The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy

by William James
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What is James Peirce's argument in The Moral Philosopher and The Moral Life?

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The main reason you are having difficulty with this question is that you are conflating the names of two different major nineteenth-century American philosophers who were founders of a school known as "pragmatism". Those two philosophers are:

  • Charles Sanders Peirce (10 September  1839 – 19 April 1914)
  • William James (11...

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The main reason you are having difficulty with this question is that you are conflating the names of two different major nineteenth-century American philosophers who were founders of a school known as "pragmatism". Those two philosophers are:

  • Charles Sanders Peirce (10 September  1839 – 19 April 1914)
  • William James (11 January 1842 – 26 August 1910)

"The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life" is a talk William James gave at Yale Philosophical Club, which was later published in 1891 in the International Journal of Ethics. It was later republished in a collection of philosophical essays by William James entitled The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy.

In the talk, James is attempting to show that there is a way to moral action which does not depend in certain knowledge or a priori and absolute dogmatic systems, but rather awareness of situational and reciprocal claims and obligations. He argues that dogmatic moral systems are problematic, stating:

On the whole, then, we must conclude that no philosophy of ethics is possible in the old‑fashioned absolute sense of the term.

Instead, James suggests that ethics should instead be empirically grounded and that philosophers should examine what sorts of individual choices and political systems seem most likely in light of empirical research to promote general happiness and welfare. 

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