Vanderbilt Law Review


Anton Donoso

First Page



Since the death of John Dewey ten years ago, his thought has been the subject of a number of works, some of the most significant of which deal with his philosophy of law and of justice. The question of his conception of justice arises out of his general effort to show that the resolution of moral conflicts between various claimants is possible by the use of the scientific method, by which is meant intelligent examination justified by reliable public test through reference to consequences. This entails the formulation of a norm of justice that is both valid (true) and morally binding (obligatory). Excluding the "positivistic" methodological materialists, who question the very possibility of ethical knowledge based on experimental grounds, there is disagreement among the pragmatic ethical naturalists themselves as to what a norm of justice would entail. The observation has been made that this disagreement is due mainly to the ambiguity of Dewey's argument. It is said that his position lends itself to two divergent interpretations, both of which have lead to types of reductionism, one of whose consequences is the impossibility of applying instrumentalistic ethics to a particular issue. To say the least, this is most unfortunate in an area known as practical philosophy. One aspect in the overall solution to the acknowledged ambiguity in Dewey's own treatment of "justice" is an examination of the context out of which emerged his initial concern with this "virtue." It will be the attempt of this paper to present this context by correlating Dewey's thought on the ethical foundation for the pragmatic conception of justice. The context is one of concern with the Right and the Good. And, the resolution of the problem (the problem of the impossibility of applying instrumentalistic ethics to a particular issue) will be seen to have its ethical basis in Dewey's insistence that we cannot go from the idea of duty in general to some particular act as dutiful unless we make a "connection" between Right (the best way of doing something) and Good (the object that is to be attained).