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Review of Roberto Frega & Steven Levine (eds), John Dewey’s Ethical Theory: The 1932 Ethics

Routledge, 2021
Diana B. Heney
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Roberto Frega & Steven Levine (eds), John Dewey’s Ethical Theory: The 1932 Ethics, Routledge, 2021

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1This new collection of essays on John Dewey’s ethical theory, edited by Roberto Frega and Steven Levine, achieves a helpful balance of breadth and depth. Taking the 1932 Ethics as its primary focus gives the volume a natural unity. Their editorial design is highly ambitious, and brings together established scholars and new voices to deliver a landmark collaboration in Dewey scholarship.

2This book review, by contrast, is modest. I aim to illuminate in a general way the arc of the book, and along the way to highlight particular arguments and interpretations that I anticipate having widest appeal. The necessary caveat is that specialists and students of pragmatism will find much of interest beyond my swift survey.

3To begin, we should situate the text this volume concerns. Co-written by Dewey and James Hayden Tufts and originally published in 1908, the 1932 Ethics reflects the alteration and maturation of the authors’ own philosophical views, changes in the methods and foci of moral philosophy as a discipline, and changes in the cultural milieu. Dewey and Tufts began the Preface to the new edition by remarking that “It is a fair question whether to call this edition of 1932 a revision or a new book. The basic plan remains the same; perspective and setting have changed” (LW.7.3). Their “basic” plan offers a great deal: the three parts of the Ethics cover the history of ethics, ethical theory, and the application of theory to moral problems at the individual and societal level.

4In Frega and Levine’s volume, Part I offers introductory context; Part II focuses on specific chapters of the 1932 Ethics; and Part III connects the 1932 Ethics with Dewey’s larger oeuvre as well as with currents in contemporary moral philosophy. Or, more roughly: Part I sets us up to appreciate the Ethics; Part II interrogates it; and Part III extends it.

5The expert might be forgiven for skimming past Part I, but I would encourage even the expert to take time with its two highly accessible essays, as they offer an excellent introduction for encouraging a student or new reader into the terrain of Dewey’s ethical thought.

6In “Contextualizing Dewey’s 1932 Ethics,” Gregory Pappas orients us to the great challenges of encountering Dewey’s ethics – its evolution over time and interconnectedness with his metaphilosophy. He also highlights in concrete ways the features for which Dewey’s ethics is best known: its empiricism, pluralism, and meiliorism. As a pragmatist and an empiricist, Dewey makes actual situations encountered in ordinary life an explanatory starting point, and focal point, of moral philosophy. This leads to pluralism, as Pappas explains, but not in the “anything goes” sense. Rather, when we consider the attunements that agents have to features of the moral situations they encounter in experience, we see that they can be sensitive to and moved by a plurality of considerations: good, duty, and virtue. While coming to grips with the nature of this pluralism is a crux move in grasping Dewey’s mature stance toward moral theory, it is not a stopping place. The meliorism that permeates Dewey’s philosophy, animated as it is by an ideal of growth, means that the existential aspect of moral agency points us beyond a reconciliatory story about how theories can cohere, toward improvement in ourselves and in those situations where we can effect change: the world of action. In “Dewey’s Independent Factors in Moral Action,” Steven Fesmire connects the present volume with a landmark lecture Dewey gave in France in 1930. He also explores the evolution of Dewey’s mature ethics and its non-reductive nature in helpful detail. As Fesmire notes, “Dewey embraced the fact that when we ask different questions, we see different connections and possibilities” (33). He also reminds us of a crucial fact to keep in mind in approaching the 1932 Ethics: “Dewey’s goal […] was to help students become more preceptive of moral complexity, study and assess their own circumstances in light of prior systems, and competently use diverse theories as deliberative tools (reforged to see connections that had escaped our notice) in predicaments that requires practical coordination among disparate elements” (18). The text’s pedagogical purpose offers clarity for students and occasion for reflection for teachers. We can perhaps do no better than to refer to Dewey’s own sense of what lies at the heart of teaching and learning about the history of ethics and ethical theory: “to induce a habit of thoughtful consideration, of envisaging the full meaning and consequences of individual conduct and social policies, and to aid the student with tools and method” (LW.7.3).

