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John Dewey's Ethics

Democracy as Experience

Gregory Fernando Pappas

Publication Year: 2008

John Dewey, widely known as "America's philosopher," provided important insights into education and political philosophy, but surprisingly never set down a complete moral or ethical philosophy. Gregory Fernando Pappas presents the first systematic and comprehensive treatment of Dewey's ethics. By providing a pluralistic account of moral life that is both unified and coherent, Pappas considers ethics to be key to an understanding of Dewey's other philosophical insights, especially his views on democracy. Pappas unfolds Dewey's ethical vision by looking carefully at the virtues and values of ideal character and community. Showing that Dewey's ethics are compatible with the rest of his philosophy, Pappas corrects the reputation of American pragmatism as a philosophy committed to skepticism and relativism. Readers will find a robust and boldly detailed view of Dewey's ethics in this groundbreaking book.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Series: American Philosophy

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pp. xi-xiii

It is one of the delights of authorship that one can publicly express one’s gratitude to those who helped along the way. And this book is to a large extent the product of my very fortunate interaction with many people at different stages of my inquiry. I am grateful to my dear colleague John J. McDermott for his advice and support throughout the years, and for...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xv

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pp. 1-13

In this book, I present the first comprehensive interpretation of John Dewey’s original and revolutionary moral philosophy. Dewey had a cohesive and coherent ethics developed in many writings that spanned his long career. It is a moral philosophy that provides answers to questions raised by moral agents in the midst of living, such as: How should we live? How...

Part 1: Moral Theory and Experience

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pp. 15

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1. Experience as Method

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pp. 17-42

Although Dewey published the second edition of his Ethics in 1932, there is not in this text an explicit recognition or explanation of how the philosophical empiricism that he was committed to and that received its final articulation in the first chapters of Experience and Nature bears upon his philosophical inquiries and conclusions about morality. Dewey’s...

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2. Moral Theory and Moral Practice

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pp. 43-70

Dewey would agree with contemporary anti-theorists about the shallowness and sterility of most normative ethics. For centuries, philosophers have tried to formulate theories to assist and illuminate moral practice. What is seldom questioned is the notion that this is best achieved by seeking the underlying criteria, decision procedure, or antecedent moral...

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3. The Normative Standpoint of Pragmatism

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pp. 71-78

The functional distinction between experiencing—the how—and the subject matter experienced—the what—allows a pragmatist to recover the normative ethical issue of how one should live in a way that is consistent with her philosophical approach. The normative issue is about how one should interact in moral situations, rather than the one expressed by the...

Part 2: Dewey’s View of Moral Experience

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pp. 79

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4. Morality as Experience

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pp. 81-87

Among Dewey’s most important contributions to moral thought are his criticisms of the assumptions of traditional ethical theory by means of a descriptive account of the generic traits and components of moral experience. Dewey’s ethics is a promising and refreshing alternative to some of the narrow and reductionistic views about moral experience that...

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5. The ‘‘What’’ of Moral Experience

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pp. 88-120

One of the broadest functional distinctions that can be made about lived experience is that between the subject matter experienced—what is experienced— and the experiencing of it—how it is experienced. How we participate in morally problematic situations is one of the key features of such situations. In the next chapter, I will consider the function of habits and...

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6. The ‘‘How’’ of Moral Experience

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pp. 121-128

What occurs in moral experience is a choice of conduct that arises out of deliberation in the context of an evolving morally problematic situation. I have given separate description of the phases within this process. First, I considered the nature of the kinds of problems that disrupt the fluidity of moral life, and then of the process of moral deliberation that issues in a...

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7. Character and Conduct: Dewey and the Great Divide in Ethics

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pp. 129-145

One important consequence of the resurgence of virtue ethics is a more comprehensive way to classify ethical theories than the usual choice between deontological and consequentialist views. It has been assumed that the great divide in ethics is between act-centered views, ethics of doing, and character-centered views, ethics of being; in other words, morality...

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8. Present Activity and the Meaning of Moral Life

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pp. 146-155

In the history of moral philosophy, present moral activity has been taken as a means to a future remote goal, virtue, happiness, a universal duty, or the good life. Moral life has been conceived as a cumulative process where present situations are important only to the extent that we can acquire something from them, such as the goodness in our...

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9. Conclusion: The Need for a Recovery of Moral Philosophy

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pp. 156-161

I have been presenting Dewey’s view by contrasting it with some of the ways in which other moral theories that assume a theoretical starting point have portrayed moral life. Dewey’s reconstructive approach generously builds on even the most blatant mistakes in philosophy. Indeed, he considers non-empirical views as a source of instruction because...

Part 3: The Ideal Moral Life

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pp. 163

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10. The Intelligent, Aesthetic, and Democratic Way of Life

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pp. 165-184

Dewey did not have a theory about the good life, a notion antithetical to the pluralistic and contextualist thrust of his moral philosophy. Nevertheless, his ethics is unintelligible apart from some normative commitments and hypotheses about the conditions and instrumentalities for a better moral life. Dewey wanted us to give each moral situation the attention and...

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11. The Ideal Moral Self

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pp. 185-216

The particularist thrust of Dewey’s moral philosophy is not incompatible with the broad concerns of virtue ethicists. Philosophical hypotheses about an ideal self and its virtues are no more than sophisticated ways of preparing the agent for what each situation requires. Dewey resisted making explicit claims about specific virtues even though it is obvious that he...

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12. Democracy as the Ideal Moral Community

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pp. 217-259

No formulation of Dewey’s ideal moral life is complete without addressing his views about democracy. Moreover, his views about democracy are incomplete and subject to misunderstanding, oversimplification, and underappreciation without an adequate understanding of his ethical thought. I plan here to bring Dewey’s ethical thought to bear on his views...

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13. A Philosophical Justification of Democracy

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pp. 260-299

Dewey never denied the affinities of pragmatism with the democratic spirit or way of life. On the contrary, he openly asserts that ‘‘upon one thing we take our stand. We frankly accept the democratic tradition in its moral and human import’’ (LW 8:76). Dewey reconstructed and justified one of the most distinctive and radical visions of democracy of the...

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pp. 300-308

Even though Dewey never wrote a single comprehensive and definitive rendition of his moral thought, he had a coherent and complex view worth reconstructing and reconsidering today. His meta-ethics (part 1), his view of moral life (part 2), and his normative ethics (part 3) mutually support one another. They are parts of Dewey’s larger inquiry, namely, an...


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pp. 309-326


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pp. 327-334


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pp. 335-341

E-ISBN-13: 9780253000309
E-ISBN-10: 0253000300
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253351401

Page Count: 368
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: American Philosophy