31. Tragic Conflict and Intelligence, 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 two virtues on the list; the next two post 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” (EW3:365).  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” (MW12:164).  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.

Go here for part four.

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