Dewey’s Morality: Human Nature and Conduct

I have just finished reading John Dewey’s Human Nature and Conduct – one of the toughest books I have ever found my way through.  I had naively thought that being an experienced reader of Dewey I’d be able to pick things up right away.  Oh, no!  While I found the introduction reasonably comprehensible, I found the lengthy first section almost impossible to understand.  It was replete with the usual Deweyisms: ludicrously abstract/eccentric terminology, quasi-evolutionary jargon, passive sentence construction, unweeded syntax, downright unclear referents in sentences, ambiguous language, repetitiveness, even digressiveness.  I almost gave up reading the book after struggling through this first section.  A description I read in some secondary research on Dewey kept sticking in my head: his writing is like the cannon fire from a nearby town – you can tell there is something important going on, but it’s impossible to say just what.  Fortunately the rest of the book went much better and I did finish, but I was deeply frustrated by the disclarity of his writing, which I sometimes began to associate with the disclarity of his ideas, or at least with a certain coyness about stating just what he really means.

That said, I learned a lot.  I think my main takeaway is that while I like pragmatist ethics in part, I still find this approach incomplete.


Dewey’s basic idea is that moral knowledge should not be derived from fixed systems of belief.  Instead, moral knowledge should be treated according to the same standard as scientific knowledge: to paraphrase by using a quote I once read, “truth emerges from the self-correction of error through a sufficiently long process of inquiry.” Since this is the same epistemological standard we use for truth in science, why should morality be any different?

It’s a fascinating approach, one that I’ll try to explain better below, and one that certainly raises a number of clear objections.

Changing Truth

Dewey’s conception of morality is colored by his understanding of certainly versus change.  In short, he believes in change.  Everything changes: even “truth.” Dewey’s pragmatism says that truth is something moving, something evolving.  It is interesting – he never cites Darwin outright in any of his own work, but Dewey simply does not believe in fixed and eternal notions of truth, in the way that Aristotle believes in first principles.  In Human Nature and Conduct (HNC), Dewey writes repeatedly about the wrongheadedness of this idea.  He discusses this in both science and in morality.  In science, “ . . . men believed that the highest things in physical nature are at rest, and that science is possible only  by grasping immutable forms and species,” Dewey writes (143).  But that is not how scientific truth is acquired.  Instead, “truth can be bought only by the adventure of experiment” (143).  Truth is something that is always in the process of being discovered – in terms of discovering new truths about the world, but also something whose provisional truths must always be subjected to rigorous analysis. 

He believes the same thing about morality.  We must not treat morality as something inherently separate from our normal process of daily deliberation.  Moral decisions are not to be guided by immutable principles any more than our understanding of scientific truth should be guided by unchanging Aristotelian first principles.  Aristotle’s belief in a teleological universe and his belief in hylomorphism – that the universe moves purposefully to realize potentiality in form, and that the form of a thing is inherent within it – infected our thinking about morality, too, according to Dewey: 

“If the changes in a tree from acorn to full-grown oak were regulated by an end which was somehow immanent or potential in all the less perfect forms, and if change was simply the effort to realize a perfect or complete form, then the acceptance of a like view for human conduct was consonant with the rest of what passed for science.  Such a view . . . was foisted by Aristotle upon western culture and endured for two thousand years” (134).  

But this is wrong for Dewey.  Since Dewey’s universe is constantly changing, there are no moral “truths” – ideals or absolutes – that should guide our conduct.  Dewey calls these “fixed ends” and he objects to this conception of a wholly separate fixed code of morality – he sees this as Aristotle’s problem (clearly), but he also objects to the Christian version (which he takes thinly veiled shots at several times in the book), and also Kant’s (mentioned a few times).  His objections are both philosophical and practical, and both of these two types of objections seem to merge – uncomfortably so, for me: the philosophic objection is that the world is constantly in flux, and there are no set rules for human conduct that will provide perfect answers.  The practical concerns are many, and Dewey is fairly persuasive on these.  In a sense, his main argument is that adherence to fixed ideals blinds us to the reality of the daily problems which necessitate morality in the first place, and they impede our solving these problems with specificity and effectiveness.  Basically, a fixed morality makes us blind to the nuts and bolts specifics of morality.

