Sunday, October 30, 2011

Deweyan Pragmatists Cannot be Humeans: An Ethical Polemic, Part 2

There has been a movement among Deweyan pragmatists towards moral aesthetics.  Numerous articles have called for moral creativity, often invoking the metaphor of jazz music performance, as well as calling for moral imagination.  This approach to morality is dangerous in general, and especially dangerous for Deweyans.

If morality is merely a judgment of taste, an aesthetic that we cultivate like we practice our jazz performance, then morality becomes mere social conformity.  That was one of the obvious problems of Hume's morality, especially when we no longer take the moral sentiments as universal.  But, my fellow Deweyans, if we continue to employ Jazz metaphors to explain our ethics, do we not engage the same problem?

Not necessarily.  Although it is not always emphasized, Dewey insisted on conjoining ethics with solid science.  No, he was not saying that there should be an ethics of science or that there are "moral facts" that we can treat as if they were an object of science.  Rather, he thought in terms of the public commons and the disciplines of urban planning, criminal justice, social work, and the many other fields that are today called "applied science."  I point this out to counter the implication that some scholars propose we become aesthetes.

However, the problem of imagination does not go away even after we include this crucial point.  Per my earlier post, if we cannot imagine something, then we cannot consciously experience it as meaningful.  Hence, if we do not already anticipate something as a moral problem, then we are not likely to comprehend the situation as such a problem.  The problem with the employment of jazz metaphors, for example, is that it stresses the creativity of the imagination.  But as my former professor Randall Auxier says, we usually look upon moral creativity with horror.  Hitler was as morally creative as Gandhi.  Creativity is good only when it is needed, and only when we know what we are about in advance.  But that wouldn't be good jazz, now would it?  At least, that's not why that metaphor re-appears in the literature.

If music education took a more Platonic or Aristotelian turn, then we would be better off.  We learn harmony so that we may harmonize with others and ourselves, our souls.  Then we may anticipate and be ratio-nal, because creativity is not quite what we really need.  What we really need is education, and to that all Deweyans would agree.

1 comment:

  1. One way to phrase Dewey's view is to say that he acknowledges the aesthetic elements and insists that they cannot be avoided. Therefore, our task as *normative* philosophers is to grow the aesthetic beyond mere social conformity or "what we do" whether we recognize it our not. Thus, the experimental method, which is the same in outline as science, should help us in morality in the same way that it does for the natural world. How? Not by a reduction of things to natural kinds and dissolution of folk psychology, as is often said now, but to bypass the infirmaties of customary morality, social fads, the infirmities of perception, etc.

    However, as Dewey was not much of a hermeneut, at least compared to a Foucault or such, my program is to radicalize and systemize his work.


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