John Dewey & The Ethics of Democracy

By Gabrielle Micheletti
2011, Vol. 3 No. 03 | pg. 1/1

John Dewey was an ingenious and significant figure whose criticisms spanned a wide range of disciplines, including philosophy, education, politics, aesthetics, and ethics. The late American philosopher Richard Rorty, in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, was quoted as saying that the three most important figures in Contemporary Philosophy for the 21st Century were Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey. Dewey, in many circles, is often known as America’s Philosopher, and his influence is recognizable across the reformative spectrum. In his 1888 essay The Ethics of Democracy, Dewey sharply apprehends and considers the foremost oppositional arguments of his time against democratic governing, and proposes a striking and inspiring interpretation of Democracy itself.

“Democracy, like any other polity, has been finely termed the memory of an historic past, the consciousness of a living present, the ideal of the coming future.” -John Dewey, The Ethics of Democracy

The essay is written in a fluid, highly readable style, and addresses three main arguments against democracy. The first is the belief that democracy is a numerical aggregate as the rule of the Many, i.e. the Masses or the Mob. The second regards the essential nature of Social Contract Theory and its application in civil societies. The third is that democracy embodies and fosters abstraction of non-social individuals in creating a social and political system. Dewey also appeals to Plato in a far-reaching interpretation of The Republic to argue against the notion that democracy is simply a form of government. Furthermore the essay is meant to question and oppose “classical liberal individualism” which stretches from libertarianism, to elitism, to conservativism, etc. The essay also aims toward providing motivation for further inquiry into forging unified, societal ideals through philosophic interplay of pragmatism, idealism, and liberal-communitarian-individualism (not a contradiction).

In essence, Dewey’s philosophy embodies this three-pronged alliance. Bear in mind, in contrast to Classical Liberalism, Dewey elucidates his vision of Progressive Liberalism, which helped facilitate what has become the present interpretation of Liberalism in the sphere of political philosophy.

The groundwork will thus be laid-out to approach the analytic. Liberalism is a philosophy that endorses individual liberty and equality of rights, organized according to principles of toleration, neutrality, openness, and autonomy. Its metaphysic does not support the Many, the Community or the Nation, but protects the individualistic component of Being at its foundational level. Whether or not these principles have true merit or legitimacy in practice is disputable, but that is not to be taken up in the constraints of this essay. Communitarianism is a philosophy based in a metaphysic of a ‘self’ that is ‘bound-up’ in, ‘constituted’ by, and ‘thrown’ into a historic-societal context. Its social component emphasizes the need to balance the rights of the individual with the needs of the community, and allows for the ‘rights’ of the individual to be suspended in favor of the fulfillment of the needs of society. The philosophy of Individualism stresses the ‘individuality’ and inherent, inalienable worth of-and-within the individual.

Dewey begins the essay by discussing the need for reevaluation of the ‘apparent contradiction’ in democracy; that is, “the more men see of democracy, the less they like it” (182). Dewey addresses this contradiction initially by stating, “As it [democracy] gains practical extension in the affairs of society, it is getting lower theoretical appreciation” (182). It is thus Dewey’s project to formalize a pragma that cultivates ideal democratic praxis. And to begin, Dewey takes up Sir Henry Maine.

Maine’s argument, well known in political philosophy, examines democracy also in a theoretical sense. Dewey contemplates Maine specifically, citing the fact that he considered Maine’s exposition the most coherent and ablest of all which argued for similar ideas- that democracy is the most fragile and insecure of governments, producing monstrous forms of aristocracy, and its legislation is an arbitrary overthrow of existing institutions. Dewey approaches these claims in stating that they suppose a view of history stripped of all meaning except that which arises from ‘accidental juxtaposition of circumstance’, meaning that Maine cannot claim existing institutions are “there for a rightly justified reason” and any threat to the “tradition” would mean the obliteration of the legitimacy of its existence (184).

In response to the claims that democracy is simply a numerical aggregate or conglomeration of units, and that the only powers adequate to bring about artificial unity necessary for ‘progress’ are partisanship and corruption, Dewey begins to introduce his revolutionary and stirring notion: that society is an organism. Cleverly referring to Maine’s interpretation of Aristotle as using the numerical mark for the core of his [Aristotle’s] explanation, Dewey rejects such an interpretation by accurately understanding that Aristotle realized men are but instruments of the law, and it is ultimately the law which governs the state.

Dewey understood that his further promulgation of society being an organism and government an expression of its organic nature originated in the abstract natural philosophy of the French Revolution. Dewey appeals to this conception, and argues based on the basic belief that defining society and government in a merely quantitative mode is misleading and unelucidative; he likens it to defining a tree as counting the number of its constitutive cells. With this analytic Dewey turns to the theory of the Social Contract.

