Dewey’s Virtues


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It is both surprising and unfortunate that Dewey’s philosophy has received so little attention from contemporary virtue theorists working both in ethics and epistemology. It is surprising because Dewey frequently writes about the importance of habit, virtue, vice and character in all areas of human experience. It is unfortunate because Dewey’s theories of inquiry and transactional experience can make important contributions to some of the central concerns within contemporary virtue theory. In this paper I examine the work of two leading virtue theorists (Lorraine Code and Linda Zagzebski) and indicate how Dewey’s philosophy can expose and challenge philosophical assumptions that prevent virtue theorists from achieving the philosophical objectives they hope to achieve.  I bring Dewey’s thoughts to bear on questions concerning the nature of virtue, the relationship between the moral and intellectual virtues, and the relationship between virtue and flourishing.



Dewey’s Virtues


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            I would like to talk to you, today, about some of the contributions that Dewey’s theory of inquiry can make to contemporary virtue theory.  I say “virtue theory” and not “virtue ethics” because the concept of virtue, though it has for some time now enjoyed the attention and respect of many philosophers working in the area of moral philosophy, has more recently begun to play an increasingly larger role in contemporary epistemological discussions.  Virtue ethicists, as Roger Crisp and Michael Slote put it, “focus on moral agents and their lives, rather than on discrete actions . . . construed in isolation from the notion of character, and the rules governing these actions” (Crisp and Slote 2000, p. 3).  Like their counterparts in virtue ethics, virtue epistemologists, in the words of Linda Zagzebski and Abrol Fairweather, “focus epistemic evaluation on properties of persons rather than properties of beliefs or propositions” (Zagzebski and Fairweather 2001,  p. 3).

            In his 1980 essay, “The Raft and the Pyramid,” Ernest Sosa first proposed that a virtue approach to questions concerning knowledge and its justification might offer an attractive alternative to foundationalism and coherentism.  Since then, a growing number of epistemologists have begun to realize that virtue epistemology promises even more than Sosa initially thought.  Many have begun to use the insights of virtue epistemology to respond to a wide range of epistemological concerns, including the epistemic status of religious belief, the challenges of skepticism, naturalism and normativity, and the long-standing debate between epistemological externalists and internalists.  Moreover, some contemporary epistemologists contend that virtue epistemology redefines the central problems of epistemology by de-emphasizing knowledge and its justification and by drawing attention to other intellectual virtues (e.g., wisdom and understanding), or to the theme—which is central in both Peirce and Dewey’s philosophies—of how to go about deliberating and inquiring well.  A great many epistemologists who do not consider themselves virtue epistemologists share these interests, too.  Indeed, the concerns of virtue epistemologists are not tangential to the concerns of contemporary epistemology in general; rather, they are among the central concerns that contemporary epistemologists must take seriously and are taking seriously.  In short, consideration of the role of intellectual virtue in our cognitive lives is transforming the epistemological landscape.

            Along with the success of virtue ethics, and the rise of virtue epistemology, comes an excellent opportunity to locate continuities among the moral and epistemological, the practical and theoretical phases of human experience—which was a topic of deep concern for Dewey.  Virtue theorists working in both ethics and epistemology have begun to devote considerable attention to questions concerning 1) the nature of virtue in general, 2) the relationships between the various virtues—specifically, the relationship between the moral and epistemic (or intellectual) virtues—and 3) the role of virtue in human flourishing.  It is surprising and unfortunate that Dewey’s work has received very little attention from contemporary virtue theorists.  It is surprising because Dewey speaks often—and at length—about the importance of habit, disposition, virtue, vice, character and growth in all areas of human experience.  It is unfortunate because Dewey’s philosophy contains resources for developing a theory of virtue that establishes deep continuities among the moral and intellectual virtues, and that demonstrates the importance of virtue for human flourishing.      

