judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view

  1. Judgment or practical reason (i.e., deciding what is right to do) means forming beliefs about facts, values, and strategies. It is sometimes worth trying to isolate the factual beliefs in order to test them empirically. But no claims are purely empirical, and the goal of distinguishing facts, values, and strategies is ultimately misplaced. (See right and true are deeply connected.)
  2. Individuals hold many opinions at once, and often some of our opinions are connected logically, causally, or in other ways. This means that we have structures of opinions. The form of our structures matters as well as their content. For instance, a structure can be too scattered or too centralized. These structures are better modeled as networks than as foundations plus superstructures. Only some networks of beliefs have nodes that function like foundations. (See an alternative to Moral Foundations Theory.)
  3. Individuals develop their opinions in constant interaction with other human beings, living or dead. We start with no explicit views of the social world and borrow most of what we think from other people. Whenever a person influences us, that reflects a link in a social network. And those who influence have their own networks of opinions that are linked by logic, causality, or in other ways. Therefore, developing judgments is a matter of participation in a network of people and their networked ideas. (See what makes conversation go well: a network model.)
  4. A culture is a name for a cluster of individuals with overlapping networks of ideas. It is a useful simplification for a world in which each individual at each moment has different ideas from the same individual at another time and from all other individuals. Some cultures hold foundational beliefs about some questions (e.g, monotheism is a foundational belief in a monotheistic culture); but in general, it is misleading to define a culture in terms of its foundations. (See everyone unique, all connected.)
  5. Often, we must judge institutions as opposed to concrete acts. (See Moral Foundations theory and political processes). For instance, we may need to assess the United States or marriage rather than an individual statement or action. Institutions also generate the material for our judgments, including most of what we take to be facts. (See decoding institutions.) Institutions exhibit patterns that are not intended or designed. (See the New Institutionalism.)
  6. Institutions are not best modeled as networks of individuals, because they have salient features–such as rules, incentives, and boundaries–that are not like nodes and links. (See a template for analyzing an institution.)
  7. The whole system of networked individuals, networked beliefs, and institutions is dynamic, not static. Individuals develop over their lives; institutions are founded, decay, and change; social networks form and shift; and networks of ideas change. (cf. Dewey’s pragmatism.)
  8. Power operates at all points in this system: e.g., when one individual influences another, when one person is put in contact with or separated from another person, when an institution is designed, and when its norms change. (See decoding institutions.) Power is not intrinsically bad; it just means that A can affect B. But some power is bad, and power shapes the materials of judgment.
  9. Liberty is a genuine value (see six types of freedom), but it should not be understood as freedom from others’ power or a right of epistemically free individuals to act according to their own judgments. Our judgments are formed by the communities we belong to (see the truth in Hayek).
  10. There are better and worse individuals, ideas, judgments, and institutions, but telling the difference between better and worse is a deeply social and iterative process. (See structured moral pluralism [a proposal].)

from I to we: an outline of a theory

These are the main ideas that I’ve defended (or plan to develop) in my theoretical scholarship. They are organized from micro to macro and from ethics to politics. As always, I put this draft online to welcome critical feedback.

  1. Each individual holds a changing set of opinions about moral and political matters. These ideas are connected by various kinds of logical relationships (e.g., inference, causation, or resemblance). Thus each person’s moral opinions at a given moment can be modeled as a network composed of ideas, plus links. In a conference paper, Nick Beauchamp, Sarah Shugars and I have derived network diagrams for 100 individuals and provide evidence that these are valid models of their reasoning about healthcare, abortion, and child-rearing. This approach challenges theories that depict moral reasoning as implicit, unconscious, and unreflective.
  2. A culture, religion, or ideology is best modeled as a cluster of roughly similar idea-networks held by many individuals. Human beings are not divided into groups that are defined by foundational beliefs that imply all their other beliefs. Rather each person holds a unique and often flat and loose network of ideas that overlaps in part with others’ networks. This model avoids radical cultural relativism, as I already argued in my Nietzsche book (1995).
  3. This model of culture also challenges John Rawls’ argument for liberalism as tolerance and neutrality. Rawls presumes that most citizens hold incompatible but highly organized and consistent “comprehensive doctrines.” As a result, they must largely leave one another alone to live according to their various conceptions of the good. If, instead, we understand worldviews as loose and dynamic idea-networks, we find support for a liberalism of mutual interaction instead of distant toleration.
  4. We are not morally responsible for the ideas that we happen to learn as we grow up. That is a matter of luck. But we are responsible for interacting with other people who hold different opinions from ours. Such dialogues can be modeled as the interactions of people who hold different idea-networks. As they disclose and revise ideas and make connections, the discussants produce a shared network. In a paper now being revised and resubmitted, David Williamson Shaffer, Brendan Eagan, and I model Tufts students’ discussions of controversial issues as dynamic idea-networks.
  5. A person can organize her beliefs in ways that either enable or block dialogue. For instance, an individual whose network is centralized around one nonnegotiable idea cannot deliberate; neither can a person whose ideas are disconnected. Thus discursive virtues can be defined in network terms, deliberations can be evaluated using network metrics, and we can strive to organize our own ideas in ways that facilitate discussion.
  6. If people talk, it implies that they were willing to sacrifice time and attention to a conversation. If they have something significant to talk about, they must hold a good in common that they can control or influence. Thus we cannot have the kinds of discussions that improve our own values unless we are organized into functional groups. But creating and sustaining groups requires more than talk. Groups also need rules and practices that coordinate individuals’ action, as well as relationships marked by trust, loyalty, and other interpersonal virtues. In short, civic life depends on a combination of deliberation, collaboration (solving collective action problems), and relationships.
  7. To enable deliberation, collaboration, and relationships requires favorable institutions, such as appropriate legal rights, widespread education in these virtues, and a robust civil society composed of associations that offer opportunities for self-governance. Since these institutions are inadequate in the USA, we need reform.
  8. To change constitutional rights, school systems, and other large institutions, political actors must employ leverage. They must move strangers and impersonal organizations at a distance. Making effective use of leverage is an ethical obligation but also a threat to the relational values implied by points 1-7 (above), which are prized by certain political theorists, such as John Dewey and Hannah Arendt. We must understand how to use impersonal leverage at large scales without undermining or displacing relational politics.

what makes conversation go well (a network model)

I’m looking forward to presenting later today at NULab’s first annual conference, on the theme: “Keeping the Public Sphere Open.”

I think of the “public sphere” as all the venues where people come together to share experiences, emotions, and reasons in order to form public opinion. In turn, public opinion should then influence institutions; that makes the society democratic.

An open public sphere, as in the title of the conference, is one that permits and appropriately responds to every person’s ideas; no idea or person is blocked. The state can threaten the openness of the public sphere by censoring ideas or blocking individuals from participating. The marketplace can threaten the openness of the public sphere when, for instance, ISPs charge more money for some content, or when private donors flood the airwaves with campaign commercials. Thus, to preserve an open public sphere, we need policies like a strong First Amendment, net neutrality, and campaign finance reform.

But openness is not enough. The conversations within any public sphere can go well or badly. Along with several colleagues, I have been thinking about deliberation in the following way:

  1. People hold ideas prior to a conversation that we can think of as networks. Each idea may be connected to each other idea by reasons. The person’s network has content (what the ideas say) and also a form. For instance, someone might arrange all of her ideas around one central node, or might hold a set of disconnected principles.
  2. When we talk, we share portions of our existing networks, one node or one reason at a time.
  3. Interaction with other people may cause us to change our network. We can adopt ideas that other people disclose, see new connections or doubt that connections really hold, think of new ideas on our own, or even adopt contrary ideas. In any case, our personal networks are subject to change.
  4. The discussion itself can be modeled as one network to which the various participants have contributed nodes and links.

