Donald F. Koch (Michigan State University)


I.  How Can Moral Inquiry Become Practical?

     It is relatively common for contemporary moral philosophers to discuss specific moral problems in what I will call the "as if" mode.  What would you do if you are a health care worker in a setting where a dying patient asks you for assistance in suicide?  Do you advocate a voucher system for public education or the legalization of marijuana?  The common assumption in these discussions is that there is a "scene of action" that calls for moral inquiry and moral reasoning, and that there are two "sides" to take on the issue that arises at that scene.  All parties to the discussion are then asked to give a moral justification of one side over the other.  John Dewey seldom does this.  I am aware of only three such discussions in his general writings on ethics, and they are hypothetical, all introduced to make some general point about moral theory and moral inquiry.<1>   How do we explain this?  Dewey does want to do away with the separation (but not the distinction) between theory and practice, thought and action.  So why doesn't he give us a theory and then show how it applies "practically" to these "as if" situations?  Of course, he, more so than any other American philosopher did discuss particular issues of contemporary public significance.  But I will suggest -- I certainly cannot here give a demonstration -- that his approach to specific issues took the form of proposals for action rather than using "moral reasoning" to justify a "position" on one side or the other in a moral disagreement.<2>  This difference marks a radical rejection and subsequent reconstruction of the traditional or mainstream approach to moral inquiry.

     In any event, this is not a paper about Dewey, but a paper that, following his own suggestion, uses his work to go beyond his work in order to formulate some of the specific issues involved in generating a practical approach to moral inquiry. <3>  The major theme of the paper is to locate and deal with two problems with the "as if" approach taken by mainstream ethical inquirers.  I will refer to them as the  "access problem" and the "logical problem".

II.  The Access Problem

     The access problem occurs whenever those who are party to a moral discussion are not a party to the scene of action which calls for moral inquiry.  The access problem is related to the physical distance between the inquirer.  It is a problem about access at a distance.  Historically, all access to the scene which calls for moral inquiry was spatial access.  But with the advent of technologies of communication, beginning with writing and writing materials, and extending through the telegraph, the telephone, and the e-mail, those who are physically distant from a scene of action can also gain access.

     From the standpoint of those who seek practical control over a physical distance, the access problem is a political and managerial problem.  How does the sovereign, leader, or manager, control the activities of those who are located at a distance from them and to that extent beyond control?  In this sense, Politics as a discipline is about the way to control.  But we are interested in the access problem from the standpoint of those who apparently lack the capacity to participate in political decision-making.  This lack is indicated by the ordinary "as if" moral discussion that occurs in a college classroom or any other casual discussion that is apart from the scene of action and participants are not in a position to control what goes on there.  How do these discussants gain access to the scene of action so they may influence what happens there?  Or is their discussion only theoretical in that sense of "theoretical" which has nothing to do with guiding and changing human experience?

     The problem of access is illustrated by the difference between Socrates' encounter with Euthyphro on his way to the latter's prosecution of his father, and the written work of Plato, Aristotle, and later philosophers.  Since Socrates did not write, then immediate oral communication, initiated through a more or less fortuitous encounter based on membership and status in a community, was the only way for him to ask Euthyphro for practical advice on how to conduct his forthcoming trial.  In this setting, "thought" tends not to be theoretical but utilizable in a forthcoming scene of action.  It is fascinating that Plato begins The Republic with a similar casual discussion amongst local Athenian personalities and only later does the discussion become technical in a manner that is more suited to the written form of communication.  Similarly, Aristotle, at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics pays homage to a conception of moral inquiry based upon the sorting out of common moral opinion to reach a consensus of the educated and mature men, presumably men with some power in the community, who are presumably invited to the discussion.  However, the actual argument of the book is clearly his own, albeit set forward in the name of this consensus.  The convenience of the written page that has ever since attracted philosophers creates an access problem unless we can find a way for these works to serve some function in use.

     But we have to be careful here.  To say that moral inquiry in written form must serve an instrumental function is not necessarily to say that moral inquiry must seek to intervene and "take a side" in the conflict situations described earlier.  Granted that these vivid and compelling situations serve as a stimulus to inquire, it does not follow that inquiry must always be about intervention at this "scene" which so vividly calls for action.

