John Dewey Reconstructs Ethics

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Altered February 7, 2001


John Dewey (1859-1952) was the last of the three major American thinkers identified with the late nineteenth and early twentieth century philosophical movement known as pragmatism. There was a time when it would not have been implausible to call him the greatest American philosopher. During his lifetime, he was immensely influential. He published works in psychology, education, aesthetics, ethics, political philosophy, logic, theory of knowledge, metaphysics, and the place of religion in culture. Unlike virtually all American philosophers today, he was influential beyond the academy. He had many disciples in the field of education. He was widely read by the liberally educated public and was a respected commentator on current social problems.

This introduction to Dewey's ethical thinking is based upon Chapter 7 of his Reconstruction in Philosophy.(n1)

I. Historical Background

Ethical theory was invented by the ancient Greeks, particularly Plato and Aristotle. They were responding to the same social crisis that produced the questioning of Socrates. Customary or traditional morality was breaking down, and the philosophers, who in earlier times devoted themselves to the study of nature, were urged to use their skills in responding to this crisis. As Dewey sees it, what happened is that philosophers created an ethical theory which served as a partial substitute or reinforcement for traditional morality.

This kind of solution, which was never clearly challenged before Dewey, is in his view the source of philosophy's failure to give ethical inquiry the direction it needs. Philosophers, in his view, substituted an idea of the good or the just for traditional morals. But when they did so, they only created a new standard as fixed and eternal as traditional morals were originally thought to be.

According to Dewey's diagnosis, the history of all earlier ethical theory is the assumption of a single, fixed ideal pattern of life ("the end") or a single fixed law or duty. Sometimes the ideal is described as a life of activity in accord with virtue (as Aristotle described it), sometimes as the most pleasant life (as hedonistic thinkers called it), or the life in accord with nature (in the words of the Stoics). Sometimes the single law is to obey God's will, sometimes it is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and sometimes to act so as to produce the greatest possible balance of pleasure over pain for everyone affected.

Whether the fixed point of morality is an ideal pattern of life or a law, the traditional task of moral philosophy is then to discover it, clarify it, defend it against critics, and proceed to apply it to particular cases.

This top-down conception of ethics is neatly paralleled in the Middle Ages by a similar top-down picture of reality. From the Greeks, and especially Aristotle, the Middle Ages inherited the picture of a closed universe, an ordered, limited and hierarchical world order. In the order of nature, we begin from the sphere of fixed stars--called fixed because their relations to one another do not change: the location of the greatest perfection in nature. The ladder of nature descends from the perfection of the stars to the less regular and perfect forms of life on earth. A similar ladder of substances descends from God to man to animals to plants. Yet another ladder of authority descends from the Pope to the king to lord to serf.

II. Scientific Inquiry as Model for Ethics

In Dewey's account, early modern science explodes this picture of a closed universe and places matter on more or less the same footing. In the new view of nature, no observable material object is eternal, not even the stars. Institutionally, Dewey believes, modern science promotes a more egalitarian order. It is not enough to publish one's theory or observations. Observations and experiments must be such that others can repeat them. Theories must be confirmed by a shared rational ability to connect the observations to the theory proposed.

Characteristic of modern science is the view that there are no wholly final solutions, no theories whose improvement can be ruled out in advance. This commonplace concerning science inspires Dewey to make what is a bold claim for ethics: Instead of a single fixed end or ideal activity, we must make room for "a plurality of changing, moving, individualized ends" and instead of a single fixed law or duty, we must develop a conception of "principles, criteria [and moral] laws" as "intellectual instruments for analyzing individual or unique situations." (173)

Many people have insisted that scientific methods are inappropriate in ethics. This idea has reinforced the view there are two cultures within contemporary civilized life--the sciences and the humanities. Dewey admitted that science and ethics were on very different tracks. He claimed, however, that the divergence arose primarily from the fact that the methods of natural science had radically changed since the late Middle Ages while ethics was stuck in a premodern mindset. It was his task to help ethics catch up.

Dewey regards the following as key features of the scientific method:
1) that ideas are instruments for solving problems
2) that problems arise in concrete circumstances, in "situations."
3) that discovery requires interaction with the environment, i.e., action upon the environment accompanied by observation of what emerges from that interaction, and
4) , to repeat a point made earlier, that there are no wholly final solutions.
These ideas are all relevant to Dewey's view on how to think about ethics.