If we could develop a valid and reliable way of modeling an individual’s private network with respect to a given topic before a conversation, and then we put individuals in dialogue and modeled their interactions, I would predict that: 1) the formal properties of their networks before the discussion would influence the quality of the discussion, 2) the quality of the discussion would be related to changes in their personal networks, 3) an individual’s networks would tend to look formally similar even when the topic changed (e.g., some people would be prone to thinking about most topics in a centralized or in a scattered way), and 4) a given issue would tend to produce formally similar networks for diverse individuals (e.g., the abortion debate and a budget discussion would generate different-looking networks regardless of the participants).

There then follow a whole set of questions about what a good conversation looks like and how people should structure and change their thoughts.

See also: it’s not just what you think, but how your thoughts are organizedtracking change in a group that discusses issuesnetwork dynamics in conversation; and assessing a discussion.

structured moral pluralism (a proposal)

(New York) Isaiah Berlin recalled that the Russian novelists he read as boy shared with “the major figures [of philosophy], especially in the field of ethical and political thought,” a common “Platonic ideal.” This ideal implied,

In the first place that, as in the sciences, all genuine questions must have one true answer and one only, all the rest being necessarily errors; in the second place that there must be a dependable path towards the discovery of these truths; in the third place that the true answers, when found, must necessarily be compatible with one another and form a single whole, for one truth cannot be incompatible with another – that we knew a priori. This kind of omniscience was the solution of the cosmic jigsaw puzzle. In the case of morals, we could then conceive what the perfect life must be, founded as it would be on a correct understanding of the rules that governed the universe (2013, p. 4) .

This passage is a simplification of intellectual history (Berlin himself cites Vico, Herder, and others as opponents of the view that he attributes to “the major figures”), but he accurately describes one tendency. For some important thinkers, moral truths–if they exist at all–must form a single whole, like a completed jigsaw puzzle or like a mechanism in which some components support or drive others. Not only should the elements be compatible, but articulable reasons or arguments should connect them together. If you believe A, you should be able to say why in terms of B. If you believe A and B, but the two seem to conflict, then you should be able to resolve the conflict by adjusting the two principles.

By the way, you can hold this model of moral thought even if you doubt, given our cognitive and moral limits, that we will ever see the whole puzzle correctly. The truth may still be a coherent structure even if what we know is always partial and confused.

Another view is very different from this one. It is the theory that human beings have instinctive, affective reactions to situations. After we form those reactions, we may rationalize them with arguments, but our arguments are always insufficient to determine our reactions, and we are good at gerrymandering our general principles to fit what we want to conclude about specific cases. Thus our arguments do not explain our judgments. However, empirical psychologists can detect patterns in our various reactions, which suggest the existence of unconscious latent factors that do explain what we feel about cases. Those factors may not be mutually compatible, which is why we are often ambivalent or inconsistent. They may also vary from person to person. But they exist, and what we say about moral issues is inconsequential compared to this structure of latent factors (see, e.g., Haigt and Graham et al.).

This view could be correct, although I suspect it is partly an artifact of the research methods. To the extent that it is true, it denies the value of moral deliberation, which is a fundamental obligation in the tradition that Berlin calls “Platonic.” Moral positions, Haidt writes, are “nearly impregnable to arguments from outsiders.” That implies an answer to the question that opens the Federalist Papers–“whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” If latent factors determine responses, then we are destined to depend on accident. I hope that is not the case.

Berlin famously dissented from the “Platonic” view of morality and developed a version of pluralism. There are the main elements of his position:

  1. “There is a world of objective values” (p. 11). In other words, some things really are valuable. It is wrong to deny an actual value, such as freedom or equality, or to add something to the list of values that doesn’t merit inclusion. In short, there can be a right or a wrong answer to the question whether something (e.g., love, war, desire, loyalty) is a good. This is different from Moral Foundations theory, which presumes that we must value whatever we value.
  2. But the genuine “values can clash – that is why civilisations are incompatible. They can be incompatible between cultures, or groups in the same culture, or between you and me” (p. 12).
  3. Because of the nature of morality and/or human nature, there is no possible world inhabited by human beings in which all the goods are perfectly compatible. “These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are. … The notion of the perfect whole, the ultimate solution, in which all good things coexist, seems to me to be not merely unattainable – that is a truism – but conceptually incoherent; I do not know what is meant by a harmony of this kind. Some among the Great Goods cannot live together” (pp. 13-14).
  4. The misguided effort to harmonize all worthy values into one structure is a dangerous illusion (p. 15), or even “the road to inhumanity” (pp. 19-20), because it justifies the imposition of moral beliefs on others without compromises.

I am basically pluralist, but I would alter Berlin’s view in one important respect. He seems to assume a list of fully distinct and potentially incompatible goods. I observe that people make connections among some of their own ideas. They say that one value implies, or supports, or resembles another value in various respects.

These structures seem to me to have merit. Connecting two ideas means giving a reason for each of them, because now they hang together. We ought to reason in order to live an examined life and to deliberate with other people. We are prone to very grave limitations and biases if we merely rely on our instinctive reactions to moral situations, taken one at a time, or if we allow latent factors to determine our reactions. We should struggle to put our ideas together into explicit structures and should present portions of those structures to other human beings for inspection and critique. That is just an idiosyncratic way of saying that we must reason together about values. Reasoning does not mean endorsing various Great Goods, one at a time, but rather connecting each idea to another idea.

This view is still compatible with Berlin’s pluralism, for two important reasons. First, the structure of moral ideas that each of us gradually builds and amends may contain incompatible values. Each of us can be a pluralist, even as we attempt to connect many of our own ideas into networks. Our networks can contain gaps and loose links and can reflect tradeoffs. Second, is it likely that even human beings who strive to develop the best possible structures of moral ideas will never produce the same structures. That is because moral reflection is deeply dependent on local experience and on conversations with concrete other people, each of whom is affected by her own conditions. So we will forever disagree. In contrast to the image of a “cosmic jigsaw puzzle” that we are all working together to complete, I’d propose a great web of loosely connected ideas that we are all perpetually creating and linking together.

See also: 10 theses about ethics, in network termsJonathan Haidt’s six foundations of moralityan alternative to Moral Foundations Theory; and everyone unique, all connected.


Berlin, Isaiah. The crooked timber of humanity: Chapters in the history of ideas. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon, 2012)

Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek, Jonathan Haidt, Ravi Iyer, Spassena Koleva, and Peter H.Ditto, “Mapping the Moral Domain,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 101(2), Aug 2011, 366-385.

an alternative to Moral Foundations Theory

Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory is one of the most influential current approaches to moral psychology and it exemplifies certain assumptions that are pervasive in psychology more generally. I have been working lately with 18 friends and colleagues to “map” their moral views in a very different way, driven by different assumptions. As part of this small pilot project, I gave the 18 participants Haidt et al’s, Moral Foundations Questionnaire. Although my sample is small and non-representative, I am interested in the contrasting results that the two methods yield.

Haidt’s underlying assumptions are that people form judgments about moral issues, but these are often gut reactions. The reasons that people give for their judgments are post-hoc rationalizations (Haidt 2012, pp. 27-51; Swidler 2001, pp. 147-8; Thiele 2006). “Individuals are often unable to access the causes of their moral judgments” (Graham, Nosek, Haidt, Iyer, Koleva, & Ditto 2011, p. 368). Hence moral psychologists are most interested in unobserved mental phenomena that can explain our observable statements and actions.

Haidt et al ask their research subjects multiple-choice questions about moral topics. Once they have collected responses from many subjects, they use factor analysis to find latent variables that can explain the variance in the answers. (Latent variables have been “so useful … that they pervade … psychology and the social sciences” [Bollen, 2002, p. 606]). The variables that are thereby revealed are treated as real psychological phenomena, even though the research subjects may not be aware of them. Haidt and colleagues consider whether each factor names a psychological instinct or emotion that 1) would have value for evolving homo sapiens, so that our ancestors would have developed an inborn tendency to embrace it, and 2) are found in many cultures around the world. Now bearing names like “care” and “fairness,” these factors become candidates for moral “foundations.”

