(De)Liberation: John Dewey’s “Human Nature and Conduct” in the 21st Century

by Miles Raymer

Author’s Note: This essay was originally published as a three-part series by Science and Philosophy on Medium (see posts here, here, and here). This is the original unedited version, which includes an additional section in Part Three that I edited out when submitting for publication.

Introduction: (De)Liberation in Times of Crisis

In 1918, the world was reeling from the impact of two global catastrophes––one created by human bellicosity and the other by biological happenstance. While millions perished in the trenches and torn landscapes of World War I, millions more grappled with one of history’s deadliest strains of influenza. For soldiers, the prospect of dying from an enemy’s bullet or bayonet may have seemed preferable to death by filth and disease. For noncombatants, it must have seemed inconceivably cruel for providence to celebrate the last year of the Great War by kicking off a pandemic.

Given the intensity of the moment, 1918 would not appear to be an obvious year for progress in our understanding of the human condition. That spring, however, American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey delivered three lectures at Stanford University, which were later expanded and published in a volume called Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology. The book not only identified the essential cognitive patterns that came to dominate modern psychology, but also posited practical ethical frameworks for translating those patterns into intelligent agency.

Human Nature and Conduct

Dewey’s driving desire was to end the historical severance of ethics from the natural conditions in which ethical inquiry unfolds. This requires us to treat ethics not primarily as an internal, private process, but rather a social, public project in which “the issue shifts from within personality to an engineering issue” (10). Dewey explains:

A morals based on study of human nature instead of upon disregard for it would find the facts of man continuous with those of the rest of nature and would thereby ally ethics with physics and biology. It would find the nature and activities of one person coterminous with those of other human beings, and therefore link ethics with the study of history, sociology, law and economics…The intelligent acknowledgement of the continuity with nature, man and society will alone secure a growth of morals which will be serious without being fanatical, aspiring without sentimentality, adapted to reality without conventionality, sensible without taking the form of calculation of profits, idealistic without being romantic. (12-3)

Looking back on the last century of intellectual progress, two conclusions are obvious. The first is that the interdisciplinary “growth of morals” recommended by Dewey has proceeded with encouraging alacrity. The second is that, despite our positive gains, there is still much to be done. As we seek to understand and undertake this work amidst a moment of renewed global crisis, Dewey’s prescient perspectives have much to offer. Returning to and building on these frameworks can help us gain clarity and actively increase our autonomy and well-being––a process I will refer to as (De)Liberation.

Part One: Habit and Impulse

I. Habit

“Man is a creature of habit,” Dewey writes, “not of reason nor yet of instinct” (125). This was of course not an original assertion; the importance of habit in Western Philosophy goes back at least as far as Aristotle, and Dewey’s work owes much to William James, who in the late 19th century characterized adults as “mere walking bundles of habits” and introduced the fundamentals of psychology to American culture (The Writings of William James, 20).

Dewey’s particular take, however, honors his stated goal of aligning ethical thinking with our animal biology and sociality. To him, habits are “physiological functions” that are “acquired” and represent “the cooperation of organism and environment” (14). Social influence and direction, which Dewey denotes as “customs,” are especially critical:

Customs persist because individuals form their personal habits under conditions set by prior customs. An individual usually acquires the morality as he inherits the speech of his social group. The activities of the group are already there, and some assimilation of his own acts to their pattern is a prerequisite of a share therein, and hints of having any part in what is going on. (58)

Habituation is an ongoing process by which people internalize patterns of behavior from their environment and automatically employ them to get along and get ahead. These powerful patterns “rule our thoughts, determining which shall appear and be strong and which shall pass from light into obscurity” (25). Here Dewey begins a sustained assault on the myth of the “economic man” (or “homo economicus“), an idea that arose in the 19th century and persisted throughout the 20th century in various guises. Dewey rightly considered this a disastrous misreading of human psychology:

