Code TP-6


Being Properly Affected:

Emotion in John Dewey's Virtue Ethics




            One distinct advantage to approaching ethics in terms of virtue is the versatility of the concepts of virtue and habit.  Aristotle, for instance, insists that habits are not only ways of acting, but also ways of being affected.  States of character are "things in virtue of which we stand well or badly with reference to the passions."[1][1]  In his discussion of Aristotle, L.A. Kosman points out that habits order our "abilities to be open to certain affections and closed to certain others--the reciprocal capacities, we might say, of being discriminatingly receptive and resistant."[2][2]  Such receptivity and resistance are the products of discriminating emotions, emotions that have been properly habituated.  Aristotle claims that the virtue of courage primarily orients the emotions of fear and confidence.  As Aristotle puts it, "With regard to feelings of fear and confidence courage [andreia] is the mean."[3][3]  Kosman rightly points out that Aristotle scholars have neglected the importance of paqoV in their focus on praxiV.  This neglect may be due to Aristotle's definition of happiness as an activity of the soul, or his claims that we acquire virtues by acting well, not necessarily by undergoing proper emotions.[4][4] 

            Whatever the reason, this neglect of emotion has two unfortunate consequences.  First, it results in an attenuated interpretation of practical deliberation and choice.  Without the discrimination and sensitivity that are the products of habituated passions, deliberation is simply formal logical analysis.[5][5]  Second, it results in a bias in favor of activity as the proper outcome of ethical choice, when in fact Aristotle suggests that discerning emotional states are virtuous responses to certain situations: 


            Both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue.[6][6] 


Emotional discrimination and sensitivity themselves are virtuous responses.  But these refined passions also contribute to the proper functioning of practical reasoning. 

            John Dewey begins his "Theory of the Moral Life," by acknowledging his debt to Aristotle.  He writes, "The formula was well stated by Aristotle.  The doer of the moral deed must know what he is doing; secondly, he must choose it, and choose it for itself, and thirdly, the act must be the expression of a formed and stable character.  In other words, the act must be voluntary."[7][7]  Dewey frames his ethics in terms of habit and character, concepts drawn explicitly from Aristotelian virtue ethics, suggesting that he also recognizes the importance of discerning passions.  Just as in Aristotelian scholarship, few commentators on Dewey’s ethics have acknowledged the importance of emotion to the entire process of moral deliberation and choice.[8][8]  This paper will discuss one consequence of this oversight for interpreters of Dewey's ethics:  an overemphasis on aesthetically harmonized activity as a paradigm of virtue.  I will argue that the aesthetic harmonization model of ethics overlooks the full range and significance of ethical choice.  Our most significant and praiseworthy ethical responses are infused with emotional clash and disharmony. 

The Clash of Emotion and Aesthetic Unity

            Emotions are the result of a conflict, a clash, a falling away from routine, integrated action.  Dewey writes, "Emotion is a perturbation from clash or failure of habit."[9][9]  Routine habits sometimes fail to address the precariousness of our current situation; our manifold habits themselves sometimes solicit contrary responses.  Emotion is the clash of habits that results from these problematic situations.  Music expresses well the tension and conflict of emotional situations.  In Art as Experience, Dewey writes, "Music, having sound as its medium, thus necessarily expresses in a concentrated way the shocks and instabilities, the conflicts and resolutions, that are the dramatic changes enacted upon the more enduring background of nature and human life."[10][10]  Dewey terms music the most emotional art form because it expresses the clash and precariousness within nature.  In dramatically emotional situations, we are no longer sure of the meaning of our actions, our surroundings, ourselves.  Emotional shock registers the fact that our lives no longer make sense; they no longer cohere.  Emotion expresses precariousness.[11][11] 

            The shock of the precarious arrests many of our habitual transactions with the world.  In turning inward, habitual tension not only expresses emotion, but also solicits deliberation.  Dewey characterizes deliberation as a drama, suggesting that our discriminations are taut as a result of conflicts within our character.  He closely associates reflection and emotion, writing, "The poignancy of situations that evoke reflection lies in the fact that we really do not know the meaning of the tendencies that are pressing for action."[12][12]  Emotional tension provides the impetus for reflection, and reflection itself is shot through with emotion.  Dewey characterizes it as a painful process of discovery and experiment.[13][13]  The reconstruction of experiment shifts and strains the meaningful habitual discriminations, making imaginative deliberation the most dramatic and emotional phase of experience. 

