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John Dewey’s Evolutionary Ethics

I am continually amazed to find that John Dewey had such a profoundly awakened evolutionary philosophy.

In his work to construct an evolutionary ethical sensibility, Dewey recognized that the efforts to create an ethics based on an evolutionary worldview up until his own time had proven unsatisfactory at best and in the worst cases led to notions of “Social Darwinism” that seemed anything but ethical.

Dewey believed that these problems resulted from an incomplete grasp and embrace of an evolutionary worldview. He felt that many philosophers and ethical thinkers were attempting to apply aspects of an evolutionary understanding of reality without letting go of fundamental aspects of older Idealistic philosophies.

This means that they applied an understanding of evolution to ethics while retaining notions of an ideal end, an ultimate perfection, to which evolution was leading. An evolutionary ethics with this foundation inevitably defined “goodness” as that which takes us closer to that ideal end. Dewey was writing decades before the Second World War would show the world just how far this thinking could travel from anything ethical, but he (like many) already anticipated the problems of ethical ambiguity that this way of thinking represented.

Dewey also recognized another inherent problem in this way of thinking. That problem was that “goodness” was a goal forever postponed into the future. He recognized that the process of evolution moves forward in ways that simultaneously bring resolution to problems of the past and create new complexities that will only be resolved with further evolution. If we have aimed “goodness” toward a perfected state, we will soon find ourselves frustrated by what appears to be our perpetual lack of progress toward our goal.

Dewey insists that this problem arises because we have not recognized that the only “goodness” that can be ascribed to evolution is the goodness of the present in action. Goodness in this sense is the experience of evolving itself, not the experience of moving closer to a goal. The good is not a goal, a place, a state or an object in the future, it is the act of evolving and perfecting, which he defined as the act of moving into an experience with an ever greater sense of inherent meaning and significance.

In this sense we look to the present moment and the progress it represents to find our ethics and our sense of satisfaction. We are not concerned with some imagined perfect possibility in the future, but with the reality of our own forward movement – or lack there of – right now.