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Human Nature and Conduct by John Dewey is a seminal philosophical work that was partially inspired by Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. Like Darwin's groundbreaking theory, Dewey became interested in exploring human behavior—both primitive or instinctual, and those shaped by environment and social constructs—as well as the human condition itself.

Dewey explores several interlinked topics, such as the development of human habits, social hierarchies and institutions, and the concept of morality. The central thesis of Human Nature and Conduct is that human nature and social institutions have a symbiotic dynamic.

Human behavior is shaped by social constructs like man-made laws (the judicial system) and divine laws (religion). However, because these social constructs, even the concept of God, are created by humans, it is fellow humans that eventually shape human behavior. It is similar to a feedback loop or echo chamber, but on a grander scale that affects—and possibly constructs—an entire society.

Human Nature and Conduct also offers criticism on Western philosophical schools of thought, especially those concerning ethics and morality. Dewey opined that intelligence and scientific knowledge can address moral issues. For instance, he believed that the truth is not permanent, but is elastic and adaptive to different time periods or cultures. Therefore, only concrete methods, like scientific experiments, can illuminate the "genuine" truth.

Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 366

John Dewey believed that to understand oneself and others, one must study human nature and the social institutions in which it functions because both forces work to shape the individual. Morality is the interaction between the two. In the preface to Human Nature and Conduct, Dewey says that his book “sets forth a belief that an understanding of habit and of different types of habit is the key to social psychology while the operation of impulse and intelligence gives the key to individualized mental activity. However, they are secondary to habit so that the mind can be understood in the concrete only as a system of beliefs, desires and purposes which are formed in the interaction of biological aptitudes with a social environment.”

Dewey criticizes the morality of the past as based largely on arbitrary rules rather than on a scientific understanding of human beings. The few have given and administered rules that the many have obeyed with reluctance, if at all. Such morality is largely restrictive, concerned with what should not be done. Many people conform, but others circumvent the morality in their practice, while giving lip service to it or by having a theory that avoids it. The Romantic device of the glorification of impulse as opposed to knowledge is such a theory. Those who attempt to live by a morality divorced from an adequate theory of human nature inhabit a world in which the ideal and the real are sharply separated. They must renounce one world or live uneasily in a world split in two.

It is Dewey’s contention that knowledge can solve moral problems and that scientific method holds the best promise of providing knowledge. The moral life operates in an environmental setting that is both natural and social. Human nature is continuous with the rest of nature, and as a result, ethics is allied with physics and biology. Because the activities of one person are continuous with those of others, ethics is allied with such social sciences as sociology, law, and economics. Even the past is not irrelevant. One can study history to understand the present as derived from the past and to help determine the structure of the future.

Habits and Morality

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The moral acts of a person are closely related to habits. Habits are compared by Dewey to psychological functions. Both require the cooperation of the organism and its environment. Vices and virtues are not private possessions of a person; they are the result of the interaction of human nature and environment. “All virtues and vices are habits which incorporate objective forces.” They can be studied and understood and, as such, can serve as the basis of moral discussion.

Everyone is familiar with bad habits. They are tendencies to action that somehow command people but that people usually have acquired without conscious intent. Because they command, they are will in a clear sense of this word. Because they are demanding and determine what one regards as significant and as trivial, they are the self. Dewey uses this view to replace the belief that will is a separate faculty that, if exercised, can achieve whatever the individual wishes to achieve. A person with a bad habit is not simply failing to do the right thing; the individual has formed a habit of doing the wrong thing. Habits cannot be dismissed by a simple effort of will any more than rain can be brought on by a simple act of dancing. As one must understand the conditions that cause drought and bring rain, so one must understand the objective conditions that cause and continue habit. Neither reason nor will can be separated from habit. What one reasons about, what one decides upon, how one acts on decisions is determined by the relation of the human organism to an environment.