III. The Primacy of the Concrete and the Situational

Dewey writes,
The primary significance of the unique and morally ultimate character of the concrete situation is to transfer the weight and burden of morality to intelligence. It does not destroy responsibility; it only locates it. A moral situation is one in which judgment and choice are required antecedently to overt action. The practical meaning of the situation--. . . the action needed to satisfy it--is not self-evident. It has to be searched for. (173)
People are faced with "conflicting desires . . . alternate apparent goods." They need to find the right course of action, the correct good. They must observe the details of the situation, analyze it into its factors, and clarify the obscure elements. They must often de-emphasize "the more insistent and vivid traits" so as not to let what seems at first obvious lead to a premature judgment. They need to consider what patterns of action suggest themselves and trace the probable and possible consequences of each of them.

Tracing probable and possible results especially demands the use of imagination and past experience. Without them we cannot consider consequences before we act.

Dewey says we should regard the decision reached "as hypothetical and tentative until the anticipated or supposed consequences which led to its adoption have been squared with actual consequences" (173). He has not forgotten, of course, that moral decisions do not take place under strict laboratory conditions or that a word spoken in haste cannot always be retracted. However, a policy decision can be reviewed. A decision which did not have the results anticipated can be reconsidered as a way of learning how to respond differently to future decisions of a roughly similar kind.

Inquiry of this sort is what Dewey describes as "intelligence." He says that it must be cultivated in conjunction with the following virtues: "wide sympathy, keen sensitiveness, persistence in the face of the disagreeable, balance of interests enabling us" to analyze problems and decide intelligently (174).

A word about "persistence in the face of the disagreeable." For Dewey this could not possibly endorse fanaticism (n2), but giving a well-thought out moral experiment sufficient time to reveal its value. In my view, this is a virtue we need in order to defend affirmative action against those who would dismantle it prematurely.

Some liberal critics are bothered by Dewey's denial of fixed moral principles, arguing that we need, for instance, a fixed notion of human rights, rights that hold not only now but for all time, as a protection against injustice and oppression. And others of a more conservative bent might say that without respect for God's will as expressed in the Ten Commandments or some codification of "family values" given to humans as valid for all time, the world will go to hell in a handbasket. Dewey's approach to ethics might be regarded as too relativistic by people holding either of these two views.

Dewey's response to this type of objection has several parts. He does admit that general ideas of justice and other goods have value, but, he claims, this is only because they provide people with "tools of inquiry into the individual case and with methods of forecasting a method of dealing with it."(176) (n3)

For Dewey the error of rigid adherence to eternally fixed general ideas is revealed by the importance of the concrete situation in ethics.

Consider the candidates for the human good--health, wealth, honor, friendship, esthetic enjoyment, learning, contemplation of truth, pleasure, justice, etc. Traditional ethics selects one and excludes the rest, or it makes one of these most important and subordinates others to it, or it ranks them in a fixed hierarchy. These approaches do not satisfy and arguments in their favor do not persuade. Meanwhile, suggests Dewey, little progress is made towards procuring such goods in the concrete. You cannot get these things in general, you can only get them in particular, through action, which is specific, unique, individualized, in a situation.

The situational nature of these values is revealed, says Dewey, when we consider that they are not things but ways of acting. The best way to indicate what is at stake is not to use nouns, like justice or health, but.adverbs. "To say that [a person] seeks health or justice is only to say that he seeks to live healthily or justly." (175)

The distinction between the artistic and the mechanical is relevant in all departments of life, including those involving ethical choice. Physicians proceed artistically when they use the tools of their profession to inquire intelligently into the problem situations they face. If they were to proceed otherwise, they would mechanically apply preconceived rules, operating in a rigid and dogmatic manner. In this contrast between the artistic and mechanical, the word "artistic" connotes sensitivity to context required by all intelligent choice, including choices of a more obviously ethical sort (176).

Dewey's view of the ethical good leans towards what we in philosophy call nominalism: emphasis is placed upon the reality of the particular, not the general. He says that there is no such thing as the good, only particular goods. Moreover, these exist only when there is something to be done (176). The good which is to be done has to be discovered, aimed for and produced by reflection on the trouble to be corrected. It is not a mistake to classify problems and their solutions. But the general things traditionally considered goods--things such as health, wealth, industry, temperance, courage, patience, etc.-- have value because they promote a fitting response to individual situations (176-77).(n4)

IV. The Criticism of Traditional Dualisms

A. Means and Ends

The first consequence of Dewey's approach is an attack on the traditional distinction between instrumental goods, which are means to something else, and intrinsic goods, which are desired in themselves.

