The Moral Situation in the Philosophy of John Dewey

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. Human conduct combines activity which is routine or habitual, spontaneous or impulsive, and intelligent or deliberate. Much of the time, action stays within the "grooves" of personal habit or collective habit (custom). Occasionally, it deviates from established courses. It can do this emotionally, by impulse, with little or no reflection; or it can do this intelligently, by reflection and deliberation. Real progress generally takes place by adapting past methods and customary ways of doing things to the needs and requirements of the present situation. In fact, the present situation (the one we find ourselves in) is an environment in which something is already going on, in which conditions are already operating, in which energies and causes are already "on the move" and headed in an overall direction. We can stand by and watch (be passive observers) or we can directly participate in the movement of these energies by doing something, by consciously guiding or directing some of the causes, conditions, or energies on hand. These conditions may be natural, physical, psychological, cultural, intellectual, etc. What calls us to participate and direct conditions is the fact that the situation tends to be more or less problematic. In other words, things are not going the way we would like; energies are not moving in the right direction. The "right direction" is one we have worked out in our imagination. Our imagination mentally reworks the conditions of the present situation so as to be "better" or "improved" or headed in a better direction and toward a more desirable "end" or "ideal" (the situation with its defects removed). The role of overt action (actually doing something) is to change the direction of certain energies, to deal with obstacles (conditions in the way), and to allow positive conditions to move forward (be released). Doing the right thing means doing what is required to make the actual situation better. This requires hitting upon the right unique coordination of moving energies, as a locksmith must find the right key for a particular lock.

2. According to Dewey, the key to unlocking progress and growth within experience is to face facts, to fashion realizable ends or purposes, to choose the best course of action, and to act. Ethical knowledge -- knowledge aimed at the improvement of actual conditions -- does not stop with esthetic appreciation of or speculation about ends or values; it is instrumental, practical. It grasps the particular correlation of conditions within each situation and knows "how" to direct these conditions toward a desired anticipated result. Ethics is a techne, a technique, an art. Thus, there is no real line which can be drawn between "theoretical" and "applied" ethics; thought about ends or values or ideals ought to include thought about their relevance to the facts at hand. In fact, ideals should be worked out in alliance with facts, and facts should be viewed and judged in terms of ideals. Facts and ideals need one another.

3. If moral situations were few and infrequent, the need to develop moral art would be less urgent. But every practical situation, every situation that calls for intelligent action, some reflective intervention that "steers" already moving dynamic conditions, some need to stop and think, is in fact a moral situation. A moral situation is a situation whose positive or negative outcomes depend at least in part upon human foresight, planning, choice, and activity. Every human situation, the effects of which can be favorable or unfavorable, beneficial or harmful, is, in some sense, moral. Moral questions are questions of making things better and not worse. Even the most trivial action can turn out to have resounding personal and social consequences. It is important to monitor and "stop and think" even about habitual actions; they too can have moral consequences. What makes an act moral or immoral is its relation to consequences (which can be psychological, social, and environmental). Consequences we value and are proved or tested by experience to be in fact valuable we call good.

4. Moral situations, as Dewey recognizes, are unique and particular. Standardized or "pat" answers fit only standardized or hypothetical situations, situations that occur only in the laboratory of the mind or imagination. Actual solutions are as individualized or unique as the problems they are meant to resolve. This challenges us to modify old strategies and ways of thinking to fit situations which are similar to ones we have undergone before, but which have elements that are new. For example, a situation where one's words can make a difference usually calls for more than "not telling a lie" (as if the complete moral answer were simply to avoid lying). Such a situation calls for saying what is right, what is appropriate, what will help, finding a unique fit of words and actual conditions. Judgment or what was traditionally called practical wisdom (or prudence) constantly reworks ideas (including principles and aims) in the light of facts and constantly evaluates facts in the light of ideas. Serious moral performance is more than keeping a clear conscience. It is far more complicated than simple obedience to pre-established and prescribed "do's and don'ts." It is wise and overt performance within a particular and unique situation, taking account of traditional values (customs) and maintaining wide-angled vision of a variety of possible consequences, principles, and needs.

