American philosophy was a product of the Modern Age that had its precursor with the Italian Renaissance and its birth with the European Enlightenment. The Modern Age is characterized by the development of human reason as the dominant force shaping human life. It was during this time that science and the scientific method of analysis flowered and the universe began slowly to yield its secrets. Human beings began to experience their early adolescence. They felt their power as masters over nature and they began to outgrow the mythical dogmatism of traditional religions. They no longer needed God to tell them the truth; they could figure it out for themselves.
By the time American philosophy in the form of Pragmatism came into its own, Modernism and the process of modernization had reached a fever pitch. Science was unraveling every mystery and some predicted that soon there would be nothing left to discover. Yet this enormous success also had its problems and one of those was the loss of a moral basis for human ethics. Without a mythic God to tell us the law, and without the fear of God to enforce that law, what would guide human behavior?
Many began to see the class distinctions, inequalities and hardships of modern industrialized nations as the inevitable selfish evils of a society that had no moral compass to guide it. One of the jobs of modern philosophy became to find a way of defining goodness and creating a shared ethical standard that could guide humanity into the future.
Pragmatism is at heart an ethical philosophy. By equating truth with utility the pragmatists were essentially stating that what is good is what works. But that didn’t really solve the problem at all because it leaves open to question how you define what works. Works for who? How? And in what context? Without a well defined goodness, Pragmatism easily fell into the trap of becoming a philosophy of personal utility. “What is good is what works for me?” Pragmatism too easily slipped into the position of being a part of the problem instead of the solution.
Yet the early Pragmatists with their evolutionary ethics were on to something. They recognized that the movement from a static conception of reality to an evolving one was tremendously fundamental. It necessitated a radical reorientation to life at levels of choice and perception that had been taken for granted for so long that they had submerged into unconsciousness. John Dewey in particular outlined the beginnings of a viable evolutionary ethics or at least pointed out the direction where we should look for one.
His solution to the problem of goodness was to define goodness as the process of perfecting. Goodness became a verb instead of a noun. The evil doer who is actively improving his or her behavior is good, while the do-gooder who is not developing is not. Goodness to Dewey was not measured against a static external ideal. It was measured in the amount of change toward the better in one’s own behavior. Development is good, stagnation is bad.
Dewey’s ethics are complex and worthy of deeper consideration. It is an incomplete system with plenty of holes needing to be filled. Yet, I believe that it will rise again out of its current obscurity to be re-examined and upgraded because for all of its lack, it does identify what I see as the quintessential ethical shift of our time.