Volume 12, Issue 2, Fall 1998
Bridging the Gap between Theory and Practice—in Theory
This paper explores and criticizes Henry Sidgwick’s conception of the ethical societies he helped found at the end of the nineteenth century. I argue that the societies were not as involved in practical and political problems as one might have expected, and that the theoretical justification offered by Sidgwick -- that the primary obstacles to “right living” lie in our minds and hearts -- is not altogether satisfying. Sidgwick’s nearly exclusive emphasis on the problem of moral knowledge is then contrasted with John Dewey’s attention to moral motivation; and Dewey’s more energetic involvement in current affairs and social issues is set in the context of his distinctive view of the relation between theory and practice. Finally, Sidgwick’s modest hopes for the ethical societies, and the reasons for that modesty, are compared with the confidence that permeated an earlier incarnation of the ethical society, Ben Franklin’s Junto club.