            Successful deliberation yields an end-in-view, a determinate end that solicits activity.  We decide what our character habits and desires mean in this situation.  Ends-in-view harmonize meanings among arrested habits.  They stimulate action by "unifying and harmonizing different competing tendencies."[14][14]  They express continuity with prior habitual meanings, but these meanings are reconstructed in light of competing tendencies.  Many commentators rightly emphasize the aesthetic harmony involved in crafting such organically unified ends-in-view.  For example, Steven Fesmire writes, "An imagined outcome is felt to cohere with our prefigured experience and with our expectations of the future.  The projected action thus 'fits', and this feeling of 'fit' is a function of the developing hue of deliberation."[15][15]  Fesmire claims that the drama of deliberation is contained in the harmonization of various activities with the prefigured habits that are seeking expression. 

            In a recent paper, Fesmire describes jazz improvisation as an appropriate metaphor for ethical deliberation.  He writes, "A jazz combo is a source for conceiving the empathetic and impromtu character of moral compositions.  Since we can never be fully prepared for novelties, we must be ready to improvise.  At our best, we skillfully respond to each other with the aim of harmonizing interests."[16][16]  Fesmire acknowledges that discord is possible; the world is fundamentally precarious.  But he assimilates the significance of moral deliberation with that of jazz improvisation.  In each case, we improvise aesthetic harmony out of various competing tendencies.[17][17] 

            Dewey acknowledges the role of aesthetic harmony in ethics, tracing this association to Greek ethics.  He writes, "The Greek emphasis upon Kalokagathos, the Aristotelian identification of virtue with the proportionate mean, are indications of an acute estimate of grace, rhythm and harmony as dominant traits of good conduct."[18][18]  Aristotle expressly refers to artistic beauty in his discussion of the mean, claiming that a beautiful work is one in which nothing could be added or taken away.[19][19]  The aesthetic fit of some ethical actions entails that our character virtues interpenetrate and make meaningful a variety of otherwise mundane activities.  Aesthetic harmonization provides a breadth of meaning to our actions; such actions are significant for a large number of our character habits.  

Ideals, Emotion and Disharmony

            Fesmire rightly claims that Dewey's ethics contains elements of aesthetic harmony; ends-in-view reconstruct conflicting tendencies of character to achieve a determinate and fitting action.  But in focusing attention on the ends-in-view and resulting actions, interpreters often ignore the broader habitual background within which these determinate actions acquire significance.  Dewey's account of ideals illustrates the significance of this background for deliberation and action.  Ideals, like emotion and deliberation, are the product of a clash of character habits.  While ideals shape the end-in-view, they cannot themselves become determinate.  As such, they retreat to the background of deliberation.  Dewey writes, "To the rest of the consequences, collateral and remote, corresponds a background of feeling, of diffused emotion.  This forms the stuff of the ideal."[20][20]  Any end-in-view, however aesthetically beautiful, brings collateral consequences that clash with certain habitual meanings.  These conflicts form a background of ideal, a wish to satisfy all our habitual tendencies.  Because Dewey defines emotion as a clash of habit, ideals are left to express emotional dissatisfaction with our aesthetically harmonized actions. 