5. The tendency of some ethical systems has been to construct generic moral formulae that cover every situation and which require only obedience on the part of the moral agent. From this point of view, situations are not regarded as unique configurations of conditions which require unique approaches or actions, but as instances or examples of a general rule. Thus, they cut short genuine observation of the facts and genuine appreciation of the unique factors of each situation. Indeed, situations do have things in common; and this is what makes experience, both personal and collective, so valuable. But no moral principle, by itself, is sufficient for dealing with the intricacy and the complexity of problematic situations faced in everyday life. Moral principles are tools or guidelines that, once worked out from tradition and by means of individual reflection, must be constantly reworked and refashioned in accordance with the unique facts of the here and now.

6. Many ethical thinkers have endeavored to work out a perfect "program" or "calculus" (casuistry) that would take the struggle, stress, and need to think out of the moral situation. If this tendency of philosophers to bring an end to thinking, of moral prescription to bring a end to deliberation, by viewing every situation as a predictable instance of a fixed class and prescribing by the book every possible action, shows anything at all, it is that human beings find complex situations and real new problems fatiguing. Human beings, in confronting ever-changing moral landscapes and constantly new predicaments, become tired, disheartened, and inward. The difficulty of changing present facts tempts them to retire to a fantasy world of dreams. Oftentimes, metaphysics and religion, in their most "otherworldly" and not socially responsible forms, appeal to those who have given up remaking and improving this world and are waiting for future rewards to be handed to them without their effort. They generally reason in this way: Present conditions are too variable and precarious; the things we experience cannot be relied upon. Since permanence and stability and perfection are desirable but cannot be found in everyday affairs, they must exist in some transcendent order or realm. What is forgotten is that stability and order are things to be brought about through hard and persistent effort in the occasions of everyday life. Bending one's knee to a transcendent order or waiting for it to arrive, like resigning oneself to fate in the stoic doctrine, do nothing to resolve real conflicts and real problematic situations. Reality cannot be changed by merely wishing or imagining it different, though certainly the imagination of improved conditions plays a central role in planning and undertaking intelligent reform.

7. Morality begins with the problematic situation. The "smooth sailing" or routine of ordinary activity is brought to a halt (is stopped) by some obstacle or difficulty or conflict or perceived disorder in the situation. Something is wrong. This obstruction or feeling of "discomfort" makes one stop and think. Imagination runs ahead to the "end" one was headed for and to which one's energies were directed. One completes mentally the journey one was unable to complete overtly. Being "thwarted" constitutes a genuine advantage therefore. It makes one "stop and think" or transform physical energy into mental energy. It makes one reflect what one is about, where one is going. It also calls for an assessment of the real conditions of the situation, as well as a new evaluation of one's aims and methods. This is what it means to learn from experience, to grow in adaptive intelligence, to become better at "making things better," at artfully steering the conditions of life and steering around those conditions that stubbornly remain obstacles and cannot be converted into resources.

8. In the problematic situation, many conditions are operating, are "moving." There are physical conditions, "material" conditions, environmental conditions. Furthermore, human individuals are involved. The facts we face include human "facts," the existence and strivings of ourselves and others; every situation human beings find themselves in is at the same time a "social situation" (we are in the same boat together). The point is that many of the conditions and energies of the situation, which are already moving in some direction, cooperate in some ways and conflict in other ways. They move with one another and against one another. Insofar as they work together, there is order, harmony, satisfaction. Insofar as they work against one another, there is disorder, disharmony, and dissatisfaction. The problematic situation is a wake-up call to intelligence to align the moving energies of experience so as to make them cooperate rather than compete. What human beings desire is order, unity, and the fulfillment that comes when activities and conditions work together to produce aesthetically unified and enjoyable consequences.

