John Dewey’s Ethical Method for Christians

The question that immediately comes to mind as we read the first section of Papas’ book, John Dewey’s Ethics: Democracy as Experience, on method, is, “Is Dewey’s empirical method one that can be appropriated by Christians?”

I take there to be two issues before us in the question of the validation of a Christian claim to truth.  First, is the claim true? That is does it avoid philosophic, and existential suspicion?  And second is the claim adequate.  The claim for adequacy implies two distinct questions: is the claim true to the tradition? and is it fitting to the situation?  To fall short of adequately meeting the demands of either criteria is to fall short of making a valid Christian claim.  All theological statements, and therefore all ethical claims stand or fall on these questions, insofar as Christian ethics requires that its claims address not only the concerns of the individual or group in question, but also the norm for Christian behavior.

But to say this is to apparently stand opposed to the statement made by Papps that “There is no priveleged theoretical or objective standpoint — the God’s-eye view — for us to take” (24) in ethics.  For Dewey all thinking begins with what Pappas calls “radical empiricism,” which means that we start directly with experienced matter.  “No matter how  abstract and remote our speculations  might turn out, we need to start and end with directly experienced subject matter.”  But Dewey has in mind a different experience of experience than most philosophers have had.  Most thinkers have taken Kant’s approach to experience and have said that experience is not intelligible without a “theoretical” framework from which to understand it.  Dewey calls this the fallacy of intellectualism.  Understanding what Dewey means by experience is impossible for those “wedded to the idea that there is no experienced material outside the field of discourse.”

In order to assess the question I posed about the appropriateness of Dewys’ method for Christian theology and ethics, it is important at this point to understand why the Philosophical Fallacy is a problem.  The fallacy of intellectualism is a variation on the general Philosophical Fallacy which Dewey claimed was “the most pervasive fallacy of philosophic thinking.” Pappas describes 3 (or 4) variants of the Philosophical Fallacy, but the important thing to note here is that these fallacies not only “truncate the view of experience” of the experiencing subject, but dissect the world between experience and the thinking of experience.  As a result, most philosophy has been utterly dualistic.  A.N. Whitehead puts it like this:  “the epistemology of the modern centuries . . . has interepreted the totality of experience as a mere reaction to an initial clarity of sensa.”  In other words, there is something that prefigures experience by which experience may by analyzed.  Hence, Dewey calls this fallacy the analytic fallacy.

In Christian theology the analytic fallacy and its attendant dualism, has been disastrous. Renee Descartes is the father of the modern philosophic dualism. Descartes’ epistemological ontology “I think therefore I am,” is a classic example of the analytic fallacy which leads him to see dualisms in everything, including the human relation to the world.   Despite Descartes’ philosophic presupposition that God exists, he states, that “when we conceive of substance, we merely conceive an existent thing which requires nothing but itself in order to exist.”  Nowhere do we see so clearly what is at issue in the problem of dualism.  He denies a God of love. Love, to be really love, requires that it react creatively to the experience of it.  A God of love is a God of receptivity as well as the foundation of all loving.

In the Biblical account of God, God is the beginning and the end.  This account does not attempt to explicate a chronology, but a sense of the primordial nature of God.  “He is the presupposed actuality of conceptual operation in unison of becoming with every other creative act.”  (Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 523). In other words, Whitehead’s God is not the remotely deigning omnipotence which we must fear in order to love, but is the founding of all real loving as beginning and end of love. God is “the lure of feeling, the eternal urge of desire.” The God of Descartes’ philosophy, and of much of western thought since then, has nothing to do with our feeling and our desire inasmuch as that God must be above the becoming of the creative act in unison with creation.  Dewey recognized this inasmuch as he recognized that “the counterpart to the Cartesian starting point in ethics is to begin with the isolated subject who has a purely cognitive apprehension of moral truths” (35).

Experience, according to Dewey, is the datum of ethics.  It is both the beginning and the end.  Empirically founded ethics takes as its starting point the experiential sensa and studies them, describes them and appeals to them in order to test hypothesis about a moral conclusion.  The task of ethics, according to Dewey, is really no different from the task of ethicists who use different methods: it is to ameliorate a situation which has the quality of demanding an answer about what one ought to do.    The difference, for Dewey, is that the ameliorating solution becomes an immediate part of experience and as such functions as the beginning of a new process of reasoning and testing. “Morality is not just a matter of determining what is right or wrong, but of how we appreciate and engage ourselves in the moral task presented to us” (46).