            Ideals cannot be teleological; they are not goals or ends for deliberation.  In an early work, Dewey writes, "Ideals are like the stars; we steer by them, not towards them."[21][21]  As such, ideals function as significant commentary on the insufficiency of our ends-in-view.  They are "comments by the emotions."[22][22]  This emotional commentary gives our actions meaning, felt significance.  Thomas Alexander argues that all actions and thought require a tacit background that provides context, writing, "All practical deliberation, according to Dewey, also operates by relying on a tacitly sensed horizon of experience which determines the sense-giving awareness of context essential for any particular action to have meaning."[23][23]  This sense-giving background is tacit and contextual; the background of ideals is diffuse and emotional.  Both lend discriminating significance and meaning to our thought and action.  These backgrounds are discriminating because they are the product of habit.  As Dewey puts it, "Habit means special sensitiveness or accessibility to certain classes of stimuli, standing predilections and aversions, rather than bare recurrence of specific acts."[24][24]  Habits provide a discriminating emotional sensitivity to a variety of situations.  The foreground of activity sets up an emotional clash with discriminating habitual tendencies.  The resulting commentary provides a depth of meaning to our actions beyond that found in harmonious and determinate ends-in-view. 

            Deliberation is dramatic not because it harmonizes all our interests, but precisely because it cannot do this.  Moral deliberation and action remain meaningful and emotional throughout because of what we fail to do.  Dewey writes, "The thing actually at stake in any serious deliberation is not a difference in quantity, but what kind of person one is to become, what sort of self is in the making, what kind of a world is making."[25][25]  In choosing to become a particular type of person, we appreciate that other choices and ends are no longer available to us.  The resulting emotional clash infuses deliberation with meaning.  Dewey writes, "The meaning of a present act is seen to be vast, immeasurable, unthinkable.  This ideal is not a goal to be attained.  It is a significance to be felt, appreciated.  Though consciousness of it cannot become intellectualized (identified in objects of a distinct character) yet emotional appreciation of it is won only by those willing to think."[26][26]  When we choose to act in certain ways and become certain types of people, the meaning of these choices is infused with the emotional commentary of a vast background of habitual discriminations.  We feel and appreciate the clash of these sense-giving ideals.  Discriminating emotions comment on the failure of our determinate moral choices, a failure made more poignant by its vast immeasurability.  

The Grief of Priam, Sympathy, Muddling Through

            The discriminating clash of ideals suffuses ethical deliberation with felt significance.  Emotion also contains the impetus to further action.  Dewey writes that ideals are "the source of all generous discontent with actualities and of all inspiration to progress."[27][27]  In this final section, I will argue that there is another role for emotion in ethics.  Like Aristotle, Dewey understood that an expression of appropriate emotion is often the most ethical response to a particularly troubling situation.  Because virtues are tendencies to feel as well as to act, the highest expression of virtue is often a discerning passion.[28][28]  A choice not to follow a possible line of action often deepens the ethical significance of such situations by expressing emotional tension among our habits.  Homer's Iliad depicts situations where being properly affected is the most ethical response to a situation.  

            Throughout the Iliad, Homer describes glorious and aesthetically harmonized activities.  For example, his depiction of Achilles' return to battle integrates diverse interests in a magnificent action.  He kills Hector, and drags his body around Troy by chariot, foreshadowing the eventual downfall of the city.  He avenges Patroclus' death.  He wins glory for himself; no longer need he fear returning to a long, but insignificant, life in Greece.  He accedes to the demands of fellow Greeks for him to join the battle.  His successful return culminates in feasting and celebration.  But Homer's depiction of Achilles is at its most meaningful in a quiet setting after the battle.  King Priam comes to plead with him for the return of the body of Hector.  Priam begs Achilles by kissing his hands, an action that must be repugnant for him.  He kisses the hands of the person who killed his son.  In a poignant passage, Achilles relents to Priam's request. 

            None would call this an aesthetically harmonized action.  Integrated action is impossible.  Achilles can do nothing to harmonize the tensions that threaten to overwhelm the meeting.  He barely acts at all.  His words are appropriately muted.  The ethical significance is not in the actions, but in the emotional recognition of tensions within his own character and that of Priam.  Priam has overcome feelings of shame, hatred and despair, to provide his son a proper burial.  He muddles through an extremely difficult situation.  Sensitivity and discrimination run ahead of objectively harmonized actions; their responses are deeply significant not because of the organic harmonies that they produce, but because of this sensitivity to a background of conflicting ideals.  Achilles is no longer a beast; he has chosen not to act, but to become fully human in his sensitivity to the emotional tensions within both Priam and himself. 

