Review of The Study of Ethics by John Dewey

Arthur F. Bentley

The Study of Ethics: A Syllabus. Ву JOHN DEWEY. Ann Arbor, 1894.Pp. 151. $1.15.

APART from any specific ethical deductions which may be drawn from it, this book is of great interest to the student of society. "The aim is not to discover the ideal at which all conduct aims, nor the law which it should follow : the aim, once more, is not to find precepts or rules, but to analyze conduct" (p. 12). The book "undertakes a thorough psychological examination of the process of active experience, and a derivation from this analysis of the chief ethical types and crises."

Professor Dewey holds that individual psychology, and social psychology or sociology, have the same content, looked at but from different points of view. The former deals with the process, the mechanism, of spirit, and therefore turns to the individual ; the latter deals with the concrete filling up of the individual minds at different times and places, and therefore must have the social standpoint.

Ethics is a systematical and critical discussion of the value of conduct. Conduct, however, cannot be studied when one considers only the aims and interest of the agent. It is just as important to take the situation into account. "While conduct proceeds from an agent, the agent himself acts with reference to the conditions as they present themselves." Conduct is on one side the organizing of the concrete powers, the impulses and habits of an individual agent; on the other, it is bringing the different elements of a complex situation to a unity of aim and interest. Conduct is therefore consciously the same thing that a biological function is unconsciously. On this basis an ethical postulate can be formulated, analogous to the scientific postulate of uniformity of nature. This postulate is that "the conduct required truly to express an agent is, at the same time, the conduct required to maintain the situation in which he is placed : while conversely, the conduct that truly meets the situation is that which furthers the agent."

(138) Chapter iii, contains "A General Analysis of Conduct." All conduct is at first impulsive, having no end consciously in view. In the reaction of the induced experiences into the inducing impulse a psychological basis for moral conduct is found. This back reference of the experience to the impulse, is termed the mediation of the impulse, or will. Through it the impulse is on one side idealized or given value; on the other, it is controlled or directed. Around this analysis is then grouped the discussion of the categories of Satisfaction, Good and Value on the one side : and those of Duty, Law, Control, Standard, etc., on the other.

While the Syllabus is limited intentionally to psychological ethics, and brings social conditions into consideration only incidentally, the theory advanced will be found to have very direct bearings on many of the most mooted questions of sociological method. Recent discussions have been very warm, as to how far it is possible to have an objective science of society on the pattern of the natural sciences, which is not shot through at every stage with valuations of its subject-matter; as to the difference between psychology and sociology; and as to the extent to which individual states of consciousness can be used in explaining actual social transformations. The position which is taken in regard to any of these questions will depend entirely on the psychological theory of conduct which consciously or unconsciously is being used; and without agreement here, no methodological agreement can be hoped for.

It is on account of the light which Professor Dewey's theory of conduct throws upon these questions, whatever one may think of the completeness of the theory itself, that a review of his Syllabus is offered in this place.



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