Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Dewey on Ethics and Moral Education

  • Douglas J. Simpson
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_45


John Dewey’s views of ethics and moral education, like his democratic ideals, arise in part from his naturalistic and pragmatic philosophy. In turn, he integrates these ideas with his political and educational philosophy, creating a picture of the means to and the nucleus of a good life. This life is tied to what he (1937/1987, p. 298) deems “the fundamental principle of democracy”: “the ends of freedom and individuality for all can be attained only by means that accord with those ends.” His (1916/1980, p. 370) idea of a good life is marked by an intensified and expanding consciousness that enjoys “a continual beginning afresh.” Likewise, this life involves a deep-seated interest in the common good that entails addressing a web of interconnected philosophical, scientific, economic, social, political, and educational concerns. More than, perhaps, most pragmatists, he offers the advantages and challenges of a nuanced system of thought as he reconstructs the meanings of many philosophical and educational questions and concepts (Menand 2001; Pappas 2008). Because his ideas regarding ethics and moral education overlap, they are discussed, sometimes simultaneously, under the headings: Broad Fields of Inquiry, A Moral Science, Educators and Learners and Problematic Ethical Situations.

Broad Fields of Inquiry

Dewey (1916 1980, 356–357; 1922 1983, 220–222) thinks ethics is a broad field of inquiry that may examine any question that bears upon human interactions, not a narrow inquiry that focuses on identifying and justifying transcendental moral standards. Hence, there is hardly any human relationship that is outside the scope of ethics and moral education, because each is concerned with questions regarding the wellbeing of individuals and groups (Dewey and Tufts 1932 1985, pp. 230–231). The scope he gives ethics and, thereby, moral education is rooted in his belief that human nature includes social propensities and, therefore, moral experiences with others. Ethics and moral education, as well, are concerned with warranted or merited knowledge claims. Therefore, the regulative or normative force of statements is a focal point for him. Recommending standards – whether epistemically or behaviorally – ought to be based on cogent data and reasons that emerge from open inquiries. Free inquiry and its allied values are key elements of a liberal democratic society and its educational institutions are primary safeguards of reflective moral theory, moral education, and an ethical life (Dewey 1916/1980, pp. 343–355).

Building on ethical inquiry and the science of education (Dewey 1929/1984b, pp. 1, 40), moral education is a wide-ranging area of both research and practice which includes formal moral education and everyday interactions (Dewey 1916/1980, pp. 356, 370). As a field of inquiry, moral education is concerned with identifying and fostering effective and ethical ways of promoting moral growth. As a field of practice, moral education is interested in providing the conditions for teaching and learning, including but going beyond the personal qualities of open-mindedness, tolerance, fairness, and cooperation (Dewey 1916/1980, p. 366). Any normative value claim that emerges from ethics and moral education is an instrument that informs efforts to make worthwhile differences in the lives of individuals and groups. Stated differently, ethical prescriptions and prohibitions that emerge from research and deliberation ought to promote the betterment of individuals and society. He thinks anyone – e.g., educators, politicians, social workers, and economists – who contributes to the theoretical development of ethics and moral education is at least partially responsible for the differences her ideas and interventions generate (Dewey 1933/1986, pp. 137–138).

Theory, inquiry, and education, consequently, are not merely manifestations of reflection; they are instruments to be employed for social justice (Dewey 1922/1983, pp. 15–20). Those involved in the development and implementation of policies and practices concerning education ought to identify and evaluate their contributions to a good life. They should evaluate outcomes to determine how laws and policies impact the lives and experiences of children and families, which ideas and practices work for the common good and when and how ideas and their applications influence equitable opportunities. To do less, Dewey indicates, is irresponsible, because such indicates that the common good is not really a matter of public interest (Dewey 1922/1983, pp. 155, 170).

