Deweyan Ethics

Democracy, Education, and Community

Even before the major spike in blogging activity expanded our everyday notions of what constitutes public writing, Emily J. Isaacs and Phoebe Jackson (2001) questioned the tacit assumption that having students engage in public writing and having a readership beyond the teacher benefits the student in meaningful ways. Isaacs and Jackson asked writing instructors to slow down and think about the ethical implications involved in forcing students to write online “publicly” or mandating that students be involved in particular service-learning projects. Although written before blogging become a common practice in writing classrooms, and therefore more cautionary in nature, it is in this same cautionary light I wish to have us more fully consider the ethical implications of typical blogging practices. Beyond merely discussing ethical issues surrounding the public versus the private, further explication about ethical issues surrounding self-centered exigences of blogs is necessary. This section discusses Deweyan ethics to a) give context for the remainder of the webtext, and b) to offer a new paradigm for blogging (online) practices.  

An Unlikely Source

Deweyan ethics, while receiving critical attention, (Pappas, 2008; Welchman, 1995), have often been stereotyped as fitting nicely in the “utilitarian” category of ethics because the system has more in common with the scientific method than it does with any sort of a priori philosophical precepts. Because Dewey’s form of evolutionary naturalism was predicated on the notion that the world was in constant flux and change, he saw little to no value in seeking rigid philosophical precepts; as such, he focused not on seeking moral conclusions but rather on improving the moral methods of inquiry that would provide useful in myriad situations and experiences. These methods of inquiry are to be informed by democratic principles and are to be used by individuals who are reflective, informed, and who are experiencing a “felt need” in social life (Archambault, 1964, p. xvi). Experience is such a key element to Deweyan ethics because inquiry takes place beginning from a felt need, an interaction with a community or public that arouses interest and passion in individuals.
      Dewey vehemently shied away from developing a moral philosophy that universalized our way of thinking, and rather sought after a moral philosophy that was dynamic and that responded to individual situations. The need for Dewey to develop a moral philosophy that was situational stemmed from his firm belief in making evaluative judgments based upon the consequences of those judgments. The standards upon which individuals make ethical decisions are the impacts they would potentially have on the individual, on others, and on the community. Ethical decisions, then, require a certain degree of critical thinking and foresight on the behalf of the individual to be able to think speculatively about the consequences of certain actions over others. The ability of individuals to make such ethical decisions using this paradigm is based upon a democratically-informed education. In Moral Principles in Education, Dewey (1909) argues that when a study is taught as a mode for understanding social life it has positive ethical import (40). Dewey’s moral training in educational settings was not specific; rather, it is the indirect ethical imports that guide character and actions that is most relevant (4). Moral qualities are not “subjective” but are rather experienced as part of this world (Pappas, 1998, p. 110)
      While many have lauded and followed Dewey’s strict allegiance to rejecting theory versus practice splits, it is precisely Dewey’s stubborn allegiance to not drawing distinctions or placing degrees of importance on either of them that seems to make Dewey a less than favorable figure for drawing ethical advice. For example,

Moral theory is for Dewey identical with moral insight, and moral insight is the recognition of relationships. By itself, this statement could be a somewhat oversimplified gloss on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. But Dewey follows this claim with one that Aristotle would have rejected as conflating episteme theoretike, episteme praktike, and poiesis -- that is, theoretical knowledge, practical knowledge, and production. Ethical insight, he continues, comes by the same kind of intelligence “that measures dry-goods, drives nails, sells wheat, and invents the telephone...There is nothing more divine or transcendental in resolving how to save my degraded neighbor than in the resolving of a problem in algebra.” (Pappas, 1998, p. 111)

Dewey this refuses to divorce theory from practice. Insofar as it is successful, each is productive. Theory and practice are in his view only different phases of a stretch of intelligent inquiry, theory being called the “ideal act” and practice the “executed insight” (Pappas, 1998, p. 111).   Although typically cast within utilitarian categories of ethical paradigms, simply labeling Deweyan ethics as merely utilitarian reveals a barren reading of his complex moral theories and ignores the vital role that education played in developing sound methods of inquiry in individuals. 