     Take the following hypothetical situation.  Smith encounters Jones, pulls out gun, and says "Your money or your life."  Jones must then work out what to do next.  Suppose Brown, who is not a participant in this situation, has written a book on moral philosophy which provides a theoretical basis for condemning Smith.  To seek access, should he pick up his cell phone and dial Smith?  Should he tell the participants to wait a few minutes until he can come down to the scene and engage in the discussion?   The apparent absurdity of these possibilities suggests that the access problem is not always about getting to the scene of action and trying to influence it, but about contributing to the creation of some new situation which deals with the problem.

     One way for Brown to attempt this is illustrated by the presumed strategy of the Proponent of the Ten Commandments.  Simply tell Smith that he ought not to threaten to murder Jones.  This is satisfying if God or Brown, has the power to change the behavior of the participants.  Its obvious deficiency is illustrated by the continued widespread popularity of prayer, which may be interpreted as the attempt to get God to come down from the mountain and do something to interfere with Smith and save Jones' life.

     But, alas, Brown is not God.  He is not present at the scene of action.  Even if he was present, it is doubtful that he would have access to an amiable discussion.  If he did Smith would probably just threaten Brown as well.  However, since Brown is a moral philosopher he has an obvious solution: distinguish between a moral solution of the problem and a practical solution.  It is now possible to justify the claim that "Murder is wrong" without having to intervene in actual cases.  In other words, you don't have to act as your written text directs.  Indeed, since you now have a special role as a "moral" philosopher, you are wholly justified in standing back from the scene of action.

    Speaking generally, the introduction of a "moral solution" to a problem represents the prevailing way of dealing with the access problem.  In actuality, moral solutions reflect our inability to deal with practical problems.  In theological terms they fall within the science of apologetic, albeit with the caveat that recognition of morality is supposed to move people to act.  (This supposition leads us to the logical problem to be discussed in the next section.)  Whenever people are evil to their fellow man, or when people doubt the existence of God who guarantees moral order in the universe, or the theory of evolution suggests the survival of the fittest over the weak, or injustice reigns supreme, the appeal to "moral solutions" reminds us that we have not yet dealt with the practical problem at the scene of action.

II.  The Logical Problem: The Separation of Moral Reasoning and Moral Practice

    In the First Section of The Metaphysics of Morals concerning our "Common Rational Knowledge of Morals," Kant refers to "reason" as a "practical faculty, i.e., one which is meant to have an influence on the will."  He speaks of "will as a good of itself" which "dwells already in the natural sound understanding and does not need so much to be taught as only to be brought to light."<4>  It is important to take Kant literally on these points.  Smith already has the capability of reasoning morally and so  already has the capacity to act morally.  Action is a function of the good will (which is closely related to, or perhaps identical with the "understanding"), and only needs to be "brought to light".  For Kant there is no serious practical problem in using reason to get Smith to act morally.  But unless the contemporary mainstream philosopher appeals to the good will or to some other practical device, then using something called "moral reasoning" to work out a "moral" course of action has no practical effect at all.

     This is a logical problem, a problem that arises in the development of the mainstream approach to inquiry.  Let us suppose that Brown has worked out a moral solution to the conflict between Smith and Jones, that he gets access to them, and he gets the participants to practice "moral reasoning".  What then is the connection between the successful outcome of reasoning and practicing of its dictates?  This is not the place to characterize Dewey's solution to problem in detail.  But we can say briefly that, for Dewey, inquiry begins in action and responds to a problematic situation which involves an individual and a sphere of action.  Since reasoning, as seeking out an intelligent resolution of the problematic, occurs within action, it is not divorced from action.  An intelligent resolution requires that we use intelligence to enter into, engage, and transform experience and resolve the problem.  But how do we do this?  How do we deal with the access problem?

II.  Pragmatic Instrumentalism and the Access Problem

     In the discussion to follow I will assume that Dewey's account of moral inquiry utilizes a "logic" or general theory of inquiry with implications for both scientific inquiry and moral inquiry in particular.  These two aspects of inquiry are distinguishable within a single inquiry.  They do not refer to separate kinds of inquiry, each with a special subject matter.  In the generic sense factual/scientific inquiries are inquiries in which the inquirer isolates some aspect of experience and inquires about it.  The inquirer is a practical condition for the inquiry but not the subject matter for inquiry.  In moral inquiry the inquirer's own future behavior is the subject matter for inquiry <5>  In the following we will be concerned with the type of moral inquiry that involves conflict between parties (either between individuals or between members), and so introduces questions about the rights and duties of the respective parties to the conflict.  Such inquiries, I believe, involve the formation of hypotheses in the form of proposals.