7Part II offers commentaries on the chapters of the 1932 text written by Dewey (Chapters 10-17), and will be best enjoyed by scholars who have already made a serious study of Dewey’s moral philosophy or students keen to engage in a close reading of the Ethics with commentators as guides. Still, many of the essays contained here go beyond commentary and creatively extend or interrogate Dewey’s insights in ways that anyone interested in moral philosophy will find intriguing.

8Stéphane Madelrieux’s “Moral Holism and the Pragmatist Character” covers Chapter 10 of the 1932 Ethics, and lays out the ways in which the dissolution of unhelpful dualisms leads Dewey to a focus on habits and habituation as the cradle of moral action and character. This nicely sets up what many regard as the core of Part II of the Ethics, Dewey’s chapters on what he frames as the three independent moral factors – good, duty, and virtue – covered in this volume by Federico Lijoi’s “Forming New Ends Creatively,” Conor Morris’s “Dewey, Kant, and the Problem of Moral Change,” and Roberto Frega’s “What Exactly is the Place of Virtue in Dewey’s Ethics?”.

9The elective element of aspiration Lijoi identifies in the 1932 Ethics intersects with ongoing debates about what it is to have a reason to do something, and the nature of moral reasons. Since Dewey models reflection as active and generative, rather than merely contemplative, the account of how to develop new ends presents a picture of moral agency where reasons are not simply “read off” the world. As Lijoi nicely puts it, Dewey seeks to convert “a threat to an opportunity”: setting aside certainty with regard to ends as an ideal could destabilize the person facing a problematic situation, but it also creates space to experiment (63). Similarly, Morris’s work with Dewey’s critique of Kant intersects with contemporary work concerning the possibility of genuine moral change. Elizabeth Anderson (2015) has argued using Deweyan insights that practical contention and experimentation lead to improvements in our stock of moral concepts and capacity to respond appropriately to what we owe one another. Morris’s account adds that a commitment to empiricism in ethics still allows a place for principles which demonstrate their efficacy in a moral life that is a shared life. Frega’s paper is especially valuable for the reader interested in placing Dewey in relation to the “big three” theories and understanding key transitions in his ethical theory. Frega’s careful reconstruction of the evolution of Dewey’s thinking on virtue ranges from early works to the mature presentation of the 1932 Ethics. This wide historical lens puts him in a position to effectively argue that it is with respect to the role of virtue that Dewey’s ethical theory is reorganized over time. While this argument will no doubt interest fellow pragmatists, it also invites readers to situate Dewey as a forerunner of the virtue ethics revival that took place in the mid-20th century. Frega demonstrates that the 1932 Ethics “places virtue on an equal footing with the good and the right” (109) in terms of theoretical prominence, and calls our attention to social interactions as a basic feature of moral life modeled in the social terms that concepts of virtue and vice (ideally, reflectively) encode (111).

10Moving on in the Ethics, Céline Henne’s study of Chapter 14 in “The Interplay between Emotion and Reason: The Role of Sympathy in Moral Judgment” is compelling as a demonstration of the care that must be taken with Dewey’s notion of deliberation, which is an activity of the whole agent. Henne carefully develops the place of sympathy in the story of the rational person engaged in a moral inquiry. Since for Dewey, the agent is vested in the inquiry – as it was prompted by a situation in their own immediate experience – this affective dimension must be explained, not merely explained away. Steven Levine’s “The Identity of Self and Act: Pluralism, Growth, and our Social Interest” further explores the development of the individual inquirer by arguing that Dewey’s concept of growth can stand as an organizing principle alongside a pluralistic attitude toward ethical theory. This is a delicate balancing act, as the idea of a summum bonum at which individual action aims would seem to stand in tension with that very pluralism, but by exploring the ways in which Dewey regards action as self-constitution and not merely self-realization, Levine makes the case that a synthetic reading is possible.

