morality as a network (revisited)

(Syracuse, NY for a conference on Self among Selves: Emotion and the Common Life) Each of us holds many moral propositions. Some are abstract and general, like “Every person has equal moral worth.” Some look like rules or commands: “Do not kill human beings.” Some are more like positive or negative emotions about particular things or people, but we could translate them into propositions.

Some are intuitive. When they are very obvious, it can even seem obtuse to ask why they are valid. (“Why should you not randomly kill people for fun?” is a bad question.) But some of most important moral thoughts are rather particular, idiosyncratic, and in need of justification. For example, I sit here writing with a view of Tufts University, which is my employer. I feel some commitment to and fondness for Tufts, and I believe that my writing supports my work for Tufts (because it will ultimately find its way into an article). Those feelings could be translated into propositions. But each one requires justification and evidently connects to other propositions. To show that I am doing the right thing, I would owe a description of Tufts University and some premises about moral commitment (i.e., Why should one be committed to anything?). In the ensuing conversation, factual information might be relevant: Tufts actually does certain things. Morally evaluative terms would also arise and would need to be justified. The conversation about Tufts might well shift into related topics, such as the role of scholarship in a democracy, the value of democracy, the place of philosophy as scholarship, or the quality of my scholarly work.

We could view all the morally relevant propositions that I hold as nodes in a network. My relationship to each node may be a straightforward endorsement, but it may be more complicated than that. (See the concept of propositional attitude.) For instance, Anne Swidler finds (Talk of Love, 2001) that many middle class Americans have in their heads what they call a “Movie” ideal of love. They do not believe it. They view it with some irony. But they appeal to it in certain situations and they feel its force over them. If we translated that Hollywood ideal into propositions (e.g., Every individual has a perfect romantic match;  finding that person guarantees happiness), most Americans would both endorse and strongly deny those statements.

Many of my moral beliefs and ideas are connected to other nodes, but not necessarily in one way. Depending on what two nodes say, it can be the case that:

  • A logically entails B
  • A causes B
  • A makes B more likely
  • A is a step on a long path toward B
  • A and B are in fruitful tension: incompatible, yet both worthy of support
  • A resembles B
  • A prevents B
  • B echoes A
  • I am impressed by people who believe A, and they also tend to believe B
  • People with a given kind of experience tend to believe both A and B
  • A and B are examples of C

… and so on.

When we try to assess whether people are good, or whether what they does is right, we often ask about the separate propositions that these individuals hold. For instance, anyone who thinks that Jews are evil is worse for that reason, regardless of what else he may think or do. That is a node in his network, and we have a strong moral intuition about it.

But in many cases, we do not have confident intuitions about the separate nodes, nor should we, because they have no moral valence out of context. So a different question to ask about a network is: How is it structured?

I think that question has been addressed too narrowly (in the philosophical writing that I know). The question always seems to be whether the network is coherent and whether each component is entailed by broader, more abstract, more “foundational” premises. Kant, Mill, Rawls, and many others analyze morality that way. They presume that a moral network map should be organized as a tree, with abstract generalities at the root, and particular applications at the branches. But that is only one type of diagram. I see no reason to assume it’s the best; it is certainly vulnerable to skepticism about the premises that lie at the root. Nor is coherence evidently desirable: I admire more a person who is aware of moral tensions and inconsistencies than one who has simplified his principles to remove all conflict.

A very common goal of moral reflection (not only among professional philosophers) is to weed out the weaker aspects of a person’s network. “Critical thinking” is supposed to be a matter of getting rid of the mere prejudices and unsupported assumptions, conflicts, and fallacious connections. Professional philosophers often impose what Amartya Sen calls “informational restraints” to weed out nodes and links. They certainly disagree about which considerations to ignore: for example, Kantians reject consequences, Rawls erects a veil of ignorance to hide our place in society, and utilitarians screen out motives as primary evidence about what should be done. Most, however, will agree that anecdotes about specific individuals are subject to bias; that simple arguments from authority are fallacious; that strong emotional responses must be translatable into valid propositions; that evidence about consequences only matters to the extent that we can assess outcomes by an independent standard; that the use of precedents and comparisons requires justification; and that rules or principles that can be generalized are more reliable than those that are narrow and ad hoc.

As Bernard Williams writes in a slightly different context, theorists tend to criticize–and seek to delete–intuitive or conventional moral concepts, but “our major problem now is that we have not too many but too few, and we need to cherish as many as we can.”

Instead of seeking to delete nodes or connections that are unreliable, and instead of trying to make the whole network look like a flowchart with the summum bonum at the base, I would ask:

  • How extensive is the network?
  • How many connections does the person draw? (How dense is the network?)
  • Are the nodes that have the most connections intuitively correct?
  • Are the nodes that have the most connections intuitively weighty?
  • Have the conflicts been recognized and led to appropriate conclusions, or have they been ignored?
  • Are there free-standing nodes, and if so, are they justified in any way?

(I have  explored related ideas in posts on How to Save the Enlightenment Ideal and Moral Thinking as a Network.

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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