watching a community form

The 2014 Summer Institute of Civic Studies consists of 24 people who differ by discipline and profession, age, gender, race/ethnicity, ideology/religion, and nationality. (India, Iran, Ukraine, German-speaking Northern Italy, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Francophone Canada, Mexico, and the US are represented.)

Before the Institute began, I asked each member to tell me as many as five general principles that she or he strives to live by; up to five truths about life that she sees as relevant to her moral decisions; and up to three methods that she uses to make moral decisions. I then gave them back their own lists of ideas and asked them to link any pairs that they saw as strongly connected. That allowed me to map each person’s moral worldview as a network of ideas.

The resulting maps differed not only in their content, but also in their form. Here is a network that is small (just six nodes) and largely centralized around a single idea: “Love the world.” This individual felt that Loving the World implied three other very general ideas. He added two more ideas that he chose not to connect to anything. That produced a disconnected network with a highly centralized core:


In contrast, this person produced a much larger and denser network in which many nodes are connected but there is no clear core:


I believe that moral reasoning is intrinsically social–we believe what we do because of our interactions with other people, and we have better beliefs if our interactions go well. I think we each start with the network of ideas that our context gives us, and our duty is to improve it through interaction. I posit that different network forms are better or worse for interaction.

Because some members of the Institute provided identical (or substantially identical) responses to the questions I had asked before we met, I could graph all of their ideas and connections as one network. Once we convened at Tufts, I gave them opportunities to discuss their own network maps with their colleagues. I did not encourage them to link their ideas together, but some chose to do so, and others simply borrowed ideas from their fellow participants. I edited the database when people changed their responses. As a result, the class map became gradually denser. Here is an illegibly small image of all 272 ideas and how they relate in the minds of our participants on Day 6 of the Institute. (Responses are color-coded by individual.)


I would posit that we have formed an intellectual community to the degree that the individual networks have linked up. This community is not defined by shared premises. There is no one idea that everyone shares–in fact, not even close–and several ideas on the map are mutually contradictory. (To name an evident example, the map includes both “God is loving and kind” and “God is dead–everything is permitted.”) The community is rather defined by its density and connectedness. These are matters of degree. Ten nodes are completely disconnected, and the network as a whole is only 1.5% as connected as it would be if every node were directly linked to every other one. But we have more of a community than we had on Day 1, as any participant would attest.

By the way, this means that John Rawls was wrong. Rawls saw a “plurality of reasonable but incompatible comprehensive doctrines” as a “fact” about the world, or at least about the modern world. He explained: “a reasonable doctrine is an exercise of theoretical reason: it covers the major religious, philosophical, and moral aspects of human life in a more or less consistent and coherent manner. It organizes and characterizes recognized values to that they are compatible with each other and express an intelligible view of the world” (Political Liberalism, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. xvii, 59).

Do we see a comprehensive doctrine here? Or two doctrines, or three? I know that the group includes an observant Mexican Catholic, a couple of explicit atheists, a highly Kantian liberal, and some Deweyan communitarian pragmatists. I can identify their favored ideas on the map. But I do not see separate islands of thought. A few people have organized their networks, made their ideas mutually compatible, and could summarize them by identifying one or more core premises from which they think the rest follow. Most people could not do that. To “express [their] intelligible view[s] of the world,” they would have to show their whole maps, which now connect to other people’s maps.

Diversity is a fact. A diversity of “comprehensive doctrines” is not.

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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