Many people have thought that social institutions are the result of individual habits. The contrary is true for Dewey. He believes social institutions are the source of information about habits, in the sense that the individual must acquire habits that conform with those of the social group. This explains the meaning of such terms as group mind, collective mind, and crowd mind. They can mean nothing more than “a custom brought at some point to explicit, emphatic consciousness, emotional or intellectual.” Dewey adds, “In short, the primary facts of social psychology center about collective habit, custom.”

One might expect that democracy would encourage individuality, but democracy as it is lived seems, on the contrary, to encourage conformity. Conformity is due to the unfavorable influence of past custom as it affects beliefs, emotions, and purposes. An education tied to the past “becomes the art of taking advantage of the helplessness of the young; the forming of habits becomes a guarantee of the hedges of custom.” However, habit is not necessarily conservative. It is any ability formed through past experience. One can acquire the habit to seek new solutions to new problems as easily as the habit to attempt to solve all problems in old ways. Dewey does not describe habit as simply a way of acting; it is also a way of thinking, because thinking requires energy and energy is organized by habit.

Dewey’s view of habit places him in opposition to a central contention of the great majority of moralists. They have held that ethical decisions can or must be made by the intellect, unencumbered by nonrational dispositions such as habits or customs. Morality involves relating a set of ideal laws to particular situations and deciding on a course of action that resolves the situation and is in accord with these laws. What classical moralists do not account for, Dewey contends, is the source of ideal laws. Such laws do not suddenly appear, fully formulated, carrying with them their own demand for obedience. On the contrary, they grow like language from incoherent mutterings to complex systems of communication, requiring adherence to rules that are a product of after-the-fact reflection and that acquire a prescriptive character. Morals are ways of acting invented to meet specific situations. When these situations are repeated, the reaction to them becomes a habit and acquires a prescriptive character. Morality refers to social institutions to which one must defer if one is to live. However, deference is not implicit obedience. Indeed, implicit obedience to any rule of action is impossible. The rule is derived from the environment, and conditions change. In a completely static world, rules might forever remain the same; but the world is not static, and new rules arise from inevitable change.

Impulses and Social Training

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One must distinguish between impulses and habits. All human beings love, hate, desire, and avoid; and these impulses have been embodied in social institutions. However, these institutions are highly varied. Dewey points out that different societies use the same impulses in many ways: the communism of the South Sea islanders, the pacifism of the Chinese, the militarism of the ancient Persians, the variety of class morality in almost every society.

The infant is largely potentiality. It is born in an adult environment that provides channels for its impulses; indeed, without these channels the impulses have no meaning, because although an activity stems from the impulse, the nature of the activity comes from the social environment. This environment may be intensely tight, narrow, and restrictive, or it may be loose, wide, and tolerant. Dewey advocates the latter sort:With the dawn of the idea of progressive betterment and an interest in new uses of impulses, there has grown up some consciousness of the extent to which a future new society of changed purposes and desires may be created by a deliberate human treatment of the impulses of youth. This is the meaning of education; for a truly humane education consists in an intelligent direction of native activities in the light of the possibilities and necessities of the social situation.

Dewey describes insistence on conformity as training, not education. Education, properly speaking, must enable the organism to modify its behavior in the face of novelty, rather than to withdraw timidly. Dewey says again and again that no old set of habits will ever be adequate to meet new situations. One fact about the future one can be sure of is that it will contain novelty. Old rules sometimes meet new situations but only because the old rules are vague.

By defining human nature as this combination of impulses and social conditioning, Dewey is able to claim that human nature can be changed. As social conditions change, new ways must be devised to meet the change; old impulses are directed into new channels and a new human nature is formed. Indeed, the very words used to describe human nature—selfishness, greed, altruism, generosity—are social terms and have no meaning apart from one’s interaction with the environment. People act with regard to the consequences of their acts, and a part of these consequences is what others will think of these acts.