     A  proposal requires that the party making it take the party to whom it is addressed into account.  It is quite different than the justified moral judgment sought after within the mainstream tradition.  It is akin to the hypothesis utilized in scientific inquiry.  A proposal brings the distant inquirer into the scene of action by intervening to reconstruct the circumstances which lead up to their shared problematic situation.  A proposal is a response to a shared problem, not a proffered solution in the form of a moral principle or some other general account of morality which is said to be justified prior to the particular situation to which it applies.  A proposal addresses the conflict by asking them to do something which does away with the conflict.  It does not tell one of the participants that he or she is "morally wrong" and must change his or her behavior.  It recognizes activities of the participants in the situation as subject to reconstruction, and so proposes a reconstruction of the scene of action that includes that both.  Following Dewey, it acknowledges that any morally problematic situation has a psychological and a social aspect, and that each aspect is subject to reconstruction.

     Let's discuss this approach in moral detail.  First, we can introduce the notion of a "culture of inquiry" to refer to a relatively stable approach to inquiry that is widely shared, customary, and not ordinarily subject to critical evaluation.  As implied in our previous remarks, the dominant or mainstream culture of inquiry in the United States is a culture which takes for granted the aforementioned distinction, made to the point of separation, between two kinds of inquiry, factual/scientific and moral.<6>  This culture makes it possible for an inquirer to propose and defend a "moral" solution to a particular problem independently of any action that is taken.  Accordingly, the question whether the moral solution is actually "followed" by anyone is not a question for the theorist to answer, but a factual question for "someone else" to deal with.  In this sense, the mainstream culture of inquiry "passes on" the problem of influencing practice to others outside the culture.

     Now consider a proposed alternative culture of inquiry that we can call pragmatic and instrumentalist.  Assume with William James, John Dewey, and Herbert W. Schneider, that conflict is a normal aspect of human experience in a society in which persons interact with each other.  In "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life" (1891) James notes that when one person makes a demand upon another person, the latter may simply acquiesce and carry out the demand.  In so doing an operative obligation is created.  But if the person to whom the demand is addressed resists, there occurs what we will call a morally problematic situation.  In his 1930 article, "Three Independent Factors in Morals," Dewey virtually repeats James' account in his attempt to give an historical and logical account of the circumstances which lead to the formation of rights and duties (as distinct from the formation of ends in the form of goods).  Schneider, following Dewey, summarizes this standpoint in his 1939 article "Moral Obligation."

. . . to argue that each moral person is the possessor or "bearer" of rights and duties and that the problem of justice is merely to recognize these moral possessions and to give each his due begs the question.  To make "duty" from "due" is to put the cart before the horse or rather, if you will pardon my rhetoric, is to ask the horse to pull the cart by its own bootstraps.  Dues are in the fullest sense social bonds, socially created not individually possessed; and the same holds true of rights.<7>

It is virtually impossible to overstate the significance of these remarks with regard to the development of a practical approach to moral inquiry, i.e., is an approach where the problem of practice falls within moral inquiry rather than outside of it.  Schneider is asking us to regard working rights and duties as creations, formed through social bonds, that are (I would add) worked out through the use of creative intelligence.  Working rights and duties are not possessions which we already "have" in some sense of the term.  How do we get from the demand "This is due me" and the antagonistic response "No, it is not due you!" to the working acceptance of rights and obligations?  We have to find a way to turn resistance into means.  In other words, once we are willing to refer to the actual conflict of demands as "morally problematic", we have to face up to and deal with the resolution of the conflict as a moral problem.<8>  But how do we do this when we are at a distance from the scene of action?

    Go back to James' language of language of demand and counter-demand.  Add to this Dewey's view that the "problematic" or "problematic situation" is central to an account of inquiry.  Inquiry typically, but not always, attempts to respond to a problematic situation.  It is a temporal and sequential process in which hypotheses are formulated, rehearsed, and tested in action.<9>  How then does this apply to our hypothetical conflict between Smith and Jones?