In this paper I will examine the works of two prominent virtue theorists, namely, Lorraine Code and Linda Zagzebski, indicating how Dewey’s philosophy can expose and challenge philosophical assumptions that prevent them from achieving the philosophical objectives they (and other virtue theorists) hope to achieve.   Code aims to provide an account of intellectual virtue that demonstrates the importance of reflection for human flourishing.  However, Code’s conception of the relationship between knower and known would, if true, weaken reflection’s value and prevent us from flourishing in the ways virtue can, in fact, help us to flourish.  Zagzebski attempts to develop a general theory of virtue that can encompass both the moral and epistemic virtues.  However, her “motivation-based” account of the sources of virtue does not establish greater continuity among the various virtues, but instead further isolates the virtues from one another.  Dewey’s theories of inquiry and transactional experience, on the other hand, provide us with good reasons to think 1) that the value of reflection for human flourishing is much more extensive than Code imagines, and 2) that there is greater continuity among the virtues than Zagzebski’s theory would allow.

I will begin with Code and then subsequently discuss Zagzebski’s work.  In her 1987 book, Epistemic Responsibility, Lorraine Code develops an epistemological theory that she calls “responsibilism” or “normative realism,” according to which reflection is an epistemic virtue because it renders epistemic agents better able to evaluate their interpretations of the world and to alter those interpretations so that they adequately reflect reality.  However, Code’s normative realism institutes a sharp separation between agents and their environments, between the world as it is known and the world as it subsists independently of the knower.  Such a separation is at odds with Dewey’s transactional theory of experience, according to which the knower is a participant in the world, and knowing does not merely “reflect” reality but rather transforms it.  As we will see, Code’s conception of the knower-known relationship has sever consequences for her conceptions of the value of reflection and of human flourishing.

Arguing that human knowers are agents who can be held accountable for their epistemic activities and conclusions, Code insists “that there is often a responsibility to know better than one does” (Code 1987, p. 11).  People should not seek simply to know, but to know well, for “[i]t is undeniable that human flourishing is deeply dependent upon knowing well” (ibid., p. 9).  The “responsibilist” strain of Code’s virtue epistemology is predicated upon the idea, which she shares with Dewey, that human knowing is an “active” and “creative” endeavor.  Yet her conception of the relationship between knower and known, unlike Dewey’s, would, if true, severely curtail our epistemic freedom and render us largely passive in the face of a recalcitrant world.

To be a responsible knower (i.e., to know well), Code argues, an epistemic agent must be reflectively aware of the contextualized grounds for her knowledge.  If the agent is not so aware, then she is not a responsible knower—and perhaps even an irresponsible knower.  “Hence,” says Code, “my position is predicated upon the assumption that reflexivity is characteristic of human cognitive capacity, that it is something that can be cultivated, and that there is a cognitive imperative to do so” (Code 1987, p. 93n [emphasis original]). The responsible knower must seek to understand the relationships between the facts that she reflectively knows are “well-grounded in the world.”  For this reason responsible knowers aspire to epistemic virtues that are more valuable than knowledge.  In particular she emphasizes the importance of cultivating understanding and wisdom, by virtue of which cognizers are able to critically evaluate the cognitive structures and processes that inform their beliefs and direct their actions, and by which they are able to establish connections among otherwise isolated bits of knowledge.

Unlike Dewey, who sees reflective, cognitive activity as a means by which we thinking, reasoning creatures are able to learn about the world through controlled transformation of our environments, Code claims that responsible epistemic agents are required to reflect upon our own cognitive structures and to alter those cognitive structures (if need be) so that they accurately reflect reality.  The objective, external world, however, remains an unalterable “something beyond” that knowledge and knowing can only reflect.  “This ‘something beyond’,” writes Code, “is constantly recalcitrant to our efforts to make it other than it is, either actually or potentially.  We are aware that we do not conjure it up, partly because we cannot conjure it away, and we cannot change it at will” (Code 1987, p. 134).  We can institute changes only in our own cognitive structures, in our knowing, not in the world that is known.

