of the Moral Situation in Dewey's Philosophy
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
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
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.
© 1997, 1999 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
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- 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.