Collective Good & Intellectual Inquiry

by Virginia Craft

According to John Dewey in his book The Public And Its Problems, recognizing the consequences of social action and creating the means to control those consequences so as to bring about better ones and avoid bad ones is an important obligation of what he sees a public’s goal to be.

He defines a public to be, “[…] all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions such to an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for” (15-16). In this way, a public determines whether consequences are desirable or not, and organizes to develop means for producing more desirable consequences. Dewey argues that this effort to recognize serious indirect consequences and to create means for controlling them is important for political function so that officials can organize effective agencies to produce more positive, pacifying results. Thus, Dewey believed political action, or political function, to be based on intelligent social action. Individuals coming into association with one another help develop the means for intelligently recognizing consequences that should be controlled to affect the future outcomes, just as officials should help control ends through purely intelligible means. Since individuals may not be directly engaged in producing negative consequences, Dewey suggests, “[…] special agencies and measures must be formed if they are to be attended to; or else some existing group must take on new functions” (27). Dewey calls for officials to be the organizers of a public or a state. When individuals come together as a public and intelligently recognize any negative consequences, officials come together to organize means to act on behalf of the public’s interests to produce more desirable consequences. The state is, then, for Dewey, “[…] the organization of the public effected through officials for the protection of the interests shared by its members” (33). Citizens, however, should not assume the state to be inherently good and useful. They should, as Dewey expresses, constantly watch and criticize the public officials to maintain a state’s integrity and usefulness (69). Getting the public involved to identify consequences and not merely relying on officials to do so will develop the means to change ends.

Communication is a key factor in change because only in it will a public collectively find itself. Thus communication is important in forming what Dewey calls a “Great Community”. He says, “We have the physical tools of communication as never before. The thoughts and aspirations congruous with them are not communicated, and hence are not common. Without such communication the public will remain shadowy and formless […] Till the Great Society is converted into a Great Community, the Public will remain in eclipse. Communication can alone create a great community” (142).

A great community, for Dewey, is an end goal for a public. A public should, once again, have an awareness of what consequences are, tie them to their source and be able to determine means by which they attempt to control them. As a whole, a public should realize that consequences are our problems, suffered by us. Dewey says that citizens in this great
community will tend toward participation and shared results. A public should be dependent on each other through collective action, and see collective action as ours and become conscious of consequences; a public realizes individual good through collective good. In this way, Dewey states, “The clear consciousness of a communal life, in all its implications, constitutes the idea of democracy” (149).

Democracy, in one way, means for Dewey that citizens vote to express interests, as opposed to an dictator (or “expert”) who imposes interests upon a public.   In a democracy, conflicts that are treated with inquiry lead to liberation of individuals. Inquiry produces means to better consequences. He proposes that we use intelligence and inquiry to develop better means to inquire into collective behavior of what a common interest is; democracy is an effort for us to do this communally. Dewey’s problem is that we need to find a way of intelligently directing our behavior to produce these better consequences.

However, Americans today seem more interested in the individual instead of the collective good. There is no real collective public; there is no real inquiry into, for example, the War in Iraq or the fact that we continue to screw up the environment. Like Dewey suggests, we have a tendency to just want to keep doing what we are doing out of our purely habituated interests. An example of this in today’s society I see is in consumerism. We have grown so accustomed to consuming ungodly amounts of goods that we do not think twice about the labor and the resources that go into producing those goods. Although Dewey argues that habits are positive because, “They relieve the mind from thought of means, thus freeing thought to deal with new conditions and purposes” (61), I feel that habits are not totally good but instead they dumb down our awareness of negative consequences, thus making it difficult to recognize when inquiry is necessary.

I believe that our current situation is such that we could benefit from Dewey’s proposals. However, our problem is one of a lack of awareness in regard to political matters. Individuals’ consciousness should be gained collectively as a public in order to intelligently recognize the negative externalities that are affecting them. Dewey identified technology to be the main culprit affecting society in the late 1920s when he was writing. He also showed technology to be a means to improve communication within a society. As a problem, according to Dewey, technology distracts people from political issues and directs their interests toward more superfluous endeavors, such as watching movies. He feels that if we use technology to improve communication (rather than to satisfy our superficial desires), then there will be a public interest in political matters.

The interests of our modern society along with massive amounts of technology today forms habits among individuals that further distracts us from political and social inquiry. We seek our ends not in pre-recognized and controlled consequences, but in the fastest, easiest ways of enhancing individual good. Just as Dewey was concerned about during his day, I feel
that our modern society as well as technology today is driving people away from any recognition of striving toward a collective good, or a great community, and inquiry into such to produce better consequences for all. People today—especially the youth that are so caught up in the glitz and glamour of all technology has to offer—seem more interested in the
newest movies coming out and the latest celebrity gossip than they are in any political issues or societal problems. Yet we have come to feel subjected to technology and do not see ourselves as collectively experiencing these consequences.

Dewey does not necessarily see technology as being an enemy. He says, “But without passage through a machine age, mankind’s hold upon what is needful as the preconditions of a free, flexible and many-colored life is so precarious and inequitable that competitive scramble for acquisition and frenzied use of the results of acquisition for purposes of excitation and display will be perpetuated” (217). I agree with him in that we can use technology to relieve us of doing certain things ourselves by rendering it as a means toward ends instead of merely ends in-itself (such as wanting that big TV to watch sports games or movies for pure, mindless entertainment). According to Dewey, in a fully developed technological age we will create the means to control and develop ends, not by simply doing more research for technology, but making use of the abundant amounts of technology we have available now. I agree fully with Dewey in that this could be a means to human liberation if we stop using technology to just get more of things. We are working harder despite the technological means we have available to work less. As Karl Marx says, “Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity and does so in the proportion in which it produces commodities generally” (Reader in Marxist Philosophy, Ch. 5 “Alienation”).

Overall, I agree with Dewey in that inquiry should be used in order to identify consequences. In this way, I feel that inquiry will pull people out of their hypnotic attachments to technological ends in-themselves and get the public involved in social and political actions, thus developing an interest in the collective good and a striving toward a “Great Community”. The realization of individual good, as Dewey suggests, will then be found through collective good.