Veiled Assumptions and the Failure of Ethical Conversations

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Joseph P. Hester


What we learn from history is that thought and knowledge and their often unarticulated assumptions are not hermeneutically sealed off from the hopes and dreams or ordinary people, or from a nation and its leaders seeking to bring forth a democratic vision. Innocuous as it may seem today, the utilitarian doctrine of the 19th century brought forward as American pragmatism bears out attention. This so-called ethical theory finding its roots in the Enlightenment as reason was being flushed from its medieval and religious influences, but had a disguised and, philosophically, unarticulated meaning. Perhaps put forth as a defense of reason over faith, but now, in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, and threatened by the Great Awakening and Christian fundamentalism, intellectuals were searching for a practical way of promoting science and its technological developments. Now redefined, pragmatism was put forward as an ethical principle, but the popular mantle, “the greatest good for the greatest number” revealed an unspoken belief that minorities didn’t count, especially “blacks”, who were thought of as mentally and culturally unable to carry forward the economic and democratic successes flourishing in Europe and America. In broad strokes, this article identifies the veiled assumptions of utilitarianism and pragmatism that today underlies the American moral crisis, emanating from pulpit, pew, and the hallowed halls of Congress. This may have been an unattended consequence, but it is real nonetheless.

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Hester, J. (2018). Veiled Assumptions and the Failure of Ethical Conversations. Humanities Bulletin, 1(2), 120-134. Retrieved from