Reason pure of all influence from prior habit is a fiction…The medium of habit filters all the material that reaches our perception and thought. The filter is not, however, chemically pure. It is a reagent which adds new qualities and rearranges what is received…Thus our purposes and commands regarding action (whether physical or moral) come to us through the refracting medium of bodily and moral habits. (31-2)

We now know that the brain itself is the primary “reagent” or “refracting medium” that “adds new qualities and rearranges what is perceived,” in concert with our ancillary perceptive mechanisms. This acknowledgement of the vastly subjective nature of experience, which after Dewey’s time helped produce postmodernism and its associated relativist blunders, did not lead Dewey to question the fundamental validity of ethics or rationality. Rather, it called him back to our shared environment as the location from which common viewpoints and projects are derived: “A psychology based upon habits…will…fix its attention upon the objective conditions in which habits are formed and operate” (86). This focus on the relationship between habits and objective conditions is a cornerstone of Deweyan thought, and our first step in the path to (De)Liberation.

II. Impulse

Since impulses arise within the body and physically bring our habits into existence, addressing habits first may put the cart before the horse. Dewey anticipates this objection, using it as an opportunity to reveal his unique interpretation of impulse:

Impulses although first in time are never primary in fact; they are secondary and dependent…the meaning of native activities is not native; it is acquired…These phenomena which have a meaning spring from original native reactions to stimuli, yet they depend also upon the responsive behavior of others. (89-90, emphasis his)

We see here the overwhelming extent to which Dewey’s view of the human organism is socially-centered and intersubjective; even something as internal and private as an impulse is meaningless without the context of other people and the surrounding environment. Impulses unify us in the recognition of our common humanity, with all our activities and desires springing from a shared “native stock of instincts”:

The same original fears, angers, loves and hates are hopelessly entangled in the most opposite institutions. The thing we need to know is how a native stock has been modified by interaction with different environments. (92)

Making room for diversity through expression of custom as well as sameness through biological heritage, Dewey forms up the foundation of a vibrantly pluralistic civilization. This foundation is firmer today than in Dewey’s era, with much edifice and art still needing to be crafted.

The relationship between impulse and habit is similar to that between an energetic child and a routinized but pliable grandparent. Impulses occur sporadically, often unexpectedly, pestering our habits but also keeping them from becoming too calcified. “Impulses are the pivots upon which the re-organization of activities turn,” Dewey explains. “They are agencies of deviation, for giving new directions to old habits and changing their quality” (93). Despite its capricious and sometimes untrustworthy character, we depend on impulse as an “indispensable source of liberation” (105).

III. (De)Liberation Denied

Before exploring the optimistic prospects of (De)Liberation, we should confront the insidious ways in which 21st-century society renders our habits and impulses weapons of mass destruction. To bring our language up to date, the mental processes Dewey understood as habit and impulse we now call “System 1″ thinking, as popularized by the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. This type of thinking, also referred to as heuristics, “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control” (Thinking, Fast and Slow20).

Other modern thinkers have created a plethora of terms and images with which to think about this aspect of our psychological makeup, from Jonathan Haidt‘s “emotional elephant” to Antonio Damasio‘s “somatic-marker hypothesis” to Edward O. Wilson‘s “evolutionary chimera, living on intelligence steered by the demands of animal instinct” (The Social Conquest of Earth13). Each of these plays its part in revealing just how automatic and unconscious most human behavior turns out to be. Dewey was right about the untenability of the “economic man”; our status as “rational optimization machines” has eroded with each passing decade (BehaveRobert Sapolsky, 642).