The distinction, of course, is a very old one. We find an early version of it in Plato's Republic. Instrumental goods, when they are purely instrumental, are desired only for the sake of something else, not for their own sakes. An example often given is that of unpleasant medicine which one swallows for the sake of health. Most people, says a character in Plato's Republic, think of justice like that, as something desirable not for its own sake but for the sake of the rewards or benefits one acquires when people think you have it. Plato himself argues that justice is, in fact, desirable for its own sake (though he does not deny that there are often advantageous side-effects of being just). For Plato and Aristotle, contemplation of truth is the best example of a human thing desirable in its own right.

Dewey remarks, "It is often thought to be the very beginning of wisdom, of moral discrimination, to make this distinction [between the intrinsic and the instrumental good]. . . [C]arried into practice it has an import that is tragic. Historically it has been the source and origin of a hard and fast difference between ideal goods on the one side and material goods on the other" (177). Whether educated people consider the intrinsic good to be intellectual contemplation, as in ancient Greece, or religious observation, as in the Middle Ages, or aesthetic enjoyment, as occasionally in our time, the effect is similar.

Dewey claims that, from the beginning of Western political thought, this conception has reinforced the class structure of society. The case of Aristotle is illuminating. In his sketch of an ideal state, Aristotle proposed that the laboring masses be excluded from participation in civic activity. Their manual labor was needed by the state, so they had to be kept around, but their exercise of this labor, because it was a burden and good only for its consequences, distorted their lives and by implication their morals. The assumption was that manual labor is inherently burdensome and thus merely instrumental. Aristotle reasoned that only persons freed from menial tasks to engage in governing and contemplation could live truly worthwhile lives and thus only a non-laboring class could identify with the state which made these lives possible.

Since manual labor was still required by the system of production, Aristotle looked for a subspecies of the human race, individuals whose limited mental powers made them fit for this kind of service. He located some of them--not enough, by the way--in a human subgroup he called natural slaves, and he judged that it would not violate their potential to assign them to such a subordinate and politically powerless role (177).

The harmful effect of these ideas goes beyond injury to the group which Aristotle regarded as natural slaves. This theory helps persuade people devoted to the perfection of the mind and soul that they should withdraw as much as possible from activity involving material things. Business and even politics are then left to persons least concerned with intelligence and decency. The result, says Dewey, is the brutalization of ordinary life (178).

Dewey urges us to reinsert intrinsic value into the material life, into economics. Not, of course, that we should make profit a god. Rather we should see production of goods as a moral service to people who will use them. A vocation can be a sacred duty or trust.

If life is to be worth while [economic ends] must acquire ideal and intrinsic value. Esthetic, religious and other ideal' ends are not thin and meagre or else idle and luxurious because of the separation from instrumental' or economic ends. Only in connection with the latter can they be woven into the texture of daily life and made substantial and pervasive (178).
The split between the manual trades and business, on the one hand, and the so-called vocations that pursue so-called higher ends, he says, gives "aid, comfort, and support to every socially isolated and socially irresponsible scholar, specialist, esthete and religionist" (178).

B. Moral and Natural Goods

The next distinction which Dewey attacks is the distinction between moral goods and natural goods. This is also an ancient distinction, going back to Plato and Aristotle. Something like it was important for the Stoics, whose ethical ideas I present elsewhere on this site. (See "An Introduction to the Ethics of Stoicism".) Moral goods are conditions of the soul such as courage, wisdom, justice of character, and other virtues. Unlike moral goods, natural goods do not entirely depend on us. Such values include health, wealth, honor, economic security, art, and technical knowhow. In classical times, the Aristotelians and the Stoics agreed on the lowly status of these values. But so insistent was Stoicism on the secondary position of these values that it said that happiness does not depend upon them at all. Stoicism even refused to call them goods, labeling them instead merely "preferred" things.

Dewey wants to undermine this distinction, to dethrone the virtues from their position at the summit of values. He doesn't take the position of regarding the virtues merely as a means to something else. Early Utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham went to this extreme when they said that virtues were valuable only because they promoted pleasure and diminished pain. But for Dewey virtuous action is not the only thing intrinsically worthwhile. And he thinks that all so-called virtues should be evaluated in terms of their actual and predictable consequences. If middle-level bureaucrats would evaluate in this way the so-called virtue of loyalty to superiors, perhaps some of history's greater crimes would have been prevented.