On the Deweyan interpretation of the social contract, the essence of the theory is the idea that men are mere individuals without any social relations until they form a contract. He states that the essence is not simply the idea of just forging a contract, and goes beyond denigrating the theory to a mere ‘joining’ of separate individual entities. Nonetheless, although Dewey does a nice job articulating the true meaning of the essence of social contract theory, it is not his intention to employ it. For the theory of the “social organism” rejects such isolated, non-social individuals as mere abstractions of a thought-process that perverts the reality of Being, of society, and of Others (184). In interpreting democracy as “sovereignty chopped up into mince meat” as Maine does, Dewey argues that society becomes dissolved to the point of annihilation. The fact of the matter, or “facts of the case” is that, organically, man is a social being. The notion of Society is structurally unified in character by the sociality of its constituents- men and women.

To expand upon his point about the social organism, Dewey takes the argument one step further into the mathematical analysis of the common will. Analytic, as opposed to synthetic, abstraction not only deprives men and women of their qualitative social relationships, but reduces them into numerics. It is the “fiction of isolated social units” that so pervasively leads unreflective persons to believe that they are isolated-in-space. Accordingly lessened to ballot-projecting units, in order to mold the will of the people into this or that direction, there arise purely mechanical, mathematical, objective, analytic notions that men and women can be reduced for any political purpose. Dewey holds ‘modern’ education responsible for these tendencies, against which true students-of-society can realize the unbalanced predicament (188).

Dewey retains the organic, spirited philosophy of Wholeism in explicating the unified will in democracy. He declares, “A vote…is not an impersonal counting of one; it is a manifestation of some tendency of the social organism through a member of that organism” (189). This means flipping a commonly held misconception of the character of democratic progress on its head, and affirming that we are, yes, individuals absorbed-in and living-through this Whole. According to Dewey, the will manifests itself, and every sovereign citizen is not representative of a certain share of the sum total of the will, but is its “vital embodiment”, wholly living in each and every member.

Dewey further asserts that insofar as the individual and the society are “organic to each other”, and insofar as democracy really is democracy, it is the most stable of governments. Because people have a share(s) in society, society has a “share” in them, in view of the fact that there is participating in the formation and expression of the common will. What this means is not that every person in a democracy needs and desires the exact same things, at the exact same times, and so everyone thinks the same; rather in-and-through expressing such needs and desires the Will mirrors such wishes, both as a singularity and a plurality (193).

To say of democracy that it is simply a kind of government in a wide variety of governments is, to Dewey, likening a home to a geometrical arrangement of bricks and mortar: basely true, but so infinitely so much more (195). The basic truth of the idea stems from the fact that democracy is a kind of government only because it is a type of moral and spiritual association (196). Even so, the same is true of aristocracy. And with this Dewey appeals to Plato, stating that the Republic is more than an ideal aristocracy, in that it grapples with the ultimate ethical problem of relating the individual to the universal. And it offers a solution, as the manifestation of the capacities of the individual to harmonize completely with the universe of the grander, relational organism- in Platonic terms, the state. The difference between aristocracy and democracy is thus not one of ends, but of means. Plato seeks redemption in turning to the one or few wise men. But Dewey brilliantly illustrates, a now all-too-commonly known cliché, that the practical consequences of giving power to the few, good, and wise is that they cease to remain good and wise. Democracy, on the other hand, affords the realization that the ideal end agreed upon by theories of aristocracy and democracy- the unified, universal spirit of the community embodied in the law- cannot be put to a person from without (199). It must begin within a person himself or herself, signifying that personality is the first and final reality.

Dewey’s philosophy harmonizes the Liberal and Communitarian conceptions of the Self in the framework of Individualist priority. It is through the Progressivism and openness of the liberal and the Balance and Unity of the communitarian, that democracy enables human flourishing: in glorifying the luminosity of the individual Voice that is made-up of and alongside the Voices of Others. It retains the evanescence, the Genius of the Person, at the same time regimenting that fragmentation and alienation of the postmodern-self with the warmth and kinship of Others.

For Dewey, every person possesses infinite possibility, and with that capacity there is also an intrinsic constant of personality that is unique to every individual. It is the remarkable, beautiful, unique, and eternal idea of indwelling Personhood that Dewey recognizes and lays down as the heart of a democratic society. The choice, proceeding from within, to ‘become’ the realized potential of who one truly is, and the chance to also do so, reach toward the zenith of ideals of humanity. In cyclic interplay, the central position of personality is what gives rise to the symbols of hitherto unreached ideals- democracy, liberty, equality, etc.- and from achievement of these ideals what is found of enduring and unshakable worth is the Personhood of every human individual. It is Dewey’s pragmatism- his insistence upon apprehending the ‘problems of men’ as opposed to the ‘problems of philosophy’- that makes his life and writing so significant for Contemporary philosophy. Dewey of course knew that in the beginning, the problems of philosophy were the problems of men, and he anticipated the shift in what we now call ‘postmodernism’ to fragment, compartmentalize, and over-specialize the curriculum of being-in-the-world. The Deweyan flavor of pragmatism is one for which there is an ever-present need for recovery, because the cultivation of reflective and deeply contemplative individuals, who can also apply philosophy for the betterment of humanity, is a way to foster brilliantly visionary agents of change in a world so desperate for their insight.


Dewey, John. "The Ethics of Democracy." 1888. Pragmatism: a Reader. By Louis Menand. New York: Vintage, 1997. 182-204. Print.

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