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John Dewey Reconstructs Ethics

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Altered February 7, 2001

Historical Background
Scientific Inquiry as Model for Ethics
The Primacy of the Concrete
Criticism of Traditional Dualisms
Means and Ends
Moral and Natural Goods
Science and Ethics
Testing of Value Ideas
Critique of Utilitarianism
Ethics and Education

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
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

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
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 socalled 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 socalled virtues should be evaluated in terms of their actual and predictable
consequences. If middle-level bureaucrats would evaluate in this way the socalled 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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