outline of a philosophy

At any given moment, an individual holds a very large number of beliefs relevant to moral evaluation and judgment. Some of these beliefs are connected to other ones, producing a network. Not all the connections are strict logical entailments; some are resemblances, similarities, or causal generalizations.

Our moral networks may not determine—or even strongly influence—our choices and actions. We often act because of unconscious instincts, emotions, and interests. Yet it is important to have a good network of explicit ideas, for only a reflective life is fully worthy. Besides, our ideas can constrain and motivate our choices, sometimes indirectly, by way of the general rules that we devise and submit to.

Each person’s network is unique, but our ideas and connections overlap profoundly. A culture is a group of people who share many nodes and links, yet every member of a culture is at least partly different, and it is typical for several cultures to overlap and for individuals to belong to many cultures at once. There is no perspective external to all culture, no view from nowhere.

We normally do not adopt our moral networks wholesale, nor are they designed or planned. We start our lives with virtually no moral ideas and add or subtract a few nodes and connections at a time. Some philosophical and religious systems present themselves as whole designed systems or as rules for improving any given network. Such systems may provide insights by directing our attention to particular ideals and implications that are worthy of attention, but they do not and should not generate anyone’s whole network.

An ideal network would contain all the relevant and correct beliefs and connections applicable to an individual. That is what we ought to strive for. However, in the moral domain, truth is difficult to ascertain and demonstrate. What we actually do is to assess nodes and connections, one or a few at a time. When we make those judgments, grand abstract questions about the nature or basis of moral truth tend to recede, and we focus instead on whether a given choice is right or wrong given the other things we believe.

Since our personal perspectives and interests are too narrow, we reason better together. Since we think most carefully when we are deciding how to act (or when we reflect on what we have done), our best reasoning is often connected to work in the world. And in order to reason well with others, we must cultivate moral networks that have certain formal properties, e.g., they should not be too centralized nor too disconnected.

In reflecting on our own moral networks, we are obliged and entitled to consider at least three large classes of questions: Am I relating well to others? Am I promoting my own equanimity or a healthy inner life? And am I avoiding falsehood and error? These three goals map onto sangha, buddha, and dharma, or onto oikeiosis, eudaimonia, and logos as pursued by Hellenistic philosophers.

Alas, they are are not consistent with each other. For example, truth often disrupts relationships and reduces happiness. That is why reflecting on all three will generate a complex moral network, rife with tensions.

The social contexts that best allow us best to improve our networks are ones characterized by talking and listening, collaborative action and reflection, and ongoing relationships that involve the exploration of other people’s moral thought. These contexts are not necessarily small; whether by using digital tools or by reading printed texts, we can form relationships with thousands of people. But the most valuable contexts are personal and relational, characterized by responsiveness to other human beings and tangible human actions.

Relational politics cannot achieve sufficient stability and scale to distribute goods and rights fairly or to deliver security and predictability, without which liberty is impossible. Although huge agglomerations of people may form, they cannot honor the abstract virtues of large systems, such as equity, impersonality, and rule of law. Thus we also need impersonal systems: laws, states, and markets.

Of these systems, we should ask whether they are just, and if not, how they fall short. Justice has many aspects (including fair treatment of other species), but an important component is whether systems protect and help all people to live lives informed and enriched by their own complex moral network maps, which they develop in voluntary interaction with others.

But whether a system is just is not the only political question we must pose. After all, we lack the capacity to design or reconstruct whole systems. Even a king or dictator cannot usually do that. All we can literally do is take concrete steps, such as saying something to someone, seeking an office or other official role, designing and making an object, joining or forming a group, or buying or selling a good.

Using these actions to change (or maintain) an impersonal system requires some combination of replication, leverage, and leadership. Replication means encouraging a desirable practice or activity to arise over and over again, and tying the instances together as a network. Leverage means exercising power at a distance. (For example, to vote is to try to move the government from afar.) And leadership—in this context—means obtaining a position or reputation within a system that permits more than the average amount of impact.

The essential political question is not “How should a society be structured?” but rather “What forms of replication, leverage, and/or leadership should we use now to change the world?” Our strategies should still be guided and constrained by the moral networks that we develop with one another through dialog and relationships. But when we use power, we must combine sequences of concrete actions into strategies and choose ethical and effective means to relatively distant ends.

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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