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In Human Nature and Conduct the philosopher John Dewey looks at the connection between human nature and morality. While some people believe that we are naturally good, others believe that we are naturally evil. Likewise, while some people believe that morality is all relative, others believe that moral laws are as universal as laws of nature. In these twenty-six succinct chapters Dewey argues that morality is not so simple. He claims that morality depends on both individual people and societies, on both nature and nurture, and on a complex interaction between biological impulses, social customs, and human intelligence. He argues against those who believe morality depends on the will of the majority, those who believe it depends on the will of God and, most of all, those who believe the purpose of morality is to protect us from our own instincts. In Human Nature and Conduct Dewey gives us a new perspective on morality.
John Dewey (18591952) was America’s foremost philosopher for several decades of the twentieth century. He was born in Burlington, Vermont, attended the University of Vermont and Johns Hopkins University, taught at the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago, and finished his career at Columbia University. At the time of his death, Dewey was America’s leading public intellectual, prompting the eminent American historian Henry Steele Commager to write that Dewey was “the guide, the mentor, and the conscience of the American people: it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that for a generation no major idea was clarified until Dewey had spoken.”[i]
Dewey was also a devoted husband and father and many of his ideas can be traced back to the influence of his wife and children. He met his first wife, Alice Chipman Dewey, when he was teaching at the University of Michigan in the mid 1880s. Children soon followed and the Deweys became well known for giving their children free rein to explore the world. They raised six children together (though two died tragically young), and it was from observing their growth and development that Dewey created the theory of education for which he is perhaps best known. According to this theory, which Dewey also credited to Alice, children learn best when they are allowed to pursue their own interests under a teacher’s guidance. A child who showed interest in baking bread, for instance, should be directed to learn how wheat grows, how to measure and add up the ingredients, and how yeast works, thus learning some biology, mathematics, and chemistry among other things. Most important, a child should also be directed to pursue these interests along with other children, thus learning the skills necessary to be a full, participating member of society.
John and Alice Dewey were able to put these theories into practice when they moved to the University of Chicago in 1894. There they founded the Laboratory School (often referred to as the “Dewey School”) with a curriculum that fostered the students’ own interests and encouraged cooperation and community-building. The Deweys shared control over the Laboratory School, with Alice serving as principal while John was head of the university’s School of Education. When Alice Dewey was fired from her position in 1904, John Dewey responded by resigning from the University of Chicago. He was quickly hired by Columbia University and the two moved to New York City where they lived for the rest of their lives. In later years, Dewey continued to promote “progressive” education despite losing his connection to the Laboratory School.
Alice Dewey died in 1927, and Dewey married his second wife, Roberta Grant Dewey, in 1946. Despite a large difference in age (Dewey was eighty-seven, Roberta was forty-two) they adopted two children, and Dewey seems to have spent his final years happily surrounded by his new family. He continued to write, travel, and collaborate until nearly the very end of his life.
Dewey witnessed a number of profound changes during his ninety-two years. When he was born, the United States had about thirty-one million inhabitants, slavery was legal in many states, and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had just been published. When Dewey died, the United States population had almost quintupled to one hundred fifty million, the nation had waged a civil war, two world wars, and become a world power, and both Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum physics had transformed science. Dewey fully appreciated these unprecedented changes and, as a result, he developed a philosophy well suited to changing, modern times.
Dewey’s philosophy is a version of pragmatism (though he tended to avoid that word). Philosophical pragmatism, in contrast with the everyday sense of “pragmatism,” meaning a hard-nosed or unprincipled attitude, emphasizes the real-world practical consequences of our beliefs. Thus, the originators of pragmatism (in particular the American philosophers Charles Sanders Peirce  and William James ), used the consequences of our beliefs to shed light on both the meaning and truth of what we believe. Very roughly, if you want to know what something meansfor example, the idea of “God”then look at the concrete difference this idea makes in people’s lives: How has the idea of God affected human history? How does a belief in God affect a person’s behavior? Likewise, a belief’s truth is closely connected to its effectiveness. For example, true beliefs are generally dependable in ways that false beliefs are not. By thus emphasizing the real-world implications of our beliefs, pragmatism was an antidote to philosophy that was fuzzy, mystical, or overly abstract.