9. Some operating conditions are personal, "subjective," or psychological. Such conditions include acquired habits and individual impulses (or desires and interests). Moral conduct requires the intelligent coordination of habits and impulses. On the positive side, habits promote efficiency in conduct. They focus attention on the project at hand and free intelligence from distracting influences. On the negative side, they can become "ruts," set patterns that obstruct inventive thinking. Thus, habits are both inhibiting and liberating: They are dispositions or tendencies to action (capacities for action) that at the same time resist change or deviation from the status quo and promote change by enabling intelligence to efficiently concentrate its energies. They are both inert (resisting modification) and dynamic (creating possibilities). Without habit, human intelligence and conduct flounders; with habit alone, repressing impulse and reflection, "thoughtless action" or "absentmindedness" results. Habits are, for the most part, socially acquired tendencies and dispositions. They arise in shared communal activity and are handed on in the rearing and education of the young. They are a curious mixture of useful as well as outdated ways of behaving. They are allied to a variety of conventions and institutions, including religion, literature, art, politics, and education. Customs are, simply put, collective habits. What we call personal habits are individualized ways of behaving worked out in concert with or opposed to established customs. Customs or collective habits, like personal habits, can both suppress and liberate action. Democracy is a name that can be given to social habits or customs that tend to liberate individuals and make them active participants in communal affairs. Its counterpart is the tyranny of custom that excludes change and reform. In both private and public affairs, customs ought to be instruments of growth rather than objects of worship and unthinking obedience. Very often what goes by the name of democracy in philosophical and social systems is really disguised mental and social monarchy or tyranny.

10. In the moral situation, old habits are disrupted and challenged by new impulses. Impulse means, for Dewey, not fixed "instinct" or "innate nature," but personal energy, spontaneity, interest. Dewey discounts simplistic psychologies that explain personal or social behavior in terms of some basic unchanging "force" or "nature." Impulses are not fixed and the same in every individual; they are infinitely varied according to the biology and nurture of individuals. Environment is more important than birth for the development of impulses. "Impulsive" behavior in the moral situation is a pure discharge of energy, without regulation or direction, without structure or intelligence. It can be destructive. On the other hand, new and varied and inventive ways of acting are made possible when the spontaneity of impulse "knocks" the individual off the beaten path. What children show and what rigid customs and styles of education repress is the tendency to invent, originate, and try out new ways -- that is, to follow impulse rather than custom.

11. Intelligence can be evoked from a conflict of habits with one another or a conflict of habits with impulse. As long as there is adjustment and harmony within experience -- that is, no obstacles are encountered -- life tends to be automatic and habits rule activity. When the neat way of doing things is suddenly interrupted, the machinery of habit breaks down. Something is wrong. The person stops to think. He looks backward into the past and takes account whence he has come and what habits have gotten him this far. He examines the present situation, with its obstacles and opportunities. From the standpoint of the moral, he surveys what is lacking in the present situation, what he and others need to do and to become. He looks to the future, imagining alternative conditions and directions that might get him there. The fact that something is wrong right now is a blessing, not a curse. It awakens intelligence and prompts reconsideration and reevaluation. The problematic situation provides an opportunity to examine the previously unexamined life and to try out new actions, as well as to modify old habits, in the light of deliberately entertained and imagined future consequences.

12. According to Dewey, intelligence is not an innate given, but an acquired disposition resulting from repeated attempts to readjust interaction with an environment. It is a "learned behavior." A highly developed habit of thought or reflection operates even in the absence of jarring experiences. It occurs even when experience appears predictable and regular. Even the most "unthinking" creature of habit tends to stop and think in moments of personal crisis. Socrates' indictment and condemnation were certainly occasions to pause and reflect, not only for Socrates himself, but for Plato as well, whose lifework may plausibly have been awakened and sustained by the circumstances surrounding Socrates' death. But it would be absurd to suppose that it was the first time Socrates stopped to evaluate his place in the city or that it was the last time Plato thought about the problem of the unjust city that puts its best citizen to death versus the just city that allows its best citizen to rule. The habit of intelligence is the habit of examining what ordinarily goes unexamined.

13. Disturbance in scientific experience prompts inquiry. Disturbance in lived or moral experience stirs deliberation. We don't know what to do next. There is confusion, conflict, indeterminacy, hesitation, uncertainty.

