32. Pragmatism and Tragic Conflict, Part 4

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 intelligently 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 the last post I covered the first four virtues on the list; in this final post I will take a brief look at the rest.


Intelligent reflection demands that we reflect on the relevant aspects of the situation and avoid superimposing what worked in the past onto the present.  Of course we can use various principles and rules as guides.  But we must see them as hypotheses to be employed rather than rigid rules to be followed.  Moreover, we shouldn’t assume a fixed end of inquiry.  Instead, we must have ends-in-view which are ideals of what we conceive the future to be.  Such ideals play a role in orienting our inquiries and can alter as our inquiry brings new data to light.  We must also be self-corrective regarding our principles, that is, we must be willing to revise or abandon a principle if the consequences to which it leads don’t square with our predictions or intentions. Dewey calls this experimental form of situated reflection the logic individualized situations.  Those who employ this logic in a tragic situation must find their way among the conflicting claims and try to give each one of them a voice.  The hope is that as much as possible of each voice may be incorporated in some shared interest which is accepted because the alternatives are less satisfactory.  In order to do this, they will try and investigate every relevant feature about it, the conditions under which it emerged, its proximate causes and consequences, the costs of gratifying it, and the available alternatives and their costs.  Of course, such comprehensive inquiry can be difficult.  Therefore in his essay “Ethics of Controversy” Sidney Hook outlines some helpful guidelines:

(1) Nothing and no one is immune from criticism.

(2) Everyone involved in a controversy has an intellectual responsibility to inform himself of the available facts.

(3) Criticism should be directed first to policies, and against persons only when they are responsible for policies, and against their motives or purposes only when there is some independent evidence of their character.

(4) Because certain words are legally permissible, they are not therefore morally permissible.

(5) Before impugning an opponent’s motives, even when they legitimately may be impugned, answer his arguments.

(6) Do not treat an opponent of a policy as if he were therefore a personal enemy of the country or a concealed enemy of democracy.

(7) Since a good cause may be defended by bad arguments, after answering the bad arguments for another’s position present positive evidence of your own.

(8) Do not hesitate to admit lack of knowledge or to suspend judgment if evidence is not decisive either way.

(9) Only in pure logic and mathematics, not in human affairs, can one demonstrate that something is strictly impossible.  Because something is logically possible, it is not therefore probable.  “It is impossible” is a preface to an irrelevant statement about human affairs.  The question is always one of the balance of probabilities.  And the evidence for probabilities must include more than abstract possibilities.

(10) The cardinal sin, when we are looking for truth of fact or wisdom of policy, is refusal to discuss, or action that blocks discussion (See Philosophy and Public Policy. Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980).


One cannot employ the logic of individualized situations if one doesn’t have a strong imagination. First, without imagination we would not be able to consider possible alternatives of action and mentally trace their consequences.  In fact, Dewey defines deliberation as “a dramatic rehearsal (in imagination) of various competing possible lines of action” (The Middle Works, Vol. 14, p. 132).  Now if intelligence requires deliberation, and imagination is required for deliberation, then intelligence is not possible without imagination.  Second, Dewey tells us that imaginative vision “elicits the possibilities that are interwoven within the texture of the actual” (The Later Works, Vol. 10, p. 348).  But if the job of intelligent action is to “grasp and realize genuine opportunity, possibility,” then imagination is indispensable to intelligent action (Middle Works, Vol. 14, p. 161).  And third, without imagination our intellectual analysis would have no orientation.  For imagination is “a way of seeing and feeling things as they compose an integral whole,” and without a qualitative sense of the whole situation we would have no guide to our reflection (Late Works, Vol. 10 p. 271).  Of course, imagination can by no means dispense with reflection.  For visions are not understood by vision. But imaginative vision is certainly indispensable to any comprehensive assessment of a situation.

This is certainly the case when it comes to a tragic situation.  For imagination enables us to get a sense of the bigger picture which, when it comes to tragedy, is very often exactly what people lack.  Of course, to see and feel a situation as a whole is necessary if one is to better anticipate certain consequences and causes within the situation.  But more importantly, imagination can prevent us from performing in an irresponsible and even cruel manner.  In his essay “Intelligence and Evil in Human History” Hook writes: “We are all crueler than we know, not because we are evil, but because our senses and imagination have such a limited range”.  He goes on: “I am speaking now of those great ranges of cruelty in modern history, involving the fate of millions, that flow from the limitations of human imagination and sensitivity, of the cruelty men do because it is easy to stand what is out of sight, and still easier to stand what is out of mind”.  The habit of imagining can help make us more aware of what goes on around us so we can become less inconsiderate and cruel.  Without this awareness it is hard to see how we can engage in a comprehensive and conscientious investigation of a situation.

Learning From the Past

In an earlier post we saw that conscientiousness is the habit of bringing intelligence to bear on moral conduct.  Now this includes past conduct as well.  To not reflect on our past moral conduct is unacceptable since, as Dewey notes, “our past experiences decide along what lines the present activities of intelligence shall be directed” (The Early Works, Vol. 2, p. 112). What will this reflection look like when it comes to tragedy? Well, recall that a conscientious person is always trying to find the good in conduct.  This good, when it comes to tragic situations, is the ideal of moral inclusivity: the satisfaction of as many demands as possible with as little sacrifice and suffering as possible.  Reflection on the past will entail a comprehensive assessment of one’s conduct in relation to this moral ideal.

The first level of assessment is finding out to what extent the mediation enacted reduces sacrifice and suffering.  The consequences of an experiment to reduce the costs of tragic conflict are to be judged by how much outcry or satisfaction they cause. We need to keep a sympathetic ear open for such outcry in order to make an informed judgment of the situation.   Other times, however, we fail to have an accurate sense of the situation and the effects of our actions within it. William James observes that “under every system of moral rules are innumerable persons whom it weighs upon, and goods which it represses; and these are always rumbling and grumbling in the background, and ready for any issue by which they may get free” (McDermott, The Writings of William James, p. 624).  Every system of rules that is good for someone will end up being bad for someone else.  This doesn’t mean we should give up.  It means we should try to be that much more sensitive to those excluded and silenced voices of suffering that history all too often forgets. By doing so it may be possible to embrace what Walter Kaufmann, in his book Tragedy and Philosophy, observes to be the heart of tragedy: “What lies at the heart of it [tragedy] is the refusal to let any comfort, faith, or joy deafen our ears to the tortured cries of our brothers” (1968, 182).

The second level of assessment is more personal and has an affinity with the account of conscientiousness I covered in the previous post. Consider this passage from Dewey:

“Wisdom, or (in modern phrase) conscientiousness, is the nurse of all the virtues. Our most devoted courage is in the will to know the good and the fair by unflinching attention to the painful and disagreeable. Our severest discipline in self-control is that which checks the exorbitant pretensions of an appetite by insisting upon knowing it in its true proportions. The most exacting justice is that of an intelligence which gives due weight to each desire and demand in deliberation before it is allowed to pass into overt action. That affection and wisdom lie close to each other is evidenced by our language; thoughtfulness, regard, consideration for others, recognition of others, attention to others.” (Middle Works, Vol. 5, p. 364)

We might realize we didn’t try hard enough to be impartial, sympathetic, or imaginative.  We might realize we lacked the will to involve ourselves in a community of inquiry.  Or perhaps our reflections simply weren’t comprehensive or knowledgeable enough. Of course such examination is not pleasant—especially when accompanied by regret and remorse.  But the suffering that may accompany such examination can, in the end, be an affective way to learn from the past.  Here one thinks of the phrase pathei mathos—“learning through suffering”—so often found in Greek tragedy.

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