A Moral Science

For Dewey, the field of ethical inquiry constitutes a moral science that emerges from transdisciplinary investigations, e.g., philosophical, psychological, sociological, biological, and educational. Inquiry should be characterized by rigorous or scientific practices: observation, exploration, reflection, experimentation, evaluation, modification, and reapplication (Dewey and Tufts 1932/1985, pp. 179–185). The warranted knowledge claims that become apparent during these investigative processes may gain greater security (Dewey 1929/1984b, pp. 106–107) and, thereby, applicability as the bodies of knowledge expand. Knowledge claims that are repeatedly tested and confirmed over decades or generations may yield empirical generalizations, relational universals, and widespread epistemic agreement (Dewey 1920/1982b, pp. 256, 277). A very high degree of warrant for knowledge claims may result in certainty and truth statements, but all assertions are qualified and revisable since all knowledge is partial and fallible (Dewey 1925/1984a, pp. 11, 13).

The connection of scientific knowledge development to ethics, education, and moral education is pivotal. The evolutionary nature of schools and communities, Dewey thinks, indicates the need for ongoing inquiry into the multiple conditions, changes, and continuities that relate to moral theory, applied ethics, and moral education. An understanding of the dynamic nature of society and the growth of knowledge, however, requires more than a traditional understanding of ethics and moral education. The scope of these fields also encompasses, for instance, a need for growing bodies of understanding about human diversity, desires, and collaboration; familial development; economic planning; and political integrity (Dewey 1916/1980, pp. 310, 315). Democracy demands, if Dewey is correct, that the rigorous reflections, inquiry, and experiments that go into this transdisciplinary research be open to public scrutiny and evaluation and that the discoveries be communicated effectively to all segments of society. Parents, educators, coaches, religious leaders, and health care professionals should be recipients of and contributors to accessible and relevant research (Dewey 1933/1986, pp. 157–158).

Ethics, then, involves exploring and critiquing past, present, and prospective associations of individuals and groups to determine how social-moral interactions have been, are and may be used for personal and social enhancement. In addition to the discoveries and the clarifications of other fields, history enlightens ethical development and education too: it allows researchers to look back through more impartial lens, ask questions, and suggest hypotheses for study (Dewey 1901/1990, p. 318). Historical inquiry may also draw more of the general public – a critical aspect of democratic engagement – into disputes. But studying ethics is more than seeking to gain an intellectual grasp of logical arguments, scientific data, and associated theories. Learning also involves attitudinal and behavioral change and, thereby, affects a person’s reflections, affections, and actions (Dewey and Tufts 1932/1985, pp. 269, 271).

Educators and Learners

Moral educators, whether in educational institutions or community entities, may wish to make learners aware of at least three educational expectations. First, the fact that learners will examine issues and have experiences that could result in a reconsideration of their beliefs and behaviors is important. Education is deeply and intrinsically interested in change that adds value to life. Second, making clear that moral growth entails more than mere change is necessary. Educative growth is both immediate and prospective and involves growth experiences that open windows of seeing and doors of doing in the present and create abilities and habits that enable continued growth in the future (Dewey 1916/1980, pp. 46–58). Third, understanding that democracy, education, and morality are largely inconceivable without open inquiry and that it is the ethical lynchpin that cultivates freedom of thought underlines the importance of everyone being a reflective learner (Dewey 1903/1977, pp. 230, 228–239). Hence, “respect for freedom of intelligence” must be defended as well as utilized (Dewey 1946/1990, p. 473).

An understanding of the complexities of ethics and moral education also necessitates a rethinking of antiquated and counterproductive beliefs and practices (Dewey 1922/1983, pp. 43, 59). First, for instance, custom should carry little if any epistemic weight when one decides on the merits of moral assertions or practices, such as when dualistic beliefs lead to bifurcations in understanding the student and moral education (Dewey 1916/1980, pp. 357, 370). Second, traditional moral theory – like any field – is mistaken at times. Identifying supreme ethical principles or ends (e.g., good, right, or virtue) that are supposed to drive all ethical thinking and decision-making is an example. Also, precise ethical principles (e.g., respect and honesty) may need reconstruction or rejection in particular circumstances (Dewey and Tufts 1932/1985, pp. 232, 275–283). Third, the idea that moral development is merely a natural phenomenon is simplistically wrongheaded. Likewise, development is not a lockstep set of cognitive stages (Dewey 1916/1980, pp. 59–74, 118–130). Fourth, questions concerning human nature go beyond issues related to reasonableness, intention, choice, and self-control and extend to how, why, and in what conditions some people learn and others do not. Moral education, finally, is distorted and ineffective if it concentrates principally on teaching concepts, communicating information, instilling rules, and implanting values (Dewey and Tufts 1932/1985, pp. 132–145).