In addition, Dewey’s pragmatism is grounded in both empiricism and naturalism. Dewey’s empiricism is evident in his frequent appeals to experience. He insists that a philosophical theory must be more than internally consistent: it must also agree with our experience of what the world is like. Dewey knew that otherwise philosophy can lose touch with reality. His approach is also naturalistic because it recognizes the relevance of the natural and social sciences. According to Dewey, not only must philosophy be consistent with our best scientific knowledge, but philosophy and science ultimately blend into each other. Thus, good philosophy makes use of good science (and vice versa), and Dewey believes that philosophers should learn to think more like scientists: in particular, they should adopt something like the open-minded, experimental method that distinguishes the best science. For this reason, Dewey avoids using concepts that fall outside ordinary scientific discourse. This rules out concepts that are specifically philosophical (such as Hegel’s “Absolute” or Plato’s “Forms”), as well as more common concepts such as “soul,” “spirit,” and “God.”
Human Nature and Conduct is Dewey’s account of morality from a pragmatic, empirical, and naturalistic perspective. First, it is a critique of theories that measure morality against something transcendent and supernatural such as the will of God or universal human reason. These theories, Dewey argues, tend to overemphasize a person’s good intentions at the expense of good outcomes; furthermore, by measuring human behavior against an unattainable standard of absolute moral perfection, these theories ironically encourage mediocrity and conformity as the best we are capable of. Second, Human Nature and Conduct is also a critique of theories that treat morality as a process of simply calculating the costs and benefits of different courses of action. These theories, Dewey argues, misrepresent the nature of moral deliberation and the real difficulty of comparing different courses of action. One theory is flawed for being transcendental and supernatural; the other theory is flawed for flying in the face of actual human psychology.
Dewey’s alternative emphasizes the interconnected role of “habits,” “impulses,” and “intelligence” in guiding our conduct. While his point is rather straightforward, Dewey is faced with the problem of trying to describe a new position using traditional language. For this reason it is important to keep in mind that he packs a lot of meaning into these words. So, for example, “habits” are more than just “tendencies.” According to Dewey, our habits are a reflection of our society and we pick up our society’s habits and customs in much the same way that babies pick up language. In addition, habits also depend on the physical world, which along with our social environment, places objective limits on which habits are beneficial and which are not. “Impulses,” in turn, are spontaneous, natural, and unlearned actions. Dewey disagrees with those who claim that people are “naturally” or “instinctively” selfish or generous, warlike or peaceful, etc. Instead he argues that our natural impulses have no intrinsic meaning or purpose because the meaning of a particular impulse depends on the situation. In some situations the impulse of fear may lead to unexpected bravery; in other situations it may lead to cowardice. Impulses become important when our old habits and customs fail to keep up with changing times or come into conflict with each other. When that happens impulses are the raw material for the development of new habits and customs. Finally, “intelligence” plays a crucial role by refining the raw material of impulse into new habits and customs. Here too Dewey has a particular kind of intelligence in mind. Intelligence, he claims, cannot be reduced to calculation, cost-benefit analysis, or logical ability. Instead, intelligence boils down to a process of “dramatic rehearsal” that explores different courses of action in response to specific, concrete problems. The decisive factor in choosing one course of action over another, Dewey argues, is how we react to them: whether with pleasure or pain, attraction or aversion.
Through his account of habit, impulse, and intelligence, Dewey aims to describe moral conduct in a way that is faithful to actual human psychology. Along the way he shows that human psychology is deeply social since our social circumstances determine and give meaning to our habits, impulses, and intelligence. (This is fitting, given that the subtitle of Human Nature and Conduct is “An Introduction to Social Psychology.”) Thus, once again, it is impossible to sum up human nature in a word as either selfish or generous, warlike or peaceful, etc. Whether people are greedy or generous is a result of their society, not some inborn human nature.
Dewey doesn’t make moral deliberation easy. He gives no general rules for determining whether an action is right or wrong. But that’s not necessarily a drawback because general rules are less helpful than they appear. Take, for example, the general rule that killing is wrong. Even though this is something we all agree with, most would admit that there are also exceptions (such as self-defense), that there are difficult borderline cases (is euthanasia “killing,” or is it only “letting someone die”?), and that this rule can conflict with other rules (we should also always tell the truth, but what happens when telling the truth means a person will be killed?). General rules are little help in such cases. Instead, we need to look closely at the circumstances. And that is Dewey’s point: moral deliberation requires the hard work of looking closely at the circumstances. This means that moral deliberation cannot be made simple or easy. In fact, moral deliberation shouldn’t be simple or easy, given that the stakes are often so high.