Instincts provide the motive for action but do not determine the character of the action. To attribute all business activity to the acquisitive instinct is an oversimplification, tending to obscure the study of business enterprise. Another case in point is pleasure. The moral literature of the world is full of tirades branding pleasure as evil. Certainly some excesses of pleasure do harm, but pleasure is as necessary to the human organism as work, which is often taken as its opposite. It is through art and play that new and fresh meanings are added to the usual activities of life. Both have a moral function. Both bring into use the imagination, which often finds no part to play in our mundane activities. Both heighten and broaden the meaning of our ordinary concerns. Art and play release energy in a constructive way.

Intelligence and Action

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The constructive release of energy is in the direction of meeting new situations by modifying old ways of action. The alternatives are frozen custom or unbridled revolution. What Dewey wants is conscious, reflective reconstruction of society. One must act, but one must act constructively, guided by intelligence.

What, then, is the place of intelligence in conduct? Dewey has already discussed habits. They are related to intelligence in two ways. The first is restrictive. Habits confine intelligence to the problem at hand; however, if this were its only function, the goal of intelligence would be mindless action. Intelligence offers the solution; habit takes over and repeats the solution again and again. However, habit is not only restrictive. In its second function, it presents alternatives. The more numerous people’s habits, the greater are the possibilities of action. In explaining this second function of habit, Dewey says that people “know how by means of our habits.” This means that through habits of inquiry, people recognize the novelty in a situation and marshal their previous experience by means of the channels of habit to meet it. This focus of habits on a problem and the solution that results is an essential function of intelligence. Unless one has habits of inquiry, there is no approach to the problem. One must learn until it becomes habit that problems can be recognized and that to solve them one must recollect, observe, and plan.

Some psychologists believe that intelligence and moral conscience are separate faculties that are unconditioned by experience but that operate on the subject matter of experience when it falls within their realm. Dewey does not share this view. For him, both develop in the human organism as the organism develops. The organism grows in height, learns to swim, evinces a desire for knowledge, accepts, and rejects. Every habit is an impulse. Children learn something, like what they learn, and then want to learn more. That children may want to learn more is no more mysterious than that they may want to swim better or that they may want to act morally.

To act morally is to act in the best or wisest way. Such a course of action requires deliberation. To deliberate is to examine with the mind the possible courses of action and their consequences. The possible courses of action that are considered are the result of habit. The choice of one course rather than others simply means that “some habit or some combination of elements of habits and impulse finds a way fully open. Then energy is released. The mind is made up, composed, unified.” Deliberation is always the search for a way to act, not an end in itself.

Dewey disagrees with the utilitarians. Their theory, he believes, is that the intellect calculates the consequences of various courses of action and then chooses the one that will result in the most pleasure. His first objection to this theory is that it depends on the misapprehension that reason leads directly to action. On the contrary, habit furnishes the force of action, not reason nor even the anticipation of feelings. Second, there is the difficulty of predicting future pleasures. Future pleasures depend on one’s bodily state at some future moment and on the environment of that state. Both of these are independent of present action. “Things sweet in anticipation are bitter in actual taste, things we now turn from in aversion are welcome at another moment in our career.” What makes utilitarianism seem plausible to its advocates is their assumption that the organism and its surroundings will remain constant through time. They project the present into the future.

Dewey’s Ethics

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There is seen to be but one issue involved in all reflection upon conduct: The rectifying of present troubles, the harmonizing of present incompatibilities by projecting a course of action which gathers into itself the meaning of them all.

In this sentence, Dewey summarizes his ethical theory as he formulated it in Human Nature and Conduct. Good means the unity that the organism experiences in an action that harmonizes incompatibilities. A moral act is the solution to a problem. Moral aims are not expressed in precepts that exist outside action; they are consequences or natural effects of action. People like some consequences and attempt to achieve them again. In this attempt at realization, consequences function as ends. An end is like a dream in which present conflict is ended, the environment is corrected, and the future is seen in terms of a concrete course of action. The dream of fixed ends at which all action should aim is another expression of humanity’s hope for certainty in action. That this hope is vain is the subject of another of Dewey’s books, The Quest for Certainty (1929).

