John Dewey on Social Organization and the Individual Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1908, former University of Chicago colleagues John Dewey and James Tufts published Ethics, a seminal textbook for teaching the philosophy of ethics. As part of the Chicago school of pragmatism, they favored the application of ethical theories to current affairs over the study of abstract concepts and emphasized the impact of society on each individual’s responsibilities, freedoms, rights, and obligations. They also acknowledged that rapidly changing societies require a more flexible approach to ethics than older philosophical traditions typically followed; thus, they focused on identifying a process for ethical decision-making, rather than establishing concrete principles to apply uniformly in all situations. In this excerpt from Ethics, Dewey and Tufts broadly define the concepts of responsibility, freedom, rights, and obligations as they relate to individuals within a broader society.

Summary Overview

In 1908, former University of Chicago colleagues John Dewey and James Tufts published Ethics, a seminal textbook for teaching the philosophy of ethics. As part of the Chicago school of pragmatism, they favored the application of ethical theories to current affairs over the study of abstract concepts and emphasized the impact of society on each individual’s responsibilities, freedoms, rights, and obligations. They also acknowledged that rapidly changing societies require a more flexible approach to ethics than older philosophical traditions typically followed; thus, they focused on identifying a process for ethical decision-making, rather than establishing concrete principles to apply uniformly in all situations. In this excerpt from Ethics, Dewey and Tufts broadly define the concepts of responsibility, freedom, rights, and obligations as they relate to individuals within a broader society.

Defining Moment

Dewey and Tufts’s emphasis on the significance of social context to moral theories is clear throughout Ethics. For example, the textbook begins by reviewing the moral theories of ancient civilizations and observing their limitations in the context of the societies that created them. The two philosophers strongly believed in studying the application of ethics, particularly in respect to societies as a whole and how they are structured, rather than just in respect to individual behavior–and indeed, their theories suggest that the two cannot truly be separated.

Dewey and Tufts wrote Ethics during a time of significant social change within the United States. Slavery had officially been abolished several decades prior, and African American men technically had most of the same rights as white men, but continued discrimination and fear for personal safety often made it nearly impossible to exercise those rights. Women of all races still fought for the right to vote and faced discrimination in activities necessary to participate fully in society, such as obtaining an education and owning property. As industry prospered, easily exploitable workers, such as children and immigrants, were often placed in dangerous conditions, working long hours for little pay in factories, mills, and mines. Political unrest in Europe seemed to be leading toward war, as well as domestic disagreement about whether and how the United States should become involved.

In the context of these rapidly changing times, Dewey and Tufts posited that the old philosophical approach to ethics and value judgments–namely, identifying specific moral principles to apply uniformly in all situations–was no longer viable. The core of their belief was that responsibility, freedom, rights, and obligations may belong to the individual, but ultimately they stem from society as a whole. As more people with different backgrounds and experiences began actively participating in society, it became nearly impossible to identify static, concrete ethical principles to govern all actions and circumstances. As new situations arose that simply did not exist before–for example, deplorable working conditions in factories–it was necessary to adopt a new approach to ethics. To achieve this, Dewey and Tufts focused on the process of making moral and value judgments, identifying the factors that should be considered when making such judgments rather than naming static, unchanging principles that could not adjust with the changing times.

Author Biography

John Dewey was born in 1859 in Burlington, Vermont. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Vermont and his PhD in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. He taught at several universities, including the University of Chicago, and served as president of the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association. Over the course of his career, Dewey published hundreds of journal articles and numerous books. Dewey made significant contributions to psychology and philosophy, particularly with regard to the interaction of social environment and the mind and the intersection of education and politics. He died in New York in 1952. James Tufts was born in 1862 in Monson, Massachusetts. He attended Amherst College and Yale Divinity School and later spent a year in Germany, obtaining his PhD from Albert-Ludwigs-Universitat. He returned to a faculty position at the newly founded University of Chicago, where he later served as chair of the philosophy department, dean, vice president, and acting president. During his career, Tufts published ten books and more than one hundred articles. His focus on economics and social justice led to political involvement, including chairing the garment industry arbitration board and serving as president of the Illinois Association for Labor Legislation. Tufts died in California in 1942.

