- Evolutionary Pragmatism and Ethics by Beth L. Eddy
Evolutionary Pragmatism and Ethics
Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2016, xvii + 137 pp., incl. index.
This short book is a history of what might be called the Chicago school of pragmatist evolutionary ethics. It places John Dewey and Jane Addams in their late-nineteenth-century intellectual context, emphasizing in particular how they drew on the work of Herbert Spencer, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Pyotr Alekseyevich Kropotkin. Eddy suggests in her introduction that because today's "social climate" is similar in many respects to that of the United States circa 1900, pragmatism may offer "significant insights for our situation now" (p. xi). Her overall thesis is that although the ethical approach of Dewey and Addams was sometimes marred by a commitment to "teleological progress" (p. 38), at its best it defended a "melioristic hope" (p. 119): we try to make the world better, but there are no guarantees. Although the book provides some helpful context for the ethical work of the Chicago pragmatists, Eddy does not convincingly show that Addams and Dewey ever saw progress as "teleological," in the sense of inevitable movement toward a specific end.
After a first chapter describing the rise of evolutionary thinking and the social and religious reaction to it, Eddy's second chapter is an overview of Huxley's account of evolution and ethics. For Huxley, "the natural world is characterized by suffering," and ethics "is a matter of humans trying to minimize that suffering by setting limits upon their instinctual actions or by altering the human environment" (p. 22). [End Page 495] This emphasis on intervention and limitation as central to ethics set him against Spencer and laissez-faire: in Huxley's words, "social progress means a checking of the cosmic process" (p. 25). Huxley compared ethics to the cultivation of a garden, in which the gardener selects preferred varieties and suppresses natural struggle. The difference is that in the case of ethics, we lack the "wisdom to direct the gardening" (p. 27). Thus Huxley was implicitly critical of early eugenicists such as Francis Galton.
In Chapter 3, Eddy begins by analyzing an 1898 essay by Dewey in which he criticized Huxley's account. "Dewey," she writes, "viewed Huxley's garden metaphor as one more instance of him seeming to set up humanity as an organism fundamentally different from the rest of the natural world" (p. 34). Dewey insisted that humanity has been an "organ of the cosmic process in effecting its own progress" (p. 37). Eddy also claims to identify a shift in Dewey's thinking in the late 1890s away from Hegelian "absolute idealistic 'progress'" and toward a more Darwinian picture (p. 37). However, the key 1897 quotation supporting the former view refers only to effort as the "critical point of progress in action, arising whenever old habits are in process of reconstruction, or of adaptation to new conditions" (p. 37), and does not postulate any overarching telos; thus it does not provide evidence that Dewey endorsed "absolute" progress at that earlier stage.
Later in the same chapter, Eddy offers several criticisms of Dewey's commitment to progress. First, she attacks Dewey for assuming, in "The Evolutionary Method as Applied to Morality" (1902), that "the origin of a historically continuous phenomenon provides a simplified model for analysis" (p. 42). Eddy reads this as strong progressivism, but it could also be read another way: the history of ethical practices is not a story of inevitable global progress but rather of particular conditions prompting particular social responses. The latter reading is supported by Dewey's claim, not cited by Eddy, that "it is the lack of adequate functioning in the given adjustments that supplies the conditions which call out a different mode of action."1 Second, jumping forward to the 1920s and exploring a debate between Dewey and George Santayana, Eddy argues that Dewey tended to assume that change would be progressive. Although she claims that Santayana's main critique was that Dewey "sneaks teleology in through the back door" (p. 45), Santayana was actually attacking Dewey's notion of nature. As Eddy writes, Santayana's nature is "an...