     More generally, how do these remarks translate over into a program for moral inquiry as a practical inquiry?  The aim of this inquiry is not to explain and justify judgments such as "Jones has a moral right to the money," unless this process of justification contributes to the resolution of the conflict (problematic situation) that Smith initiated by demanding the money.  In other words, there is no outside inquirer (commonly referred to as moral philosopher) who can tell Smith what to do or to tell Jones what to do if he encounters someone like Smith.  For just what Smith and Jones are supposed to do is, at the moment or few moments they confront each other, genuinely problematic.  Moreover, following James' account of conflicting demands, the situation is morally problematic, since each party faces a problem about what to do next.<10>

     Moral inquiry is inquiry pursued by those who in fact confront and deal with morally problematic situations.  The role of the philosopher is as critic of the way inquirers in such situations actually deal with them.  His role is not to tell but to help.  In his 1931 essay, "Context and Thought" Dewey asserts that

            Philosophy is criticism; criticism of the influential beliefs that underlie a culture: a criticism which traces the beliefs to their generating conditions so far as may be, which tracks them to their results, which considers the mutual compatibility of the elements of the total structure of beliefs.  Such an examination terminates, whether so intended or not, in a projection of them into a new perspective which leads to new surveys of possibilities.<11>

A proposal, I suggest, is simply a specific possibility introduced to deal with a conflict of demands.

     Go back now to the conflict between Smith and Jones.  Then go back to its "generating conditions," which are more likely to be cultural rather than fortuitous.  Go back to the shared problem created by the conflicting demands.  The presumed way to create new "possibilities" is to reconstruct and so modify the "generating conditions." which create the conflict.  The way to do this is to consider the matter from a perspective that is at once psychological and social: the perspective of social psychology.  The way Dewey does this is to regard inquiry as contextual, situational.  Inquiry seeks a response to the problematic aspect within the context.  Every situation can be taken from the psychological perspective, or the focal point of the individual, and the social (cultural) perspective as taking place within a culture.  Psychological categories such as emotions, reason, etc., function as responsive organs, and cultural practices are customary so long as they are responsive.  The task of inquiry is to introduce proposals which employ aspects of the existing situation to deal with new problems.  Such proposals answer to the logical problem by employing these aspects at the scene of action and reconstructing them, turning obstacles into means.

     Finally, to return to the question raised in the opening paragraph of this paper, I believe the reason why Dewey does not, in his general works on ethics, discuss specific situations is that there is so much to be done in reconstructing the way we inquire so that reconstruction of conflict situations becomes the goal of inquiry.   Even if the philosopher could "get there", it is unlikely he or she could have much influence on what actually takes place.  But the philosopher, who is often already in position as an educator, can develop and advocate a general theory of moral inquiry which has as its focal point the need to develop  proposals which, when implemented, reconstruct the scene of action and eliminate the conflict.  This is a truly practical endeavor in so far as it contributes to successful inquiries made by others.  It is fascinating that, despite the constant and apparently unending reconstruction due to new technologies, moral philosophers have yet to utilize the category of reconstruction as tool in dealing with actual and anticipated conflicts such as those between Smith and Jones.


1.  In the Dewey's 1891 essay "Moral Theory and Practice" there is a discussion of a street car conductor who is deciding whether to join a strike.  In his 1898 Lectures on Psychological Ethics he introduces the case of a New England sea captain who must decide whether to leave his sick wife for an extended fishing voyage or stay home and care for her.  In the first edition of Ethics (1908) he brings up a hypothetical "Indian boy" who must decide whether to go through the rigors of becoming a "brave" or continue playing with the other boys.  These cases are given in EW 3, pp. 105-109; Lectures on Psychological and Political Ethics: 1898, ed. Donald F. Koch (New York: Hafner Press, 1976), pp. 22-25; and MW 5, pp. 192-93.  The case of the horse car conductor is also given in Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics (1891), EW 3, pp. 351-52, 360-61.

2.   Here are two serious and, so far as I know, unanswered questions about Dewey's moral philosophy.  To what extent do his writings on particular issues illustrate his approach to inquiry?  How do these writings illustrate the distinction between that approach and traditional approach to moral inquiry which continues to prevail?

3.  For this suggestion, see Dewey's Introduction, "Reconstruction as Seen Twenty-Five Years Later" to the 1948 reprint edition of Reconstruction in Philosophy (MW 12, pp. 275-76).

4. Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959), pp. 12-13. 