Because Haidt’s method generates a small number of factors, he concludes that people can be classified into large moral groups (such as American liberals and conservatives) whose shared premises determine their opinions about concrete matters like abortion and smoking. “Each matrix provides a complete, unified, and emotionally compelling worldview” (Haidt 2012, p. 107). In this respect, Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory bears a striking similarity to Rawls’ notion of a “comprehensive doctrine” that “organizes and characterizes recognized values to that they are compatible with each other and express an intelligible view of the world.”

In contrast, I have followed these steps:

  1. I recruited people I knew. These relationships, although various, probably influenced the results. I don’t entirely see that as a limitation.
  2. I asked each participant to answer three open-ended questions: “Please briefly state principles that you aspire to live by.” “Please briefly state truths about life or the world that you believe and that relate to your important choices in life.” “Please briefly state methods that you believe are important and valid for making moral or ethical decisions.”
  3. I interviewed them, one at time. I began by showing each respondent her own responses to the the survey, distributed randomly as dots on a plane. I asked them to link ideas that seemed closely related. When they made links, I asked them to explain the connections, which often (not always) took the form of reasons: “I believe this because of that.” As we talked, I encouraged them to add ideas that had come up during their explanations. I also gently asked whether some of their ideas implied others yet unstated; but I encouraged them to resist my suggestions, and often they did. The result was a network map for each participant with a mean of 20.7 ideas, almost all of which they had chosen to connect together, rather than leaving ideas isolated.
  4. We jointly moved the nodes of these networks around so that they clustered in meaningful ways. Often the clusters would be about topics like intimate relationships, views of social justice, or limitations and constraints.
  5. I put all their network maps on one plane and encouraged them to link to each others’ ideas if they saw connections. That process continues right now, but the total number of links proposed by my 18 participants has now reached 1,283.
  6. I have loosely classified their ideas under 30 headings (Autonomy, Authenticity/ integrity/purpose, Balance/tradeoffs, Everyone’s different but everyone contributes, Community, Context, Creativity/making meaning, Deliberative values, Difficulty of being good, Don’t hurt others, Emotion, Family, Fairness/equity, Flexibility, God, Intrinsic value of life, Justice, Life is limited, Maturity/experience, Modesty, No God, Optimism, Peace/stability, Rationality/critical thinking, Serve/help others, Relationships, Skepticism/human cognitive limitations, Striving, Tradition, Virtues). Note that some of these categories resemble Moral Foundations, but several do not. The ones that don’t tend to be more “meta”–about how to form moral opinions.

My assumptions are that people can say interesting and meaningful things in response to open-ended questions about moral philosophy; that much is lost if you try to categorize these ideas too quickly, because the subtleties matter; and that a person not only has separate beliefs but also explicit reasons that connect these beliefs into larger structures.

Since I also gave participants the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, I am able to say some things about the group from that perspective. This graph shows the group means and the range for their scores on the five Moral Foundations scales. For comparison, the average responses of politically moderate Americans are 20.2, 20.5, 16.0, 16.5, and 12.6. That means that my group is more concerned about harm/care and fairness/reciprocity than most Americans, and not far from average on other Foundations. But there is also a lot of diversity within the group. Two of my respondents scored 5 out of 35 on the purity scale, and two scored 20 or higher. The range was likewise from 6 to 28 on the in-group/loyalty scale.


You might think that this diversity would somehow be reflected in the respondents’ maps of their own explicit moral ideas and connections. But I see no particular relationships. For instance, one of the people who rated purity considerations as important–a self-described liberal Catholic–produced a map that clustered around virtues of moral curiosity and openness, friendship and love, and a central cluster about justice in institutions. She volunteered no thoughts about purity at all.

This respondent scored 20 on the purity scale. A different person (self described as an atheist liberal) scored 9 on that scale. But they chose to connect their respective networks through shared ideas about humility, deliberation, and justice.

The whole group did not divide into clusters with distinct worldviews but overlapped a great deal. To preserve privacy, I show an intentionally tiny picture of the current group’s map that reveals its general shape. There are no signs of separate blocs, even though respondents did vary a lot on some of the “Foundations” scales.


A single-word node that appears in five different people’s networks is “humility.” It also ranks fourth out 375 ideas in closeness and betweenness centrality (two different measures of importance in a network). It is an example of a unifying idea for this group.

Many of the ideas that people proposed have to do with deliberative values: interacting with other people, learning from them, forming relationships, and trying to improve yourself in relation to others. Those are not really options on the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. They are important virtues if we hold explicit moral ideas and reasons and can improve them. They are not important virtues, however, if we are driven by unrecognized latent factors.

One way to compare the two methods would be to ask which one is better able to predict human behavior. That is an empirical question, but a complex one because many different kinds of behavior might be treated as outcomes. In any case, it’s not the only way to compare the two methods. They also have different purposes. Moral Foundations is descriptive and perhaps diagnostic–helping us to understand why we disagree. The method that I am developing is more therapeutic, in the original sense: designed to help us to reflect on our own ideas with other people we know, so that we can improve.

[References: Bollen, Kenneth A. 2002. Latent Variables in Psychology and the Social Sciences. Annual Review of Psychology, vol. 53, 605-634; Graham, Jesse, Nosek, Brian A., Haidt, Jonathan, Iyer, Ravi, Koleva. Spassena, & Ditto, Peter H. 2011. Mapping the Moral Domain. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101:2; Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Vintage; Swidler, Ann. 2001. Talk of Love: How Culture Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Thiele, Leslie Paul. 2006. The Heart of Judgment: Practical Wisdom, Neuroscience, and Narrative Cambridge University Press.]

10 theses about ethics, in network terms

  1. People hold many morally relevant opinions, some concrete and particular, some abstract and general, some tentative and others categorical.
  2. People see connections–usually logical or empirical relationships–between some pairs of their own opinions and can link all of their opinions into one network. (Note: these first two theses are empirical, in that I have now “mapped” several dozen students’ or colleagues’ moral worldviews, and each person has connected all of his or her numerous moral ideas into a single, connected network. However, this is a smallish number of people who hardly reflect the world’s diversity.)
  3. Explicit moral argumentation takes the form of citing relevant moral ideas and explaining the links among them.
  4. The network structure of a person’s moral ideas is important. For instance, some ideas may be particularly central to the network or distant from each other. These properties affect our conclusions and behaviors. (Note: this is an empirical thesis for which I do not yet have adequate data. There are at least two rival theses. If people reason like classical utilitarians or rather simplistic Kantians, then they consistently apply one algorithm in all cases, and network analysis is irrelevant. Network analysis is also irrelevant if people make moral judgments because of unconscious assumptions and then rationalize them post hoc by inventing reasons.)
  5. Not all of our ideas are clearly defined, and many of the connections that we see among our ideas are not logically or empirically rigorous arguments. They are loose empirical generalizations or rough implications.
  6. It is better to have a large, complex map than a simple one that would meet stricter tests of logical and empirical rigor and clarity. It is better to preserve most of a typical person’s network because each idea and connection captures valid experiences and serves as a hedge against self-interest and fanaticism. The emergent social world is so complex that human beings, with our cognitive limits, cannot develop adequate networks of moral ideas that are clear and rigorous.
  7. Our ideas are not individual; they are relational. We hold ideas and make connections because of what others have proposed, asked, made salient, or provoked from us. A person’s moral map at a given moment is a piece of a community’s constantly evolving map.
  8. We begin with the moral ideas and connections that we are taught by our community and culture. We cannot be blamed (or praised) for their content. But we are responsible for interacting responsively with people who have had different experiences. Therefore, discursive virtues are paramount.
  9. Discursive virtues can be defined in network terms. For instance, a person whose network is centralized around one nonnegotiable idea cannot deliberate, and neither can a person whose ideas are disconnected.  If two people interact but their networks remain unchanged, that is a sign of unresponsiveness.
  10. It is a worthwhile exercise to map one’s own current moral ideas as a network, reflect on both its content and its form, and interact with others who do the same.

the advantages and drawbacks of precision in ethics

subject3I like to ask people to state their own beliefs that are relevant to ethics and then draw connections among those ideas to create networks that represent their moral worldviews. I put people (students and others) in dialogue with each other, invite them to explain their networks to peers, and watch connections form.

