Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, July 24, 2009

DEWEY: The Virtues

A friend once told about the first time he went off to school. His kindly little old grandmother looked down at him and said “Now Warren, always remember that some people out there are mean as hell.” Little Warren never forgot that lesson. And as he grew up he found out that his grandmother was right; there are a lot of mean people out there. Why?

John Dewey addresses this question in his essay on The Virtues. One answer is that we may not understand the other person’s intention. Parents might seem mean to children when they have to go to bed at a decent hour. Or a boss may seem mean to us because we have to work extra hard to get a project finished on time. In these cases there’s been a simple misunderstanding. The parent and the boss aren’t being mean. They’re doing what parents and bosses do; they’re working for the good of the child or the company. Dewey says that there are different kinds of people in this world with all kinds of motives. He points out that One person is not more or less virtuous than another because his virtues take a different form. And this may be true in other cases too. It takes a deeper understanding to discover that the parent and the boss are striving to achieve their own values. They’re not just trying to be mean but they have goals. It’s important to grasp this concept because Dewey thinks that men must look behind the current valuation to the real value. Otherwise, mere conformity to custom is conceived to be virtue…

Socrates would agree with Dewey that “real value” is more important than “current valuation.” But their agreement may end there. Socrates believes that a value is not only real but that it’s also eternal and unchanging. Dewey thinks actions only have value in their relationships to the social culture. Context is important to Dewey. Actions that achieve social harmony are good; actions that destroy social harmony aren’t. Therefore, the idea of what “virtue” is can change from one society to another. American customs may not be the same as those in Samoa. Virtues can also change from one era to another within the same society. The values of 1860s America aren’t the same values of 1960s America. For this reason Dewey proclaims that Virtues are numberless. Not only because people develop different customs in different parts of the world but also because the times change. And even within the same culture and the same time virtues can change. Why? Because according to Dewey Every situation, not of a routine order, brings in some special shading, some unique adaptation, of disposition.

For Socrates this kind of thinking won’t do. He might respond to Dewey that “we are indeed fortunate to be looking for a virtue and here you’ve discovered a whole army of them! And furthermore you say that mere conformity to custom is a bad thing. How do you know that it's not, in fact, a virtue to conform to the customs of your country? I thought that conforming to Athenian customs was important. They were important enough for me to die for. You also say that Every situation, not of a routine order, brings in some special shading, some unique adaptation and must be dealt with as a unique situation. That line of thinking would require a unique virtue adapted specifically for every situation. That’s why you claim that virtues are numberless. Because situations are numberless you think that virtues must be too. But isn’t that a bit like trying to hit a moving target?” And the conversation would continue into the night. Dewey and Socrates discussing the nature of virtue. They would argue about what temperance is, and courage and justice. Together they pursue an elusive goal: wisdom.


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