The Evolutionary Ethics of John Dewey

Jeff CarreiraBlog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry4 Comments

The American philosopher John Dewey wrote another of my favorite philosophy passages in the last paragraph of his 1898 essay Evolution and Ethics. Dewey articulates in this paragraph what he sees as a monumental leap that occurs when human beings discover the mechanisms through which the evolutionary process unfolds. Dewey must have been feeling the same excitement that the great early scientists felt as they were discovering the laws of mechanics that governed all motion in the universe. No longer did we need to assume supernatural causes for the motion of bodies on earth or in the heavens. We had discovered the logical rules according to which motion occurred. This gave us the power to organize motion and put it to use in ways that had never been imagined possible.

Now that we had discovered the rules by which evolution’s arrow carried one form into the next we could begin to apply consciousness to guide and direct that process. This possibility for evolutionary control brought with it a need to develop and define an evolutionary ethics that would be equally powerful. If we were to become masters of evolution we had to expand our moral accountability to include our evolutionary effects.

“There are no doubt sufficiently profound distinctions between the ethical process and the cosmic process as it existed prior to man and to the formation of human society. So far as I know, however, all of these differences are summed up in the fact that the process and the forces bound up with the cosmic have come to consciousness in man. That which was instinct in the animal is conscious impulse in man. That which was “tendency to vary” in the animal is conscious foresight in man. That which was unconscious adaptation and survival in the animal, taking place by the “cut and try” method until it worked itself out, is with man conscious deliberation and experimentation. That this transfer from unconsciousness to consciousness has immense importance, need hardly be argued. It is enough to say that it means the whole distinction of the moral from the unmoral. We have, however, no reason to suppose that the cosmic process has become arrested or that some new force has supervened to struggle against the cosmic. Some theologians and moralists, to be sure, welcomed Huxley’s apparent return to the idea of a dualism between the cosmic and the ethical as likely to inure favorably to the spiritual life. But I question whether the spiritual life does not get its surest and most ample guarantees when it is learned that the laws and conditions of righteousness are implicated in the working processes of the universe; when it is found that man in his conscious struggles, in his doubts, temptations, and defeats, in his aspirations and successes, is moved on and buoyed up by the forces which have developed nature; and that in this moral struggle he acts not as a mere individual but as an organ in maintaining and carrying forward the universal process.”

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Frank LukeLiesbeth HoogeveenSteve HaaseDon Briddell Recent comment authors
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Don Briddell
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This is a great post. The connection between natural processes and human destiny are welded together. Thanks Jeff for posting this. What has happened since Dewey’s time is the rules he mentions for motion and causality have changed. We understand them better. The Newtonian mechanics he was referring to evolved into quantum mechanics and quantum is now evolving into structural field determinism. We seeing a way to get through the Uncertainity (the Uncertainty Principle). The obscuring cloud of probabilities that has introduced chaos and catastropy theory is lifting. This is news I think Dewey would welcome. The havoc quantum mechanics… Read more »

Steve Haase
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Steve Haase

Great post, Jeff. It took me a while to grasp what Dewey was saying (and I still haven’t grasped what Don is pointing to, but it sounds powerful). I think the most important point was, as you said, at the end, where Dewey asserts that our striving for morality and goodness is the force that moves the cosmic process forward. It’s profound, the significance he attributes to the role of human consciousness in the evolutionary process. Truly a cosmic perspective.

Liesbeth Hoogeveen
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Liesbeth Hoogeveen

What I like about these quotes is that is that it inspires so much to read more. For me Dewey was new and I was surprised to find so much of the evolutionary theory grounded there. For who is also interested , here are some findings I got from Louis Logister’s books and Jeff’s paper about Pragmatism on Academia.edu. Jeff points to Emerson’s conviction that ’individuals have the freedom to make choices that will control their destiny and unleash their true creative potential’ as source of inspiration for the early pagmatics. According to Dewey the individual -as acting organism- and… Read more »

Frank Luke
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It wasn’t till I was in highschool that I learned about Dewey’s influence on American public school education and realized I’d gone through an elementary school that espoused his teachings. I feel so grateful to have had that fortuitous elementary school experience and marvel that that early education has influenced me in countless ways, from the first grade through the 6th. As things turned out, English Standard Schools were deemed elitist in Honolulu but fortunately by then, I was on to middle and high school by then and the benefits were gained in my case.