Usually the ideas that people propose are not precise. In explaining what we believe, we don’t employ many terms that we could define with necessary and sufficient conditions, nor do we often use quantifiers like “all” or “exactly one.” The connections we detect among our ideas are rarely logical inferences. They are looser links: resemblances, rough implications, empirical generalizations.

One impulse is to strive for as much precision as possible. That is a fundamental goal of analytic moral philosophy and it has significant merit. If someone proposed, “We should strive to improve everyone’s lives,” I would join mainstream analytic philosophers in requesting more clarity. Does that mean maximizing net human welfare? Does “welfare” mean happiness, satisfaction, or objective well-being? Does it trade off against freedom and autonomy? Does “everyone” mean all currently living human beings? (What about future generations?) Does “strive” mean actually maximize net welfare, or have a generally beneficent attitude toward others? These are valid and hard questions.

On the other hand, if the goal is descriptive moral psychology, it is a mistake to ask for that level of precision. We all hold–and are motivated by–rougher moral ideas and looser connections than could pass muster with an analytical philosopher. If you want to know what people believe, you must model those ideas and relationships as well as the clear ones. If you encourage people to map out many of their ideas and relationships, they will produce complex and elaborate networks that are useful for representing their mentalities and for provoking reflection.

That still leaves the normative question: how much precision should each of us strive for? I would say some but not too much. One of my favorite quotes is from Bernard Williams, in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985, p. 117):Theory typically uses the assumption that we probably have too many ethical ideas, some of which may well turn out to be mere prejudices. Our major problem now is actually that we have not too many but too few, and we need to cherish as many as we can.”

I’d expand that remark as follows: Through direct and vicarious experience, we build up collections of moral ideas that give our lives meaning and restrain our basest instincts. We also connect our ideas; we say that we believe A because it seems somehow related to B. If we must pass all these ideas and connections through a screen for clarity, precision, and inferential rigor, most will have to go. That will leave us with less meaning and less constraint against mere inclination and will.

Seeking clarity can illuminate. It can, for instance, force us to disaggregate a vague idea into a set of related ideas that are worth seeing on their own. Or it can reveal gaps and tradeoffs that deserve consideration. Formal philosophy is also useful for developing specific ideas that are clear and precise and that relate to one another logically.

However, it is a false dream that we can convert our entire networks of moral ideas into structures of clearly defined concepts and implications. Even the best moral arguments carry just a short distance–from a premise to a conclusion, or maybe as far as another conclusion or two, but not all the way across the domain of the moral. It is good to have a dense, complex, and expansive network of ideas that draws on experience and demands constant reflection and reevaluation, even if its components are a bit vague and the links are hard to articulate. Better that than a crystalline chain of reasons that connects just a few ideas and leaves us otherwise free to be selfish or fanatical.

Selim Berker on moral coherence

In “Coherentism via Graphs,”[i] Selim Berker begins to work out a theory of the coherence of a person’s beliefs in terms of its network properties. Consider these two diagrams (A and B) borrowed from his article, both of which depict the beliefs that an individual holds at a given time. If one beliefs supports another, they are linked with an arrow.

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 12.47.04 PM

Both diagrams show an individual holding three connected and mutually consistent beliefs. Thus traditional methods of measuring coherence can’t differentiate between these two structures. However, Graph A is pretty obviously problematic. It involves an infinite regress—or what has been called, since ancient times, “circular reasoning.” Graph B is far more persuasive. If someone holds beliefs that are connected as in B, the result looks like a meaningfully coherent view. If you find coherence relevant to justification, then you will have a reason to think that the beliefs in B are justified—a reason that is absent in A.

Berker also proposes a subtler but more decisive reason that B is better than A. Below I show A again, now with the component beliefs labeled as P, Q, and R. If the law of contraposition holds, than A implies another graph, A’, that is its exact opposite. A’  includes beliefs -P, -Q, and -R, and the arrows point in the reverse direction.

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But that means that if belief P is justified because it is part of a coherent system of beliefs, then the same must be true of -P, which is absurd.[ii]

The overall point is that coherence is a property of the network structure of beliefs. That should be interesting to coherentists, who argue that what justifies any given belief just is its place in a coherent system. But it should also be interesting to foundationalists, who believe that some beliefs are justified independently of their relations to other ideas. Foundationalists still recognize that many, if not most, of our beliefs are justified by how they are connected to other beliefs. Thus, even though they believe in foundations, they still need an account of what makes a worldview coherent.

I have been developing a similar view, with a narrower application to moral thought (and without Berker’s deep grasp of current epistemology). I am motivated, first, by the sense that what makes a moral worldview impressively coherent cannot be seen without diagramming its whole structure. Imagine, for instance, a person who holds two major moral beliefs: “Never lie” and “Do not eat meat.” Assume that this person has not found or seen any particular connection between these two main ideas.

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His or her set of maxims is perfectly consistent: there is no contradiction between any two nodes. And every idea has a connection to another. But if we wanted to judge the coherence of this worldview, we would not be satisfied with knowing the proportion of the components that were consistent and directly connected. It would matter that the person holds two separate clusters of ideas—two hubs with spokes. This person’s network is fairly coherent insofar as it is organized into clusters rather than being completely scattered; but it would be more coherent if the two clusters interconnected via large integrating ideas. You can’t see the problem without diagramming the structure.

I also have another motivation for wanting to explore moral worldviews and political ideologies as networks of beliefs. In moral philosophy and political theory, constructed systems are very prominent. Although diverse in many respects, such systems share the feature that they could be diagrammed neatly and parsimoniously. In utilitarianism, the principle of utility is the hub, and every valid moral judgment is a spoke. That theory is so simple that to diagram it would be trivial. Kantianism centers on several connected principles, and Aristotelian, Thomist, and Marxist views are perhaps more complicated still. But in every case, a network diagram of the theory would be organized and regular enough that the whole could be conveyed concisely in words.

In contrast, my own moral worldview has accumulated over nearly half century as I have taken aboard various moral ideas that I’ve found intuitive (or even compelling) and have noticed connections among them. My network is now very large and not terribly well organized. A narrative description of it would have to be lengthy and rambling. Many of my moral beliefs are nowhere near each other in a network that sprawls widely and clusters around many centers.

I suspect this condition is fairly typical. No doubt, individuals differ in how large, how complex, and how organized their moral worldviews have become, but a truly organized structure is rare. (I have asked a total of about 60 students and colleagues to diagram their own views, and only one of the 60 gave me a network that could be concisely summarized.) That means that such constructed systems as Kantianism and utilitarianism are remote from most people’s moral psychology.

Further, I think that having a loosely organized but large and connected network is a sign of moral maturity. It is a Good Thing. That is obviously a substantive moral judgment, not a self-evident proposition. It arises from a certain view of liberalism that would take me more than a blog post to elucidate. But the essential principle is that we ought to be responsive to other people’s moral experiences.

Berker includes experiences as well as beliefs in his network-diagrams of people’s worldviews.[iii] In science, it should not matter who has the experience. An experience of a natural phenomenon is supposed to be replicable; you, too, can climb the Leaning Tower and repeat Galileo’s experiment. But in the moral domain, experience is not replicable or subject-neutral in the same way. Since I am a man, I cannot experience having been a woman my whole life so far. Thus vicarious experiences are essential to moral development.