            Dewey discusses the ethical significance of this emotional recognition of others in his account of sympathy.  Dewey writes, "Emotional reactions form the chief materials of our knowledge of ourselves and of others."[29][29]  Sympathy provides an immediate emotional recognition of the appropriate feelings of others.  Achilles feels the significance of Priam's entreaties in his sympathetic recognition of the king.  He immediately feels the emotional clash between his ideals and those of Priam.  Even without the possibility of an objectively harmonized action, the significance of Achilles' self-knowledge is deepened, as is our own.  With a great deal of dramatic tension, he reconstructs his own ideals in light of Priam's actions.  This produces a tensive and vibrating emotional response within Achilles, and nothing more.  But nothing more is needed, because Achilles is properly affected. 


            Like Aristotle, Dewey associates many ethical actions to aesthetic integration; in some cases, the ethical action is also the beautiful action.  But virtue consists not only in acting, but also in being properly affected.  Dewey recognizes that any ethical action necessarily falls short of the ideal.  A depth of meaning results from a clash between the proposed action and the emotional tug of ideals.  Every ethical action reconstructs our character and so is emotional.  And at times, discriminating sympathy and other emotions, properly expressed, are the content of ethical responses.  These emotional commentaries by our discriminating ideals provide a vast, unthinkable significance to our present actions.  The determinate foreground of activity is fleeting and the clash of emotions remains as a permanent background.  As Dewey puts it in the Ethics:  "There is a point in deliberate action where definite thought fades into the ineffable and undefinable--into emotion."[30][30] 

[1][1]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. W.D. Ross, in The Basic Works of Aristotle ed. Richard McKeon (New York:  Random House, 1941), p. 957. (1105b25-26).  See also 1104b11-13, 1105a6-8.

[2][2]L.A. Kosman, "Being Properly Affected:  Virtues and Feelings in Aristotle's Ethics", in Essays on Aristotle's Ethics, ed. A.O. Rorty (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1980), p. 107.  

[3][3]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, p. 959.  1107a30-1107b1.  For his similar claims about temperance, see 1107b3-8. 

[4][4]See René Antoine Gauthier and Jean Yves Jolif, L'Éthique a Nicomaque:  Introduction, Traduction et Commentaire, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Louvain:  Publications Universitaires, 1970), 2: 141.  Interestingly, Aristotle does argue that shame orders emotions and helps us to acquire full virtue, see 1128b19ff. 

[5][5]Nancy Sherman in her two recent books The Fabric of Character:  Aristotle's Theory of Virtue (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1989) and Making a Necessity of Virtue:  Aristotle and Kant on Virtue (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1997) argues that emotion itself possesses discrimination and cognition.  While Aristotelian emotions are not inherently reflective, habituated emotions possess a great deal of discrimination that is material for practical deliberation and choice. 

[6][6]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, p. 958. 1106b17-23. 

[7][7]John Dewey, "Theory of the Moral Life," in John Dewey and James H. Tufts, The Later Works, ed. JoAnn Boydston vol. 1, Ethics (Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, 1989), 166.  All quoted passages are to sections of the Ethics authored by Dewey. 

[8][8]James Gouinlock, for instance, has no references to emotion or passion in his work John Dewey's Philosophy of Value (New York:  Humanities Press, 1972).  Jennifer Welchman treats emotion as tangential to her rationalist interpretation of Dewey, see Jennifer Welchman, Dewey's Ethical Thought, (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1995).  Dewey, of course, took pains to distinguish his approach from the emotivism of C.L. Stevenson.  In contrast to Stevenson, Dewey concludes that emotion involves the sensitivity and discrimination of proper character habits. 