5.  For purposes of brevity we have skipped detailed discussion of the question how a pragmatist can give an account of a morally problematic situation.  Here is a brief account:  So far, our account of inquiry is general, including all inquiries, factual and moral.  What then does Dewey mean by moral inquiry, assuming it fits this general description and occurs within a context or situation, and with reference to some "specifiable dispersion and diffusion"?  A morally problematic situation is a situation in which a person's future character is called into question, that is formulated or worked out, rehearsed, and tested in action.  So then is every problematic situation (that is situation in which we cannot simply fall back upon habit, custom, accepted practice) morally problematic?  Yes, in a sense.  In dealing with a factual or scientific problem we deliberately suppress the reference to personality.  In Dewey's words, in scientific inquiry it is not necessary to take notice of one's character as logical subject matter of the judgment.  Character is only a one of the "practical conditions" needed for making a scientific judgment.  See "Logical Conditions of a Scientific Treatment of Morality" (1903), MW 3, p. 21.)  In the "ethical judgment" the working out of character is the logical subject matter of the judgment.  In other words, the problematic situation is about the working out of future character (p. 23).

     For example, a scientist who habitually goes home at the end of the day to spend time with his or her family may find an experiment is running late.  What sort of character is the scientist to become with regard to this situation?  A family situation or a dedicated scientist?  During work day there are likely to be problematic situations (say selecting between two different but similar pieces of equipment needed to carry out an experiment) where the selection of one over the other will have trivial consequences upon the experimenter's future character which can be ignored or suppressed.

6.  This paper is not the place to discuss this contention in any detail.  To secure at least partial verification of it one need only ask whether contemporary discussions of moral problems in medical ethics and other specific areas allow for the introduction of scientific hypotheses in the form of proposals to be tested as an integral part of moral inquiry.  I would submit that they do not do so, since it is commonly assumed that "morality" exists prior to inquiry, even factual/scientific inquiry, and governs the way that inquiry takes place.  .

7.  "Moral Obligation," Ethics, L, Oct. 1939, p. 51.

8.  The mainstream approach to inquiry faces a severe logical problem in showing a connection between moral conclusions and practical results.  So long as mainstream ethical inquirers regard moral subject matter as separated from practical subject matter, then conclusions reached about moral obligations and moral rights have no practical consequence.

     In any event, the mainstream moral inquirer who hopes to influence practice must find a way to "bridge the gap" between establishing a moral conclusion and implementing that conclusions.  It is not obvious how this is to be done without introducing hypotheses about empirical subject matter of a psychological and cultural sort which are no part of moral inquiry as such.  On the psychological side, Dewey recognized this point in his Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics (1891) when he noted that Kant's faculty of reverence, as a capacity to act out of respect for moral law, was associated with both moral reason and moral action (See EW 3, pp. 294-95).  Without this capacity, Kant would have been forced to follow Bentham and other Utilitarians by introducing a set of nonmoral "sanctions" (external to moral reason) which operate upon our non-moral inclinations to get us to act morally.  Many contemporary theorists avoid this difficulty by ignoring the problem and relying upon the alleged power of the term "moral" as kind of motive which leads people to act.  Sanctions are proposals about how to use means to secure pre-established moral ends.

9.  See Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938), LW 12, p. 3, pp. 41-42.  Inquiry typically, but not always, attempts to respond to a problematic situation.  Sometimes it attempts to discover whether there really is a problem to investigate, such as in the case of the alleged "green house effect".  See "An Analysis of Reflective Thought," (1922), MW 13, p.62.  For the sequential aspect of inquiry, see the five "logical steps" in a complete inquiry in How We Think (1910), MW 6, pp. 236-37.

10.   Dewey develops the view that such situations are morally problematic in his essay "Three Independent Factors in Morals" (1930), LW 5, pp. 279-80.

11.  LW 6, p. 19.  In Individualism, Old and New (1930), Dewey asserts that

            Ideals express possibilities; but they are genuine ideals only in so far as they are possibilities of what is now moving.  Imagination can set them from their encumbrances and project them as a guide in attention to what now exits.  But, save as they are related to actualities, they are pictures in a dream.

                 . . . To-day there are no patterns sufficiently enduring to provide something stable in which to acquiesce, and there is no material out of which to frame final and all-inclusive ends.  There is, on the other hand, such constant change that acquiescence is but a series of interrupted spasms, and the outcome is mere drifting.  In such a situation, fixed and comprehensive goals are but irrelevant dreams, while acquiescence is not a policy but its abnegation (LW 5, pp. 112, 113).