Notes on John Dewey's Ethics

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Revised November 21, 2008

For a short introduction to pragmatism as a philosophical movement, see Basic Facts about Pragmatism
For a discussion of Dewey's ethics as of 1918, see this lecture based on Chapter 7 of Reconstruction in Philosophy.

In his mature thought, Dewey rejects an aspect of most earlier ethical theories: that what is central or basic is

  • the good (most ancient and medieval ethical systems),
  • or universal morality (Roman duty-centered ethics, Kant),
  • or sentiment (British tradition, e.g. Hume).
  • Rather for Dewey no one of these foci can suffice:

  • given that humans are desiring beings, we all have an orientation toward the good (this may include, but need not be limited to pleasure; individuals can to some extent formulate their own personal conceptions of the good.

  • given that humans are irreducibly social beings and members of a preexisting social order, we are all subject to an ethics of duty

  • given that humans have an innate capacity for sympathy (e.g., Hume is right); this explains which behavioral attitudes and tendencies we regard as meritorious (again Hume is basically right). This is (retrospectively) a feminist aspect of Hume and of Dewey.
  • Each of these three foci must be taken into account in a viable ethical philosophy. Such a philosophy will give accounts of each of these in which pressure of each aspect is expressed in the other two. This helps to explain the variety of ethical theories and the fact that they don't easily converge.

    The need to reconcile these three dimensions of our ethical selves leads to the importance of human creativity and judgment. This creativity is not only individual-we can to some extent define our personal conceptions of the good (usually in conjunction with others, real or imagined). We also care what others think and want, to the extent possible and consistent with our own most basic beliefs, to harmonize with theirs.

    This leads to the role of Intelligence (Dewey's substitute for Reason-not merely a verbal substitute). Intelligence is

  • a general problem-solving capacity.

  • biologically and socially evolved in us.

  • includes capacity to learn from each other; to benefit from the discoveries of others; to heed the reasonable criticisms of others.

  • includes the capacity to learn and apply the experimental method; controlling for aspects of the environment to discover the conditions and consequences of affirming certain subjective values, which enables us to critique what is merely valued and discover what objectively is to be valued.

  • the basis for the process of transforming what is merely valued into (what is intelligently judged to be) valuable; desired into desirable; chosen into choiceworthy; honored into honorable

  • For more on Dewey's notion of intelligence and its connection with his enriched conception of experience, see these notes on his Reconstruction in Philosophy 1920; 2nd ed., 1985 (Beacon Press).

    The true "stuff" of experience is: Adaptive courses of action, habits, connections of doing and undergoing (p. 91)

    Experience "carr[ies] within itself" principles of connection and organization.

    The basis for the development of "intelligence as an organizing factor within experience" is an aspect of organization intrinsic to life, all the way down to the level of the amoeba--its activity refers to its surroundings and to what comes before and goes after (91)

    A radical change occurs in the conception of experience [between empiricists like Hume and pragmatists like Dewey]: "It has ceased to be empirical and become experimental." Dewey is making a distinction which is often ignored. It is typically assumed that since observation occurs in modern scientific inquiry as it did in premodern natural inquiry, that experience in both cases are the same. But Dewey rightly points out that there is a major difference. Modern inquiry deliberately varies causal conditions to see how effects are modified. (94-95)

    The relation between science ("reason") and experience has changed since Kant: The former is not laid from above upon experience [as with Kant's a priori concepts of the understanding], but is suggested and tested in experience. . . (95)

    Intelligence is the pragmatist term for "concrete suggestions arising from past experiences, developed and matured in the light of the needs and deficiencies of the present, employed as aims and methods of specific reconstruction, and tested by success or failure in accomplishing this task of readjustment." (96)

    Experimental intelligence is "the new conception of reason."

    (A) It is conceived on the model of science, and used in the creation of the social arts.

    (B) It projects [aims at] a better future and assists man in its realization.

    (C) Its operation is always subject to test in experience. (96-97)