14. We see here two possible uses of imagination. One use is "ethical" -- imagination directed practically and morally toward overt action. One use is "esthetic" -- imagination for its own sake or immediately enjoyable fantasizing. In the moral situation, fantasizing often substitutes for deliberation, especially when the individual is unable or unwilling, lacking either opportunity or fortitude, to work things out, to improve the real situation. He might even go so far as to deceive himself into believing that favorable consequences (some envisioned good) are things-in-themselves in a transcendent or "better" world. Thus, ideals that originated in a plan of action are heretofore worshipped and contemplated as pure "forms" or ideal types. According to Dewey, ideal worlds and pure forms are favorable consequences stripped of their relation to real situations and genuine deliberation. In a harsh world, where existence is often precarious and actions are often frustrated, weaker moral dispositions are tempted to make the imagination a temple and an asylum in which the future can be immediately enjoyed. Superstition is an attempt to get desirable consequences without deliberate action and reconstruction of the environment.

15. For those who have moral and practical interests, however, imagination is an intelligent rehearsal for outward action. From a pragmatic point of view, imagination is not an alternative to overt action; it is a laboratory where possible actions with significant consequences may be safely tested, experimented upon, verified. Just as a new drug can be tested in relative safety in the confines of the laboratory, so human actions can be tested in the imagination before being "unleashed" upon the community at large. According to Dewey, even apparently insignificant acts can have significant consequences, many unforeseen. There is a sort of moral domino theory, when it comes to deeds and their effects. Since, pragmatically speaking, the moral meaning of an act depends upon its positive and negative consequences for the individual, his associates, and the environment, one should be careful. Taking care means thinking before one acts, considering results before one pursues a course of action. Taking care also means taking into account both old and new ways of doing things. Deliberation is an inner rehearsal for over or outer activity. In Dewey's words, it is "outlooking." It is an inwardness, not enjoyed for its own sake or recoiling in upon its subjective feeling states, but directed toward overt behavior. It is a temporary withdrawal from involvement with the real situation in order to regroup and plan the best possible course of action. Failed interactions with the environment can teach valuable lessons, if the learner survives (we can learn from our mistakes). But it is preferable to learn from mistakes safely made in the imagination; they are less likely to worsen the real situation. It is interesting to note that, for Dewey, crimes committed in the imagination are morally unimportant; overt criminal acts, on the other hand, are permanently disruptive of physical and social conditions. One might compare this approach to Kant's view, where moral virtue is a wholly inward thing, a matter of "pure" willing, apart from any interest or consequence.

16. Choice brings an end to deliberation. When deliberation ceases, choice takes place. Choice occurs when some way out is found, when out of a plethora of desirable options, some clear and unifying desirable course of action presents itself. One sees room to navigate, to move onward, to direct resources in positive ways and to unlock inhibited and obstructed energies. Making up one's mind means unifying and harmonizing an extensive field of possible actions, foreseen consequences, recalled habits, and present desires. Choice is anticipated resolution of a conflictual situation. Before there was a problem. Now there is a solution. The moral disposition is in part a tendency to include in deliberation as many participants as possible (features of a democratic and open mind), that is, to give a fair hearing to as many factors as possible. Those of weak moral disposition tend to limit open debate in the imagination and choose according to a limited field of impulses or habits. Like bad politicians, they hear only what they want to hear. Moreover, they do not take into account the standpoints of others, their conditions and consequences; this failure to take a social standpoint, to see the big picture of wide-reaching and long-range consequences for others is what is meant by lack of sympathy (empathy). Sympathy, as the ability to imagine the standpoints of others and to appreciate the courses they are navigating or should navigate, is a precondition for genuine moral thought and action.

17. Both enslavement to momentary impulse and unreflective conformity to custom show failure to deliberate properly and to be sensitive to the complex features and unique character of every moral experience. More specifically, reflection is a habit of cautiously postponing action, of discussing with oneself (mental conversation) before acting. Carried to an extreme, reflection may become a habit of tarrying too long, of indulging in the processes of thought with little regard for overt action. Thus, we have the well known stereotype of the scholar who is inept at practical affairs.