Dewey (1938/1988a, pp. 31–47), therefore, thinks that understanding ethics both intellectually and experientially is an ideal worth pursuing. Understanding the import of human impulses, desires, plans, and purposes is also a crucial aspect of ethical and educational theory and practice. Otherwise, neither learners nor educators will understand the importance or the process of converting impulses into desires and transforming desires into considered purposes and plans. More pointedly, the person who fails to appreciate the robust role played by human impulses and desires will fail to comprehend the process of effectively teaching others. Guiding instinctive tendencies and cultivating informed desires into personally and socially productive purposes and activities entails elements of both moral development and education. Yet, educating a person morally has particular characteristics that nurturing, fostering, guiding, and developing may or may not incorporate.

A person may develop through casual enculturation; a guide may lead without giving attention to habit formation; a coach may focus almost exclusively on fostering abilities and skills; a parent may nurture caring while employing contradictory means. An educator, however, has responsibilities that are distinctively educational (Simpson et al. 2005). She, while developing, nurturing and guiding, is concerned with educational methods and aims; she has ends in view that are frequently different from casual acquaintances and parents. If she concurs with Dewey, she understands that student characteristics (including their impulses and desires, strengths and weaknesses) are connected to her educational effectiveness. She also knows which existing classroom conditions (e.g., technological, material, procedural, social, human) inhibit moral understanding and growth and which new conditions need to be added to expedite moral growth. She constructs classroom activities and conditions that facilitate educative experiences. She gains student participation so that they become engaged in thinking ethically and making ethical decisions about live situations, not about artificially designed problems. She promotes an understanding and utilization of ethical problem solving skills so that students learn transferable attitudes, methods, questions, and habits. She embeds educative experiences in her democratic learning communities; and she demonstrates that each person’s opinion is worth hearing and enhancing. By the same token, she provides information and provocations as she engages students about the application of ethical principles, the importance of developing virtues, and the values of a reflective democracy. She stretches student understanding by introducing ideas and controversies, previously outside of but on the cusp of most students’ experiences, and incorporates their knowledge into the informal curricula to enrich the formal epistemic, aesthetic, ecological, and pedagogical curricula (Simpson 2011).

Dewey adds another pedagogical task: facilitating learners’ change in attitudes, dispositions, and behaviors. This task reconnects with an earlier point about the cycle of learning (Dewey 1901/1990, pp. 213–225). In short, the educator is obligated to see that intellectual understanding is supplemented by experiential understanding, which may be secured by actual experiences and simulated ones by means of dramatic rehearsal, a hypothetical examination, and deliberation of an impending decision (Fesmire 2003, pp. 69, 91). Educators can foster holistic change by acting on the knowledge that most students are immediately sympathetic to the practical problems and pains of others and that they can easily become empathetic with others, seeing into their experiences as they feel for them (Simpson and Sacken 2014). Sympathy, then, can begin a reaction that adds empathetic insights and, thereby, helps transform itself into intelligent sympathy. Educators can nourish sympathy and empathy as they guide students’ everyday interactions. According to Dewey (Dewey and Tufts 1932/1985, pp. 297–303), the flow of moral education is intrinsically a part of formal and informal education, and all social and educational experience and is potentially moral education. Thus, three complementary sciences – ethics, moral education, and education – can collaboratively contribute to the moral growth of students and societies.

