Human Nature and Conduct

by John Dewey

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 384

These pages are a discussion of some phases of the ethical change involved in positive respect for human nature when the latter is associated with scientific knowledge. We may anticipate the general nature of this change through considering the evils which have resulted from severing morals from the actualities of human physiology and psychology. There is a pathology of goodness as well as of evil.

Dewey here sums up a basic premise of his book: the desire to put morality and human conduct on a scientific footing. He says that although the scientific study of morality is far behind other areas of science, we are nevertheless beyond the age of "magic" and can devise ways to understand and build on what makes a strong and democratic society in which people behave well to each other.

To reach an end we must take our mind off from it and attend to the act which is next to be performed.

Dewey, a pragmatist, states that an "end" is only the last in a series of actions we take. Looking at morality or any other form of change analytically, he says we must focus on the next step we need to take in any action toward change. For example, an alcoholic would do best not to think about no longer drinking. Instead, he should focus on a positive next step, such as developing an interest that would take his mind away from alcohol. Dewey argues that this kind of practical morality is far more effective than abstract, in the clouds, moral theories.

Man is a creature of habit, not of reason nor yet of instinct.

Dewey begins by discussing evils such as war or the way the economy is arranged. He says that because these evils continue to exist, conservatives insist this is because they are an inherent part of human nature. This attitude is precisely what Dewey fights to counter. Bedrock to his thinking is the idea that human progress is possible and that with the right kind of science, human society can change for the better. Our problems are not inherent or instinctual, but merely the product of habit. If we go to war, for example, it is simply because human reason has not been adequately developed yet. Dewey is an optimist about human potential.

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