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The Evolutionary Ethics of John Dewey

The American philosopher John Dewey wrote another of my favorite philosophy passages in the last paragraph of his 1898 essay Evolution and Ethics. Dewey articulates in this paragraph what he sees as a monumental leap that occurs when human beings discover the mechanisms through which the evolutionary process unfolds. Dewey must have been feeling the same excitement that the great early scientists felt as they were discovering the laws of mechanics that governed all motion in the universe. No longer did we need to assume supernatural causes for the motion of bodies on earth or in the heavens. We had discovered the logical rules according to which motion occurred. This gave us the power to organize motion and put it to use in ways that had never been imagined possible.

Now that we had discovered the rules by which evolution’s arrow carried one form into the next we could begin to apply consciousness to guide and direct that process. This possibility for evolutionary control brought with it a need to develop and define an evolutionary ethics that would be equally powerful. If we were to become masters of evolution we had to expand our moral accountability to include our evolutionary effects.

“There are no doubt sufficiently profound distinctions between the ethical process and the cosmic process as it existed prior to man and to the formation of human society. So far as I know, however, all of these differences are summed up in the fact that the process and the forces bound up with the cosmic have come to consciousness in man. That which was instinct in the animal is conscious impulse in man. That which was “tendency to vary” in the animal is conscious foresight in man. That which was unconscious adaptation and survival in the animal, taking place by the “cut and try” method until it worked itself out, is with man conscious deliberation and experimentation. That this transfer from unconsciousness to consciousness has immense importance, need hardly be argued. It is enough to say that it means the whole distinction of the moral from the unmoral. We have, however, no reason to suppose that the cosmic process has become arrested or that some new force has supervened to struggle against the cosmic. Some theologians and moralists, to be sure, welcomed Huxley’s apparent return to the idea of a dualism between the cosmic and the ethical as likely to inure favorably to the spiritual life. But I question whether the spiritual life does not get its surest and most ample guarantees when it is learned that the laws and conditions of righteousness are implicated in the working processes of the universe; when it is found that man in his conscious struggles, in his doubts, temptations, and defeats, in his aspirations and successes, is moved on and buoyed up by the forces which have developed nature; and that in this moral struggle he acts not as a mere individual but as an organ in maintaining and carrying forward the universal process.”