Any serious reader of Dewey will soon find out that Dewey’s expansive and all-inclusive way of defining “education” means that every element in his entire ethical framework is in some way directly related to the pedagogical process.  Hilary Putnam (2006), seminal pragmatist scholar and thinker, writes that, “all of Dewey’s work is in one way or another concerned with ‘ethics’” (p. 271), and thus by extension education. Societies are ideally, for Dewey, organic wholes.

There cannot be two sets of ethical principles, one for life in the school, and the other for life outside of the school. As conduct is one, so also the principles of conduct are one. The tendency to discuss the morals of the school as if the school were an institution by itself is highly unfortunate. The moral responsibility of the school, and of those who conduct, is to society. The school is fundamentally an institution erected by society to do a certain specific work, -- to exercise a certain specific function in maintaining the life and advancing the welfare of society. The educational system which does not recognize that this fact entails upon it an ethical responsibility is derelict and a defaulter. It is not doing what it was called into existence to do, and what it pretends to do” (Dewey, 1909, p. 7).

Because all ethical systems are one, including school and “life,” the “central theme in Dewey’s ethics it is that the application of intelligence to moral problems is itself a moral obligation” (Putnam, 2006, p. 271, emphasis in original). Through the process of intellectual inquiry, individuals can empirically evaluate the given effectiveness of one action over another in terms of the “common good” that each particular action brings about. Individuals have an obligation to put moral ideas “to the test” not by blindly receiving knowledge and accepting it, but rather through examining whether or not certain decisions have definitively positive impacts on the community.  
      Educationally speaking, the obligation students have to put their knowledge to use in communities is not a political or an institutional one, but rather is a moral and ethical one. It is the teacher’s responsibility to provide pathways for students to enact these skills in all settings. In Moral Principles in Education, Dewey makes it clear that classrooms are about as separate from the very nature of social life as family units are.

Interest in community welfare, an interest that is intellectual and practical, as well as emotional – an interest, that is to say, in perceiving whatever makes for social order and progress, and in carrying these principles into execution – is the moral habit to which all the special school habits must be related if they are to be animated by the breath of life. (Dewey, 1909, p. 17).

Dewey’s establishing of a hierarchy in which the school operates not as above or separate from but rather as subservient to the local community frames his theory of ethics. The most driving question the ethical framework of Dewey’s pragmatism asks is: “What effect does it have?” Dewey thought that the manner in which we make decisions about the value of our ideas and practices is that we look at the potential consequences first and base our course of action accordingly. In terms of education, Dewey thought that the way curriculum should be designed is with the community interests in mind. For Dewey, the educational institutions erected in local communities were ultimately there to serve to public good, making the skills students learn in the classroom necessarily connected to making social action in the public. Dewey challenges us to make explicit the connections between academic learning and public practice. When we have our students create a brochure raising awareness of the plight of the homeless; when we have our students write letters to the university administration calling for a more responsible use of campus utilities; when we have our students creating stirring multimodal presentations urging fellow citizens to speak up for a given cause, if we are engaging in the ideal form of Deweyan ethics then we are framing the application of these skills in these activities not as merely as their political, social, or institutional obligations but moreover as their moral obligations as members of an academic public to use their intellectual capabilities for the common good.

