Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, January 25, 2016

JOHN DEWEY: Habits and Will (Political Will)

Aristotle once wrote that happiness is “an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue.”  What do modern Americans think about such a philosophical definition of happiness?  Two quotes from two prominent politicians in today’s newspaper tell it best.  One politician said, “I’m not interested in ideas that sound good on paper but will never make it in the real world.”  Another one said, “The world needs less philosophers and more welders.”  How does American society reconcile philosophy (the love of wisdom) with the need to earn a living?  What we’re looking for is a practical philosophy with real world applications.  John Dewey is our man.  The introduction to this week’s reading says “John Dewey viewed philosophy as a means of studying the problems that arise in everyday life.”  How does practical philosophy work?  Dewey takes a quote from ancient Greek philosophy: “Aristotle remarked, the untutored moral perceptions of a good man are usually trustworthy, those of a bad character, not.”  That was Aristotle’s assessment.  Here was Dewey’s response: “he should have added that the influence of social custom as well as personal habit has to be taken into account in estimating who is the good man and the good judge.”  Dewey didn’t say Aristotle was wrong.  He just wanted to build on the philosophical foundation laid down by Aristotle.  By questioning old philosophical ideas we constantly update philosophy so it remains relevant in our own modern times.       

Dewey questioned the foundations of Aristotle’s philosophy.  So by questioning Dewey’s ideas we can build on his foundations.  For example, he begins his essay by talking about “bad habits: foolish idling, gambling, addiction to liquor and drugs.”  Here’s the question.  Why does Dewey think laziness, gambling and addiction are “bad” habits?  What makes them bad?  He tells us why: “A bad habit suggests an inherent tendency to action and also a hold, a command over us.  It makes us do things we are ashamed of, things which we tell ourselves we prefer not to do.  It overrides our formal resolutions.”  In other words, they are bad habits because we do not control them, they control us.  Here’s a follow-up question.  Are they still bad habits if I’m not ashamed of foolish idling, extravagant gambling or excessive drinking?  In other words, if these are the things I prefer to do?  Where does Dewey get the notion these things are wrong?  Does Dewey think the “influences of social custom” determine what’s good or bad, right or wrong?  Should we turn to the Bible for guidance?  Or do we just make moral decisions for ourselves and develop personal habits based on personal preferences and prejudices?  These are philosophical questions faced by ordinary people.  But they’re also questions politicians have to grapple with.  They have to consider political applications of philosophical ideas.  Can passing new laws do away with laziness, gambling and addiction?  Dewey says no, not unless we also change the underlying social conditions that cause laziness, gambling and addiction in the first place.  Other philosophers (and other politicians) think that’s putting the problem exactly backward.  They argue that the only real way to change society is to change the hearts of individual citizens first.  Dewey says “a man who can stand properly does so.”  But is it true that a man who can be good will be good?  Dewey says “only the man whose habits are already good can know what the good is.”  Can only good men know what a good society should be like?  What about everyone else?  Will people with bad habits ever really want a good society?  What if they just want to be lazy, to gamble and drink all day?  Should society provide support or infrastructure to satisfy these habits?  A new casino in town might provide revenue to improve education for local school children.  But it might also provide a place that encourages bad habits and crime.  What should we do?  This is politics.  At its best American politics is a healthy public debate about human nature.  At its worst it caters to our bad habits.  Politics is a community’s Will put into action.


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