Moral Situation in the Philosophy of John Dewey
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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