C. Science and Ethics

Dewey writes, "The experimental logic when carried into morals" judges every quality as good to the extent to which it contributes to the resolution of existing ills (178). Thus he disputes the sharp distinction we are accustomed to make between natural science and moral inquiry. The sciences help us recognize particular problems and develop plans to reduce their severity. For example, they pinpoint the presence of carcinogens in the products we consume or in the pollutants in the atmosphere. They enable us to know how much junk we are getting in our food and give us pointers about how to avoid it. In effect, they enable us to decide with some chance of success what steps to take, individually and collectively, to deal with problems created, increasingly, by our own industrial solutions of former problems.

In Dewey's approach, the sciences of fact become part of the apparatus of moral inquiry. Isolated and by itself, discussion of moral values often seems shrill or nagging or pedantic. But when natural science can be combined with ethical concerns, the combination loses these off-putting qualities and is much harder to ignore. It is to the benefit of both scientific and ethical practice when science is pursued for its social relevance and its vital importance in life. (178-79)

Thus Dewey advocates the destruction of what he calls "the greatest dualism which now weighs humanity down, the split between the material, the mechanical and the scientific [on the one side] and the moral and ideal [on the other]." (179) A focus on concrete problems goes hand in hand with the destruction of this dualism. The split can be maintained only if we insist on operating with high abstractions or forget that abstractions are justified only as tools for solving problems. When attention is focused on "diversified concretes" (179) we realize the need to use all available intellectual tools to solve special cases.

V. The Testing of Value Ideas

For Dewey, inquiry and discovery have essentially the same place in moral matters as they do in the sciences of nature. Ideas are tested in experience. What happens as a result of acting in accord with an idea becomes a measure of its worth. Reason in ethics, he says, takes flesh "in the methods by which needs and conditions, obstacles and resources, of situations" are analyzed in detail, and plans for addressing problems worked out. (179)

Failing to do this we fall back on a few abstract ideas which promote the drawing of hasty conclusions. Bad consequences occur, but instead of recognizing that the fault lies in policies that are too simpleminded, we deplore these results as arising from inborn perversity of human nature or "inhospitable destiny" or simply the limitations of the human condition. But when we focus on the concrete situation, inquiry and alert observation of consequences become duties.(179)

All value ideas, all notions of things that are held to be valuable, are revisable, in Dewey's view, in the same sense that a scientific theory or hypothesis is regarded as revisable. A purpose must be considered a working hypothesis until results confirm it. Mistakes are to be expected, but, for Dewey, they are not accidents to be mourned or sins to be expatiated. Rather, they are "lessons in wrong methods of using intelligence and instructions as to a better course in the future" (180).

V. Optimism, Pessimism, and Meliorism

Philosophers used to spend enormous effort on the problem of evil: how do we square the goodness of God, or the universe, or life, with the existence of evil? Dewey urges that we re-conceive the problem of evil as "the practical problem of reducing, alleviating, as far as may be removing the evils of life" (181). In his view, it's not the job of philosophy to explain away evils or justify them. Philosophy's job is to contribute to methods that will help us discover what causes the ills that beset humanity (181). If he were alive today, I think he'd replace "humanity" with "planet" since ecological science has shown us the interdependence of all life forms on earth. Dewey, I suspect, would have been a big fan of ecology, since it is the natural science which takes most seriously one of his recurring philosophical themes, the interaction of living creatures with their environment.

Dewey rejects pessimism about the human condition. "Pessimism," he says, "is a paralyzing doctrine" (181). He also rejects wholesale optimism, especially the kind that says that this is the best of all possible worlds, not needing our efforts to make it better. His own view on this question is meliorism, from the Latin word melior, meaning "better," as distinct from optimum, meaning "best." Meliorism holds that however bad things may be, they can be improved. It encourages the use of individual and collective intelligence to discover means to remove obstacles that block promotion of the good (181-82). Optimism, of the sort opposed to meliorism, makes people complacent or blind and callous to the sufferings of the less fortunate (182). Optimism of this sort encourages withdrawal from efforts that might help make things better.