11In a more social-political vein, Justo Serrano Zamora’s “Democracy and the Problem of Domination: A Deweyan Perspective” takes up the two chapters that Dewey wrote for Part III of the Ethics, and considers how the pursuit of individual ends and social flourishing – growth of the person, growth for the community – can be fitted together. He demonstrates that the integration of democratic ideals is not merely aspirational, but methodological, and serves as a point of congruence between Dewey’s ethics and his political theory.

12Part III invites us to lift our eyes up from the 1932 Ethics and connect it with currents in contemporary moral philosophy. These papers are an excellent end to the volume, as each offers suggestions for paths forward for pragmatist ethics – paths forged and found using Deweyan instruments, but of interest to anyone keen to consider the place of ethical theory alongside larger metaethical and metaphilosophical questions.

13Roberta Dreon’s “Dewey’s Fully Embedded Ethics” articulates the position of the moral inquirer, who is an embodied person, embedded in a context, embarked on a life. Her investigation of the aesthetic dimensions of experience adds texture to the model of deliberative morality developed in the Ethics. Matteo Santarelli’s “Psychology, Moral Theory, and Politics: Dewey’s Mature Theory of Interest in the 1932 Ethics” is centrally focused on Dewey’s theory of interest, and complements Levine and Serrano Zamora’s investigations in the earlier part of the volume. Similarly, Matthias Girel’s “Duties and the Ethical Space of Claims in Dewey’s 1932 Ethics” connects nicely with Morris’s reflection on moral change and the portion of moral thought concerned with duty, as well as with Serrano Zaroma’s investigation of the promise and perils of democratic ideals. As Girel shows, duty is contextualized for Dewey as responsive to our broader social setting, which might be thought to excuse a failure to recognize duty on the part of the individual where social interest, or interest in others, has not been adequately cultivated.

14By showing how Dewey relies on virtue as a normative ideal with both descriptive and prescriptive aspects, Sarin Marchetti’s “Moral Theory and Anti-Theory in Dewey’s 1932 Ethics” makes the case that tension about the place of theory in the 1932 Ethics may be a productive tension. Marchetti’s invitation to consider the multiple senses of moral struggle and moral progress intertwined in the Ethics has the potential to be highly productive. Marchetti points out that for Dewey virtue is not merely about proper performance, but crucially about the ability “to see the goods and duties which [mark] the situation as problematic in the first place” (247). While Marchetti’s contribution highlights vision, Jörg Volbers’s “Rationality as a Moral Problem: Dewey and Williams on the Role of Theory in Moral Reflection” foregrounds choice. In considering mainly his writings up to the 1922 Human Nature and Conduct, Jennifer Welchman has argued that Dewey provides us with a naturalistically available yet powerful picture of moral agency, where “Moral activity is activity in a situation where a voluntary choice is made” (1995: 154). Volbers’s discussion in the context of the later 1932 Ethics shows how Dewey’s continued explorations of ethical rationality prioritize practice, experimentation, and the affective dimensions of moral agency without casting theory aside. As he points out, an account which portrays all ethical theory as reduction to static principles simply concedes too much to scientistic understandings of what counts as theory.

15The individual papers in this volume certainly deserve closer consideration than I have been able to give them here. Collectively, the contributors succeed in making the case that Dewey’s 1932 Ethics is a work that repays close reading, and which merits study as a text important both to pragmatism and to moral philosophy.

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Anderson Elizabeth, (2015), “Moral Bias and Corrective Practices: A Pragmatist Perspective,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, vol. 89, 21-47.

Welchman Jennifer, (1995), Dewey’s Ethical Thought, Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

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Electronic reference

Diana B. Heney, “Review of Roberto Frega & Steven Levine (eds), John Dewey’s Ethical Theory: The 1932 EthicsEuropean Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy [Online], XIII-2 | 2021, Online since 20 December 2021, connection on 01 December 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Diana B. Heney

Vanderbilt University

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