The function of intelligence is to foresee the future insofar as this can be done by means of principles and criteria of judgment. These principles are like habits. When they become fixed and are regarded as changeless, they can restrict action. However, it must be remembered, Dewey warns, that these principles were derived originally from concrete situations and that they deserve the deference due to any generalization that results from experience. They are hypotheses with which to experiment and whose use is to forecast the consequences of action.

What part does desire play in moral judgment? Most theories evaluate desire in terms of its object. However, reflection shows that a desire can have a variety of objects. Psychologically, desire drives the organism forward. It gives activity to life. The projected object of the desire and the attained object never agree, however close they may approach one another. Desire acting without will misses its object because action is not controlled. Desire acting with intelligence, Dewey concludes, is led toward its object.

No person who acts can control the future; one’s control is limited to the present. One may die before one’s goal is reached or one may no longer desire it as a goal. Neither can one provide for all contingencies. If one attempts to do so, one will never act at all. One must act in the present. A new house may be a future goal, but it has to be built in some present if it is to be lived in. Future goals are attained by learning through action in the present. Dewey applies these ideas to education. “If education were conducted as a process of the fullest utilization of present resources, liberating and guiding capacities that are now urgent, it goes without saying that the lives of the young would be much richer in meaning than they are now.” This principle can also be applied to modern industrial production. Workers confronted with article after article that they will never use soon lose the interest that might motivate them to make their work efficient. Their work seems senseless.

Moral Conduct

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For Dewey, the scope of morals extends to all cases in which there are alternative possibilities of action. The word “conduct” covers every act that is judged better or worse. Morality is not to be severed from other life activities. Every type of conduct incorporates value and gives for good or ill a meaning of life.

Any doctrine of moral conduct that replaces adherence to precepts with a naturalistic theory must explain the fact of freedom. Whatever happens in accord with a law of nature is not free; and if morality is not somehow separated as different in kind from natural facts, moral actions will not be free and people will become automatons. Dewey must meet this problem. To do so, he defines a freely acting person as having three characteristics: the ability to plan and act in accord with the plan, the capacity to vary plans to meet new conditions, and the conviction that desire and choice are a significant factor in action. The capacity to plan presupposes intelligence, and so intelligence is a precondition to freedom. There are two sorts of freedom, freedom-to and freedom-from. Freedom-from is necessary but restrictive. It must leave room for freedom to act, which requires desire, deliberation, and choice.

According to Dewey, people live in a social world. People are conditioned by education, tradition, and environment. The materials on which intelligence operates come from the community life of which people are a part. Morals are social, and both the school and other social institutions have a responsibility toward them. The knowledge of how to fulfill moral responsibility must come from the social sciences. Just as a castaway on an uninhabited island has no moral problems, so morality is a natural outgrowth of social living. The question, “Why be moral?” has no meaning in a social context. The moral situation is a part of the social environment in which everyone lives, changing and dynamic, but always present, always presenting its obligations. Morals are actualities. In moral acts, people express their awareness of the ties that bind each person to every other.

Additional Reading

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Alexander, Thomas M. John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature: The Horizons of Feeling. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. A thoughtful consideration of John Dewey’s understanding of experience and the role of aesthetics and the arts within it.

Bernstein, Richard J. John Dewey. New York: Washington Square Press, 1966. A brief, clear, and reliable overview of Dewey’s philosophy.

Boisvert, Raymond D. John Dewey: Rethinking Our Time. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Tracking the implications of Dewey’s thought, this study shows Dewey’s significance for contemporary social and philosophical issues.

Conkin, Paul K. Puritans and Pragmatists: Eight Eminent American Thinkers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976. In discussing several eminent American thinkers, this book provides a solid, although technical, account of Dewey’s place in American thought.

Festenstein, Matthew. Pragmatism and Political Theory: From Dewey to Rorty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. A careful and critical analysis that shows how pragmatism, Dewey’s included, has affected political theory and practice.

Hickman, Larry A., ed. Reading Dewey: Interpretation for a Postmodern Generation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. Important interpreters of Dewey’s thought explore his continuing significance for inquiry concerning knowledge and ethics.