As evidence for this, Code cites “the amount of recalcitrance objects persistently exhibit to human creative and cognitive efforts and wishes” (ibid., p. 133).  Surely one cannot change objective conditions simply by changing what goes one between one’s ears, or by changing one’s emotional responses to the world.  People cannot cure an infectious disease simply by changing their conceptual schemes, or simply by changing their feelings about the disease.  A group of people who refuse to accept proven medical treatments for the disease—on account of their adherence to a conceptual scheme that cannot accommodate such treatments—will certainly find the disease recalcitrant.  The same goes for a group of people whose knowledge of the proposed treatment alters the way they think and feel about such diseases, but who do not implement the treatment.  To cure the disease, overt changes must be made in the objective environment: treatments must be physically introduced into the bodies of the infected; the infected must be physically separated from the uninfected; vaccinations must be introduced into the bodies of the uninfected; the source of the disease must be identified, located, and contained or eliminated.

Fortunately, the relationship between knower and known is less like Code conceives of it, more like Dewey conceives of it.  The world does respond to our cognitive efforts and wishes; we can and do make changes to our “external,” “objective” environments every day: when we bite into an apple, when we talk to people, when we burn a slide to fix a bacterium for study, etc.  Moreover, we often make such changes in order to know something about the world in which we live: to know what an apple tastes like, to learn about a friend’s impressions of Amsterdam, to identify a bacterium, etc.  Indeed, thinking is not something that simply happens between one’s ears.  It involves the performance of operations (both observational and ideational operations) in and upon the world.  I say that this is fortunate because a world that does not respond to people’s “cognitive efforts and wishes,” a world that does not respond to people’s efforts to control it, is not a world in which people can flourish. 

We cannot assume that the “real,” “external” world is an inherently orderly environment that would support the objects and activities that human beings reflectively deem valuable.  Dewey makes no such assumption.  On his account, reflective, cognitive activity produces order, unity and meaning where disorder, fragmentation and insignificance once obtained. As Dewey observes,

Restoration of integration can be effected . . . only by operations which actually modify existing conditions, not by merely ‘mental’ processes.  It is, accordingly, a mistake to suppose that a situation is doubtful only in a ‘subjective’ sense.  The notion that in actual existence everything is completely determinate has been rendered questionable by the progress of physical science itself.  Even if it had not been, complete determination would not hold of existences as an environment.  For Nature is an environment only as it is involved in interaction with an organism, or self, or whatever name be used (LW 12: p. 110).

Knowing, then, is a transaction with our environments; it is a response to our environment by which we in turn make the environment respond.  Successful inquiry establishes meaning-relationships within the environment that render the environment more meaningful, more manageable, more inhabitable.  A disorderly world that is “constantly recalcitrant to our efforts to make it other than it is, either actually or potentially” is not the sort of environment in which thinking and reasoning can help a creature to flourish; but a world that responds to our efforts to change it can be made to sustain the objects and activities that we reflectively deem valuable.

            At the end of this paper I will provide some summary remarks about Dewey’s theories of inquiry and transactional experience, which, I think, can make important contributions to our conceptions of the nature of the virtues, the relationship between the virtues, and the role of the virtues in human flourishing.  But before doing so let us first examine Linda Zagzebski’s account of the sources of virtue.

In Virtues of the Mind (1996), Zagzebski describes her project as an attempt to develop “a virtue theory that is inclusive enough to handle the intellectual as well as the moral virtues within a single theory . . .” (Zagzebski 1996, xiv).  To accomplish this goal, Zagzebski adopts what she calls a “radical, motivation-based theory” of virtue (ibid., p. 77), according to which motivation is both the primary structural and evaluative component of virtue.  Yet Zagzebski’s theory fragments the sources of virtue, leaving the individual virtues more isolated from one another than previous theories had supposed.  This is because she associates each virtue with an antecedently distinct motivation.  In contrast, Dewey does not see motives as discrete, aboriginal sources of thought and action, but rather as achievements of inquiry.  Motives are, on Dewey’s account, objects to be identified within “a total complex of [a person’s] activity” (MW 14: p. 84).  As we shall see, Dewey’s philosophy is, as a result, better equipped to establish deep continuities among all the virtues.

