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« Right and wrong in the light of modern approaches to morality; has the Christian perspective anything to offer? | Main | The Purpose of Moral Philosophy? »

Dewey Does Ethics

As noted earlier, I've recently become interested in American Pragmatism as a serious school of philosophy. After having given it exceedingly short shrift in my college days and ignored it for some 40 years I was recently awakened to its possibilities after reading Robert Brandom's account of its role in his Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas and listening to him connect pragmatism to the English analytical tradition in Anglo-American philosophy in a presentation he made at Cambridge a while back which is available in full on YouTube. Most recently an old professor of mine, Haim Marantz, sent me a paper he'd written on John Dewey to read and offer some feedback on. Until then I hadn't thought much of Dewey though I'd only read a little of him as an undergrad. But the Marantz paper offered a picture of the man which struck a chord in my own thinking.

Heretofore, I had largely equated pragmatism with William James and, indeed, I'd recently completed reading James' Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth (available in a single volume with an introduction by A.J. Ayer asserting that James' pragmatism was very much in line with the English empiricists and, indeed, the logical positivists and other analytic schools). Surprisingly, James in those books repeatedly alludes to Dewey and the importance of his work, indeed suggesting that John Dewey was a better expositor of Pragmatism than he was. James, of course, is considered the most influential and best articulator of pragmatism among the three founding fathers of that school (C. S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey). So I was naturally further intrigued by his allusions and deference to Dewey. I ended up getting hold of what I found billed as one of Dewey's most definitive works of philosophy, the one that best summarized his views on philosophy and its various concerns: Reconstruction in Philosophy. The book consists of a series of lectures by Dewey, some of which are quite good (especially the first, I thought) and some only middling because they are somewhat repetitive and sometimes fuzzy in their explication. Still, it's a worthwhile book, even if it's only a bit more than 120 pages. If one can bear with Dewey's penchant for repetition and sometimes difficult constructions, it's a valuable work indeed.

I won't attempt to explicate the overall picture of philosophy Dewey is at pains, in that material, to present. But his take on ethics does offer a useful antidote to some of the metaphysical excesses and conceptual confusions that bedevil so much of traditional ethical theory. Dewey starts by rejecting the idea that anything can be intrinsically good or bad, i.e., good or bad in itself. The classic distinction which divides ends from means and suggests that all value claims must involve some ultimate valuation, some end towards which everything else of value is only a means, is mistaken he thinks. He rejects entirely the idea that goodness (or badness) is fixed in this sense and suggests, instead, that what's good or bad is, as with most everything else, only that for someone and so is dependent on that individual's, that valuer's, interests for its valuational status, interests which may be variegated and without discernible limit from individual to individual. (He does not, by this, mean to suggest that human beings are not finite creatures with limited capacities and needs which such finitude suggests, of course.)

For Dewey, that which is good is so only to the extent it is good for someone and being good for someone depends on its meeting specific needs that individual has. Such needs may vary from individual to individual (there are no fixed goods in the universe in Dewey's view that exist independent of those who count them as good, no bottom line principles of action to which we must adhere). All our valuational choices, including our moral ones, will depend on who and what we are and what that entails for us in terms of actions. Goodness and badness is realized in action not contemplation or speculative theorizing, just as, for Dewey, is the case for all of knowledge. Action comes first, not thought -- for thought, on his view, occurs only within the context of acting agents.

Thoughts reflect the inputs our actions generate for us and how we react to them. Moral valuation, the value we place on certain of our behaviors, is similarly realized in this fashion. We develop and thus know what we count as morally good on the fly, in the course of acting in the world. He completely rejects the Platonic notion of ideal forms and the idea of goodness as an ideal against which our acts must be measured. The ideal of goodness we have is, on his view, a function of our generalization of many particular experiences we undergo and has no distinct existence apart from those experiences.

