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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

John Dewey and "The Virtues"


Blogger SMJ said...

Upon reading the The Virtues, I am tempted to describe John Dewey as a product of his time, i.e. the "modern industrial age." But a hundred years from now, the designation "modern" will hardly suffice to mark Dewey's place in history. That he grew up in the midst of an industrial revolution is not, in itself, remarkable. But when you consider that he was born before the Civil War and lived to see atomic bombs used against Japan, it is not surprising that such a man would adopt a philosophy which evolves from the idea that the world is in a constant state of change. Even if true, however, this idea does not provide a solid foundation upon which to build a system of morality. In a world of constant change, what we most require is an island of stability where social values do not fluctuate with the rise and fall of ocean tides.

This stability is not apparent in Dewey's conception of virtue. Unlike Plato, whose idea of virtue finds its origin in the classical Greek understanding of beauty, truth, and justice, an unchanging paradigm; Dewey's concept of virtue is grounded in 19th century American pragmatism, a philosophy whose roots entwine social Darwinist thinking with Adam Smith's vision of a rational, free market.

Natural LawAt the heart of Plato and Dewey's disagreement is a theory of social justice now largely forgotten—natural law. Natural law theory derives from Hebraic notions of divine justice encoded in scripture. Hebraic law (otherwise known as the law of Moses) proclaims the existence of eternal, unchangeable rules governing the life of man. Later, the idea of divine moral law becomes linked to a cosmology of fixed physical laws within a closed universe. But a static cosmology cannot stand in the face of revolutionary change. Natural law eventually succumbs to the same social forces that reject the divine right of kings. However, for many years, religious faith was still fundamental to the values of early America. Natural law provides a common ground for basic social values finding favor in the 18th century Enlightenment. But here is the problem: the argument for inalienable rights, expressed in our Declaration of Independence, cannot be reconciled with a theory of values (like Dewey's) based on conventional laws. The laws of nature (and nature's God) stand on different ground than the laws of man, which are derived from a theory of social contract, and are adapted to custom and convenience.

From where do our values come?If you start from a position that law exists to serve man, then you must determine what values best serve the interest of man. In other words, values (or laws) are expressions of communally shared interest. But unless everyone in the community agrees on what the right values are, then political disharmony will occur. How this disharmony is resolved becomes the task of government. Such that, in a democracy, the opinions of the majority rule over those in the minority.

Dewey is trying to accommodate values to social needs. To avoid a tyranny of the many over the few, our Founding Fathers included constitutional safeguards to protect the liberty and welfare of individuals whose opinions may not constitute a majority of our national community. And since communities evolve over time, it is only rational that values should adapt with the communities they serve. Yet, once values are permitted to morph from one kind to another, how will the community prevent injustice from arising? Will a conundrum of situational ethics serve the needs of justice? When the linkage between justice and divine goodness is broken (viz., the fall of man) we are left to our own devices, the evidence for which in our time is hardly encouraging. Once utility becomes the summum bonum of society no clear boundaries exist between good and evil. Good, like beauty, is found only in the eye of the beholder.

Social darwinism, like Smith's free market, is founded on the competition for finite resources. Built into this scenario is the realization that some participants will succeed as others perish. Dewey believes that through proper social engineering (education, penal reform, child rearing, etc.) society can alleviate the inequities of nature. As society improves (or to employ an economic model, as the market expands), opportunities come to those who are less successful. But in a less congenial climate (e.g., war, depression) can a society whose ethics are based on the economics of success be counted on to show compassion or concern for those left behind? Dewey places his faith in the moral progress of a society in which individuals gradually improve through higher levels of rational behavior ("thoughtfulness"). He assumes that as we become wiser, we are inspired by the desire to improve ourselves. By constantly redefining our goals, we continually rise above our present (fallen) condition. In a curious homage to natural selection, human society evolves by willing itself towards a higher state of self-consciousness. I can only assume that Dewey believes we measure our success in the fact that we keep succeeding (improving). Would that it were so.

2/03/2005 2:05 PM  
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