Zagzebski defines virtue in the following way: “A virtue . . . can be defined as a deep and enduring acquired excellence of a person, involving a characteristic motivation to produce a certain desired end and reliable success in bringing about that end” (ibid., p. 137).  There are, then, two components to each virtue: a motivational component and a reliability component.  According to Zagzebski, the motivational component is primary, for “each virtue is definable in terms of a particular motivation” (ibid., 165).  Thus,

. . . benevolence is the virtue according to which a person is characteristically motivated to bring about the well-being of others . . . . Courage is the virtue according to which a person is characteristically motivated to risk danger to himself when something of greater value is at stake . . . (ibid.).

Both of the virtues mentioned are what Zagzebski would classify as “moral” virtues.  Each of the moral virtues has its own particular motivation, but all of the moral virtues differ from the intellectual virtues in that all of the intellectual virtues share a common, “foundational motivation,” namely “the general motivation for knowledge . . .” (ibid., p. 166).  Thus, whereas all the intellectual virtues arise from a general motivation that directs action toward knowledge, each of the moral virtues arises from a unique motivation that directs action toward the appropriate end of that particular moral virtue.  Nevertheless, Zagzebski claims, “the individual intellectual virtues [e.g., understanding, wisdom, intelligence, intellectual courage, etc.] can be defined in terms of [more specific] motivations arising from the general motivation for knowledge and reliability in attaining the aims of these motives” (ibid. [emphasis added]).

            Oddly enough, Zagzebski appeals to some passages from Dewey’s How We Think to support her motivation-based account of the sources of virtue.  Unfortunately, Zagzebski has misread Dewey, who, in Human Nature and Conduct, explicitly states his very different view of what motives “are”:

In every fundamental sense it is false that a man requires a motive to make him do something . . . . A motive does not exist prior to an act and produce it.  It is an act plus a judgment upon some element of it, the judgment being made in the light of the consequences of the act . . . . Instead then of saying that a man requires a motive in order to induce him to act, we should say that when a man is going to act he needs to know what he is going to do—what the quality of his act is in terms of consequences to follow (MW 14: pp. 84-85).

A person impulsively, thoughtlessly, performs some action that has various observable consequences, some of which may be judged valuable (by the agent or by his fellows), while others may be deemed obnoxious.  By reflecting upon his whole, undifferentiated action, and by breaking it down into more refined elements, the agent may direct his future actions to produce more of the favorable consequences and less of the unfavorable ones.  Subsequent activity is thus made intentional; it has a definite purpose.  As Dewey writes, “[a]n inchoate activity taken in this forward-looking reference to results, especially results of approbation and condemnation, constitutes a motive” (MW 14: p. 85).

According to Dewey, the meanings that accrue to our “inner,” “subjective” experiences are no less the conclusions of inquiry than are the meanings that accrue to “external,” “objective” experiences.  Of “feelings” and other such “internal” qualities Dewey writes, in Experience and Nature: “The qualities never were ‘in’ the organism, they always were qualities of interactions in which both extra-organic things and organisms partake” (LW 1: pp. 198-199).  Once these motive-objects have been discriminated, identified and incorporated into rational discourse they may become conditions for the direction and control of subsequent action and inquiry.  As Dewey correctly notes, “ . . . feeling, sensation and emotion have themselves to be identified and described in terms of the immediate presence of a total qualitative situation” (LW 12: p. 74).  The same may be said of motivations, or of any determinate, “subjective” quality whatsoever.

            In contrast to Dewey, who sees motives not as antecedently existing data, but as meanings that, as achievements of inquiry, accrue to and enrich our experience, Zagzebski reifies the motivational aspects of the virtues (in much the same way that philosophers like Aristotle and Aquinas reified rationality and affectivity by attributing them to distinct parts of the soul).  Moreover, though Zagzebski defends certain aspects of Aristotle’s account of virtue, she dismisses his division of the virtues into two distinct kinds, namely moral virtue and intellectual virtue.  Her complaint is that “[t]he characteristics that allegedly distinguish the two kinds of virtue do not divide up the spectrum in anywhere near the desired fashion” (ibid., p. 139).  But rather than establish greater continuity among the moral and intellectual virtues, Zagzebski’s motivation-based account of virtue institutes an even more fragmented account of the sources of virtue than do theories like Aristotle and Aquinas’, which identify only two—or in the case of Aquinas, three—distinct sources of virtue. Thus, when Zagzebski says, “no one has offered adequate reason to think the moral and intellectual virtues differ any more than one moral virtue differs from another” (ibid., 158), we must take her to mean not that the intellectual and moral virtues are more deeply connected than previous thinkers had believed, but rather that they are more isolated from one another than anyone had previously suspected!  For the idea is that there are distinct motivations, antecedent to the acquisition of virtue, out of which the individual virtues arise. 