Document Analysis

Dewey and Tufts begin by discussing the negative and positive aspects of responsibility. In the negative sense of the concept, responsibility is similar to liability, as it requires an individual to accept the consequences of his or her actions. Importantly, people’s actions affect not only themselves but also those around them. Each community or organization, therefore, defines the behaviors it finds acceptable and “serves notice” to its members when they do something offensive. In contrast, positive responsibility occurs when an individual voluntarily considers the community’s interest, rather than acting as he or she wishes and waiting to be notified that his or her behavior was inappropriate.

Next, Dewey and Tufts distinguish between two senses of freedom. In one sense, freedom “in its external aspect” is freedom from the control of others, while in the other sense, which they refer to as “effective freedom,” freedom means having the resources and ability to execute one’s own plans. They note that without effective freedom, freedom is “formal and empty.” They also observe that positive responsibility and effective freedom are moral in nature, while liability and external freedom are legal and political. Laws can grant individuals more freedom than they are effectively able to exercise–for example, an individual might have the right to travel but not the financial means to do so. While the legal aspects are a necessary element of freedom, they also create a moral demand for society to remove the limitations that prevent individuals from exercising effective freedom. Dewey and Tufts recognize that the legal and moral aspects of freedom cannot be easily separated and that unrest and reform often occur when social injustices prevent specific groups of individuals from exercising their effective freedoms, even if they already possess the requisite external freedoms.

Dewey and Tufts also address the notion of rights and obligations. Rights are “specific, concrete abilities to act in particular ways” but are subject to the conditions imposed by society; for example, one has the right to drive on public roads on the condition that one obeys the speed limit. Individuals must use their rights in ways that do not interfere with the rights of others, and because of this, there cannot be any “absolute” rights. The obligation of individuals to use their rights in socially appropriate ways arises because rights themselves only exist as a result of the individual’s membership in the group that provides the rights. Dewey and Tufts note that any opportunities and protections individuals may experience are only theirs by the grace of society and that such rights are “unearned,” regardless of how clever individuals may be in using them.

Finally, Dewey and Tufts address physical rights, which include the right to “free unharmed possession of the body,” among others. They note that without positive assurance of these physical rights, individuals cannot be free to pursue other ideas; indeed, they are “so basic to all achievement and capability” that they are sometimes called “natural rights.” However, Dewey and Tufts point out that many societies, even those that are quite advanced in other ways, condone activities such as war and dangerous working conditions that directly contradict this right.

Essential Themes

As part of the Chicago school of pragmatism, Dewey and Tufts focused on moral theory as it applied to economics, society, and social justice. The concepts they express in Ethics are particularly notable given their historical context. During the early twentieth century, various groups of people in the United States–including African Americans, women, and immigrants from all over the world–were struggling for equal rights and freedom from discrimination. Dewey and Tufts’s description of effective freedom highlights an important practical implication of these struggles: laws that ensure freedoms are meaningless if communities place socially discriminatory boundaries that effectively prevent individuals from exercising those freedoms. For example, although African American men legally had the right to vote in 1908, discriminatory practices such as poll taxes and literacy tests prevented many would-be voters from exercising that right.

This notion is further reflected in Dewey and Tufts’s remark that the opportunities and protections of effective freedom are “unearned increments.” Individuals possessed effective freedoms because society permitted them to do so and granted them access to the tools necessary to capitalize on their external freedoms. In contrast, society often denied others access to those same tools–by restricting educational opportunities based on race or gender, for example. These kinds of society-imposed barriers to effective freedom raised questions of social justice and equality and often led to unrest and ultimately legal and moral reform.

The concept of physical rights highlighted a contradiction inherent in many societies. The mills, factories, and mines of the United States notoriously employed many people, including children, in dangerous conditions for long hours. Dewey and Tufts observed that in many countries, laws prevented conditions such as outright slavery but nonetheless permitted industries to endanger the lives and limbs of workers and the general public. Additionally, political unrest in Europe pointed to the likelihood of war within the decade. Dewey and Tufts argued that a society is “clearly defective” when it “demand[s] from individuals their death as their best service to the community.” Despite recognizing the vital importance of an individual’s right to life, health, and physical safety, society nonetheless contained many constructs that routinely violated this right in a socially acceptable way.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Campbell, James, ed. Selected Writings of James Hayden Tufts. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992. Print.
  • Dewey, John, and John J. McDermott. The Philosophy of John Dewey. New York: Putnam, 1981. Print.
  • Feffer, Andrew. The Chicago Pragmatists and American Progressivism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993. Print.
  • Menand, Louis. Pragmatism: A Reader. New York: Vintage, 1997. Print.
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