Philosopher Thomas Metzinger provides an excellent summary of this predicament:

We are all constantly swimming in an unconscious sea of intercorporality, permanently mirroring one another with the aid of various unconscious components and precursors of the phenomenal Ego. Long before conscious, high-level social understanding arrived on the scene, and long before language evolved and philosophers developed complicated theories about what it takes for one human being to acknowledge another as a person and a rational individual, we were already bathed in the waters of implicit, bodily intersubjectivity. Few great social philosophers of the past would have thought that social understanding had anything to do with the premotor cortex, and that ‘motor ideas’ would play such a central role in the emergence of social understanding. Who could have expected that shared thought would depend upon shared ‘motor representations’? Or that the functional aspects of the human self-model that are necessary for the development of social consciousness are nonconceptual, prerational, and pretheoretical? (The Ego Tunnel171)

While Metzinger goes on to highlight a few of the 19th- and 20th-century thinkers who got the ball rolling, he does not mention Dewey. But Human Nature and Conduct clearly situates Dewey as one of the “few great social philosophers of the past” who identified deep connections between the body, other bodies, and the physical world that became more and more obvious as the 20th century gave way to the 21st.

Today we know that people are somewhat less sensitive to changes in their environment than Dewey supposed. The powerful influence of genetics and hardwired stages neural development cannot be ignored. The reality of System 1 thinking shouldn’t extinguish our claims to rational and intelligent behavior, but it does starkly illuminate our cognitive weaknesses. Neuroscientist Kevin J. Mitchell explains:

The process of refinement by experience is, by its very nature, self-terminating. Connections that are reliably driven by sensory stimuli will be strengthened and those that conflict with patterns of experience will be weakened or even pruned away. That process changes the patterns of activity that arise in response to the next stimulus, biasing them toward that one pattern and away from another, in turn further reinforcing that bias by the same processes of plasticity. Eventually, through this positive feedback, you will get a system that is very good at processing certain types of stimuli––the ones we encounter reliably and that matter to us––but that has lost its capacity to learn to discriminate other types of stimuli. Indeed, the biochemical processes of plasticity that underlie wholesale activity-dependent refinement are actively turned off in the brain after a certain stage (at different times for different systems), consolidating the now-optimized circuitry and closing off potential for further change. (Innate, 90, emphasis his)

Exacting exploitation of the “self-terminating” nature of experience could close the door permanently to (De)Liberation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the last several decades of technological progress. Mind-bending inventions such as the Internet, personal computers, smartphones, and social media have taught us just how easy it is to manipulate habit and impulse, imprisoning our attention in dopamine-dosing mental loops that preclude reflection and stifle autonomy. Increasingly, the modern human is subject to the constant scrutiny of systems that track our habits and harness unconscious impulses to nudge us toward goals over which we exert little or no influence. Historian Yuval Noah Harari explains:

For thousands of years philosophers and prophets have urged people to know themselves. But this advice was never more urgent than in the twenty-first century, because unlike in the days of Laozi or Socrates, now you have serious competition. Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu, and the government are all racing to hack you. Not your smartphone, not your computer, and not your bank account; they are in a race to hack you and your organic operating system. You might have heard that we are living in the era of hacking computers, but that’s not even half the truth. In fact, we are living in the era of hacking humans.

The algorithms are watching you right now. They are watching where you go, what you buy, whom you meet. Soon they will monitor all your steps, all your breaths, all your heartbeats.  They are relying on Big Data and machine learning to get to know you better and better. And once these algorithms know you better than you know yourself, they can control and manipulate you, and you won’t be able to do much about it…In the end, it’s a simple empirical matter: if the algorithms indeed understand what’s happening within you better than you understand it yourself, authority will shift to them. (21 Lessons for the 21st Century272, emphasis his)

Given the current state of global affairs, it’s hard to argue that we haven’t already ceded too much authority to algorithmic systems controlled by a tiny number of people leveraging more wealth than ancient kings could have ever dreamed of. And all this is happening at the same moment that our ecosystem is collapsing, liberal democracies are failing, and a pandemic is surging across the planet. Careful, long-term planning and radical reinvention through scaled collective action are, it would seem, the only things standing between the average person and prolonged immiseration.

