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  • Ideas, Principles, and Lateral Progress in Jane Addams's Evolutionary Theorizing
  • Barbara J. Lowe

my comments focus on jane addams's methode of ethical deliberation, as understood through Dr. Fischer's detailed explication, especially as offered in chapter 2, "An Evolutionary Method of Ethical Deliberation." As Fischer points out, this explication is of one iteration of Jane Addams's method, a particularized response to how Jane Addams believed the settlement residents should respond to the many labor strikes in Chicago during the 1890s. I offer my comments from the perspective of both a scholar, seeking to better apply Addams's insights to my own work, and an educator, seeking to better integrate Addams's work into my teaching. My hope is to flesh out more clearly my own understanding and, in so doing, clarify, correct, and improve my scholarship and teaching and, perhaps by proxy, assist others in doing the same.

In this chapter, Fischer highlights Addams's two general ideas:

  1. 1. One should work with the idea of neighborliness, and, as such, one "should not impose their own vision … but work with initiatives already adopted [or undertaken] by the neighbors" (46).

  2. 2. When choosing among various options, one should keep in mind that "[t]he injury of one is the concern of all" (46).

Fischer notes that, for Addams,

[t]hese guiding ideas are not ethical principles or rules in any traditional sense. Rather, they are customary practices captured in slogans. They are unfinished in the sense that their full scope and content have not yet been determined. In this way, they are in the process of evolving, and they gain content as they are used in specific situations.


Making the point that Addams's analysis is in "strong contrast to more traditional methods of ethical deliberation," Fischer argues that [End Page 107]

[t]he ethical guidelines Addams identifies … are not analogous to the ethical principles found in traditional ethical theories. These guidelines do not exist in some ahistorical, universal form, such as natural law or divine command, as a dictate of pure reason or a general conception of happiness derived from human nature's essential features. Instead, they emerge from within specifically located moral disturbances and change over time as the situation evolves and human interventions take place.


Thus, Addams's theory of ethical deliberation is informed by, but not determined by the two guiding ideas offered above. They are more like "customary practices" or "slogans" than "ethical principles," the meaning and implications of which are only filled out within specific geographical and historical contexts.

In this same chapter, Fischer notes that these guiding ideas are assisted by some additional conditions. First, the guiding ideas are realized only when we operate with propinquity, as this "gives settlement residents a vantage point from which to study their neighborhood with a microscopic lens," thus permitting the individual to know what it would mean to "work with initiatives already adopted [or undertaken]" (46).

Similarly, this theory is informed and makes sense only when we understand the self to be a social self, a "gregarious animal." For Addams, "[h]umans are gregarious animals; like wolves and horses they herd together for protection. For members of a gregarious species, it is life threatening to be isolated from one's peers" (47). Thus, when considering best practice in a particular situation, Addams suggests that a "general formula for responding to these questions [requires that we] watch for the point where 'the movement [turns] from a development into a [class] struggle,'" which is "the point where the self-interests of the working class become the aim of organizing, rather than … as partial steps toward universal fellowship" (53).

This "general formula" embraces the "best ideal," the idea that "[t]he injury to one is a concern of all" where "all" includes "all members of the community" (49). This leads to the "communion of universal fellowship" being the "best ideal" toward which the settlement worker should strive while following the guiding ideas.

In addition, Fischer highlights Addams's emphasis on a need for self-distrust and sympathy where sympathy is "not a subjective emotion that needs to be reined in by self-distrust but a...


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pp. 107-112
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