Problematic Ethical Situations

Another aspect of moral education is students’ learning how to analyze and evaluate problematic ethical situations (Dewey and Tufts 1932/1985, pp. 280, 291). Dewey rejects the idea that ethical problem solving is largely or exclusively a matter of (a) intuiting a higher good, (b) using ethical principles to conclude moral thinking, (c) collecting data which lead to the identification of persons who exhibit virtues, (d) ascertaining the satisfaction level of concerned parties, or (e) examining data to uncover good or bad consequences. Dewey notes that each problematic ethical situation is unique and that its good is determined by the situation as a whole (Dewey and Tufts 1932/1985, pp. 275, 280–281). The perception of virtuous behavior, application of ethical principles, collection of relevant facts, maximization of satisfaction, and identification of particular consequences usually provide significant insights, but inquiry into a particular situation is necessary too. The desires and intentions, actions and reactions, conditions and contexts, and disvalues and goods in the situation need to be understood too. Questions may include: What exactly are the problems to be addressed? Who disclosed an attitude of disregard for the interests of others? Were there voices for the common good? Which interactions revealed the greatest tensions? Who were the primary influencers of behavior? Was there a dominate quality in the situation? How do these considerations promote problem-solving abilities?

Because each problematic ethical situation is unique, it requires a fresh analysis and evaluation, not a reflexive judgment. Because there are important epistemic and ethical continuities in each situation, ethical analyses are informed to some degree by existing bodies of experimental and experiential understanding. Reflectively using these continuities to analyze unique situations better enables educators and learners to address new experiences and, ideally, to modify thinking and behavior (Dewey 1916/1980, pp. 4–5, 335–336; Dewey 1938/1988a, pp. 13, 20, 25, 31). Even though problematic ethical situations produce tensions and anxieties, moral growth would be less likely without disconcerting factors. Disequilibrium nurses reflection, decision-making, and moral growth. Thus, those examining problematic situations should investigate contributing conditions and subtilize their conclusions regarding particular situations. Among the assorted conditions that ideally contribute to particular situations are democratic beliefs, methods, and practices (Dewey 1938/1988b, pp. 136–155).

Democratic conditions encompass but are not limited to means that promote, sustain, and appraise civil freedoms, social justice, fraternity, and peace (Dewey 1916/1980). Likewise, conditions that cultivate government impartiality and accountability, corporate openness and social responsibility, personal curiosity and open-mindedness, political and economic intelligence, and institutional equity are educative means that help answer the questions: What kind of person do I wish to become? What kind of society and world do I want to help construct? The kind of self or person Dewey hopes will inherit and advance democratic means, ends, and qualities needs both the conditions that facilitate a dynamic and deep democracy and the dispositions and habits that promote democratic thought and action (Dewey 1920/1982, pp. 172, 186; Dewey and Tufts 1932/1985). An initiation into reflective democratic thought and practice, therefore, is a part of moral education and may occur in nearly any problematic ethical situation, whether found in the home, school, theatre, museum, park, alley, or stadium. Each person and entity is inescapably a moral educator. The ecological moral curricula include ordinary as well as extraordinary interactions. A challenge of society is to plan, create, and evaluate educative experiences so that informal and formal and unintentional and intentional activities and endeavors more readily result in an intensified consciousness that fosters personal and social-moral growth.


Dewey’s approach to ethics and moral education – and the science of education – is comprehensive in the sense that these fields may engage any ethical question that has a bearing on the promotion of individual betterment and the common good. Each is a broad transdisciplinary field of inquiry or science that stimulates deliberation on both theoretical and practical problems. Ethics is often, perhaps, somewhat more theoretical while moral education is frequently somewhat more practical. But researchers and educators in each field should seek to influence the reflections, affections, and actions of people who benefit from and contribute to the wellbeing of one another. Correspondingly, researchers and practitioners should shape laws, policies, structures, and processes that foster ethical reflection, moral education, and educative experiences. More inclusively, Dewey (1938/1988b, p. 155) asserts that the duty of everyone who believes in “the intrinsic moral nature of democracy” and in democracy as “a way of life” is to realize experientially that democracy is “a way of personal life” that “provides a moral standard for personal conduct.” In this way, the cycle of learning and living will be completed, episodically and continually.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Texas Christian UniversityFort WorthUSA
  2. 2.Texas Tech UniversityLubbockUSA