Part Two: Deliberation and Intelligence

I. Deliberation

In order to see how Dewey’s ideas chart the path to (De)Liberation, we should begin with his description of what it means to deliberate. He describes deliberation as an unusual but vital mode of thinking, one that takes place when our habits become interrupted by some external impediment. This impediment cuts us off from our typical automated response, clearing the way for a deliberative process Dewey calls “dramatic rehearsal”:

Deliberation is a dramatic rehearsal (in imagination) of various competing possible lines of action. It starts from the blocking of efficient overt action, due to that conflict of prior habit and newly released impulse to which reference has been made. Then each habit, each impulse, involved in the temporary suspense of overt action takes its turn in being tried out. Deliberation is an experiment in finding out what the various lines of possible action are really like. It is an experience in making various combinations of selected elements of habits and impulses, to see what the resultant action would be like if it were entered upon. But the trial is in imagination, not in overt fact. The experiment is carried on by tentative rehearsals in thought which do not affect physical facts outside the body. Thought runs ahead and foresees outcomes, and thereby avoids having to await the instruction of actual failure and disaster. An act overtly tried out is irretrievable, its consequences cannot be blotted out. An act tried out in imagination is not final or fatal. It is retrievable. (190)

Simply put, dramatic rehearsal happens when we stop and think about our next move rather than using some previously-adopted habit to direct our action. It is the mental process by which our habits become the subject of active reflection and revision, as well as the imaginative arena in which new habits are born. As noted previously, impulses play an important role here as the energetic force driving habit reconstruction.

Dewey points out that deliberation itself can and should become a habit––an internal mechanism that routinely interrupts other habits and impulses the same way an external constraint might. This is necessary in order to develop an eclectic and adaptable array of options for action:

Variety of competing tendencies enlarges the world. It brings a diversity of considerations before the mind, and enables action to take place finally in view of an object generously conceived and delicately refined, composed by a long process of selections and combinations. In popular phrase, to be deliberate is to be slow, unhurried. It takes time to put things in order. (197)

Though he cautions against becoming “overinterested in the delights of reflection,” Dewey believes that individuals who cultivate strong deliberative habits will ultimately act more intelligently (197).

Deliberation helps us stay in touch with “what kind of person one is to become, what kind of a world is making” (217). Again we find the process of self-making inextricable from the process of world-making; since our personal development obtains from conditions and customs in the outside world, self-making efforts that are disconnected from efforts to transform our social and physical environments are likely to fail. Deliberation is how we imagine a better world for all humanity, one in which our better selves will have the opportunity to emerge.

Deliberation for its own sake is mere naval-gazing. “Deliberation has its beginning in troubled activity and its conclusion in choice of a course of action,” Dewey tells us (199). To get endlessly caught up in considerations of “troubled activity” that admit no practical course of action steals from deliberation its deserved conclusion. Rather, we must enlist the insights of deliberation in the service of intelligent action. This is how we approach (De)Liberation.

II. Intelligence

Intelligence for Dewey is found in the rational and ethical coordination of habit, impulse, and deliberative thought. “The genuine heart of reasonableness (and of goodness in conduct),” he writes, “lies in effective mastery of the conditions which now enter into action” (67, emphasis his). This insistence on the importance of the present moment is pervasive throughout Human Nature and Conduct, demonstrating Dewey’s preoccupation with the protean demands of existence and the future’s inherent unpredictability. Intelligence springs from a continual struggle to clearly observe present conditions, to deliberate honestly regarding how we should accept or seek to reshape those conditions, and to use the products of deliberation to fuel our activities.

