Components of the Moral Situation in Dewey's Philosophy

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

CHOICE: Ending deliberation of alternatives; initiating dynamic alignment (working together) of habits and impulses, in conjunction with environmental conditions (deliberation or reflection is finally completed in action); resolution of a conflictual situation. One possible course of action seems to fit the bill, to bring a new harmony out of all subjective factors (habits and impulses) and objective factors (real conditions). Everything seems to fit together. The projected course of action is a solution. It is a good choice if many factors and alternatives have been openly considered and objectively weighed. It is a bad choice if it is based on bias (dominance of a single habit) or based on thoughtless impulse.

COMMUNICATION: Discovering preexisting common ground and creating new common ground between and among distinct human individuals; increasing the fund of shared meanings (culture). Communication is the common which binds together the unique and the diverse. It reveals the preserve (fund) of shared meanings (common culture and language, as well as shared traditions and values), yet ensures that this funded culture will be constantly renewed and transformed in the light of new experience and new approaches from new individual standpoints (the give and take of conversation).

CONDITIONS: Factors within a situation that influence the direction of change. These may include material conditions (physicochemical, biological, economic, technological, etc.), cultural conditions, and human moral conditions (habits, impulses, intelligence etc.). According to Dewey, many conditions move events toward outcomes. Intelligence and moral choice are conditions within the situation that direct or guide other conditions toward a planned favorable outcome. With or without human foresight and guidance, things happen (indeed, things are already happening). Human direction of the conditions of a situation or experience helps to make outcomes more favorable. Reflection sorts out conditions and identifies them as resources or obstacles.

CONTEMPLATION: Aesthetic appreciation of the complete, the final, the finished, the unified, the harmonious -- either as real or imagined. One persistent aristocratic prejudice in philosophy has been that contemplation of finished form is superior to activity of manipulating conditions or materials to bring about finished form, leisure is better than work, theory is better than practice, and ends are better than means. Dewey's Reconstruction in Philosophy deals extensively with this attitude rooted in ancient Greek philosophy..

CUSTOM: Tradition (collective experience), collective habit, social habit, conventionalized and institutionalized manner. Rearing and education of the young passes on customs -- found in religion, culture, literature, art, and politics. Customs and habits can both liberate and suppress human growth. Customs often conflict with customs; customs more often conflict with personal habits and impulses. New individual angles of vision stimulate the questioning and reconstruction of culture.

DELIBERATION: Rehearsal in the imagination of possible courses of action, acting in one's imagination. One imagines what he might do and what consequences might follow. If one imagines favorable consequences without considering possible courses of action that might lead to those consequences, he is engaging in wishful thinking. Thus, deliberation holds together means and ends, actions and consequences. Imagined favorable consequences, stripped from their relation to possible actions, can become objects of worship, if one forgets their origin in deliberation, if one forgets what they were for in the first place. Imagining ideals or ends or consequences is part of a process of trying to figure out how to fix a situation. Superstition is an illusory short cut from real to ideal, without passing through hard work and effort. Deliberation is a momentary detachment or withdrawal from the outward situation in order to figure out how to reconstruct or redirect the situation. It is a strategic retreat rather than an escape. It is an "inward" reflection upon an "outward" situation.

DEMOCRACY: A set of social customs (also an ideal or end). Democratic customs and ideas are conditions that liberate the capacities of individuals and direct them to work together for common ends (liberty, equality, and fraternity). Democracy describes customs that are instruments for growth, both socially and personally. But democratic customs and ideas are not fixed objects of "contemplation"; they are tools subject to constant critique and renewal.

ENDS: Ends-in-view (imaginative projections based upon present conditions, desirable headings of present moving energies). Foreseen consequences, present anticipations of future outcomes. Ends must be distinguished from actual "results." Ends are in the present (present anticipations of future outcomes), giving meaning to present activity. They are "means" or instruments for directing or guiding or motivating present activity.

FIXED ENDS OR ENDS IN THEMSELVES: [For Dewey, there are none.] Ends that are not connected to means or strategies, that are not seen as possible outcomes of real conditions in the situation. They are believed to exist apart from actual conditions. These are the mental objects of traditional metaphysics -- objects believed to be unchanging "eternal truths" or absolute forms (for example, Plato's forms -- Justice, Truth, the Good).

