peirce wrote too little on esthetics and ethics, as he himself often said. I maintain, however, that he wrote enough to show that the second part of Brent's assertion -- that in Peirce's view, "whatever is, is best in the long run" -- is wrong. Moreover, the first part of Brent's assertion -- that Peirce's philosophy provides no unambiguous way to distinguish good from evil -- may in fact point toward a strength in Peirce's system. The moral sphere is always ambiguous, and Brent's criticism may reflect a misguided (though widespread) conception of ethics which it was Peirce's hope to dispel.

A developed Peircean ethical theory may well provide a better account of the real nature of ethical thought and right action than do the more familiar Enlightenment theories. A preliminary sketch of such a Peircean ethical theory is developed in the course of arguing against Brent's criticisms.

Copyright © 1994 Kelly Parker
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