Intelligence is difficult to realize, not in the least because it must navigate a constantly-fluctuating and often-conflicting plurality of desires and needs. Such desires and needs arise within and between individuals, as well as within and between communities. Regardless of the scale required to intelligently pursue our goals, Dewey argues that we must avoid treating reason, habit, and impulse as competing interests locked in a zero-sum game:

Rationality, once more, is not a force to evoke against impulse and habit. It is the attainment of a working harmony among diverse desires. “Reason” as a noun signifies the happy cooperation of a multitude of dispositions, such as sympathy, curiosity, exploration, experimentation, frankness, pursuit––to follow things through––circumspection, to look about at the context, etc…Reason, the rational attitude, is the resulting disposition, not a ready-made antecedent which can be invoked at will and set into movement. The man who would intelligently cultivate intelligence will widen, not narrow, his life of strong impulses while aiming at their happy coincidence in operation. (196)

As we widen our horizon of impulsive and habitual possibilities, intelligence is discovered through “continuous, vital readaptation” (240). The rational methods of inquiry that provide momentum here are never fixed, but are updating, upgrading, blending self-generated insights with environmental feedback.

Science is an indispensable servant of intelligence, providing the primary means by which environmental conditions are examined, standardized, and communicated. Further, scientific knowledge is the necessary launch pad for any technical or moral project that seeks to escape the mundanity of imagination and soar into the real world:

Every gain in natural science makes possible new aims. That is, the discovery of how things do occur makes it possible to conceive of their happening at will, and gives us a start on selecting and combining the conditions, the means, to command their happening. (235)

Recognition of humanity’s continuity with nature thus becomes also a recognition of the continuity of ethics with the scientific enterprise:

Human nature exists and operates in an environment. And it is not “in” that environment as coins are in a box, but as a plant is in the sunlight and soil. It is of them, continuous with their energies, dependent upon their support, capable of increase only as it utilizes them, and as it gradually rebuilds from their crude indifference an environment genially civilized. Hence physics, chemistry, history, statistics, engineering science, are a part of disciplined moral knowledge so far as they enable us to understand the conditions and agencies through which man lives, and on account of which he forms and executes his plans. Moral science is not something with a separate province. (296)

This assertion may seem commonplace or even passé to our modern sensibilities, but a century ago this was still a bold and unpopular position. The moral progress of the 20th and 21st centuries, propelled by a fruitful marriage between ethics and the sciences, owes at least a portion of its success to Dewey.

Progress through (De)Liberation has been and will continue to be achieved through the intelligent and ongoing application of efforts to analyze and improve the conditions of life. “The road to freedom,” Dewey writes, “may be found in that knowledge of facts which enables us to employ them in connection and desires and aims” (303). This is not a capricious or fleeting freedom, but a disciplined one, wrought from careful study, instructive experience, and hard-won mastery of knowledge.

Part Three: The Theory and Practice of Contemporary (De)Liberation

I. Theory

To define (De)Liberation in contemporary terms, we can start with Kahneman’s “System 2″ thinking:

System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration. (Thinking, Fast and Slow, 21)

System 2 provides evidence for the mechanisms by which Dewey’s processes of deliberation and intelligence can operate, but it doesn’t take us far enough. This is because one of System 2′s primary functions is to justify decisions made by unconscious processes, weaving a narrative that imbues automaticity with an (at least somewhat false) sense of identity and agency.

To get closer to true (De)Liberation, we should look to Mark Johnson, a philosopher and Dewey scholar. In Morality for HumansJohnson posits an additional mode of cognition characterized by “reflective, critical, and imaginative moral deliberation” (2). Let’s call this “System 3″ thinking:

Increasing complexity of organism-environment transactions can result in the emergence of new functional capacities of mind, thought, and language (including all forms of symbolic interaction, such as gesture, ritual, art, literature, architecture, music, and dance).  The primary results of this increasing complexity are the multiple varieties of human well-being and flourishing. Flourishing is no longer merely bio-regulation, growth of the organism, and fluid action in a physical environment, bust also includes many forms of individual, interpersonal, and group flourishing and meaning-making.

