ethics from nature (on Philip Selznick)

(en route to the Midwest for a service-learning meeting.) Here is a fairly comprehensive ethical position. It is my summary of Philip Selznick’s The Moral Commonwealth, chapter 1, which is presented as an interpretation of Dewey’s naturalistic ethics. I have not investigated whether Selznick gets Dewey right–that doesn’t matter much, because Selznick is a major thinker himself. His position has just a few key ingredients:

1. “The first principle of a naturalist ethic is that genuine values emerge from experience; they are discovered, not imposed” (Selznick, p. 19). So we shouldn’t expect to ground ethics in a truth that is outside of experience, as Kant advised.

2. Experience is the understanding of nature, broadly defined. Such experience has moral implications. There is “support in nature for secure and fruitful guides to moral reflection and prescription” (p. 27). Yet “humanity is in the business of amending nature, not following it blindly” (p. 18).

3. The study of nature that we need for ethics is more like “natural history” than “theoretical science.” In other words, it looks for generalities and patterns, but it doesn’t assume that true knowledge is highly abstract and universal. “For modern theoretical scientists, nature is not known directly and concretely but indirectly and selectively. Ideally embodied in mathematical propositions, nature becomes rarified and remote. In contrast, students of natural history–naturalists–are interested in the situated wholeness of objects and organisms. They perceive a world of glaciered canyons, burnt prairies, migrating geese.” They exhibit “love for the world” (p. 26).

4. Certain facts about human beings (not to be sharply separated from other natural species) emerge from such empirical observation and are ethically important. For instance, human beings have a potential for growth or development in interaction with community, and such growth gives us well-being. “When interaction is free and undistorted–when it stimulates reflection and experiment–powers are enhanced, horizons expanded, connections deepened, meanings enriched. Growth depends on shared experience, which in turn requires genuine, open communication” (pp. 27-8).

Dewey/Selznick begin with observable facts about us as a natural species, identify growth as a “normative idea” (p. 28), and are soon on their way to strong ethical conclusions. For instance, Dewey claimed that democracy is the best system of government because it permits free collective learning; but a democracy is desirable to the extent that discussion and experimentation prevail (rather than the mere tabulation of votes).

This approach suggests that it’s better to “benchmark” than to set ideals. That is, it’s better to assess where we are as a species, or as a community, or as an individual, and then try to enhance the aspects that seem best, rather than decide what a good society or a good character should be like in principle. Dorf and Sabel have tried to work out a whole political theory based on this distinction. (Link opens a Word doc.)

I find Selznick’s view attractive, but I have two major methodological concerns. First, I’m not sure that the selection of natural features is as straightforward as Selznick and Dewey presume. We are naturally capable of learning together in cooperative groups, thereby developing our own competence and enriching our experience. We are also capable of exploitation, cruelty, faction, brutality, and waste. These all seem equally “natural.” I suspect the pragmatist’s preference for “growth” is closer to a classical philosophical premise than a naturalist observation. In fact, it sounds a lot like Kant’s requirement that we develop ourselves and others.

We could read Dewey’s conclusions as simply a contribution to public debate. He likes “growth”; others can discuss his preference. If we reach consensus within our community, we have all the ethical certainty we need. If we disagree, our task is to discuss.

That’s all very well as long as we recognize that consensus is highly unlikely. (This is my second objection.) Imagine Dewey in a debate with an Iranian Ayatollah. The latter would reject Dewey’s method, since revelation should trump experience; Dewey’s understanding of natural history, since the world began with creation and will end apocalyptically; and Dewey’s goals, since salvation after death is much more valuable than growth here on earth. No experience can directly settle this debate, because we only find out what happens after death after we die. And until the Mahdi actually returns, it’s possible that he is waiting.

But here’s an argument in favor of Dewey’s method. The debate is not just about abstract principles and unfalsifiable predictions. It’s also about how principles play out in real, evolving institutions. So we should compare not just the metaphysics of a Shiite Ayatollah and an American pragmatist, but also the institutions that each one endorses: contemporary Iran versus a Deweyan model, such as a laboratory school or a settlement house. It seems to me that contemporary Iran is not doing very well, and Dewey has a “naturalist” explanation of why not. The fundamental principles of the Iranian revolution are not in sync with nature. That’s not going to persuade a diehard revolutionary, because he will expect everything to improve as soon as the Mahdi returns. But it is an observation that a devout Shiite can accept and use as an argument for reform. Thus there is a meaningful debate between reformers like Khatami and diehards like Ahmadinejad. If Khatami ultimately wins, score one for Dewey and Selznick, because Iran will have turned out to be governed by natural laws of growth and reflection.

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  1. Pingback: a John Dewey primer « Peter Levine

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