GROWING OR GROWTH: The continuous reconstruction of experience, getting better, improving, perfecting, refining. Movement from disequilibrium to equilibrium. Simultaneous and codependent development of outer sympathy (circumference) and inner angle of vision (center). Process of unifying more and more diverse conditions tied to process of deepening and concentrating character; development of intelligence (practical wisdom). Growth means the same as education. Education means moral improvement. Moral improvement means improvement of oneself in the situation. Fixing oneself and fixing the situation cannot be separated, any more than bettering oneself and bettering society can be separated. Included are the individual, the environment, and the human community; growth is personal/social reform. Thus, the process is itself valuable. In a similar way, Dewey will say that democracy is an ideal; nevertheless growth or progress towards this ideal (democratizing human experience) is itself a good and is itself enjoyable. Movement in a positive direction bears with it a sense of meaningful continuity between means and ends.

HABIT: Acquired tendency or disposition. Accustomed manner of acting, automatic as opposed to spontaneous. Routine and regular modes of acting. Personal habits are individualized versions of social tendencies; they are modified and adjusted by interaction with individual impulses and reflection.

IDEALIZATION: Process of imagining a situation that is complete, harmonious, and without flaw, in which desirable aesthetic qualities are permanent. These are legitimate ends in view if they are connected to the means or processes or strategies that are necessary to bring them about. To idealize is to rework the material given in experience as a mental or imaginative conception (idea or ideal). What are often referred to as ideals are very general and indefinite far-ranging and remote anticipated consequences (a possible harmonious "big-picture" -- justice, the common good, etc.). Ideals constitute the overall direction or sense of direction of the path one traverses. They are felt as well as imagined. They give one a "sense of the whole," of unity on a large scale. They provide an indefinite background or aura to the foreground of the actual situation.

IMPULSE: Spontaneous release of energy, feeling, emotion, personal interest. Impulses are infinite in number and vary within each individual. Impulses are not simply "inborn," but develop through interaction with the environment. Behavior without the guidance of habit or intelligence is "impulsive," an outburst without control or conscious direction. Impulse means "just letting go." It is the basis of invention, creativity, and play. Both habits and impulses are "unthinking." Habits are a well oiled machine, and impulses are random outbursts. A balance of both is required for human conduct.

INDIVIDUAL: Each individual is a unique organic outgrowth of myriads of common physical and societal conditions. Out of the common and the shared the unique and particular arises. This is true in all of nature, and it is true of human beings as well. The variety of the universe is the outgrowth of transactions between common factors.

INTELLIGENCE: When habits don't work or they conflict with impulses or with the environment, the situation becomes problematic. One must stop to think, to analyze the situation, to figure out what went wrong and what to do about it. Present difficulties are an opportunity for thought. One examines the past. One faces the facts of the present situation. One imagines a way out of the present situation, a course of action leading to a favorable outcome. Intelligence is reflection upon what is needed to direct the conditions of the present situation. Intelligence increases with each new resolution and intervention. It is a learned behavior. Highly developed intelligence does not depend upon great crises; it goes looking for trouble and makes even apparently unproblematic situations problematic (recall Socrates).

INTEREST: The thrust of individual character and energy, the direction of activity. What one wants to do and what one is accustomed to doing. Essential to morality (development of individual capacity -- growth) is the development of social interest. "Self-interest" (contrary to Kant) is but one kind of interest. Education must gear common content to individual interest, so that interest may be broadened and enriched.

JUDGMENT: Because moral principles are general and situations are particular, moral principles never completely fit the situation. Thus, moral principles can never substitute for intelligence. The right course of action is a particular, and hitting upon the particular requires a kind of "wisdom." Every situation presents new and unique problems and difficulties, where only new and unique solutions will work. "One must face facts, dream dreams, and act."

MEANING: The perceived connection between means and ends, between conditions and consequences. The action we take has meaning to the extent that we see this connection. We must see together the continuity of process and completion, activity of harmonizing and final harmony, work done and satisfying conclusion. For example, to appreciate a work of art, one must know the process that led to the work of art. Similarly, the laborer can enjoy his work only if he sees the connection between what he does and the finished product; just as one cannot truly enjoy the fruits of another's labor, unless he knows what it took to cultivate the fruits. Mere producers (means without ends and therefore without meaning) and mere consumers (ends without means and therefore without meaning) are deprived of the fullness of meaningful human experience. Intellectual contemplators of "pure forms" do not understand the meaning of life -- a dynamic interrelation between means and ends, real conditions and projected ideals. In a sense ideals are real conditions, and enjoyable activity is something that one aims at.