The dramatic consequence of this increased complexity of experience is that success in living a life of well-being can no longer be handled entirely by intuitive, automated, nonconscious, unreflective cognitive processes. We need a more deliberative, critical, reflective track for assessing how things are going, grasping the fine textures of nuanced social interactions, proposing alternative solutions, and deciding what our best course of action might be within a problematic situation from our current perspective.  We need this critical reflection because we need a way to evaluate competing values and courses of action in highly complex, indeterminate individual and social situations. (86-7, emphasis his)

Johnson’s System 3 is a contemporary rebirth of Dewey’s theories, one rooted in the soil of modern science but branching into the sky of ethical possibility. Johnson doesn’t reject the unpleasant reality that human thought is dominated by heuristics and biases, but he also doesn’t resign himself to thinking that’s all we are or could be. Neither did Dewey, and neither should we. Humanistic psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman agrees:

Even though many (perhaps most!) of our behaviors are influenced by automatic habits, and consciousness typically arrives late to the party, consciousness still has at least some capacity to select among behavioral possibilities…It’s hotly debated whether we literally have free will. I won’t settle the debate here, but I believe our most self-defining strivings or callings do give us free will in the sense that they allow us to intentionally cross the Rubicon from deliberation to commitment. If we’ve chosen our purpose wisely, we can intentionally shift our priorities and reorganize our strivings so that they help serve a common purpose, enabling us to transcend our current selves and move toward our best possible selves. (Transcend161-2)

The act of (De)Liberation is precisely Kaufman’s notion of what it means to “cross the Rubicon from deliberation to commitment.” This happens when System 3 thinking returns us to the social-political project of intelligently improving our environment. Without this step, progress falters. If ideas change but conditions remain static, entrenched habits will prevail and novel impulses will be unable to trigger needed adaptation. As Dewey argues, this ethical activity is not private but public, having everything to do with our families, friends, communities, and political coalitions. Mitchell gives an updated interpretation:

We should remember that the most important thing in each person’s environment is other people. Those are the ones we can cooperate or compete with, those are the threats that pose the most danger and the sources of the most relevant opportunities. That means that the optimal profile of behavioral parameters for any individual depends on the profiles of everyone else around that person. Not in a simple way, however; it’s not the case that the best solution is to be like everyone else––sometimes quite the opposite. (Innate, 260)

This highlights the importance of creating, disseminating, and continually revising (De)Liberative structural norms. Fortunately, there are lots of practical ways we can begin to radically reimagine society in favor of (De)Liberation. Rutger Bregman puts forth several useful examples in his book Utopia for Realistswhich calls for an end to fashionable cynicism and a return to sincere utopian aspirations:

We have to direct our minds to the future. To stop consuming our own discontent through polls and the relentlessly bad-news media. To consider alternatives and form new collectives. To transcend this confining zeitgeist and recognize our shared idealism.

Maybe then we’ll also be able to again look beyond ourselves and out at the world. There we’ll see that good old progress is still marching along on its merry way. We’ll see that we live in a marvelous age, a time of diminishing hunger and war and of surging prosperity and life expectancies. But we’ll also see just how much there is still left for us––the richest 10%, 5%, or 1%––to do. (20)

To summarize, we embody (De)Liberation by treating life as an ongoing, open-ended investigation into the true nature of our physical and social existence, striking a balance between reflection and action as we seek to increase well-being and autonomy.

II. Practice

For readers who might be thinking all this talk of (De)Liberation is a bit too abstract, I’d like to offer a personal anecdote to illustrate how these ideas can be practiced in everyday life. Over the last five years or so, I developed a habit of drinking India Pale Ales (IPAs)––a type of beer I adore in all its glorious varieties. It is something I indulge in for private pleasure, usually while reading fiction, as well as for social lubricant. Like all habits, this arose through a combination of internal impulses (e.g. enjoyment and relaxation) and external ones (e.g. work-related pressures, drinking fancy beer as a petty status symbol, beguiling brewery marketing).

