(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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Impulses and Social Training

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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Intelligence and Action

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.


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Dewey’s Ethics

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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Moral Conduct

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

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....

(The entire section is 481 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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,...

(The entire section is 477 words.)