MEANS: Conditions leading to foreseen consequences. Like Heraclitus' pairs, ends and means belong together, have no meaning in isolation from one another. Means and end are correlative notions arising in the course of practical reflection and deliberation.

MORAL PRINCIPLES: Tools or instruments, working hypotheses that guide conduct. Principles are good or true if they work, if they help direct present affairs to favorable outcomes. They are not eternal nor fixed in stone. Like other factors, they are changeable and flexible. Like tools, they must be constantly modified to work in varying and evolving situations. Moral principles are means not ends, servants not masters in the moral situation. Like habits, moral principles are bequeathed from generation to generation, with alteration from time to time. Like scientific hypotheses, they are true as long as they work, as long as experience in the moral situation (a kind of scientific experiment) proves them valuable.

MORAL SITUATION: A situation the outcome of which depends at least in part upon the intervention of human intelligence or thoughtful attempt to make things better rather than worse. The way things turn out (including mistakes) prompts reevaluation of ways of acting, as well as principles that help guide and direct action. Each situation is unique, yet different situations have things (conditions) in common. There is no clear dividing line between "practical" and "moral" situations. Everything one does has potential moral consequences. Nevertheless, some actions have more wide-ranging and long-term consequences (an argument for rehearsing action in the imagination).

PLEASING SITUATION: Situation that is harmonious, aesthetically whole, complete (consummatory), satisfying, certain, well-resolved. Every situation has aspects or unities or some quality that can be immediately appreciated or aesthetically contemplated. A situation is pleasing when "everything comes together." It is especially pleasing when this unity is not accidental, but is the result of intelligent action, of "doing the right thing."

PROBLEMATIC SITUATION: Situation that is perplexing, incomplete, confusing, uncertain, conflictual. Every situation is potentially problematic; improvement is always possible. In the problematic situation, the smooth flow of habit and movement in a particular direction comes to a thought-provoking halt. Thought continues where overt action left off, in order to find a way out of the present difficulties and through the present conditions, to project and revise ends, to imagine possible courses of action, to deliberate, to choose, and to resume overt action.

REASONABLE: Not opposed to impulse or habit, but the coordination or harmonization of impulses and habits. Just as the one is the many for Heraclitus, so "reason" is the harmony or unity of many temperamental factors according to Dewey ("getting one's act together").

RIGHT ACTION: Appropriate action, action that fits the requirements of a particular situation. Each solution, like each situation, is unique. Yet solutions also have things in common, which makes knowledge drawn from experience essential, but not sufficient by itself (the importance of flexible judgment).

SOCIAL SITUATION: Situation in which a public, a "we," an association of individuals working together for common ends in view (social ends), must endeavor to direct economic, industrial, technological, social, and cultural conditions toward favorable anticipated outcomes. With or without human intervention, societal conditions are headed somewhere. An educated public can intervene to consciously direct some of the very powerful forces at work in the republic.

SUMMUM BONUM: Ultimate good (from the Latin), highest end or purpose. According to Dewey, there is no such thing. There are a variety of fulfillments possible. For Dewey, meaningful process is more important than static result; for Dewey, what is good is a highly individualized affair. As every action, person, and situation is a unique individual, so every end is unique and individual. On the other hand, there are regularities, common elements within experience. If there is a single good, it is growth.

SYMPATHY: Imaginatively "standing in another's shoes." Seeing actual conditions and possible consequences from the standpoint of other individuals. Appreciating their interests. Imagining the unique center or angle of vision of others as they and their striving touch upon the common world. The achievement of a social standpoint (the common good) by which to judge and act within the moral situation. Inclusion of consequences for others as unique individuals within the process of deliberation.

VALUES: Things that matter, objects one desires or holds dear. The term may have a social or cultural meaning, referring to values held in common. There is no genuine social unity without values (valued objects) held in common.

See also, on this site, The Moral Situation in the Philosophy of Dewey.




Copyright © 1997, 1999 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
Make inquiries and comments to Dr. Gordon Ziniewicz

Note: This philosophical text, though still in process, is the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. It may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.

Direct inquiries and comments to:

Copyright © 1997 - 1999 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.