If we are responsive, we will accumulate sprawling and random-looking networks of moral beliefs as we interact with diverse other people. These networks can be usefully analyzed with the techniques developed for analyzing large biological and social networks. It will be illuminating to look for clusters and gaps and for nodes that are more central than average in the structure as a whole. The coherence of such a network is not a matter of the proportion of the beliefs that are consistent with each other. Its coherence can better be evaluated with the kinds of metrics we use to assess the size, connectedness, density, centralization, and clustering of the complex networks that accumulate in nature.

On the other hand, if someone adopts a moral view that could be diagrammed as a simple, organized structure, he has not been responsive to others so far and he will be hard pressed to incorporate their experiences in the future. At the extreme, his simple graph is a sign of fanaticism.

See also: envisioning morality as a network; it’s not just what you think, but how your thoughts are organized; Stanley Cavell: morality as one way of living well; and ethical reasoning as a scale-free network (my first thoughts along these lines, from 2009).


[i] Berker, S. (2015), Coherentism via Graphs. Philosophical Issues, 25: 322–352. doi: 10.1111/phis.12052

[ii] “Coherence, we have been assuming, is a matter of the structure of support among a subject’s beliefs, experiences, and other justificatorily-relevant mental states at a given time.” But we can use directed hypergraphs (in mathematics, networks in which any of the nodes can be connected to any number of the other nodes by means of arrows) to represent all of those support relations. That is, we use directed hypergraphs to represent all of the relations that have a bearing on coherence. It follows that coherence is itself expressible as a graph-theoretic property of our directed hypergraphs (p. 339).

[iii] “Many theorists hold that a subject’s perceptual experiences are justificatorily relevant (in these sense that they either partially or entirely make it the case that the subject is justified in believing something).”

network dynamics in conversation

(Dayton, OH) It is in conversations–face-to-face or virtual, oral or written, small or massive, formal or informal–that we form our views of public issues, hold ourselves accountable for our reasons and actions, check our assumptions, expand our horizons, gain the satisfaction of being recognized, display eloquence, and develop enough will to act together.

Some conversations are better than others, and we need to understand more about the differences. I think that mapping conversations as evolving networks is a promising strategy. At least three relevant phenomena can be modeled in network terms:

  1. As we discuss, we collaboratively construct networks of ideas. I say that I favor marriage equality because adults who love and commit to each other should have the protection of law, and because people should be treated equally regardless of sexual orientation. In those sentences, I have put several ideas together into a structure. You can add to my structure by posing other ideas, whether they connect to mine or conflict with mine. The group’s epistemic network expands and changes as we talk.
  2. We also form and change social networks during a discussion. The nodes in a social network are people, and the links between pairs of people can be characterized by knowledge, trust, respect, affection, etc (or their opposites). People who converse may already belong to the same social networks. Their discussions may develop and alter their social networks.
  3. We make “meta” comments about the conversation. For instance, I might ask you to clarify what you meant when you said P. Or I might say I agree with you, or withdraw my comment, or propose that the truth lies between what I said and that you said. These are interesting moments because they are about both the epistemic and the social network that already exists, and they can affect those networks. In an important 1983 article, Berkowitz and Gibbs called them “transacts” and found they led to learning when children used them.

Consider some subtle cases and how they might be modeled in network terms.

  1. Person A only cares about influencing her boss, B, who sits at the head of the table, but she chooses to turn toward everyone else in a meeting and address them. In social network terms, her talk is literally directed at a whole set of peers, but there is a more significant network connection between her and just one other person.
  2. A says P, and B pays no attention because B thinks that A is a fool. C says P, and B agrees with it because B thinks that C is smart. In this case, the social network affects the epistemic network.
  3. A wants B to like her, so she withdraws point P that she had made earlier because B objected to it. With that concession, the social network changes in one way, the epistemic network in a different way. B says, “I appreciate your flexibility, but really, you should insist on what you believe.” B’s meta-comment puts P back on the epistemic map and affects the social network.

In technical terms, I’d measure the epistemic network by representing transcripts of discussions as ideas and links (the links being arguments of various kinds) and probably locating the nodes on a two-dimensional plane that reflect key dimensions of disagreement in the conversation. I’d watch the network change as the participants talk.

I’d measure social networks by asking people to characterize the ties between them and each of the other participants, before and after the discussion.

Finally, I might model the relevant personal beliefs of each participant before and after a discussion as a network of ideas and links, which I would derive from a private interview or short essay. I would be interested in how much of the private network ends up in public and how much the public discussion affects the private network.

The point of all this measurement is to provide data that is useful for evaluative judgment. So the normative questions (“What makes a good discussion?” “How should you participate in discussions?”) are central. I think they deserve more exploration than we have had so far, although philosophers have certainly contributed criteria.

For instance, Jurgen Habermas wrote that in an ideal discussion, “no force except that of the better argument is exercised” (Habermas 1975, p. 108). He would want an epistemic network composed of objectively defensible ideas and links to influence the participants, completely independent of their places in a social network. Just because everyone knows and admires A but dislikes B, it doesn’t mean that people should absorb A’s ideas and ignore B’s ideas.

Another example: Olivia Newman argues that a good discussion in a liberal democracy won’t produce a single hierarchical framework of ideas, but will rather encompass numerous clusters of ideas that are only loosely connected. That shape reflects value pluralism while still allowing mutual learning. Thus a group’s epistemic network should be clustered but not overly centralized.

We might add that good discussants should continue to add new nodes and connections as long as the conversation continues (not repeat points already made); that

See also a method for mapping discussions as networks and assessing a discussion.

on philosophy as a way of life

(San Antonio, TX) Here I briefly introduce schools of thought–Indian and European–that have combined introspective mental exercises with reasoning about moral principles and critical analysis of social systems. I contrast their integrated approach to forms of philosophy that construct comprehensive models of ethics by using reasons alone. This essay will be the introduction to a book on mapping moral networks, which is a new introspective exercise.

–“I should have given that man some change. He looked hungry.”
–“He would have used it for drugs or alcohol.”
–“Maybe he has that right—it’s his life!”
–“If you’re going to try to help the homeless, you should donate to the Downtown Shelter. They spend the money on real needs. Plus, it’s tax-deductible.”
–“That’s not realistic advice. While I am talking to a homeless person, I have homelessness on my mind. Once I get back home, the thought is gone. I’d never remember to mail off a check.”
–“Perhaps we should set aside some time every day to practice compassion and remember people who are suffering.”
–“Yes, I guess I’m for compassion—but handing someone money seems to create the wrong kind of relationship. What did Emerson write? ‘Though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.’”
–“Maybe we should think about why some people are homeless in the first place and what policies would end that situation.”

This little dialog shows a pair of human beings doing several valuable things. They display emotions, some expressed with enthusiasm and some with regret. They exchange reasons. But they know that their reasons may not actually influence them deeply because they have habits that they would have to counteract by altering their regular routines. They cite rules—such as the tax deduction for charity and the shelter’s ban on alcohol—that are meant to improve and regulate people’s behavior. Finally, one speaker (perhaps showing off) cites an influential thinker from the past whose argument seems relevant.

Each of these modes of thought can be practiced at a high level. Instead of quickly asserting moral beliefs, we can develop whole arguments: chains of reasons that carry from a premise to a conclusion. If the argument persuades, it joins the list of things you believe, and you have been changed. Anyone who is serious about being a good person must struggle to get the reasons right and then act according to the conclusions.

But because our wills are weak, we also need enforced rules that guide or constrain us. And just as we can reason about our own choices (“Should I give a dollar to this homeless person?”), so we can reason about laws, regulations, social norms, and institutions. We can ask whether the rules that are in place are acceptable and, if not, how they should change. As Alexander Hamilton wrote on the first page of the Federalist Papers, laws are meant to arise from “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force.” Political thinkers have often offered elaborate arguments about how institutions should be designed to improve people’s behavior.

