In the last few posts I noted the following virtues that John Dewey thought accompany intelligent action:
- Being conscientious or being interested in finding out what the actual good of a certain situation is
- Maintaining a bias toward fairness and objectivity when judging and evaluating conflicting values and opinions
- Seeking the good of a situation in a community of inquiry if possible
- Being emotionally sensitive and especially sympathetic to the values and feelings of those in the situation
- Carefully reflecting upon the relevant aspects of the situation
- Exercising one’s imagination to see new possibilities and have a sense of the situation as a whole
- Being willing to change our beliefs in light of consequences and learn from the past
We have been looking at how we can use these virtues of intelligent action to deal with tragic conflict or an unavoidable conflict of momentous values and/or obligations in which some values and/or obligations are sacrificed causing suffering. In this last two posts I covered virtues 1-6; now I will cover the last.
Learning From the Past
In an earlier post we saw that conscientiousness is the habit of bringing intelligence to bear on moral conduct. Now this includes past conduct as well. To not reflect on our past moral conduct is unacceptable since, as Dewey notes, “our past experiences decide along what lines the present activities of intelligence shall be directed” (The Early Works, Vol. 2, p. 112). What will this reflection look like when it comes to tragedy? Well, recall that a conscientious person is always trying to find the good in conduct. This good, when it comes to tragic situations, is the ideal of moral inclusivity: the satisfaction of as many demands as possible with as little sacrifice and suffering as possible. Reflection on the past will entail a comprehensive assessment of one’s conduct in relation to this moral ideal.
The first level of assessment is finding out to what extent the mediation enacted reduces sacrifice and suffering. The consequences of an experiment to reduce the costs of tragic conflict are to be judged by how much outcry or satisfaction they cause. We need to keep a sympathetic ear open for such outcry in order to make an informed judgment of the situation. Other times, however, we fail to have an accurate sense of the situation and the effects of our actions within it. William James observes that “under every system of moral rules are innumerable persons whom it weighs upon, and goods which it represses; and these are always rumbling and grumbling in the background, and ready for any issue by which they may get free” (McDermott, The Writings of William James, p. 624). Every system of rules that is good for someone will end up being bad for someone else. This doesn’t mean we should give up. It means we should try to be that much more sensitive to those excluded and silenced voices of suffering that history all too often forgets. By doing so it may be possible to embrace what Walter Kaufmann, in his book Tragedy and Philosophy, observes to be the heart of tragedy: “What lies at the heart of it [tragedy] is the refusal to let any comfort, faith, or joy deafen our ears to the tortured cries of our brothers” (1968, 182).
The second level of assessment is more personal and has an affinity with the account of conscientiousness we saw in blog #31. Consider this passage from Dewey:
“Wisdom, or (in modern phrase) conscientiousness, is the nurse of all the virtues. Our most devoted courage is in the will to know the good and the fair by unflinching attention to the painful and disagreeable. Our severest discipline in self-control is that which checks the exorbitant pretensions of an appetite by insisting upon knowing it in its true proportions. The most exacting justice is that of an intelligence which gives due weight to each desire and demand in deliberation before it is allowed to pass into overt action. That affection and wisdom lie close to each other is evidenced by our language; thoughtfulness, regard, consideration for others, recognition of others, attention to others.” (MW Vol. 5, p. 364)
We might realize we didn’t try hard enough to be impartial, sympathetic, or imaginative. We might realize we lacked the will to involve ourselves in a community of inquiry. Or perhaps our reflections simply weren’t comprehensive or knowledgeable enough. Of course such examination is not pleasant—especially when accompanied by regret and remorse. But the suffering that may accompany such examination can, in the end, be an affective way to learn from the past. Here one thinks of the phrase pathei mathos—“learning through suffering”—so often found in Greek tragedy.