[9][9]John Dewey, "Human Nature and Conduct 1922," in The Middle Works, 1899-1924 ed. JoAnn Boydston (Carbondale:  Southern Illinois Univesity Press, 1983) 14:  54.  Compare Dewey's claims in "The Theory of Emotion" that emotion is  "psychologically, the adjustment or tension of habit or ideal."  Dewey, The Early Works, 1882-1898 ed. JoAnn Boydston (Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, 1971) 4:  185.  In both works, Dewey emphasizes that emotion and activity are inseparable aspects of the comprehensive whole of behavior. 

[10][10]Dewey, "Art as Experience," 241.

[11][11]In his "Theory of Emotion," Dewey recognizes that there is also an emotional characteristic of absorption where "the various means succeed in organizing themselves into a simultaneous comprehensive whole of action," p. 186.  He terms this consolidating absorption as Gefühlston and distinguishes it from emotional disturbance or Affect, which involves tension and conflict. 

[12][12]Dewey, "Human Nature and Conduct," 150.  Compare his explicit discussion of the close association of emotion and reflection in John Dewey, "Appreciation and Cultivation," in The Later Works 1925-1953 ed. JoAnn Boydston (Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, 1985:  115.

[13][13]Dewey, "Human Nature and Conduct," 54 & 150. 

[14][14]Dewey, "Human Nature and Conduct," 135. 

[15][15]Steven A. Fesmire, "Dramatic Rehearsal and the Moral Artist:  A Deweyan Theory of Moral Understanding," Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 31 (Summer 1995):  569. 

[16][16]Steven A. Fesmire, "Imagination in Pragmatist Ethics," given at the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy Conference in Las Vegas in March 2001, p. 12.  I wholeheartedly endorse Fesmire's general arguments in favor of reconceptualizing deliberation in terms of imagination, but reject his claims that the significance of ethics lies wholly in aesthetic harmonization. 

[17][17]While Fesmire is an excellent example of this aestheticization of Dewey's ethics, there are many other interpreters who associate good actions with aesthetic harmonizations.  For example, James Gouinlock writes that, "Pleasure becomes happiness as impulse becomes incorporated into meaningful activity.  Such activity is happy in the fullest sense to the extent that it incorporates many impulses, energies and habits" (257).  Compare William Caspary, writing on Dewey's account of ethics that "the esthetic sensitivity is a response to wholeness as such."William Caspary, "Judgments of Value in John Dewey's Theory of Ethics", Philosophy and Education  p. 180.  See Tom Alexander, John Dewey's Theory of Art, Experience and Nature:  The Horizons of Feeling (Albany:  State University of New York Press, 1987) for a more general discussion of the importance of the aesthetic in Dewey's account of experience. 

[18][18]Dewey, Ethics, p. 271.

[19][19]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1106b8-13.

[20][20]Dewey, "Human Nature and Conduct," 180. 

[21][21]The Early Works of John Dewey, ed. Jo Ann Boydston, vol. 4, The Study of Ethics:  A Syllabus (Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, 1971), 262. 

[22][22]Dewey, "Human Nature and Conduct," 179.

[23][23]Thomas Alexander, "Pragmatic Imagination," Proceedings of the Charles S. Peirce Society 26 (1990):  336.

[24][24]Dewey, "Human Nature and Conduct," 32.

[25][25]Dewey, "Human Nature and Conduct," 150. 

[26][26]Dewey, "Human Nature and Conduct," 180.  See also p. 243 where Dewey claims that reason "sets up a heightened emotional appreciation." 

[27][27]Dewey, "Human Nature and Conduct," 178. 

[28][28] Dewey, of course, argues that any fixed distinction between acting and undergoing is illegitimate.  All activities and passions involve a transaction with one's environment.  But this does not undermine my argument that sometimes the proper response is simply an appropriate feeling. 

[29][29]Dewey, Ethics, p. 269. 

[30][30]Dewey, Ethics, p. 264.