John Dewey: On Democracy As The Ethical Ideal

Visual by Anjali for The Philosophy Project


At a very fundamental level, states assert moral authority over their citizens: a moral claim to pass laws that restrict individual liberty, and injunctions that command dutiful adherence of the same. Philosophy evaluates justifications advanced in favor of the moral authority, of any given state, against certain principles, values, and ideals while also developing, clarifying, and assessing these given standards. Historically, philosophers have justified a form of government based on the dominant metaphysic of the time. Beliefs consistent with absolutism have defended authority on grounds that there exists a higher, ultimate reality to which we all are subjects and thus any model for arranging our collective life must conform to the undeniable ontological Truth. This authority is manifest in the Divine rule, the Sovereign, or the Law governing all rational beings. As far as democracy is concerned, its only defense has been a comparative advantage offered over other forms of governments in developing humane institutions, whereas the assumed philosophy of atomistic individualism appears frail against the rigorous criticisms supplied in objection to democracy for organizing our moral life. However, to a prominent 20th-century pragmatist philosopher ---John Dewey--- democracy is the “ultimate ethical ideal”. This article explores the arguments John Dewey substantiates for affirming Democracy-- as an apparatus warranting a moral life under the larger pragmatic or instrumentalist school of thought.


Writing in a period of rapid advancements, Dewey observed a widening gulf between the traditional preoccupations of philosophical thought---establishing objective criteria for truth and reality---and the progress of modern society aided by the applied sciences. This created a need for refashioning of philosophy to meet the demands of a progressive democratic society. Since Dewey is convinced that philosophy acquires meaning only insofar as it promotes social progress, the connection between philosophy and democracy becomes indispensable to Dewey’s position of pragmatic naturalism. At the heart of his metaphysic is an organism, a moral agent, who employs its knowledge through a process of inquiry in responding and adapting to the environment, the initial and final stages of which are de facto real and not mere appearances. Knowledge becomes subordinate to action, actively involved in the resolution of a problem or for restoring balance, while truth becomes functional i.e. measured by the consequences it produces to promote or demote an inquiry. Truth is substituted for “inquiry” and no longer signifies the fixed, the eternal, and the stagnant.

Since traditional philosophers have been committed to a “metaphysics of feudalism”, Dewey argues that the redundant pursuit of distinguishing appearance from reality, assigning fixed degrees of Truth to each rank within the hierarchy of realities, believing some realities to be superior to others, has often led to a justification of a similar hierarchy and inequality in our political organization. If reality is temporal and contingent, and knowledge instrumental rather than an object of mathematical abstractions, then it allows for reimagining a polity, in this case, the golden trident of democracy — Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.


Contrary to the dominant conception of liberty as in “freedom from” or freedom bridled by some higher authority which is also affected by the incessant search of an undefeatable authority figure, Dewey presents a positive conception of freedom. It is the freedom to self-actualize as a social being. Since developing one’s potentialities is not possible without a community, democracy need not be solely concerned with the preservation of individual rights and liberties. Positive freedom implies a world wherein truth is not given but instrumental to the manifestation of a “general will” which gets explicated through symbols having shared meanings, a world enabling experimentation, where ethics is not rooted in a priori synthetic principles but where value judgments promote intelligent experiments. Opponents of pragmatism have been apprehensive that a society valuing experimentalism could dissolve into one characterized by profit-seeking materialistic individuals, an objection extending to the larger school of pragmatism as well. To this Dewey responds that this apprehension is roped in the popular conception of democracy as an aggregate of individuals associated through a contract, which is at best numerical reductionism, but on a deeper level raises an intellectual problem. Association and interdependence are inevitable in society but they do not constitute a community. “The clear consciousness of a communal life, in all its implications, constitutes the idea of democracy”; the community is a prerequisite for realizing the ideal of democracy. A community is born when all its members are able to appreciate the fruits or the goods accruing from being a member of that community. Liberty, hence, is only possible in an enriching communal life, else an individual would simply fall in and fall out of a series of interactions with others, not holding any meaning or adding value to their experience.

In place of a mathematical notion of equality, equality for Dewey protects the irreplaceability of every existence, recognizing the distinctive qualities of each. Equality as a central value of democracy safeguards individuals against exploitation. Since an individual is not just a mind endowed with reason, observing this world, but rather is very much a product of various socialization processes, and that mind does not precede social interactions but is per se constructed by the latter: “ it is through association that man has acquired his individuality and it is through association that he exercise it”, thus a democratic life must promise the coming together of “the great community”. Fraternity develops a social consciousness on the part of individuals whereby they can imagine a shared future, their own philosophy, for what is philosophy but an intellectualized wish of a generation uneased by its extant conditions.


Since the idea of democracy is not simply about casting one’s vote but an organic way of moral living, an education that prepares one for a democratic life is an absolute necessity. In his Magnum Opus ‘Democracy and Education’ Dewey argued that curriculum-based and mechanistic learning taught in schools didn’t promote active participation in civic life since it understood moral participation in fairly narrow terms and abstracted an individual from its social relations. So far education has claimed to develop all the faculties of an individual but implicit in such an aim, yet again, is the dominant atomistic individualism, which fails to consider a child as a whole “intellectually, socially, morally and physically”. Education thus only trains individuals to become viable human resources that can then be traded in the labor markets, where interaction with other beings, though inevitable, is not consciously desired since the strong exploit the weak and the results of the shared activity cannot be equally appreciated. To Dewey, the moral aim of any education is training for communal life, a democratic way of living. Although children can be objectively taught about the merits and demerits of democracy it does not follow that they know what it is to be democratic in one’s practical affairs.

Therefore, education must identify the “function” of each individual, a normative concept in Dewey’s ethical thought, which prescribes the best relationship of mutual adjustment between an individual and the society, allowing the fuller development of one’s moral character. Turning to the initial question we began our inquiry with, whether democracy can warrant a life that is morally sound, as Dewey says-- “The idea of democracy is a wider and fuller idea than can be exemplified in the state even at its best”, it is to be imagined as an ideal, never becoming a fact of life but always to be strived for and realized through communication and enlightenment.


Larry A. Hickman, Thomas M.Alexander, The Essential Dewey Vol. 1 Pragmatism, Education, Democracy, Indiana University Press, 1998

  • Philosophy and democracy (1919)

  • The Moral Training Given by the School Community (From Moral Principles in Education 1909)

  • Aims in Education (From Democracy and Education 1916)

  • Search for the Great Community ( From the Public and its Problems 1927)


Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

Russell, Bertrand, History Of Western Philosophy

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Editor Robert L. Simon, Social and Political Philosophy, Blackwell Publishers

National Endowment for the Humanities

Kavya Singh is a Philosophy Honours Undergraduate at Miranda House, University of Delhi. Her current interests in philosophy revolve around subject matters of Social-Political philosophy, Linguistic philosophy, and the Study of Logic.


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