Meanwhile, we can learn reflective practices such as confession, memorization, visualization, meditation, autobiographical reflection, and prayer. These methods are more personal than arguments, for they work directly on an individual’s beliefs, emotions, and habits. They are less coercive but more individualized than rules and laws, for we enforce these practices on ourselves. They tend to require practice and repetition to achieve their goals. You can read an argument once in order to evaluate it, but you must repeat a mental exercise for it to affect your psychology. In the 1500s, Michel de Montaigne observed, “Even when we apply our minds willingly to reason and instruction, they are rarely powerful enough to carry us all the way to action, unless we also exercise and train the soul by experience for the path on which we would send it” (II.6). But self-discipline without reason is blind, potentially turning us into worse rather than better people. Think of terrorists who have overcome their habits of peacefulness and tolerance to make themselves into killers; their fault is not a lack of discipline but a poor choice of means and (often) ends.

Finally, we can take the interpretation of other people’s thoughts to high levels of sophistication and rigor. Instead of just quoting a snippet of Emerson, we can make a full study of his ideas in their context. Cultural critique and intellectual history help us understand where we come from and what influences us. After all, we believe what we do in large measure because other people have formed and shaped our thoughts. No one invents her whole worldview from scratch. Since we begin with the traditions that have developed so far, it is important to understand them. Reasoning or self-discipline requires a critical understanding of the materials with which we construct our thoughts, which are ideas that our predecessors have invented.

It makes sense to put these modes together because we are reasonable creatures (capable of offering and sharing reasons for what we do), but we are also emotional and habitual creatures (requiring either external rules or mental discipline and practice to improve ourselves), political creatures (living in communities structured by laws and norms that people make and change), and historical creatures (shaped by the heritage of past thought).

In some periods, it has been common to combine argumentation about personal choices and social institutions, mental exercises, and the critical study of past thinkers. In other times–including our own–these elements have come apart. Here I will offer a very short and suggestive review of that history to support the thesis that now is a time to put the pieces back together.

Plato and Aristotle, the preeminent philosophers of the Greek classical era, each offered a whole system of thought. Think of an argument as a persuasive connection among two or more ideas. Plato and Aristotle offered arguments, but not just a few disconnected ones. They tried to build whole structures of arguments that would cover most of the important topics for human beings and lead the reader from self-evident premises to sometimes unexpected conclusions. The most ambitious goal for that kind of systematic thought is that it can really settle matters of importance and change people’s lives by giving them whole integrated worldviews that are genuinely persuasive. One source of persuasiveness is coherence; the whole system impresses us by hanging together so well.

Platonism and Aristotelianism are “designed” systems in the sense that the authors try to build complete and self-reliant structures with as few assumptions as possible. A systematic philosopher is like an engineer or architect responsible for the blueprints of a whole structure, not like a gardener who prunes and tends the plants that have already grown on a plot of land– nor like a traveler, observing and assessing the ways of diverse people. To endorse a systematic philosophy is to adopt the whole blueprint as the structure of one’s own thought. Of course, systematic philosophers do not view themselves as creating ideas but rather as discovering truths: their models are meant to represent the way the world actually is. They see themselves less as engineers than as physicists, creating models of truth. And one of them could be right–but only one, for the rest would have to be in error. If you doubt that a given philosophy is an accurate representation of truth, then it seems rather to be a carefully and intentionally designed structure, a human product.

The followers of Plato and Aristotle organized “schools,” known respectively as the Lyceum and the Academy, that maintained their founders’ traditions of systematic philosophy. But after Aristotle’s death, philosophy in the Mediterranean region tended to retreat from those ambitions. New schools arose called Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Epicurianism that had a different character. Sextus Empiricus was a member of the Skeptical school who lived in the Roman period. He explained that Skeptics did not offer a whole set of beliefs that were consistent with each other, consistent with what we observe about the world, and leading to counterintuitive conclusions. (He didn’t name Plato or Aristotle in this passage but must have had them in mind.) However, Sextus continued, a Skeptic did offer a method that helped people to live rightly. (Outlines of Pyrrhonnism, 1.8.16). The main practice of the Skeptical school consisted of going over examples that would shake a person’s confidence in general truths. For instance, recognizing that people from different nations believed different things would prevent a Skeptic from fruitlessly searching for truths beyond human ken. “Consideration of our differences leads to suspension of judgment,” Sextus wrote; and suspending judgment was a path to inner peace and good treatment of others.

Sextus believed he was offering a persuasive argument: if human beings believe radically different things, none is likely correct. But this was not part of an elaborate system of arguments linking many ideas together. Instead, it was a fairly simple thought meant to change our mental habits so that we would live better. Such thoughts had to be repeated as a daily practice to change people’s psychologies. For instance, you could gain mental peace or equanimity by reflecting daily on the impossibility of attaining certain knowledge of a wide range of topics.

Epicurus (341–270 BCE) founded the school that bore his name. His “Letter to Menoeceus” includes a formal argument that we should not fear death. Death is a lack of sensation, so we will feel nothing bad once we’re dead. To have a distressing feeling of fear now, when we are not yet dead, is irrational. The famous conclusion follows logically enough: “Death is nothing to us.” But Epicurus knows that such arguments will not alone counteract the ingrained mental habit of fearing death. So he ends his letter by advising Menoeceus “to practice the thought of this and similar things day and night, both alone and with someone who is like you.” The main verb here could be translated as “exercise,” “practice,” or “meditate on.” It is a mental practice that anyone can use, regardless of her other beliefs and assumptions. Importantly, it should be pursued both singly and as part of a community. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 10: 134. The verb is meletao, translated into Latin as meditatio.)

The late French historian Pierre Hadot argued that members of the Hellenistic schools were most interested in these reflective practices. Hadot called their style “Philosophy as a Way of Life.” Hadot claimed that we misread a work like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations if we assume that it is a set of conclusions backed by reasons. Instead, we should find there a record of the Stoic emperor’s mental exercises, beginning with his daily thanks to each of his moral teachers. Marcus Aurelius listed these exemplary men by name because he would actually visualize each one every day. The Meditations shows us how a Stoic went about meditating.

Although Hadot emphasized the reflective practices of the Hellenistic schools, Stoics, Epicureans, Skeptics and and others also took formal reasoning very seriously (Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire, p. 353) and they rigorously studied older works, including those of Plato and Aristotle, from which they borrowed specific ideas, if not the overall structures. In short, they combined at least three of the four modes of thought that seem essential to moral improvement. Their weakest contribution was in the area of political and legal critique. They did contribute some political ideas, but on the whole, they were alienated from politics and pessimistic about improving institutions. For many of them, the only truly satisfactory regime had been the self-governing city-state of classical Greece, which was now obsolete.

The same Greek word that we translate as “school” was also used for the Jewish sects of the same time, the Pharisees and Sadducees. And the Greco-Roman schools of this time were roughly similar to Asian traditions, which also produced organized bodies of living teachers and students who studied their own communities’ foundational texts. One could join the Skeptics or Stoics almost as one could join a Hindu philosophical tradition or a Buddhist sangha. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says:

Simpletons separate philosophy [sankhya, or organized theoretical inquiry]
from discipline [yoga], but the learned do not;
applying one correctly, a man finds the fruit of both.

(Fifth Teaching, 4-5, translated by Barbara Stoler Miller and slightly edited)

The man whom we call the Buddha also mixed philosophical argument with reflective practices. Our evidence of his own thought is so indirect that many interpretations are plausible. One view is that the Buddha was educated in a culture that had developed elaborate, systematic moral philosophies in the form of the Vedic texts. But the Buddha was not convinced that these systems were helpful for the sole purpose that mattered to him: improving human life. His apparent skepticism is captured in anecdotes like the one in which he is asked whether gods cause suffering, and he says that that’s like asking who shot a poisoned arrow during a battle: the point is to get the arrow out of the victim. In lieu of a systematic philosophy, the Buddha proposed four main conclusions, each of which he supported by reasons and experience: the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. These four ideas were not meant to be comprehensive, nor would assenting to them at a theoretical level improve one’s life; to accomplish that would require repeated mental practices.