In addition, Dewey argues that we are constantly faced with moral decisions. Many of these we can decide on the basis of habit: after all, most of us automatically do the right thing most of the time. But in other cases we don’t even realize that our actions have moral consequences and, when we do realize this, general moral principles are again not much help. For example, it may not be obvious that buying a particular brand of coffee is a moral decision. But if the environmental record of that brand is worse than that of another, then which brand one buys may be a moral decision. Furthermore, as soon as this becomes a moral issue then other factors become relevant: perhaps the brand with the worse environmental record treats its workers better or makes large donations to charity. Once the issue becomes this complicated there is no easy way of solving it by applying a general principle. Instead, the best we can do in these complex yet everyday situations is to examine the situation closely to see where the most good can be done. We must also recognize that, when it comes to moral problems, very often there is no perfect solution and no ending is completely happy.
Human Nature and Conduct is filled with important asides. For example, Dewey’s account of morality is consistent with his political and educational philosophy. So, if morality depends on a combination of habit, impulse, and intelligence, and if moral deliberation focuses on particular, concrete situations, then this has implications for how we should live together and raise our children. Dewey argues that societies should be as democratic as possible to ensure that old customs are scrutinized and, where necessary, replaced by new and more effective ones. Likewise, he argues that education should encourage flexible thinking and creative problem solving, not imitation and rote memorization.
It is no surprise that Human Nature and Conduct is so wide-ranging given the time when it was written. It was published in 1922 when “The War to End All Wars” had not yet become “World War I,” the Soviet Union had recently come into existence as the world’s first communist state, and in the United States women had only recently gained the right to vote. Dewey recognized the significance of these and other events, seeing in them signs of change that created opportunities for a more just, democratic, and moral society. For example, Dewey hoped that the carnage of World War I might lead nations to outlaw war, that the rise of Soviet communism would highlight alternatives to traditional capitalism (though Dewey was a staunch critic of the Soviet regime), and that women’s suffrage was a sign that the United States was, finally, beginning to live up to its democratic promise. Making the best use of these opportunities would require the sort of moral deliberation Dewey proposes here.
Human Nature and Conduct still speaks to us today despite being written for another era because many of the problems Dewey identifies are still problems today. Globalization and new communication technologies have brought customs into increasing conflict with each other, and it has never been more important to resolve these conflicts intelligently, not violently. Likewise, we have never been so aware of the moral consequences of our actions. We now realize that actions that once seemed benignas simple as driving a car or buying a T-shirtmay actually be moral choices once we factor in the effects of global warming or child labor. In the face of these and other challenges the attraction of a moral theory that is psychologically realistic, that doesn’t over-simplify the process of moral deliberation, and that doesn’t depend on inaccurate accounts of human nature is obvious. Again, Dewey doesn’t make genuine moral deliberation easy. But he does show how, in a complex and changing world, it is still possible to think intelligently about the moral consequences of what we do.
Finally, a caveat: Dewey is not an easy author to read. In fact, Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court justice, once described Dewey’s style with these words: “so methought God would have spoken had He been inarticulate but keenly desirous to tell you how it was.”[ii] While calling Dewey “inarticulate” is an exaggeration, his style can be convoluted and complex, and reading one of his books can be slow going. But those who persevere will find that the going gets easier and there are definite rewards in making it through to the end. This is certainly the case with Human Nature and Conduct. Not only are its chapters generally short and thus more easily digested, but Dewey’s position builds momentum and becomes clearer as the book goes on. The result is a remarkably broad and far-reaching account of morality, its origins, and its future. After all, Holmes also admitted that Dewey’s writings often had “a feeling of intimacy with the inside of the cosmos that I found unequaled.” For many readers this reward is well worth the struggle.
John Capps is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts at Rochester Institute of Technology. He specializes in the philosophy of John Dewey.
[i] Henry Steele Commager, The American Mind (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950), 100.
[ii] Quoted in Robert Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 341.