18. In the moral situation, desirable outcomes are aims or ends-in-view (where view means imaginative completion or harmonization of actual conditions). Together with projected means, these ends-in-view constitute possible courses of action (imagined movement of energies in a variety of directions and leading to a variety of consequences) rehearsed in deliberation. Deliberation envisions a number of means-consequence series and determines which is "reasonable," which "fits together" and "fits in with" (unifies) habits and impulses, as well as external conditions (including people and environment). Practical wisdom is the art of doing what is best, and what is best is always a matter of what is best in the present situation, what is appropriate and makes things better than they were before. Ends-in-view are most important for influencing present deliberation and planning. They are "means" that assist one to act; they are not fixed entities outside of and superior to activity. It must be noted, however, that it is easier to control activity in the imagination than it is to control external activity. In overt action, we have more control over instruments (what we do) than we have over outcomes (a product of conditions more numerous and complicated than our particular deed). Dewey insists that the present, not the future, is our concern and emphasis. We do what we can; external factors and their bearing on the consequences of our actions are beyond our control. We can anticipate a possible outcome, but we cannot predict an actual outcome. For this reason, present activity is not "for" future gain or pleasure. The end-in-view is a means. It is meaning and continuity within present activity that is fulfilling.

19. Two points must be kept in mind: First, Dewey maintains that ends are components within activity, not objects or things outside of it. Secondly, ends are present anticipations, not future events. They are not like the last act of a drama that cannot be foreseen. Every natural experience comes to an end and has a finality about it (quality). Human action can direct experience, but not guarantee its outcome. Even failed human projects can have meaning, from a moral point of view, if ends and means have continuity and meaning within the activity itself. Ends operate not only in present deliberation, but also in present activity. They organize and give meaning in advance. In fact, since it is the whole course of action that deliberation finds desirable, it is the whole course of action that is aimed at and enjoyed even as pursued. The meaning conferred by ends in deliberation maintains itself in overt act. What makes sense when we plan it, still makes sense when we do it, unless some new environmental obstacle or unanticipated factor compels us to think again and to revise our plans. Thus, even painful moral activities -- such as those involving self-sacrifice -- are satisfying because they have meaning, because they possess continuity and a sense of the whole projected in deliberation and carried over into overt action. Meaning is the perceived connection between means and consequences. In this sense a means has "meaning" and can be appreciated "on the run." By the same token, an aim has no meaning apart from antecedent means. What gives human beings peace within action is meaning, a sense of the whole. And meaning is the funded context of experience that we carry into every deliberation, anticipation, or action. Consequently, those who are "mere producers" or "mere consumers," "mere actors" or "mere contemplators," miss the connectedness of means and consequence. Fruits without labor have less meaning. Labor without result is equally deprived of significance. From the moral point of view, disinterested activity or pure duty or indifference to consequences (Stoic or Kantian view) is activity without meaning.

20. Moral activity is not merely a means to a static moral end outside of the self. It is a process of making things better, of improving the situation. As a process, it includes both means and end, struggle and peace. Means and ends are inseparable and correlative. On the one hand, anticipated desirable outcomes (values) are means that stimulate activity. On the other hand, Instrumental activities are immediately enjoyable. Moral activity generally aims at fixing what is broken, of rectifying a relatively disjointed situation, of solving personal, social, and environmental problems. This fixing is both productive and consummatory. Moral activity is, therefore, according to Dewey, an art.

21. What aims or values do we find in experience? According to Dewey, there is no all-inclusive summum bonum (highest good) or end-in-itself. Aims are endless in variety. In fact, every moral or practical situation, itself unique and individual, contains a value or good which is also unique and individual. There are "general aims," certainly; these are learned along with language and other customs that form shared experience. We can speak of health or wealth or happiness. But, in a deeper sense, there is no such thing as health or wealth or happiness in general. This person's health is an individualized affair, and the means effecting it are likewise individualized. Thus, the challenge of every moral situation is that it must be viewed, analyzed, "idealized," and judged afresh. Courses of action in response to actual situations are always particular and require a flexible and ever self-correcting wisdom and art. Every failure to appreciate the individual quality of a particular situation as well as the unique good possible within it amounts to a near- sightedness that recognizes only what it has seen before and is not sensitive to new configurations. It is a lazy habit of oversimplification to see the same good simply repeated everywhere. Its consequence is to make morality a routine and not an art.

