Thursday, April 26, 2018

Dewey's Pragmatism and the Good Life

John Dewey’s pragmatism was the most important philosophy of American liberals during the first half of the twentieth the century. Like many others during the Progressive Era, Dewey believed that modernization was inevitable, and he hoped to find room for American values in modern society.
Dewey wanted to revive the sense of community that people have when they work together, but as a pragmatist, he did not believe that the community could base decisions on its moral beliefs. He thought that ideas were tools we use to manipulate the world, and that people were indulging in meaningless metaphysics when they asked what is the good life. 
In the chapter on ethics in Reconstruction in Philosophy, Dewey criticizes the Greeks for trying to replace traditional morality with morality based on reasoning about the good life: “reason as a substitute for custom was under the obligation of supplying objects and laws as fixed as those of custom had been.” Dewey rejects these fixed ends, arguing that “Moral goods and ends exist only when something has to be done,” so ethics should be redefined as practical work to solve problems:
...experimental logic when carried into morals makes every quality that is judged to be good according as it contributes to amelioration of existing ills. … When physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, contribute to the detection of concrete human woes and to the development of plans for remedying them, they become moral; they become part of the apparatus of moral inquiry of science.  … Natural science … becomes in itself humanistic in quality. It is something to be pursued not in a technical and specialized way for what is called truth for its own sake, but with the sense of its social bearing. …  It is technical only in the sense that it provides the technique of social and moral engineering.
Dewey turns the usual meanings of the words upside down when he says the search for truth is merely technical and specialized and the search for techniques of “social and moral engineering” is humanistic. 
His philosophy is obviously inspired by the dynamism of modern technology, which he expects to solve our moral and social problems. In his theory of ethics, Dewey says, “the process of growth, improvement and progress, rather than the static outcome and result, become the significant thing. ... Growth itself is the only moral ‘end.’”
For pragmatists, reason can tell you the best way to reach a goal, but it cannot criticize the goal itself. Reason can never tell you to limit growth in cases where growth is not making life better. The community cannot govern itself based on a common idea of the good life.