What then, for Dewey, counts as moral goodness? What is it human beings ought to aim to achieve or obtain for their lives to be good ones, worthwhile? Dewey rejects, too, the idea of individual satisfaction as the ultimate good towards which individuals must strive. He approves the approach championed by the utilitarians as one of pragmatic and science-based judgments but he rejects their bottom line, the idea that the ultimate good for all is producing maximal pleasure or happiness in the individuals who constitute the group of human beings under consideration. First, of course, Dewey already rejects any idea that there can be a valuational bottom line, an intrinsic goodness to be sought by all human beings because this, he thinks, already assumes some ultimate form of the good, some platonic notion of an ideal to be realized in the particulars of our lives. But secondly, Dewey rejects the notion of individual satisfaction because he does not think human beings are ultimately isolated individuals, selves in isolation. He argues, rather, that the self is only created and maintained in association with others, as part of a community of selves. As such, the utilitarian idea that the "intrinsic" good is maximal pleasure or happiness (or some equivalent) is mistaken since it assumes the pleasure or happiness of individual selves. This, for Dewey, leads to selfishness and bad outcomes for human beings in general, giving rise to rampant capitalism and greedy, crass materialism. Dewey thinks utilitarianism must lead to this sort of social outcome which, he judges, bad for human beings in the aggregate.

In contrast to the error of individualism that Dewey perceives in utilitarianism as a moral philosophy, he argues that what's good for individuals is really successful societies, those that consist of sound institutions which contribute to the progress of all the selves that find their realization within those societies. That is, he argues for a naturalistic account of goodness which is grounded in measurable human progress through the effectiveness of social institutions to contribute to improvements for human beings, improvements that include scientific and technological advancements but also the kind of individual cultivation that allows human beings in those societies to flourish by increasing their health, their capacities for living more satisfying lives, for reduction of suffering. It's not the utilitarian calculus which totes up individual satisfactions that matter, in Dewey's view, but the continued enrichment and improvement of the social organism itself, that society of many individuals all of whom take their individuality from their interconnections with their fellows, from their place within a robust, rewarding agglomeration of social institutions.

Thus on this Deweyan view, that which we call the "moral good" (the class of things that are right to do) will be those objectives and modes of behavior which most contribute to a better society, defined as one that enriches and supports human progress. Concern for others will be translated into avoidance of things like theft and telling intentional falsehoods, of causing others unjustified pain and, indeed, any manner of behavior which causes others to have a worse life than they might otherwise have. That concern will be the basis of our moral claims and will also be the sort of thing which informs our expectations of our social institutions, i.e., that those institutions that meet this criterion will be the sort we want to build and support while those which do not will be the sort we want to change or eliminate. And our actions to build and support the desirable institutions and reject and discard those others will be among those we count as "moral," too.

Here Dewey's approach is purely naturalistic, since he rejects all notions of ideal states, of otherworldly standards and directives. It is similarly pragmatic in that it presses us to judge and act in accordance with the exigencies of each moment rather than to suppose our behaviors can be made to fit pre-existing codes and laws. Our values, the things we count it right to do, will be discovered in the moment, in the nexus of behavior itself, of our interactions with the world and those others who share it with us. Each moment will present us with new opportunities to discover and realize the good and right things to do, without concern for some previously promulgated code which we must first consult, whatever we suppose its provenance to be. And each moment we will create our values anew, as it were, by living in the world, by being part of it in fact as well as in the ideal. Deweyan ethics, then, are those which ground our moral choices in our practical lives -- but grounded in a way that recognizes the importance of the communal, of the societal, milieu in which we stand which makes each of us individual human beings. In rejecting the classical notion of means and ends and intrinsic and extrinsic goods, indeed of goods in the abstract at all, Dewey offers a piecemeal morality yet one that's grounded in a general belief in the possibility, in the necessity, of human progress and which considers that progress the ultimate goal of creatures like ourselves.

In this sense human progress, based on our recognition of the particular over the abstract in our lives, and on embracing the particular by attending to the actual experiences we have and not shying from the implications of those actions which our experiences require, becomes, itself, the ultimate goal, the ultimate good. But it is, for Dewey ultimate only as the ground of our moral choices, the place where we start and where we must end, when making our particular moral choices in life. Deweyan ethics raises the value of the social above that of the individual (as the utilitarians conceived it) but only because Dewey supposes that the individual only finds its distinctiveness within and as an integral part of the social.

Dewey's is a group ethic which favors and rewards the individual only by and through the group, as realized in the shared institutions in which the individuals exist. It's entirely naturalistic in its refusal to grant otherworldly or supernatural status to the factors that underwrite the choices we make. And its scientific in that it acknowledges and supports the growth of human knowledge through respect for and development in the sciences. The good for human beings is, he thinks, continued existence (as it is for all beings) but continued in the most effective possible way. That means nurturing and developing sound institutions which support and advance the condition of those individuals who have their membership in those same institutions. What's morally good or right to do, thus, are those things which favor social institutions and practices which are best able to advance (and enhance) the quality of the lives of their members.

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