John Dewey, in his resistance to foundational individualism, declares that individual autonomy so conceived is a fiction; for Dewey, it is association that is a fact. In his own language: “There is no sense in asking how individuals come to be associated. They exist and operate in association.” In a way that resonates with Confucian role ethics, the revolutionary Dewey particularizes the fact of associated living and valorizes it by developing a vision of the habitude of unique, defused, relationally-constituted human beings. That is, he develops a distinctive, if not idiosyncratic language of habits and “individuality” to describe the various modalities of association that enable human beings to add value to their activities and to transform mere relations into a communicating community.
In Confucian role ethics, Dewey’s contention that association is a fact is restated in a different vocabulary by appealing to specific roles rather than unique habitudes for stipulating the specific forms that association takes within lives lived in family and community—that is, the various roles we live as sons and teachers, grandmothers and neighbors. For Confucianism, not only are these roles descriptive of our associations, they are also prescriptive in the sense that roles in family and community are themselves normative, guiding us in the direction of appropriate conduct. Whereas for both Confucianism and Dewey, mere association is a given, flourishing families and communities are what we are able to make of our facticity as the highest human achievement.