I used to drink whenever I felt like it, which was usually not more than a few times per week or just on weekends, and I didn’t have rules about when or how much. Then, on the 4th of July, 2019, I found myself very drunk, sprawled on my living room floor, weeping as I told my new puppy that he was too good to deserve a Dad as nasty as me. Then I passed out and missed my chance to the enjoy the evening with friends and family who had gathered for the holiday.

I awoke the next morning awash in shame and embarrassment, and more than a little hungover. Worst of all was the realization that I had acted impulsively, drinking to excess and becoming maudlin in a way that felt out of character. But, true to Dewey’s theories, the same impulse that put me over the edge also triggered a necessary inquiry into my drinking habits. My feelings of bewilderment and regret, along with the concerns of my family and friends, forced me to deliberate seriously about the role drinking played in my life, and to think critically about how I should change it. Certain impulses told me it was no big deal––a one-off––and my ingrained habits resisted revision. “Nothing to see here,” was at first the dominant message. But the more I deliberated, the more I realized that while I wasn’t yet experiencing a serious drinking problem, the ingredients were all there.

This dramatic rehearsal allowed me to recover action through formation of a plan to control my drinking via personal rules and social accountability. I decided I would drink no more than three nights a week, that I would only drink on certain nights, and that I would cap the total number of drinks I was allowed each night. Further, I told my family and closest friends about the details of the plan, which kept me honest out of fear that I would disappoint them if I didn’t follow through, and also gave them license to bring it up with me if I didn’t honor my commitments.

The system worked. I learned over time that having strict rules was key because it allowed me to take advantage of the benefits of deliberation without having to constantly deliberate. I didn’t have to ask myself whether or not I’d have a drink on Tuesday night, because I’m not allowed to drink on Tuesdays. I didn’t have to decide not to have that fifth beer on Friday, because that was forbidden. By way of an intelligent reorganization of the conditions under which I allowed myself to drink, I was able to revise a habit I enjoyed without having to abandon it. I don’t think my particular solution is one that would work for everybody (habits form and operate differently for different individuals), but I do consider this a successful if minor act of personal (De)Liberation.

Conclusion: (De)Liberation for All

To realize its full promise, we must seek (De)Liberation far beyond the scattered margins of personal life, leveraging its power through collective action. The timing is both intimidating and propitious. Humanity is currently living through three overlapping and interrelated crises––one acute and two chronic. The acute crisis is the COVID-19 pandemic, which as of this writing has caused more than 27 million confirmed cases and nearly 900,000 deaths worldwide. The two chronic crises are climate change and the erosion of liberal democracies around the world. The latter is exacerbated by increasing skepticism that liberal democracy is the best form of government to secure the rights necessary for a free society, the former by the inertial robustness of human nature itself. To make matters worse, the negative impacts of all these crises are compounded by rising global inequality.

The stakes are high and the implications concrete. Looking back over history, Dewey reminds us that progress has been a messy and costly affair:

We realize how little the progress of man has been the product of intelligent guidance, how largely it has been a by-product of accidental upheavals, even though by an apologetic interest in behalf of some privileged institution we later transmute chance into providence. We have depended upon the clash of war, the stress of revolution, the emergence of heroic individuals, the impact of migrations generated by war and famine, the incoming of barbarians, to change established institutions. Instead of constantly utilizing unused impulse to effect continuous reconstruction, we have waited till an accumulation of stresses suddenly breaks through the dikes of custom…It is not safe to rely upon this expensive method of renewing civilization. We need to discover how to rejuvenate it from within. (102-3)

Accidental progress, though better than no progress at all, is insufficient for the effective maintenance of a flourishing, long-lived society. We must pursue intentional progress, using our ever-growing stock of scientific knowledge to anticipate threats and solve them before they arrive ravenous at our collective doorstep.

Here’s how I think Dewey would have us meet the moment:

Thought too often is specialized in a remote and separate pursuit, or employed in a hard way to contrive the instrumentality of “success.” Intellect is too often made a tool for a systematized apology for things as “they are,” that is for customs that benefit the class in power… No wonder that at times catastrophes that affect men in common are welcomed. For the moment they turn science away from its abstract technicalities into a servant of some human aspiration; the hard, chilly calculations of intellect are swept away by floods of sympathy and common loyalties.