Acts of Fusing: Dewey and Composition Pedagogies

What follows from Dewey’s notion of ethics, then, is that students need to be educated into the “ethical” life. Educating students into the ethical life involves the process by which teachers attempt at fusing (Dewey, 1920, p. 272) students’ interests, impulses, and sympathy – with the final one acting as the primary ingredient. Implicit in this ethics is a firm, devoted belief in the biologically given impulses of humans (those impulses that, in terms of evolution, have helped groups survive). Students need to hone their ability to experience “felt trouble” (Pappas, 1998, p. 103) in the community; this skills needs to be honed through experiences within the community, by exposing students to real situations that will develop emotional (sympathetic) capacity. As such, Deweyan ethics asks us to reframe the way we teach and how what we teach relates to the community. Dewey flips the hierarchy upside down, asking not, triteness aside, what the public can do to help teach students public writing but rather what students can do to better their community.
      This concept is not unfamiliar to the field of rhetoric and composition: we often take up the call to make explicit connections between academic learning and public practice, often with strong institutional and political force. Service learning pedagogies, part of the much larger public turn in composition studies which describes writing as an inherently social activity (Bruffee, 1984; Cooper, 1989), have long provided students with more authentic, “real deal” (Heilker 1997, p.75) rhetorical situations to write within. There are several ways that service learning connects with composition pedagogy: community engagement as research; cultural critique of injustices (Crooks, 1993; Stroud, 1994); an avenue for developing acumen in academic discourse (Adler-Klassen, 1995); or viewing writing as social action, as the production of real documents for real agencies (Heilker, 1997, p. 74). Ultimately, placing students in writing situations of community engagement allows students to see how public and social the act of writing is and the impact they can have on a real situation. Our field has done an effective job at making students experience “writing as social action” by shifting the “where” of writing (Heilker, 1997, p.75). But because this “where” has since been complicated with the integration of digital publics into the writing classroom, there is still much space to theorize how technology and online social action can coincide productively with physical social action. Composition pedagogy has overlapped with Deweyan ethics (Heilker 72-3), by having it benefit the local community and “put a face” on their rhetorical situations. The Deweyan critique of contemporary composition pedagogy: the local community, once a primary benefactor of student writing, is being neglected because of the shifting implications of “social action” and our contentness with counting digital participation as civic pedagogy.
      Setting aside the fact that I did not have the institutional resources to enact such an integrated service-learning pedagogy, service-learning pedagogies are not necessary to teach within the Deweyan framework. When Dewey speaks of continuities between two distinct things, it is not necessary that these are institutional, formalized continuities. Because my goal is to challenge the exigencies of blogs, all that was needed was an experience in the community, in the hopes of accruing in the students a sense of a “felt need” within the local community. Dewey systematically avoided dualisms through the principle of continuity (Crick, 2010), but the connections between these two spheres are being separated without clear enough boundaries or explicit connections: the way Dewey destroyed the stifling traditional dualisms was by the principles of continuity and interaction – the focusing on the connections between two traditionally separated spheres (Alexander, 2006, p. 189). It is productive to think about Dewey’s principle of continuity in terms of it as a process of “growth,” which is also the principle underlying Dewey’s view of education. Because experiences have no pre-ordained value, and because experiences are the direct result of experiences had before and are thus entirely unique to the individual in their development of habits, it is not productive to think about experiences as inherently individual or inherently social, entirely physical or entirely psychical, but rather as containing elements of all. For Dewey, our role as instructors is to foster these experiences in productive ways that form habits of action that prepare students for future situations.   
      In Democracy and Education (1916) Dewey states, “there is a danger that the material of formal instruction will be merely the subject matter of the schools, isolated from the subject matter of real life” (p. 8).  The forging of real life connections between students and the aims of lessons must be a goal for educators. Schools must follow Dewey’s lead in affirming “the school itself shall be made a genuine form of active community life, instead of a place set apart in which to learn lessons” (1902, p. 14).  This process centers the school as an intermediary in social reconstruction and empowering students with the necessary life skills for citizenship. In the context of my project, this involves showing the degree of continuity between the local community and the digital literacy skills being taught within the peeling walls of English departments. Through the real life workings of a project that links students to the greater good, “and out of doing things that are to produce results in a cooperative way (1902, p. 17), education becomes transformative for the student and community.  As such a spirit of community unites neighbors, students learn the skills necessary to participate in a growing democracy.  By providing students with opportunity to link course objectives to the real world, for the betterment of their community and without larger institutional mandates, the critical model for “natural” citizenship education allows students to apply and transfer key understandings and skills.

In this light, Danisch’s understanding that students and citizens would engage in the “practical arts,” a distinctly pragmatist rhetoric, takes form here.
A term borrowed from fellow pragmatist, C.S. Peirce
Dewey’s method of “experimental inquiry” should be read as an intentional avoidance of having to answer the questions concerning fixed goals and rules of action typically begged by traditional normative teleological, deontological, and virtue moral theories by embodying a blend of theoretical and practical reason (Dewey, 1920).