The Buddha’s world was not unlike the milieu of Plato and Aristotle, but the two intellectual traditions were still fairly remote while these men lived. That situation changed when Aristotle’s pupil, Alexander the Great, conquered northern India and left an empire to Greek successors. For instance, Strato I ruled territories around Punjab; his coins showed Athena (the goddess of wisdom) with Greek text on one side, and “King Strato, Savior and of the Dharma” in an Indian script on the reverse. It was in this Greco-Indian context that the early Buddhists developed their ideas, not only offering mental exercises–such as yoga–but also practicing formal argumentation and textual criticism. As this example illustrates, any distinction between Western (or European) and Eastern (or Asian) philosophy is largely confusing; both traditions have encompassed enormous diversity, and the two have often overlapped, as in the centuries after the deaths of Aristotle and Buddha.

Hadot claimed, however, that medieval Christianity ruptured the combination of argument and mental exercise that had been common in both the Mediterranean and in Northern India before the Christian Era. Medieval Christians adopted all the major ideas of the classical moral thinkers but parceled them out. Abstract reasoning and the interpretation of ancient texts went to the university, where knowledge became the end. Meanwhile, reflective practices were taught to monks and laypeople to be used without elaborate argumentation. A typical monk fasted, sang, and recited prayers but was not expected to reason about theological or moral principles. Hadot argued that this split was fateful and still predominates today, “In modern university philosophy, philosophy is obviously no longer a way of life or form of life unless it be the form of life of a professor of philosophy.”

The best illustration of Hadot’s thesis is the High Middle Ages of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Western Europe. That period generated Scholastic theology, an impressive effort to explain everything in terms of organized and coherent principles that derived from scripture and Aristotle’s philosophy. The mode of Scholastic philosophy was abstract argumentation illustrated with examples and authoritative quotes. Its origin was in universities, and its leading lights were university teachers. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, taught at the University of Paris. At the very beginning of his multi-volume book aimed at non-Christians, Aquinas defined the “wise person” as “one whose consideration is directed at the end [or ultimate purpose] of the universe, which is identical to the origin of the universe; that is why, according to The Philosopher [Aristotle], it is the job of the wise one to consider the highest causes” (Summa Contra Gentiles, I.i). From that start, Aquinas developed a whole theory of everything important. He assumed that if we could only answer the most general and abstract questions correctly, we could derive every important truth and law from those answers, and thereby persuade even heretics and atheists by force of reason alone. This project had relatively little to do with prayer, confession, meditation, pilgrimage, and penance, although those activities were also raised to high arts in the same era.

Although “philosophy as a way of life” was marginal in the high middle ages, the Renaissance thinkers whom we call humanists rediscovered the Hellenistic schools and their approach to improving concrete human thought and behavior. Montaigne, a great representative of Renaissance humanism and a man deeply immersed in the Hellenistic schools, relished listing the enormous diversity of human customs and beliefs–just as the Skeptic Sextus Empiricus had recommended. This diversity led Montaigne to doubt all elaborately designed theories about good and evil. He wrote that “the laws of conscience” (which tell us what is right and wrong) are not actually natural and universal, as we assume. They are rather born of “custom.” We “inwardly venerate” the manners and opinions approved by the people immediately around us, thinking they are true even though they merely reflect our community’s customs (1.23). The same must be true of abstract philosophical reasons; they are not universal or certain but rather derive from local mores. We believe what we happen to believe because of where we were born and who educated us.

But we can look critically within. Montaigne wrote introspective prose texts that he called “attempts” (in French, essais), from which we derive the word “essay.” His “essays” were not arguments about what is right and good for all people, but records of his struggle to understand and improve himself:

For, as Pliny says, each person is a very good lesson to himself, provided he has the audacity to look from up close. This [the book of Essays] is not my teaching, it is my studying; it is not a lesson for anyone else, but for myself. What helps me just might help another. … It is a tricky business, and harder than it seems, to follow such a wandering quarry as our own spirit, to penetrate its deep darknesses and inner folds. …This is a new and extraordinary pastime that withdraws us from the typical occupations of the world, indeed, even from the most commendable activities. For many years now, my thoughts have had no object but myself; I investigate and study nothing but me, and if I study something else, I immediately apply it to myself–or (better put) within myself. … My vocation and my art is to live (ii.6).

Montaigne said that he studied only himself, but he was evidently fascinated by other people’s individual personalities and characters as well. The aspect of his work that I want to bring out here is not so much its inward turn as its particularity. Montaigne tried to improve a specific person (who happened to be himself), and he assumed that this effort would require concentrated inspection and reflection. He did not propose a unified theory of the self, comparable to theories that explain all of human psychology in terms of self-interest, or reason struggling to master passion, or some other small set of principles. He rather saw his own personality as a somewhat miscellaneous assemblage of beliefs and mental habits that he had accumulated over a lifetime. He turned to one belief or emotion at a time, identifying and describing it and sometimes seeking to change it. He doubted that large abstract principles would be much help in this ongoing effort. He was less like an engineer or architect than a gardener working on an old and somewhat untidy plot of land.

Montaigne was relatively secular, but a similar shift can also be found in deeply religious authors of the same period, such as St. Francis Xavier and St. Teresa of Ávila, each of whom reunited reasoning and argumentation with continuous introspection and techniques of mental discipline. Thus–to be clear–the split between abstract reasoning and mental self-discipline is not intrinsic to Christianity; it is just one trend in Christian history that has waxed and waned over two millennia.

Systematic philosophy was rekindled when Immanuel Kant awoke from what he called his “slumbers” to produce an impressively organized worldview that influenced and inspired efforts by Schiller, Hegel, and Marx, among others. Despite their vast differences, the great German philosophers of 1750-1850 all hoped to construct coherent theories that would yield guidance for all human beings. They were intensely concerned with politics, law, and institutions as well as personal choices. In these respects, at least, they were comparable to Plato and Aristotle. But once that moment of confidence ended, intellectual leadership again passed to essayists who were most interested in individual characters (their own or other people’s) and who tried idiosyncratic “experiments in living”–people like Nietzsche, Thoreau, and Emerson. All three of these writers admired the ancient Stoics and classical Indian thinkers, and like them, tended to withdraw from politics, pessimistic that they could change it for the better.

Somewhat later, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) exemplified a new combination of argumentation, self-discipline, and cultural critique–and she added a strong dimension of political activism. When she was a young woman, Arendt had studied with the most distinguished representative of academic German philosophy then alive, Martin Heidegger. Many years later, she recalled:

The rumor about Heidegger put it quite simply: Thinking has come to life again. … People followed the rumor about Heidegger in order to learn thinking. What was experienced was that thinking as pure activity–and this means impelled neither by the thirst for knowledge, nor the drive for cognition–can become a passion which not so much rules and oppresses all other capacities and gifts, as it orders them and prevails through them. We are so accustomed to the old opposition of reason versus passion, spirit versus life, that the idea of passionate thinking, in which thinking and aliveness become one, takes us somewhat aback.

What did her phrase “Thinking has come to life again” mean? Because Heidegger wrote a book (Being and Time) that seems comparable to the grand systematic, theoretical works of Kant, Hegel, and Marx, one might assume that Arendt was merely acknowledging her former teacher’s importance. Perhaps she meant that Heidegger was famous and impressive, and it was exciting to be able to study with him.

