is a network a good representation of a person’s moral worldview?

Here is a method that I and some colleagues have been using to model the moral worldview of individuals and of groups. First, pose questions about individuals’ principles, beliefs, and methods and ask them to respond with ideas that they endorse. Then show them their own ideas in a table and ask them to identify pairs that they consider closely related. That will allow you to generate a network diagram of their ideas. Give the diagram back to them and ask them to explain their ideas and connections to their peers. As they do so, ask them to modify their own networks.

This method will generate network graphs for each individual at each time-point during the discussion. All of their networks can be placed on the same plane to produce a map of the group; and to the extent that they have chosen the same ideas, the group will have a connected network. See, for example, these maps of the Summer Institute of Civic Studies and two of its members:


Of course, you will get networks because you have asked for networks. You could instead ask people to give you lists of moral ideas, in which case you would receive lists back. People’s lists could be shown as sets that would overlap when two or more individuals chose the same ideas. Respondents could also be asked for ranked or weighted lists or for lists of ideas that trump other ideas, just as all the diamonds may trump all the clubs in a card game. In the “5 Whys?” technique, individuals propose a basic idea, answer the question “Why?” about it, then ask “Why?” about the reason they have given, and so on. That method will produce a chain or ladder of ideas, instead of a network.

On what grounds is the network model preferable?

We could treat it as a method for modeling the moral psychology of research subjects. In that case, it would be an empirical psychological model and we would want to know whether it was reliable and valid. Reliability would be assessed as follows. Do individuals and groups give substantially similar responses when studied at different times and when the questions and instructions have been changed in superficial ways that should not alter the results? Validity would be assessed by asking whether the results for individuals and groups correlate with other reliable measures of moral thinking, such as how people respond to dilemmas or how they express moral views in narrative form. Both reliability and validity would have to be tested with samples of people who varied by culture, age, religion, language, etc. Regardless of the results that came back from initial studies, the method could be tightened. For instance, this summer I gave extremely vague instructions about what should count as a link between two ideas. Clarifying those instructions should improve reliability.

This suggests a whole empirical research agenda, which I consider valuable and have just begun to pursue. I’ve also argued that the model is consistent with and explains empirical results by Ann Swidler and Stephen Valsey, who do not use a network model. That is a modest claim of validity. Using the network concept to reinterpret previous empirical work in moral psychology would be another part of the research agenda.

However, there are two other ways to use the model that I find more significant. The first is normative. I want to argue that certain network forms are morally preferable–quite apart from how many people hold those forms. For example, networks should be relatively flat and dense. Making distinctions among network forms only becomes possible if we think of moral ideas as networks. If we model moral psychology using lists, then we will be restricted to asking how many items are on people’s lists, whether they are consistent, how they are ranked, and whether the right ideas are listed. Network models open up additional questions about how ideas are structured. To pursue this line of inquiry, we would not hypothesize that people think with networks of ideas. We would posit that their ideas can be so modeled and inquire into the differences among network forms.

The other (related) use is conceptual. A network is a picture, and I want us to shift our picture of morality. At the beginning of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein quotes St. Augustine and asserts that the quoted “words give a particular picture [Bild] of the essence of human language” (PI, 1). Wittgenstein suggests other pictures, starting with the metaphor of a game and going on to families and woven fibers. He wants to shake our confidence in the standard picture and argue that certain questions that it provokes are pointless. “What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle” (PI, 308).

In a similar spirit, I would like to shake our confidence in a set of standard pictures of morality that generate false questions. For example, Rawls thought that we live in a world of many “reasonable but incompatible comprehensive doctrines.” That “fact” about the world posed difficult problems. How could we construct a political system that was fair to all the comprehensive doctrines? Would that system not also require its own comprehensive doctrine? His picture was not an idiosyncratic one. It arose from a widespread assumption that people hold rival but internally coherent moral worldviews. In my Nietszche and the Modern Crisis of the Humanities (1995) and Reforming the Humanities (2009), I assemble evidence that this assumption was fundamental for a whole range of modernist authors, from Hegel and Nietzsche to Leo Strauss and Jacques Derrida. For instance, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says: “A table of values hangs over every people. Behold, it is the table of their overcomings; behold, it is the voice of their will to power.” Note: one table for each people, and every table different. “Never did one neighbor understand another: his soul always wandered at his neighbor’s madness and evil.” 

We do not need this picture. If you map many people’s worldviews as networks, you will not ask the question: “How many comprehensive doctrines do we see here, and on what grounds do they conflict?” You will see diversity and disagreement, but not plural systems of thought. And so some of the dilemmas of modernism and of liberalism will vanish.

The debate about foundationalism in ethics should also end. Traditionally, we call moral views “foundationalist” if all their ideas derive from a few that are large and indubitable. Basically, no one wants to be called a foundationalist these days, because a dependence on indubitable ideas is problematic. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord redefines the issue by calling any ideas, no matter how modest and fallible, “foundationalist” if they have some kind of epistemic advantage over one’s other ideas.* But then why talk about “foundations” at all? This is a metaphor, alluding to a building with a large, strong base on which the rest of the edifice is constructed. The metaphor produces an infinite regress: on what does the “foundation” of morality rest? If we switch to a network model, the paradox disappears. Moral ideas are linked, and some have stronger reasons than others. Some have non-moral reasons. A persuasive position includes lots of ideas that are reasonably well founded and well connected to each other. 

*Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, “Coherentist Epistemology and Moral Theory,” in Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Mark Timmons, eds., Moral Knowledge? New Readings in Moral Epistemology (New York: Oxford, 1996), pp. 137-189.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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