Tag Archives: moral network

do fixed beliefs prevent reasonable deliberation?

In Reasoning: A Social Picture, Anthony Simon Laden (who’s visiting Tufts today) argues that there’s a “standard picture of reasoning” in which the goal is to reach conclusions. You can reason alone, but when people reason together, they assert propositions, back them up with reasons, and strive for assent. Success means reaching a conclusion as reliably and efficiently as possible.

Laden argues that this picture cannot make sense of a valuable and pervasive kind of reasoning that is quite different. Sometimes when we reason, it is not to reach a conclusion but to engage in an activity with someone else that strengthens the relationship, whether that is a civic bond, a friendship, or a romantic or familial tie. I reason with you to learn what you think, to share my views with you, to seek whatever common ground we can, and to see if we can live together rather than in parallel. A characteristic activity of this kind of reasoning is not asserting that P, but inviting a response: What do you think–can we agree that P? Reasoning is “responsive engagement with others as we attune ourselves to one another and the world around us.”

Just as there are good and bad arguments that P, so there are good and bad ways of reasoning together in Laden’s sense. But some of the norms are quite different. A particularly strong argument is one that ends the discussion. But a particularly skillful conversational invitation is one that prolongs the discussion in ways that satisfy both parties. Laden says that his view is anti-foundationalist, because one unhelpful kind of reasoning involves asserting beliefs as bedrock, self-evident, or transcendent. If someone asserts that Jesus is his personal savior, that all history is the history of the class struggle, or that science produces the only truths, that ends the conversation and so makes the individual less reasonable, on Laden’s view.

Here is where I prefer my own account of moral thought as a network of beliefs connected by various kinds of ties (not just logical entailments, but also empirical generalizations, rules-of-thumb, and family resemblances). I don’t think we can declare a person unreasonable because he holds strong commitments. None of the beliefs I listed above happen to persuade me, but I am equally fixed on other beliefs, such as my love for my own family. The fact that I am not really open to discussing that doesn’t render me unreasonable.

But to converse reasonably with others, it does help to have a moral network map with certain features:

1. You shouldn’t keep returning to a few nonnegotiable principles. It’s fine, for example, to hold religious beliefs as a matter of faith. But if you constantly and immediately cite those beliefs, it’s impossible to reason with you. To put the point in network terms, your map can include nodes that are fixed points, but they ought not carry all the traffic. It should be possible to route around them.

2. You should have more beliefs rather than fewer. It is easier to converse with someone who has many interests, commitments, and ideas, because these are points of contact. Such a person is like an organic molecule with lots of surfaces for other molecules to bond to. Yet,

3. Each belief should connect to others in ways that you can explain. That way, to engage me on my belief A provides an entree to discussing my beliefs B and C. If many of my beliefs and commitments are singletons (in network terms), the conversation quickly dies.

Network analysis helps us see what makes a good conversationalist, but it does not show that being a reasonable conversation-partner is morally valuable. Perhaps it is more important to be good and right. That is what people typically say when they have neatly organized and simple mental networks that revolve around a few nodes, whether God, science, liberty, nature, or something else. They say: “It’s all very well to reason civilly and responsively with other people, but what really matters is my belief P.”

Well, it could be true that P. For instance, it could be true that God has laid out all the commandments for how to live, and we’ll see that for certain in the next life. But in this life, I don’t know how we can know that P except by reasoning with other people. Conclusive arguments are scarce in the moral domain; mainly, they are refutations of particular views that turn out to be inconsistent. But although conclusive arguments are scarce,  we come to believe things collectively by discussing them. When the discussion is inclusive, fallibilist, and responsive to everyone’s contributions, the results are better. I am not quite sure whether reasonable conversations increase the odds that we reach the right conclusions, or rather that we create something desirable when we make our moral world by reasoning together. (In other words, I am not sure whether to characterize the activity as discovery or creation.) But the practical conclusion is the same either way. It is most important to be a reasonable interlocutor. That does not rule out holding fixed beliefs, but they must supply just some of the nodes in your moral network, and they cannot be overly central.

envisioning morality as a network

Let us posit that a person’s moral worldview is a network. The nodes are commitments, beliefs, principles, and other moral ideas. The connections are logical. But, since we are thinking about morality and not mathematics, our criteria for valid connections must be loosened. Two moral ideas are connected not only in cases when A implies B, but also if A sets a precedent for B, A is analogous to B, A is a compelling example of B, or A and B came together harmoniously in the life of a person we admire. We can examine any moral network map and ask whether it has desirable features as a whole. Improving our own map becomes a method of introspective self-improvement.

