Pragmatic philosopher John Dewey once said, “Growth itself is the only moral end.” To philosophers a word like “only” means a lot more than it does to most of us. And here, in the Twenty-First Century, looking back on the wreckage and horror of the Twentieth, it’s easy to dismiss such a sentiment with a “meh” and move on to the next soundbite. And “self-help”? Fahgettaboudit!
After all, we’ve had it up to our ears with “growth,” haven’t we? Now we know something Dewey did not: that when “personal” met “growth,” sparks flew and wedding bells rang, and out of that union many fortunes and many suckers have been born. It’s easy at this point to cynically dismiss the whole enchilada.
“Development” is an even more problematic word. “Personal development.” Ugh. That’s the personal. And in the communal sphere, some of us live in the “developed world” where we have “developers” producing something called . . . “developments.” These developments have produced a great deal of sterile, ugly space.
Somewhere, sometime, in the last century many came to believe that the “onward and upward” march of humanity wasn’t such a sound formula for growth. Somewhere back there “onward” and “upward” and “developed” too often began it mean trodding on the heads of the poor, over the bodies of animals and plants, across the last bits of pristine earth.
(The spell check in my word-processing program tries to prevent me from typing “trodding,” offering instead “trod” and “trodden.” Is there a grammatical conspiracy against admitting that we have trodden and we are trodding still?)
Somewhere in there humanists such as Dewey, who thought that it was all up to humanity itself, not a supernatural being, to do the growing and developing began to be dismissed as naive. Somewhere in there the neo-orthodox, such as theologian Karl Barth, began to say—can’t you see that Satan, or at the least humanity’s flawed nature, is in charge and must be handled with a chain?
When Dewey said “growth itself is the only moral end,” he meant we, us—he meant growing, developing, cultivating the human psyche and human interactions, not the wetlands or the aquifers. He meant our individual and communal selves. Dewey meant development and growth in such things as ethics and art and democracy, not in the grossness of the national product. Or the boundaries of empire.
In this, Dewey was joining a long line of non-Christian Western philosophers who taught that eudaimonia, “human flourishing,” arises through an “examined life” lived in pursuit of virtue. It isn’t about human perfection, but rather about being a bit better than we were born, a bit better than other primates such as we.
The human right to this pursuit may have been what Thomas Jefferson was talking about when he wrote that human beings have three “unalienable rights,” one of which is the “pursuit of happiness.”
That this curious and intriguing phrase gets discussed far less in the United States than what the Second Amendment means, and what it allows, perhaps tells us more than we want to know about the development of the US since that document declared independence. I suspect that Jefferson would have agreed with Dewey that democracy itself “begins in conversation.” That’s the communal aspect of growth.
As another fan of the pursuit of virtue, Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, put it, “I believe the process of understanding the problems is itself a good.” This is not about talk; it is about conversation—and you can’t converse alone. Conversation is democracy. It is communal. And it is growth, when we actually converse rather than pontificate—an ability based in individual growth.
If the pursuit of happiness were defined as the ability to pursue questions of virtue, isn’t it interesting to consider what it would mean for each US citizen to have the right to pursue happiness?
The pursuit of happiness . . . Should I head for the self-help section of my local bookstore to begin my pursuit? Uh, no. The pursuit of happiness—the pursuit of virtue, the pursuit of truth and meaning and democracy—exists as conversation for a good reason—it’s communal as well as personal. Perhaps that’s the biggest reason Jefferson’s line gets ignored—we have defined happiness as an individual pursuit in the United States, land of individualists and of self-help. That solipsism has had its logical outcome in mass murder and misery.
The personal growth Dewey advocated was a personal growth within the larger communal whole. The pursuit of virtue, after all, is about how we treat others far more than it is about how we treat ourselves. Dewey had in mind the ideal of the Socratic dialogue, which isn’t easy to live up to. It can’t be found on TV. Or among pundits.
Growth itself is the only moral end because it is about striving to be a better human being for the good of the whole, for human florishing. The gods can’t be much help with that. It is a profoundly human-ist thing to do.