the pivotal significance of reparations for the American left

About one in four Americans supports reparations for slavery. There is a racial split on that question, with up to three in four African Americans–but only 15% of whites–in favor.

If you think that justice demands reparations, you should support them. You might not make reparations your main criterion for choosing candidates in a given political contest, because you might vote on other grounds, but you should endorse proposals that you believe are just.

Here I want to address a different issue. I’ll offer an explanation (not a justification or a critique) of the importance of reparations in the mentality of left-leaning Americans.

I think that many Americans on the left are torn between two political positions, each coherent on its own but in tension with the other:

1. A strong version of New Deal/Great Society liberalism and/or social democracy, in which the nation-state intervenes assertively in the economy to promote equity and environmental sustainability. This stance is compatible with enthusiastic support for voting and democratic processes. It requires a lot of trust in the state and a willingness to entrust state actors with the ability to, for example, investigate how much wealth (not just annual income) you have, which schools your kids will attend, and which health treatments will be paid for, given data about your body.

Martin Luther King, Jr., provides a classic statement of this view when he recalls the launch of the Great Society: “A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings.”

2. A deep suspicion of the United States government as white-supremacist, patriarchal, and colonialist: as a continuous entity that has played a leading role in genocide, enslavement, and apartheid, in part because those policies have sometimes been popular among the white majority of the country.

It’s debatable what positive program follows from the second position, but in practice, it can mean support for local initiatives, nonprofits, women- and minority-owned businesses, and autonomy at the neighborhood level. Malcolm X provides a classic text for this view:

The white man, the white man is too intelligent to let someone else come and gain control of the economy of his community. But you will let anybody come in and control the economy of your community, control the housing, control the education, control the jobs, control the businesses, under the pretext that you want to integrate. 

… we haven’t had sense enough to set up stores and control the businesses of our community. … But the political and economic philosophy of black nationalism…the economic philosophy of black nationalism shows our people the importance of setting up these little stores, and developing them and expanding them into larger operations. Woolworth didn’t start out big like they are today; they started out with a dime store, and expanded, and expanded, and expanded until today they are all over the country and all over the world and they getting some of everybody’s money. …

So our people not only have to be reeducated to the importance of supporting black business, but the black man himself has to be made aware of the importance of going into business. And once you and I go into business, we own and operate at least the businesses in our community. 

Note that this position is compatible with certain forms of libertarian thought but not with social democracy.

It is not embarrassing to be drawn to two incompatible views. The social world is complicated, and there are good reasons in favor of many positions. However, when you feel the pull of two incompatible ideas, a deciding factor becomes very important.

Reparations play that role for the American left. If the United States government were to pay reparations, that would tilt many left-leaning people from the second position to the first: from Malcolm to Martin, if those labels are helpful. The impact would be especially strong if Congress and the president decided to pay reparations of their own volition–not by grudgingly negotiating with a social movement–and if the payment were substantial.

The underlying theory here is similar to Homer-Dixon et al (2020). An ideology is a complex system that consists of numerous ideas with logical links among them. It cannot be described adequately by placing it on one left/right spectrum, nor even several such continua at once. It is not a point in logical space but a structure of ideas.

In complex systems, we frequently see multiple equilibria, and specific nodes have surprisingly large impact because of their location. A single node can tilt the system from one equilibrium to another.

My conjecture is that reparations plays such a role in the system of the ideology of the American left. Left-leaning people may not rate it as the most important issue. They may not even endorse it whole-heartedly. But it (perhaps uniquely) can tilt them from a libertarian equilibrium to a social-democratic equilibrium.

This is an empirical conjecture for which I do not have data. To test it, we would have to explore the epistemic network of left-leaning Americans, either by analyzing large bodies of text or by surveying individuals about their ideas and perceived connections among their ideas.

See also: on Hillary Clinton and Julius Jones of #blacklivesmatter; ideologies and complex systems; and unveiling a systems map for k-12 civic education (for a methodological analog).

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.

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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.