Kuklick, Bruce. Churchmen and Philosophers: From Jonathan Edwards to John Dewey. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. An important study that deals with Dewey’s thought in the context of the interconnections between religion and American philosophical thought.

Moore, Edward Carter. American Pragmatism: Peirce, James, and Dewey. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. An older but still reliable comparative study of the three classical figures in American pragmatism.

Popp, Jerome A. Naturalizing Philosophy of Education: John Dewey in the Postanalytic Period. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998. A worthwhile appraisal of Dewey’s philosophy of education and its significance in ongoing debates within educational theory.

Rockefeller, Steven C. John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. A detailed and important study of Dewey’s life and thought, focusing on his views about religion and democracy.

Smith, John E. The Spirit of American Philosophy. Rev. ed. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983. Attempting to locate a common American spirit among five varied thinkers, this classic study interprets the philosophies of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Josiah Royce, and Alfred North Whitehead as well as the thought of John Dewey.

Stroh, Guy W. American Philosophy from Edwards to Dewey: An Introduction. Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1968. An introductory account that places Dewey in relation to his most important predecessors in American philosophy.

Welchman, Jennifer. Dewey’s Ethical Thought. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995. A sympathetic but critical analysis of Dewey’s moral philosophy and its implications.

Westbrook, Robert B. John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. A readable and carefully done study of Dewey’s influence on American culture and politics.

Donald K. Pickens John K. Roth

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

Additional Reading

Alexander, Thomas M. John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature: The Horizons of Feeling. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. A thoughtful consideration of John Dewey’s understanding of experience and the role of aesthetics and the arts within it.

Bernstein, Richard J. John Dewey. New York: Washington Square Press, 1966. A brief, clear, and reliable overview of Dewey’s philosophy.

Boisvert, Raymond D. John Dewey: Rethinking Our Time. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Tracking the implications of Dewey’s thought, this study shows Dewey’s significance for contemporary social and philosophical issues.

Conkin, Paul K. Puritans and Pragmatists: Eight Eminent American Thinkers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976. In discussing several eminent American thinkers, this book provides a solid, although technical, account of Dewey’s place in American thought.

Festenstein, Matthew. Pragmatism and Political Theory: From Dewey to Rorty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. A careful and critical analysis that shows how pragmatism, Dewey’s included, has affected political theory and practice.

Hickman, Larry A., ed. Reading Dewey: Interpretation for a Postmodern Generation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. Important interpreters of Dewey’s thought explore his continuing significance for inquiry concerning knowledge and ethics.

Kuklick, Bruce. Churchmen and Philosophers: From Jonathan Edwards to John Dewey. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. An important study that deals with Dewey’s thought in the context of the interconnections between religion and American philosophical thought.

Moore, Edward Carter. American Pragmatism: Peirce, James, and Dewey. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. An older but still reliable comparative study of the three classical figures in American pragmatism.

Popp, Jerome A. Naturalizing Philosophy of Education: John Dewey in the Postanalytic Period. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998. A worthwhile appraisal of Dewey’s philosophy of education and its significance in ongoing debates within educational theory.

Rockefeller, Steven C. John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. A detailed and important study of Dewey’s life and thought, focusing on his views about religion and democracy.

Smith, John E. The Spirit of American Philosophy. Rev. ed. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983. Attempting to locate a common American spirit among five varied thinkers, this classic study interprets the philosophies of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Josiah Royce, and Alfred North Whitehead as well as the thought of John Dewey.

Stroh, Guy W. American Philosophy from Edwards to Dewey: An Introduction. Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1968. An introductory account that places Dewey in relation to his most important predecessors in American philosophy.

Welchman, Jennifer. Dewey’s Ethical Thought. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995. A sympathetic but critical analysis of Dewey’s moral philosophy and its implications.

Westbrook, Robert B. John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. A readable and carefully done study of Dewey’s influence on American culture and politics.

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