Human Nature and Conduct

by John Dewey

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What are the key ideas in Part One of Human Nature and Conduct?

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Human Nature and Conduct was published by American philosopher John Dewey in 1922. Essentially, the book is a study of the connections between human nature, morality, and society. Part One of the book is entitled "The Place of Habit in Conduct," and its focus is on the reasons that human beings believe and behave as they do.

Dewey's primary argument in this part of the book is that people behave as they do through their interactions with their environments. This is contrary to those who claim, as he writes, that "[m]oral dispositions are thought of as exclusively belonging to a self," which is "thereby isolated from natural and social surroundings." Dewey claims that human behaviors are formed as "personal capacities within environing forces." That is, people's moral systems, virtues, vices, and tendencies are born out of interactions between themselves and their environments. Conduct, he writes, "is social, whether bad or good."

He expands on this theme throughout Part One of the book, arguing that in order to encourage what we think of as right conduct, societies have to focus less on punishing wrong behavior, or even on pointing out what good conduct is. Rather, societies should focus on changing the circumstances--the environment--that causes people, by their interactions with it, to do bad things. This is what Dewey means by "habits," the things that humans do in interaction with their environments (a concept that he also characterizes as "will.") It is pointless to focus, as some do, on the motives behind an act, but rather to consider the factors that created the will behind it. But because people's actions do not take place in a vacuum, Dewey stresses that people do not just react to their environments, they actually shape it. These key concepts laid out in Part One provide the foundation for Dewey's views on human nature and human conduct throughout the book.

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