From the standpoint, at least, of the initial criteria for evaluating a theological claim, Dewey’s method avoids the theodicy question and the determinism issue, so prevalent in modern theology.

But does Dewey’s situation ethics equate to a kind of subjective relativism where anything goes so long as no one is hurt?  Pappas make the Deweyian claim that “Moral judgements are not deduced from rules but are derived from an imaginative-affective exploration of one’s situation (45). Aren’t there moral rules in Christianity?  Dewey argues that the “quest for fixed rules and ideas in morality is a counterpart to the general quest for certainty that characterizes modern epistemology” (50).  But this is to fall for the either or distraction.  It leaves out a vast middle expanse that Dewey wants to occupy.  The formation of values is accomplished, according to Dewey, not through the adherence to a rule, but to adherence to the priciple of democracy.  “The keynote of democracy as a way of life may be expressed as the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in formation of the values that regulate the living of men together; which is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the full development of human beings as individuals.”  Rules function as tools in an ethical enterprise.  In other words, they encourage deliberation.  As soon as rules function otherwise, deliberation is stiffled and they become stultified and shut down creative interchange.

What truth-telling, what honesty, what patience, what self-respect are changes with every added insight into the relations of men and things.  It is only the breath of intelligence blowing through such rules that keeps them from the petrification which awaits all barren idealities (EW 3:103).

Clearly, for some variations of Christianity, Dewey’s ethics would be troublesome insofar as their understanding of their tradition is not open to deliberation.    For a liberal denomination like the UCC, Dewey’s ethics provide a needed nudge in the direction of reflection upon our ideals, lest that not become barren idealities.  We struggle with the notion implied by our liberality, that reason and not revelation is the clearer, more succinct way to describe our commitment to the church and her ideals.  We have understood that the church easily falls into formalism and into a rigid doctrinalism which becomes the kind of passionate evangelicalism that turns away from those who would creatively address the changing needs of our world.  The social issues that still dominate much of the liberal Protestants’ agendas, homosexuality, women, abortion, etc, become the rope of a great tug-of-war between mores, and the moral issues are left to the unchurched to adjudicate.

"Democracy is a way of life controlled by a working faith in the possibilities
of human nature.  Belief in the Common Man is a familiar article in the
democratic creed.  That belief is without basis and significance save as it
means faith in the potentialities of human nature as that nature is exhibited in
every human being irrespective of race, color, sex, birth and family, of
material or cultural wealth.  This faith may be enacted in statutes, but it is
only on paper unless it is put in force in the attitudes which human beings
display to one another in all the incidents and relations of daily life.  To
denounce Naziism for intolerance, cruelty and stimulation of hatred amounts to
fostering insincerity, if in our personal relations to other persons, if, in our
daily walk and conversation, we are moved by racial, color, or other class
prejudice; indeed, by anything save a generous belief in their possibilities as
human beings, a belief which brings with it the need for providing conditions
which will enable these capacities to reach fulfillment.  The democratic faith
in human equality is belief that every human being, independent of the quantity
or range of his personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with
every other person for development of whatever gifts he has.  The democratic
belief in the principle of leadership is a generous one.   It is universal.  It
is belief in the capacity of every person to lead his own life free from 

"Democracy is a way of life controlled by a working faith in the possibilities
of human nature.  Belief in the Common Man is a familiar article in the
democratic creed.  That belief is without basis and significance save as it
means faith in the potentialities of human nature as that nature is exhibited in
every human being irrespective of race, color, sex, birth and family, of
material or cultural wealth.  This faith may be enacted in statutes, but it is
only on paper unless it is put in force in the attitudes which human beings
display to one another in all the incidents and relations of daily life.  To
denounce Naziism for intolerance, cruelty and stimulation of hatred amounts to
fostering insincerity, if in our personal relations to other persons, if, in our
daily walk and conversation, we are moved by racial, color, or other class
prejudice; indeed, by anything save a generous belief in their possibilities as
human beings, a belief which brings with it the need for providing conditions
which will enable these capacities to reach fulfillment.  The democratic faith
in human equality is belief that every human being, independent of the quantity
or range of his personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with
every other person for development of whatever gifts he has.  The democratic
belief in the principle of leadership is a generous one.   It is universal.  It
is belief in the capacity of every person to lead his own life free from
coercion and imposition by others provided right conditions are supplied."

coercion and imposition by others provided right conditions are supplied."

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