31. Pragmatism and Tragic Conflict, Part 3

In the last post I noted the following virtues that John Dewey thought accompany intelligent action:

  • Being conscientious or being interested in finding out what the actual good of a certain situation is
  • Maintaining a bias toward fairness and objectivity when judging and evaluating conflicting values and opinions
  • Seeking the good of a situation in a community of inquiry if possible
  • Being emotionally sensitive and especially sympathetic to the values and feelings of those in the situation
  • Carefully reflecting upon the relevant aspects of the situation
  • Exercising one’s imagination to see new possibilities and have a sense of the situation as a whole
  • Being willing to change our beliefs in light of consequences and learn from the past

We have been looking at how we can use these virtues of intelligent action to deal with tragic conflict or  an unavoidable conflict of momentous values and/or obligations in which some values and/or obligations are sacrificed causing suffering.  In this post I will take a look at the first four virtues on the list; in the fourth and final post in this series I will discuss the rest.


In “Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life” Hook asserts that the most important duty of all in a situation requiring moral decision is that of conscientiousness.  Now some may think that conscientiousness is the habit of considering one’s internal moods or sentiments.  But according to Dewey this subjective slant completely misses the mark.  For conscientiousness is the habit of being interested in judging the best course of action in a morally problematic situation.  As Dewey says, “Modern conscientiousness contains less of the idea of intellectual accomplishment, and more the idea of interest in finding out the good in conduct” (The Middle Works of John Dewey, Vol 5, p. 376).  Conscientiousness can also be construed as “the formed habit of bringing intelligence to bear upon the analysis of moral relations—the habit of considering what ought to be done” (The Early Works of John Dewey, Vol. 3, p. 364).  It is crucial to understand that conscientiousness is about discovery, pursuit, and effort rather than achievement, possession, and rest.  It is always on the outlook for something better.  As such, conscientiousness is the most important of all our habits due to its power to develop other habits.  For we will exercise our capacities if we are in the habit of being deeply concerned about what is to be done.  And we will be less inclined to act out of routine if we are interested in discovering something new. Thus conscientious people “do not allow themselves to be unduly swayed by immediate appetite and passion, nor to fall into ruts of routine behavior” (The Later Works of John Dewey, Vol. 7, p. 272). Without the habit of being conscientious there can very little hope of reducing the amount of suffering in a tragic conflict.  For obviously one needs to have a strong interest in discovering the most inclusive good of a situation.  All too often people approach conflicts without a desire to find such a good.  They simply want their way or no way at all.  Conscientious people will do just the opposite: they will try as hard as possible to find resolutions that awaken the least sum of dissatisfactions.

Bias Toward Objectivity

The conscientious desire to negotiate conflict cannot be adequately expressed without an habitual bias toward objective analysis. After all, many of our moral failures stem from some one-sided bias that makes us carelessly judge a situation.  It is therefore not surprising to find Dewey claiming that “conscientiousness is an analysis of the conditions under which conduct takes place, and of the action that will meet these conditions; it is a thoroughly objective analysis” (Early Works, Vol. 3, p. 365). The more one develops the habit of impartial inquiry the less dogmatic one will be. For impartial inquiry means “that there is no particular end set up in advance so as to shut in the activities of observation, forming of ideas, and application” (Middle Works, Vol. 12, p. 164). Dogmatic approaches are first and foremost road blocks to inquiry: they attempt to maintain their position when confronted with counter claims or evidence and are not interested in changing or compromising. Conscientious social inquiry, on the other hand, is always on the outlook for something better and is therefore not tied down by any judgment or criterion of judgment. Clearly this bias toward objectivity can be helpful in a tragic situation where strong feelings are bound to blind those involved to less devastating courses of action. To be sure, we are all limited to a certain number of perspectives which preclude total objectivity. But the creative seeking inherent in conscientiousness can help us widen our perspectives.

Community of Inquiry

The intelligent habit of maintaining a bias toward objectivity leads right to the habit of seeking the good of a situation with others whenever possible. This is crucial since conflict takes place in a social context.  This context of conflict, especially when it entails conflicts between groups, classes, nations, races, and institutions, is bound to very complex.  People’s backgrounds, personalities, and interests will most likely play an important role, as will economic, political, and sociological factors.  The question arises: How can someone interested in reducing the consequences of tragic conflicts expect to avoid these factors in his or her own life? One good answer can be found in the notion of a community of inquiry. Cornelius Castoriadis, in his book Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy (Oxford) notes that the phrase ‘not to be wise alone’ is found in Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone (v. 707-9).  According to him the phrase expresses the fundamental maxim of democratic politics:

“Antigone addresses itself to the problem of political action in terms which acquire their acute relevance in the democratic framework more than in any other.  It exhibits the uncertainty pervading the field, it sketches the impurity of motives, it exposes the inconclusive character of the reasoning upon which we base our decisions.  It shows that hubris has nothing to do with the transgression of definite norms, that it can take the form of the adamant will to apply norms, disguise itself behind noble and worthy motivations, be they rational or pious. With its denunciation of the mono phronein,it formulates the fundamental maxim of democratic politics.” (120).

One might say that “not to be wise alone” is also a maxim of intelligence. It arises when we recognize the complexity of the social context of conflict and especially tragic conflict.  The hope is that by considering many other perspectives we can correct some of the myopias that inevitably arise despite our best intentions.


If one is to enter into intelligent social inquiry one must develop certain sensitivities. Dewey notes that “the only guarantee of impartial, disinterested inquiry is the social sensitiveness of the inquirer to the needs and problems of those with whom he is associated” (The Middle Works, Vol. 12, p. 165). And one aspect of this social sensitivity is emotional. Now some may think that intelligent action, like so many traditional philosophical views of reason, might seek to divorce itself as far as possible from emotion. But this is not the case.  Indeed, Dewey claims that the “separation of warm emotion and cool intelligence is the great moral tragedy” (Middle Works, Vol. 14, p. 177). But how are intelligence and emotion joined? Well, intelligent action is joined to emotion once moral inquiry occurs. For intelligence tries to mediate situations of conflict that include values that are momentous to those involved.  Intelligent action is also joined with emotion insofar as conscientious action implies an emotional interest in discovering the most inclusive good of a situation. There is, however, a more important way emotional sensitivity is joined to intelligence. Consider this passage:

“As the only effective thought is one fused by emotion into a dominant interest, so the only truly general, the reasonable as distinct from the merely shrewd or clever thought, is the generous thought. Sympathy widens our interest in consequences and leads us to take into account such results as affect the welfare of others; it aids us to count and weigh these consequences as counting for as much as those which touch our own honor, purse, or power.” (Middle Works, Vol. 5, p303)

Dewey defines sympathy as the reproduction of the experience of another accompanied by the recognition of the fact that it is his experience (The Early Works, Vol. 2, p. 285).  Without this reproduction and recognition we have a hard time getting beyond our own subjective perceptions. We get caught up in our purposes and claims and fail to humble ourselves long enough to hear other people’s views. Sympathy also enables us to perceive the consequences of our judgmentsmore comprehensively. If we only count and weigh the consequences of decisions according to our welfare then most likely we will have a skewed version of the situation.  But with sympathy we can hope to gain a more accurate assessment of our actions. Indeed, “sympathy is the sole means by which persons come within the range of our life” (Early Works, Vol. 2, p. 285).  Sympathetic people have the capacity to bring other people within the range of their lives—not just their intellect or ideas—and by doing so they are able to react in ways that are far more comprehensive. Such a capacity is crucial if one is going to make a sincere attempt to understand other people’s perspectives and react to the aftermath of tragic decision in ways that are responsible.

Go here for part four.

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