22. This is not to imply that there are no regularities, no "universals," in the moral situation. Certain connections are similar. What worked before just might work again. What was good before just might be similar to what is good now. But we must beware of absolute fixed ends and ironclad solutions. The key, as everywhere for Dewey, is flexibility and adaptability. But there is for Dewey a kind of umbrella term that loosely characterizes all human values. It is not a fixed end-in-itself, but a kind of compass term that points in the general direction of human values. The term is "growth" or more correctly "growing." Individuals, like situations, though they have things in common, are unique. What counts is the direction they are heading in and the skill of their "piloting," not this or that static achievement. The cornerstone of Dewey's ethical "system" is the irreplaceable and unique quality of every individual.

23. That the concept of growth is indefinite must be admitted. But it is no refutation to say that growth has no necessary moral connotation, since even gangs of robbers "grow" in expertise and harmony of association. According to Dewey, growth that self-destructs or makes further or future growth impossible is not really growth in the truest sense of the word. Growth in the truest sense is the ongoing release of new capacity for new growth and so on. In this sense, growth does not end with adulthood, but continues throughout life. It is identical with ongoing education. Growth means improvement; improvement means becoming better at being alive, at interacting with our environment and our fellow humans. It means continually increasing enrichment of human experience with meaning and communication. It means making things better, not worse. It certainly does not mean becoming a free-floating spectator or bystander. Dewey consistently places emphasis on roll-up-your-sleeves overt action rather than passive contemplation.

24. Moral principles, like moral ends, are not fixed rules or "natural laws," but working hypotheses. They guide deliberation; they do not replace it. Principles are tools, for the most part handed over from generation to generation. They are useful so far as they go, but they are not beyond being tinkered with and modified according to the requirements of new situations, new experiences. The choice, according to Dewey, is not between absolute rules and no rules at all, but between a Procrustean bed of fixed principles and a tool box of adaptable, flexible, and self-correcting principles. After all, what is most important is to do the right thing in a particular situation. Principles ought to be servants, not masters, of moral activities. And their usefulness as principles ought to be gauged, not by their royal pedigree or their divine right to rule, but by their ability to aid in bringing about reasonable and successful outcomes. Just as scientific hypotheses must be tested in experience, so moral principles must be tested and retested, revised and reworked, in the field of moral activity. A good principle is one that works, that helps. It is one that clarifies present deliberation and gives the person the pluck to act despite inhibiting habit or disorienting impulse.

25. Some general remarks might be in order. First, we see that moral principles are subordinate to the moral situation; the moral situation is not subordinate to moral principles. Principles are not "laws," but guidelines and tools. In addition, we see the important role of a well-informed and alert habit of intelligence in the moral situation. As intelligence grows, action does not become automatic; more variables are noted in the situation; the real complexity and uniqueness of each situation becomes more apparent. Intelligence is challenged anew and reconstructed in every new situation. Action in a situation requires more than classification according to fixed models; it requires wise and able steering in the midst of ever-changing conditions. A knowledge of navigation will not, by itself, suffice to get a ship through a storm. A certain habit of inventive and adaptive intelligence is required. With some modification, we see here the Greek notion of phronesis or practical wisdom. We also see the Confucian notion of chih, the wisdom of handling practical affairs that must always operate in particular situations and never gives way simply to li or principle. But we see even more here. We see that moral failure comes down, not so much to a lack of principles, but a lack of sympathy and nerve. It comes down to a failure of character (set of interacting personal habits), a lack of those virtues or habits, such as sympathy, keen sensitiveness, and persistence, that make wise behavior possible. We can add to these traits social and intellectual openness and a genuinely democratic spirit. The key to moral activity is the opening of character, the freeing of capacities, the imagination of new possibilities. One must face facts, dream dreams, and act.

See also, on this site, Components of the Moral Situation in Dewey's Philosophy.

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© 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.