But, alas, emotion without thought is unstable. It rises like the tide and subsides like the tide irrespective of what it has accomplished. It is easily diverted into any side channel dug by old habits or provided by cool cunning, or it disperses itself aimlessly. Then comes the reaction of disillusionment, and men turn all the more fiercely to the pursuit of narrow ends where they are habituated to use observation and planning and where they have acquired some control of conditions. The separation of warm emotion and cool intelligence is the great moral tragedy. (257-8).

Who among us has mixed “warm emotion and cool intelligence” into (De)Liberative medicine? I will highlight a few who are on the cutting edge, noting with full transparency that they reflect my personal, political, and national preferences.

Perhaps no organization can claim better (De)Liberative credentials than the Effective Altruism movement. This movement combines hard-nosed utilitarian calculations with moral wisdom and broad consequentialist goals, relentlessly seeking new ways to “do good better,” as co-founder William MacAskill puts it. Though Dewey was critical of the utilitarian approach, he imagined that we could one day make “accounting and auditing a subordinate factor in discovering the meaning of present activity,” using data and statistics as “a means of stating future results more exactly and objectively and thus of making action more humane” (214-5). Effective Altruism is arguably humanity’s best available embodiment of this ideal.

On the American political front, Andrew Yang‘s recent presidential campaign signified a huge shift in America’s (De)Liberative potential. Yang’s bid for the Democratic nomination stood out because of his combination of data-driven policies, futurist orientation, and compassion for his fellow citizens. His central policy proposal was The Freedom Dividend––a form of basic income designed to end abject poverty across the nation and set the stage for a new economic era of Human Capitalism. This heroic focus on direct support for our most vulnerable citizens earned Yang credibility across the political spectrum, which he is now injecting into a new project called Humanity Forward.

There has probably never been a more pressing need for technological reform, and The Center for Humane Technology is imagining and advocating for overdue changes. After years of working in the tech industry and witnessing its problems firsthand, co-founder Tristan Harris unplugged and did some serious (De)Liberation. He and the other stalwarts at the Center now spend their time fighting for a technological future that prioritizes well-being and puts an end to the currently-commonplace abuses of our attention and personal data.

In the media space, Yascha Mounk‘s Persuasion is a new and exciting effort to restore sanity and respect to our online communication. This project pledges to defend the values of a free society and––contrary to the prevailing dynamics on social media––”to persuade, rather than to mock or troll, those who disagree with us.” Hopefully this and other (De)Liberative online communities can begin to salvage and improve our civic discourse.

One hallmark of modern (De)Liberation the availability of large global datasets, combined with the technology to digitize, visualize, and make them readily available to the public. Our World in Data is providing this service with incomparable meticulousness and depth. Their analysis and presentation of COVID-19 data is remarkable, as are their other deep dives into the worldwide statistics on poverty, disease, hunger, climate change, war, existential risks, and inequality. These resources are indispensable for activists, researchers, ethicists of all stripes.

With renewed calls for police and prison reform in the United States, people are taking a fresh look at Restorative Justice. This practice is decades old and includes methods adapted from much older indigenous traditions. Though costly, Restorative Justice has a long track record of success. It has never been tried at scale in the US, but it is possible that this (De)Liberative method of addressing crime will now gain momentum and become a bigger player in American communities and around the world.

There are plenty of others pursuing worthy (De)Liberation, but these are the ones that have caught my attention and impressed me most in recent years. I hope readers who made it this far will leave a comment and share their favorite (De)Liberative individuals or organizations.

Finally, don’t forget that (De)Liberation is, first and foremost, something we all have to experiment with and take responsibility for as individuals. The tools with which to understand our nature, improve our conduct, and change the world are useless if we don’t pick them up.