Chapter 10. Postmodernism : Pragmatism
Section 3. Applications

Evans, Karen G.
"John Dewey’s Ethics: Moral Relativism or Basis for Covenant?"


This paper examines the relevance of John Dewey’s theses on ethics in public life to questions arising from today’s broad range of public service delivery systems. As more public goods and services are delivered by third parties, questions about how communication and responsibility flow in those systems take on new importance. When public goods and services are provided by governmental agencies, the ethical structure of rules and procedures in those agencies have been held out as means of assuring accountable government. When those goods and services are delivered by third parties, as is increasingly the case today, accountability must be built into the contracts developed between government and those third parties. The question then centers on how well contracts assure responsible and ethical action, and whether the ethical challenges of the new public management movement can be resolved through a different, Deweyan, approach to decision making—communities of inquiry.

Dewey’s ethical position was characterized by his contemporary critics as one of moral relativism. He certainly advocated using experience as a basis for ethical decision making rather than relying upon fundamental abstract standards. He also held that retrospective evaluation of actual behavior, rather than reliance on structured rules, allows for a more complete and contextual account of public action. He argued against responsibility defined as assigning blame, and for responsibility couched in terms of covenant rather than contract. This paper will explore whether Dewey’s argument might provide a better definition of responsibility and ethical action than that which we currently impose on these important issues

Dewey Ethical and Social Theory in the IEP

Ethics Education Towards a more Moral Society by Karen Ho



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