But it’s here that Dewey gets tricky, and it reminds me of how slippery he is when it comes to the question of fixed subject matter in schools.  While he does write about the importance of “custom” – which in Dewey-speak seems to be the accumulation of good rules that we’ve built up for human conduct – it’s almost always to say in the next breath that custom should always be questioned by what he calls “impulse” (which are the normal vents of human emotion and need) and thereby refreshed by each subsequent generation.  I link this to his writing about schools, because Dewey was just the same when it came to any “fixed” notion of subject matter: yes, he wrote just enough about subject matter to show that he does recognize it, but it was also so that he could immediately ask us to question that subject matter’s place.  Either way, in his suspicion of custom, Dewey is the opposite of, for instance, an Edmund Burke: Burke is always emphasizing the precariousness of “custom” (again in Dewey’s term) because he thinks that humans are slow to recognize the wisdom of the past and quick to throw it away – which results in humans making similar mistakes again and again.  Dewey can at least bring himself to admit that customs exist for a reason, but he is far more uncomfortable with anything fixed, and far more optimistic in the power of human deliberation than Burke: he really does think that the scientific process applied to everything will result in a continual positive adjustment to our environment. 

It’s the same mindset that he thinks we should apply to morality.  And as a side note, it’s interesting that whenever he appears to be writing about morality, or human relationships, his writing is always this Deweyian tone of abstract, detached, naturalistic, even biological language.  It’s always either this quasi-Darwinian diction about “adapting” to our “environment,” or it’s this sub-Darwinian-speak about satisfying needs and wants – again, morality as a type of biological function.  For a book with “conduct” in the title, and in which “morality” is mentioned so frequently, there’s very little about the nuts and bolts of human conduct.  I just think it’s important to note that.  There is rarely any mention of how real human beings might treat each other.  There is little to be said about charity, empathy, kindness.  This is not to say that Dewey’s book is not “practical”; that is something I didn’t expect or seek here, but it is to say that there is always a sense for me with Dewey that his philosophy is looking through a somewhat eccentric lens – one that sometimes, in studiously avoiding the notion of fixed ends, seems to resisting being tied to anything except constant movement, and in doing so avoids confronting the hard questions.

There is always a sense in Dewey that the only “content” or perhaps “truth” he will acknowledge is that which is expedient.  This is his pragmatism, I suppose.  For Dewey, democracy is the best form of government because it works:  it allows more problem-solving, more “interaction” with the “environment” – not because of any inherent worth in human beings.  This is very different, I think from Churchill’s famous definition of democracy as the worst form of government – except for all of the other ones.  Churchill’s definition is one that I believe sees some inherent respect for the individual person in democracy, the protection of one’s human dignity; Dewey’s version is just one that sort of maximizes the number of participants in a kind of scientific inquiry.  Meanwhile, it’s the same in his ethics:  Dewey’s presentist concept of morality, for him, is the true one because it allows for better satisfaction of our moral problems.  In morality, he seems to nod to the notion of not only custom, but of human nature – which is somewhat similar to what he terms “impulse” – particularly in a moving passage in which he seems to compare moral ideals to the far-off stars: we do use the stars to guide us, but we do not steer toward them.  Is this Dewey admitting that there is such a thing as moral truth, or at least some contingent moral truth or at least custom – or wisdom that we’ve stockpiled?  It’s hard to say.

A Key Quote

At one point, Dewey writes something particularly revealing about his philosophy.  He says, “Not convention but stupid and rigid convention is the foe” (99).  

That really sums up this book for me.  In this quote you see a few elements.  

First, you see Dewey’s quite strong anti-authoritarian streak.  This book was surprisingly fiery – there were a number of passages that were quite strident, particularly in Dewey’s critique of conservatives who resist change because they are scared of it, also in critiquing those who believe war and capitalism are natural due to human nature, and in critiquing those who would aim to tell humans to align their conduct with some external force.  Dewey keeps coming back to that last point – that there does not need to be some outside convention to tell humans what to do – in a surprisingly emotional way – you can tell this is a powerful issue for him, and that passion is there in this quote, in the word “stupid,” which is quite a straightforward and blunt word for Dewey to use.