But I think she meant something different. Reading classical works in Heidegger’s seminar (or in a reading group, called a Graecae) was a creative and spiritual exercise. The point was not only to construct arguments but to live a new kind of life in a community of fellow seekers. Once Arendt broke off her intellectual (and romantic) relationship with Heidegger, she moved to the seminar of Karl Jaspers. Jaspers had been a brilliant psychiatrist, and he saw philosophy as a different kind of therapy, better than psychiatry because it aimed at moral improvement instead of mere mental health. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl cites this sentence of Jaspers’ as exemplary: “Philosophizing is real as it pervades an individual life at a given moment.” Young-Bruehl adds: “For Hannah Arendt, this concrete approach was a revelation; and Jaspers living his philosophy was an example to her: ‘I perceived his Reason in praxis, so to speak,’ she remembered.”(Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, 63-4.)

At the very beginning of her career, Arendt was not particularly interested in politics–but politics was interested in her, a Jewish woman from a leftist family who lived a bohemian life. Already subject to discrimination, she became an enemy of the state with the Nazi takeover of 1933. By then she had decided that pure introspection was self-indulgent and that Heidegger’s philosophy was selfishly egoistic. She found deep satisfaction in what she called “action,” assisting enemies of the regime to escape and then escaping herself. From then on, she sought to combine “thinking” (disciplined inquiry) with political action in ways that were meant to pervade her whole life. But like the other skeptical authors I have cited so far, she offered no system; rather a set of practices that would improve the women and men of her own time.

By the time of Arendt’s death in 1975, systematic moral philosophy was being revived in the English-speaking world. The Harvard philosopher John Rawls proposed an ambitious new theory of justice that triggered valuable responses from libertarians and others. Kant and Aristotle were among Rawls’ explicit influences and models. But skepticism about such grand theories seems to have returned since the 1990s; indeed, Rawls’ own late work was more modest than his A Theory of Justice (1971).

I have suggested a rough pattern of oscillation between periods when leading thinkers are confident about philosophy as systematic reasoning–and times when influential writers turn instead to concrete exercises of reflection. During moments of maximum confidence about pure and self-sufficient reasoning, the two classical Greek theorists, Plato and Aristotle, typically become inspirations, even for philosophers who disagree with their actual views. In the periods of greater skepticism, authors frequently turn back to the Hellenistic Schools of the Mediterranean, to their analogues in India, or to the subsequent movements that they have inspired.

In these skeptical moments, authors begin by identifying what specific individuals happen to believe and reflect on these emotions and ideas, one at a time. The results are often admirable. However, when mental exercises come unmoored from reasoning and from political engagement, the risk of self-indulgence arises. Thus I am not proposing that we renounce argumentation in favor of introspection and mental hygiene, but rather than we combine them again–and add a strong element of cultural and political critique. This combination seems essential if are to avoid giving up altogether on improving ourselves and the world around us.

The situation is not immediately promising. The academic discipline of moral philosophy is again dominated by an argumentative mode that doesn’t take seriously mental exercises and practices. Academic philosophers analyze and sometimes develop reasons; they do not offer or even study practices. Thoreau’s exclamation in Walden rings true today, “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” He explained, “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates. … It is to solve some of the problems of live, not only theoretically, but practically.”

Outside the academy, mental exercises are common, given the continued importance of prayer and the rising popularity of meditation in the West. The self-help section of a bookstore is full of works on these topics and memoirs of individuals who have tried radical experiments in living, from renouncing all their worldly goods to moving to Tuscany. But for many people, meditation and other forms of mental discipline are separate from formal argumentation and moral justification, not to mention social critique. In fact, we are sometimes told that meditation is an opportunity to leave moral judgment behind for a time.

Meanwhile, “therapy”—the Greek word for what Hellenistic philosophers offered–has been taken over by clinical psychology. That discipline does good but misses the ancient objectives of philosophy. Modern therapy defines its goals in terms of health, normality, or happiness (as reported by the patient). Therapy is successful if the patient lacks any identifiable pathologies, such as depression or anxiety; behaves and thinks in ways that are statistically typical for people of her age and situation; and feels OK. Gone is a restless quest for truth and rightness that can upset one’s equilibrium, make one behave unusually, and even bring about mental anguish.

It would be false as well as arrogant to recommend present this book as a momentous new beginning. There have in fact been many examples of efforts to unite reasoning about moral choices and about institutions, mental discipline, and the interpretation of past thought. I have already mentioned Epicurus and Sextus, the Buddha, Montaigne, Nietzsche, Thoreau, Emerson, and Arendt as models and will add more as the book proceeds. These authors vary enormously, not only in their actual beliefs but in their genres and styles of writing. Montaigne invented the introspective essay, which was also Emerson’s main form; but Nietzsche wrote aphorisms, Thoreau reported on his radical experiment with a new form of life, and we attribute to the Buddha texts that we call “sermons.” I intend homage to these authors both when I quote them and when I propose a new experiment.

The experiment begins with a few modest assumptions. You already have many beliefs relevant to moral judgment that you have derived from forebears and peers or invented or discovered yourself. At least some of these beliefs seem to you to be connected to other beliefs by reasons. Thus you could view your whole moral mentality as a network. A network is a contemporary model for thinking about the “deep darknesses and inner folds” that Montaigne found as he explored his self. Thinking in terms of networks is useful because we now have illuminating methods for network-analysis.

A systematic moral philosophy proposes one organized network composed of ideas linked by reasons. Its organization is typically hierarchical, with one of a few big ideas implying all the others. The systematic approach suggests that you should adopt this ideal network, wholesale, to replace whatever ideas you have accumulated. I would reply: if there is one ideal, complete, and valid network of moral ideas, we have no way of knowing what it looks like. Instead, we each have a different structure of ideas and connections in our own heads. But we can improve what we happen to believe so far. If we all work on self-improvement, we may converge on similar views; our networks will increasingly resemble each other. Indeed, that convergence may have already happened to large regions of our moral thinking. But the point is not agreement, it is the improvement of the network with which each of us begins.

By the way, improvement does not necessarily mean tidying up or removing inconsistencies, for a complex and rich network may be better than a beautifully organized one that misses the complexities and tensions of actual life. What shape a network should take is a major question for this book.

Given these premises, I propose that you actually diagram your moral beliefs as a network and then refine and reshape the diagram in response to questions that I suggest. I first explain how to generate a network and then offer eight exercises for improving it, each requiring a chapter to explain and justify.

If you are primarily concerned about methodology–about the general, philosophical question of how people do or should think morally–then it will be sufficient to spend a few minutes diagramming your own moral network to get a feel for the method I propose. You can then turn to my justification of the method in the pages that follow and consider the “meta-ethical” issues that arise. But I am at least as interested in a different audience, one that includes people who may never have heard the phrase “meta-ethics” and who don’t find methodological disputes in philosophy especially intriguing. They want to understand and improve their own moral views so that they can live better. That process will inevitably take more than one quick experiment with mapping. The initial analysis of your moral ideas is a start; but you must then contemplate, revisit, and revise the map over time for it to have any value. This is the aspect of the method that involves practice and self-discipline as well as abstract argumentation.

The map is a model, not the reality; it is a tool, and not the only one worth using. Making and revising the moral network map is therefore not the only activity you should use for moral reflection and self-discipline. An example of another valuable method, not emphasized here, is to construct autobiographical narratives that make meaning of one’s life so far. A narrative is quite a different model from a network. Still, I claim that moral network analysis is a valuable tool and also one that illuminates certain general truths about moral thinking that we should take into account even when we use different tools and methods.

Like Epicurus’ practice of reflecting on death, moral network mapping can be done both alone and with others. It will not immediately generate a new worldview, nor do I offer an argument for a whole network that you should adopt instead of your current one. (That would be the mode of systematic philosophy.) Rather, you can gradually improve your own structure of ideas by reflecting on the pieces and the overall shape in a continuous, disciplined way and sharing the results with friends. The result should be a richer, more thoughtful, more defensible structure of moral ideas that will more seriously influence your emotions, your habits, and your actions.