it’s not just what you think, but how your thoughts are organized

We come into the world with no moral ideas at all and must learn them from others. We learn not just from arguments and explicit principles, but also by observing practices and experiencing emotional reactions.1 We must make judgments about complex, evolved, historically contingent phenomena (such as, among many others, marriage, democracy, and art) that we cannot apprehend as wholes but must learn to assess from accumulated and vicarious human experience.2 In Habermas’ terms, we begin with a “Lifeworld” formed of our shared experiences and improve it through explicit deliberation with diverse people in civil society.3

Some people are much better at this process than others are, and we can explain why by understanding their moral worldviews as networks of ideas and connections and considering how their whole networks are organized. Consider these hypothetical discussion partners:

  • Aaron constantly returns from any situation or moral consideration to the same value. He considers that value immediately relevant to all others and nonnegotiable. It defines his moral identity and appears to him manifestly true. Deliberating with Aaron is impossible, but not because his network contains a foundational belief in the sense of one that is “infallible, or indubitable, or incorrigible, or certain.”4 What makes him a poor deliberator is rather the over-centralization of his network of moral ideas. One cannot find a route around his core principle.
  • Bao endorses a lot of moral ideas, examples, and principles. But he cannot connect one to another. Asked why he believes P or Q, he has nothing to say about his reasons, let alone can he offer a chain of reasons that connects P to Q. It is hard to talk to Bao because his network is disconnected.
  • Carlos simply has nothing to say about many choices, dilemmas, and cases that arise in conversation and practice. He can discuss some topics cogently, but many others seem not to interest or concern them. The problem with Carlos’ network is that it is too small (having too few nodes) or has too restricted a scope.
  • Dominique cheerfully holds both P and not P, depending on her mood or perhaps her self-interest or convenience. Dominique frustrates deliberation because her network harbors blatant inconsistencies that she does not attempt to resolve.
  • Eduardo is committed to one idea, like personal liberty or economic equality, and he will not recognize the legitimate pull of other values that conflict with his summum bonum, e.g., order and security, solidarity and community, or democracy. Eduardo’s network is consistent but impossible to connect to if one holds other values.
  • Fiona holds many ideas and can thoughtfully connect them to each other. But asked whether she has tried to apply any of his ideas in practice or observed them in application, she demurs. Fiona’s network is well structured for talk but disconnected from experience.

This list can be extended. The point is that the structure of a moral network is important. That follows from the premise that we each begin with whatever ideas and connections we happen to hold, and our responsibility is to refine the whole set in discussion and collaboration with others. In that case, we should be concerned not only about the various values that we endorse, but also with how they are configured. The best networks for discussion are likely rich, complex, connected, not overly centralized, and not necessarily fully consistent.


  1.  Cf. Owen Flanagan, “Ethics Naturalized: Ethics as Human Ecology,” in Larry May, Andy Clark , and Marilyn Friedman (eds.) Mind and Morals: Essays on Ethics and Cognitive Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1998) p. 30: “The community itself is a network providing constant feedback to the human agent.”
  2. See Richard N. Boyd, “How to be a Moral Realist,” in Geoffrey Saye-McCord, Essays on Moral Realism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), p. 205: ““Much [moral] knowledge is genuinely experimental knowledge and the relevant experiments are (“naturally” occurring) political and social experiments whose occurrence and whose interpretation depends both on “external” factors and upon the current state of our moral understanding.” Cf. Friedrich A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), pp. 59-65
  3. Habermas’ preferred metaphor is a horizon, but he explicitly mentions networks in Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, trans. by William Rehg (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), p. 18.
  4. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, “Coherentist Epistemology and Moral Theory,” in Saye-McCord, p. 154.
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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.