Second, you can see in that short quote Dewey’s push for convention to be constantly updated (or, in Dewey-speak, reconstructed).  Dewey’s is a philosophy of constant updating, constant changing, reforming, tinkering, experimenting, testing.  Again, he is not against convention, which he does say is critical, and which is not to be disparaged for a free-for-all of “impulse.” But his emphasis, unlike Burke, is on testing convention.  Dewey worries about sclerosis; Burke worries about destruction.  Dewey is a surprisingly interesting political philosopher, and I really appreciate it when these passages appeared in this book; at one point, he writes about how it is not the action-oriented revolutionaries who sweep away institutions (the destruction of which Dewey considers a bad thing) whose conduct is to blame – it is the conservatives in power who do not allow customs to be reconstructed via “impulse” who really are to blame.  Here it’s not hard to agree with Dewey – this is a very sensible policy, and his ideas about the fruitful interplay between custom and impulse make a great deal of sense to me.  So too do his basic ideas about the way that culture is run by custom, and should be run – channeled, really – by custom and habit.  Dewey does not discount this stuff – “tradition” as some might say.  He agrees with Burke that a human ill is the belief that we can wash away custom and habit (which Dewey savvily says is harder to get rid of than revolutionaries often think) in favor of some totally new grand plan based on remote ideals (Love! Brotherhood!  Justice!) and guided by “pure” reason.  Dewey completely agrees with Burke that custom and institutions aren’t created – they evolve in response to specific scenarios occurring time and again, and that there is great wisdom in this kind of presentist process.  In many ways, this aspect of Dewey’s pragmatism – the kind of social interactionism that he sees as critical for solving immediate problems – is very sympathetic to Thomas Sowell’s “constrained vision” of human affairs: the Hayekian free-market idea that people closest to the situation have the best solutions for adaptation, rather than bureaucrats removed from the scene, making rational plans.  It’s interesting in this sense, then, that Dewey does not seem (in his few mentions in this book, anyway) to be particularly taken with capitalism or markets.  

But where Burke and Dewey disagree, again, is two-fold.  First, Dewey, as I mentioned, is so very optimistic about the prospects of the scientific process, to which he repeatedly believes our moral thinking should be subject to, as improving our lot.  Again, I like his emphasis on specificity in understanding ourselves and getting past a blunt, primitive notion of human impulses.  But he has such faith that, in an ideal democratic situation, everyone has a say, everyone can communicate, and if we follow the scientific process of hypothesizing, surveying conditions, and testing our theories, we will continue to improve.  

It doesn’t even take an intellect like Burke’s of course to have no trouble pointing out the myriad ways this process is problematic.  But a Burke would certainly point out that this sort of perfectly representative and deliberative process is really its own kind of fixed ideal, one that is just as remote, really, as any Platonic ideal of The Good, or Christian ideal of charity.  And even granting ideal conditions of deliberation, what happens if the people do deliberate, only to decide that the execution of, say, anti-scientific dissidents is now justified?  If there is no, for example, inherent sanctity to human life (something Dewey never writes at length about in this lengthy book on conduct), no fixed worth in human beings, no ground rules for conduct, what is to stop the most educated, scientifically advanced country in the world in the early 20th Century, not long after this book was written, to slide downhill into genocide, concentration camps, and world war?  I think this is what bothers me about the non-humane tone of Dewey’s book.  If you venerate Darwin, as Dewey does, you have to deal with the dark side of evolution, which is very dark indeed.  A place like Nazi Germany should bring home this reminder to us with great clarity.  Yes, adaptation is important, but that can also imply the ideal of survival of the fittest – social Darwinism.  Dewey is appalled by the old traditions sitting in mothballs, no longer vital, and he venerates the freshness of “impulse” – but what if “impulse” injects itself not as a welcome shot of oxygen into the bloodstream, but as the Germanic blond beast, straining to escape and establish dominance the world over?  This is where Dewey’s pragmatism starts to look quaint, and where an independent, rock-solid moral code starts to look pretty important, or at least a Burkean insistence on strong institutions and customs – backed by solid moral beliefs – designed to check impulse.

And that’s the second point of comparison between Burke and Dewey.  Burke appears to believe in a largely unchanging human nature; if he’s not explicit about it, his a-historicism points the way.  He believes that the past is an important guide to understanding the present; humans don’t really change that much, and are always, at all times, subject to undoing any progress that we have made.  Dewey on the other hand is both a historicist and someone with a belief that the world is progressing and improving.  He does not seem to believe that there is too much particularly to be learned from the past because he focuses more on the differences that we deal with today.  Many times in the book, he does seem to grant that there are original human impulses, but he always deflects away from those to say that what counts is the social conditioning of these impulses.  The self, he writes, is not static; it is always “in the process of making.” It is nurture that matters more, not nature.  As a result, I don’t think he looks to the past as a real source of wisdom, because he believes that we have “evolved” since then, and he believes that humans are in such radically different circumstances now that it is as apples to oranges to compare our situation to that of a century ago.  