Dewey rejects any description of happiness as a fixed attainment, even if it is called bliss and assigned to the afterlife. The notion of such bliss he describes as "an insipid tedium, a millennium of ease and relief from all struggle and labor . . . [an ideal which] could satisfy only the most delicate of mollycoddles" (182). He risks being misunderstood when he says that happiness is "found only in success" (Ibid.). But he does not understand success as making a lot of money or getting elected to high office. For him success is "the overcoming of obstacles, the elimination of sources of defect and ill" (Ibid.). Beauty, i.e., esthetic sensitiveness and enjoyment, is a part of his conception of happiness. But he regards esthetic enjoyment as linked to the consummatory phase of all well-executed solutions, and not the exclusive province of the fine arts. (For details on this, see his 1934 book Art as Experience.(n5))

VII. Critique of Utilitarianism

Dewey shares with Utilitarian moralists of the eighteenth and nineteenth century a focus on the consequences of human actions. Utilitarianism in his view represented progress in ethics when it emphasized the importance of studying cause-effect relationships and thinking carefully about consequences in order to make judicious choices. But utilitarianism is guilty of the cardinal sin of all traditional ethical theories--the assumption of a fixed principle or end--in its case, the fixed end of producing the greatest balance of pleasure over pain for everyone affected. The result of this approach is to make everything--from education and justice in business dealings to art appreciation--nothing more than a means for the production of pleasure. Rather than, as Dewey advocates, overcoming the alienation of instrumental goods from intrinsic goods, utilitarianism advocates and promotes it (183).

Moreover, utilitarianism is problematic because it conceives its fixed end, the promotion of over-all happiness, in terms of the sums of private pains and pleasures. Thus utilitarianism contributes indirectly to the exaggerated individualism that has long distorted political thinking in the United States (184). Utilitarianism reinforces attitudes which make "business" a way of piling up the means of private enjoyment, not a way to perform social service or an opportunity for persons to fulfill themselves through creative solution of problems (Ibid.).

VIII. Ethics and Education

Dewey's opposition to hard and fast distinctions between means and ends is significant for education. He always conceived education as having a moral dimension. Education, for him, is a passage from the worse to the better, or it is not deserving of its name (184). Education is not just a preparation for adulthood. The notion that education is only preparation tends to reduce it to a means, whose point is postponed until after education is completed. Happiness, or success properly understood, involves solving problems creatively. If students come to regard education as a mere means, then what they are learning is how to live alienated lives. But if they can be gotten to attack problems in the right spirit, as well as with effective techniques, they will already be in some ways successful. They will already be sharing in the good life, though not the good life in the popular sense of a life of ease and passive enjoyment.

Skewering exaggerated individualism once more, Dewey denies that the goal of education is the creation of a fully independent, self-sufficient adult. We should not overstate the dependence of the child or the independence of the adult (186). A successful adult life will involve all sorts of relations of interdependence with other human beings. Dewey wrote in 1920 that education should never end--a view that is now commonplace. But he makes the still revolutionary additional claim that "the test of all the institutions of adult life is their effect in furthering continued education" (Ibid.)

For Dewey, this is the job of government, business, and religious institutions: "to set free and develop the capacities of human individuals without regard to race, sex, class or economic status." (186) In his view, this was the moral meaning of democracy. Political and economic arrangements, like ethical ideas, should be judged by the contribution they make to the rounded development of every member of society.(n6)


  1. John Dewey, The Middle Works 1899-1924, vol. 12: Reconstruction in Philosophy and Essays 1920 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982).

  2. Dewey explicitly criticizes fanaticism in ethics on pp. 175-176.

  3. See also pp. 176-77: "Classifications . . . are tools of insight: their value is promoting an individualized response in the individual situation."

  4. Dewey's stress that moral inquiry is essentially about the concrete case and that great sensitivity to the situation is required for effective moral judgments is very much in line with Aristotle's account in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics of the exercise of phronesis, which is itself sometimes translated as [practical] intelligence. Where Dewey departs from Aristotle's view is that, for Aristotle, the ultimate aim of phronesis, in the political community, is the creation of an opportunity for philosophical or religious contemplation (theoria), which, for Aristotle, is the highest kind of happiness of which humans are capable. But Aristotelian theoria is for Dewey the prime philosophical example of the notion of a fixed end which he wants to challenge.

  5. John Dewey, The Later Works of John Dewey: Art as Experience 1934 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press)

  6. For further exploration of Dewey's ethical ideas see
    James Campbell, Understanding John Dewey: Nature and Cooperative Intelligence (Chicago: Open Court, 1995), especially ch. 4;
    John Dewey, The Later Works 1925-1953, vol. 1 Experience and Nature 1925 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press), ch. 2;
    John Dewey, The Later Works 1925-1953, vol. 4: The Quest for Certainty 1929 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 1984);
    and John Dewey, The Later Works 1925-1953, vol. 7 Ethics 1932 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985).

    For a discussion of how the ideas of John Dewey and other pragmatists might contribute to environmental ethics, see E. Katz and A. Light, eds, Environmental Pragmatism (New York: Routledge, 1996).

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