Dewey’s conception of motives, emotions and feelings, as meanings that accrue to experience on account of inquiries, assumes no aboriginal basis for the distinction between individual virtues or kinds of virtue (e.g., intellectual and moral virtue).  When we discriminate and identify within impulsive, thoughtless human activity certain elements of human potency, which, when intelligently stimulated and directed, tend to help us identify and solve the problems we encounter in various situations, we have identified virtues and should encourage their cultivation.  When we identify potencies that prevent us from solving problems, we identify vices and should suppress those potencies in our current endeavors.  Moreover, whether a particular potency is to be classified as a “moral” virtue (or vice) or as an intellectual virtue (or vice), or as a virtue or vice of some other sort, depends not upon its origin in an isolated human quality buried deep inside of us (as Zagzebski maintains), but instead depends upon the kind of problem that is encountered.  Yet the very discrimination and identification of problems, as problems of this or that kind, is itself a part of the process of inquiry.  From a Deweyan perspective, then, all virtue has its source in inquiry; and the distinctions made between individual virtues and kinds of virtue are themselves conclusions of inquiry—conclusions that may preserved, so long as they serve as resources, or refined, changed or rejected, if they prove to be obstacles to future inquiries.  Thus, unlike Zagzebski’s highly fragmented, motivation-based account of the sources of virtue, an account of virtue modeled after Dewey’s theory of inquiry is able both to encompass the moral and intellectual virtues (as well as all other kinds of virtue), and to establish continuities among the various virtues that inquiry has discriminated.

            Dewey’s theories of inquiry and transactional experience should be seen as a valuable resource for addressing some central concerns in contemporary virtue theory.  First, Dewey’s theory of inquiry as intelligent problem solving provides us with an attractive model for an account of the nature of virtue.  A character trait (habit, disposition or human potency) is a virtue if it facilitates intelligent problem solving.  A character trait is a vice if it hinders intelligent problem solving.  This inquiry-based model of virtue is attractive for a number of reasons.  First, it should attract virtue theorists who are interested in the relationship between the moral and epistemic (or intellectual) virtues in that it provides us with a way of simultaneously handling moral and epistemological virtues under a single heading.  “[I]nquiry,” Dewey writes, “in spite of the diverse subjects to which it applies, and the consequent diversity of its special techniques has a common structure or pattern” (LW 12: p. 105). The problems that it is the aim of inquiry to solve may, of course, be classified as moral, epistemological, political, aesthetic, or as some other kind of problem.  But such classifications are themselves a part of the process by which we solve particular problems.  Second, since inquiry as intelligent problem solving is an indispensable part of growth in all areas of human experience, Dewey’s philosophy already possesses many of the resources necessary for connecting virtue with human flourishing. 

There are, indeed, more ways in which Dewey’s philosophy can—and should—contribute to discussions now taking place in contemporary virtue theory.  Dewey’s thoughts on habit, virtue, vice and character in relation to his theories of inquiry and transactional experience deserve more attention than they have received from virtue ethicists and virtue epistemologists alike, and certainly much more attention than I have been able to give it here, today.  The benefits of such a study will accrue not only to virtue theory, but also to American philosophy, where this study will highlight the vitality of Dewey’s thought in connection with philosophical approaches and concerns that have arisen outside the pragmatist tradition.  More importantly, however, Dewey’s philosophy can provide us with insight into a question that virtue theorists share with all reflective people: Under what conditions do human beings flourish; and how can we make those conditions obtain?