Conclusion:  A Corrective Philosophy, Not a Stand-Alone Philosophy 

I side more with Burke here than Dewey.  It is hard not to think of Dewey’s pragmatism as a useful corrective on idealism grown stale than as a philosophy that can stand on its own.  To me, when you say that the stars are there only to guide us, and that once we reach the port, that is not our ultimate goal, but a new starting point, you are making a point that no one really objects to.  I would imagine that everyone who subscribes to either Platonic or Kantian or Christian idealism realizes that they’re aiming at an ideal.  While I agree with Dewey’s critique of these ideals themselves (that they are too often otherworldly places of frictionless comfort), I don’t think it’s unreasonable for humans to want to have ideals to aim at – even grand ideals.  I do not think it necessarily follows that if one has an ideal that one is somehow unhealthily removed from life.  This is partly why Dewey is repeatedly unable to rebut utilitarianism; every time he brought it up, I just found his arguments against it completely unpersuasive.  It’s such a straightforward system, and it’s as though Dewey is tying himself in knots trying to explain why having long-term goals is somehow not a good idea.

Moreover, I actually think it is human nature to *need* some kind of ideal.  That is what surprised me about reading Human Nature and Conduct – the extent to which I find Dewey’s naturalistic world a little too tumultuous, and found myself longing for the relative peace and security of Aristotle’s ethical framework.  Dewey’s approach is a nice corrective in that it brings freshness, and reminds us to pay attention to the world right around us.  And as with Dewey’s educational pragmatism – the farmer watching the crops carefully – I love his situationalism.  But as I said in the last post, I already see situationism in Aristotle’s ethics.  And Dewey’s approach does not satisfy that part within us – at least in me – that needs some kind of place to rest, some finality.  And it’s not only psychological, it’s philosophical.  There is a such thing as a finite species or a stable truth.  Humans may be evolving, okay, but it’s happening so, so slowly that in my view it is as though we *are* something of a fixed species.  And yes, let’s study that, and learn more about it, and not take refuge in myth, but let’s not downplay the relative stability of our natures (which at one point Dewey derides by writing that the believer in some settled human nature “is a victim of the popular zoology of the bird, bee and beaver” [59]).  I just don’t agree with this.  Birds, bees, and beavers may be evolving, but they have not changed in any noticeable fashion between Dewey’s time and mine, 100 years later.  Nor probably in the past 500 years.  In fact, let’s study that scientifically.  Let’s observe more and more carefully the rate of change of a species, and let the chips fall where they may.  Just as evolution will not support a settled species for all time, nor will it support a hyperbolic notion of meaningful change.  There is a reason that Aristotle’s philosophy still rings true 2,500 years later.  At the end of the day, we just haven’t changed much.

In the end, I find Dewey’s ethics to be attractive in that they’re situational and not limited by fixed dogma.  And I find it hard to argue against his core assertion that moral truth is no different than scientific truth in a way.  But I think my main issue is the issue of emphasis: although Dewey recognizes the importance of custom or even of moral systems and traditions to guide us, he rarely speaks of them – he is very coy as to whether there really is any actual truth to guide us in any of the old approaches, or, to put it another way, where we are now in our evolving understanding of moral truth.  Although he recognizes some elements of human nature, he emphasizes instead the historicism of our nature, and the degree to which nurture can influence us.  Although he seems to say that we should have something that guides our conduct, he discounts the importance of not just short-term ends-in-view, but long term ideals and goals.  And he is too optimistic about the potential for deliberation to reach conclusions that are moral.  His worship of Darwinism, as innocent as it seems, rather than any notion of fundamental human rights makes me nervous.  And most of all, his constantly-changing, ever-fluctuating world seems both too chaotic for me, and somewhat hyperbolic and out of accordance with reality.  

And besides, isn’t one of the most powerful spurs to science the search for ultimate truth and correspondence to reality – not just satisfaction of a spur-of-the-moment wish, or a desire to resolve tension, as Dewey might say?  Isn’t a grandiose desire to turn one’s ship away from the next port and actually try to sail toward the moon the spur to actually doing it?  Must we not believe in real capital-T Truth in order to drive ourselves to search for it?

And so Dewey’s pragmatism to me is a corrective, a reminder, and deeply creative and imaginative and also fascinating – but not a foundation, and not particularly illuminating.  For real wisdom, I’ll be looking elsewhere.