Many works in the philosophical tradition push us to ask whether all the nodes in our own maps are mutually consistent and whether all the connections are logically tight. But those are only two virtues of a moral worldview, and they are easily overrated. A moral monster could have a consistent network in which all his concrete beliefs followed from a few premises by adamantine chains of logic. This evil person might hold horrible premises, or his assumptions might be wonderful (e.g., “Freedom for everyone!”), yet his whole system could be fanatically simplistic. Although moral networks vary in quality, and we should strive to improve them, coherence is not their main virtue.

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moral network mapping and literary criticism: a methodological proposal

A moral worldview is a set of beliefs or values connected by various kinds of relationships. For instance, one belief may imply another, or may subsume another, or may be in tension with another even though both are truths. If analyzed that way, a whole worldview can be mapped as a network, with the beliefs viewed as nodes, and the relationships as ties.

Using that method, we can map the moral network implied by a work of literature, such as a lyric poem. Previously, I wrote some notes on W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” (notes here; full text here.) I then mapped the moral network of that work. I think my first effort was a bit off, so here is a revised map:

What assumptions underlie this method?

1. The moral evaluation of literature is a valid and useful mode of criticism. It is not just about judging the values of the text (pro or con), nor is it merely a matter of elucidating what the author meant or what the text implies about moral issues. It is rather a critical engagement with the moral perspective of the work, a kind of joint investigation into what is really good and right that is informed by both the text and the reader’s critical response. Although I think that remains a rare mode of literary criticism, it has prominent defenders.*

2. Formal network analysis, a branch of graph theory, offers insights about the structure of any system that is composed of objects and relationships. Tools from network analysis, such as calculating the centrality of nodes or the density of relationships, can help to elucidate and assess the moral worldview of a work of literature.

Underlying this premise is a deeper assumption that moral worldviews should not be assessed only (or mainly?) by evaluating the correspondence between their separate ideas and truths about the world. It’s also (or more?) important to ask how the whole worldview hangs together. The question is not whether Auden should be against tyranny, but how that stance fits into his overall thinking. When people argue for assessing a whole worldview instead of individual principles, their next step is usually to look for internal consistency. But consistency is not the main virtue of a well-structured worldview. Better a mentality that incorporates valid and fruitful tensions than one that avoids all inconsistencies at the cost of narrowness or oversimplification.** Network analysis reveals density and other virtues that are more helpful than consistency. (See also “ethical reasoning as a scale-free network.”)

3. Abstract and general principles are overrated. I do not claim that they should be expunged from one’s moral thinking (that would be an over-radical form of “particularism”), but rather that there is no good reason to assume that a well-ordered moral mentality can be arranged like an organizational chart, with the abstract principles at the top and all one’s concrete beliefs and commitments as mere implications. That would be one kind of moral network map, and some people do think that way. Other people are much more concrete, or they mix concrete particularities with abstract generalities in interesting and complex networks. For instance, I think New York City and the “dive” bar where Auden sits in this poem are just as important to his moral vision as tyranny or selfishness.

One reason not to try to make the abstract principles fundamental to one’s whole network is that certain crucial ideas, such as love, will then be distorted. These ideas have the feature that they are sometimes good and sometimes bad, depending on the circumstances. If you try to organize your thinking around abstract and general principles, you will be compelled to divide love into the good and bad kinds, and that is false to the experience of what love is.***

Turning the map above back into a written analysis of “Sept 1, 1939” would take some space, but I think a few key points emerge:

  • Auden has a dense moral network, not dependent on just one or two ideas. It’s robust. For instance, he later came to hate the line, “We must love one another or die.” But the poem does not rest on that.
  • Love, art, and politics are densely interconnected.
  • Homosexuality is not mentioned in the poem but is alluded to at least twice. It is hard to know whether Auden would connect it to “unselfish love.” I would. So I am either in disagreement with the poem or sympathetic with Auden (a gay man in the 1930s) because he could not draw that connection openly.
  • Much depends on a polarity between public and private, but poetry occupies an uneasy space between. Consider declamatory statements like this: “There is no such thing as the State /  And no one exists alone.” Are they incursions of public demagoguery into a poem, which should be private? Or should the poem speak truth to power?

*See David Parker, Ethics, Theory and the Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack, Mapping the Ethical Turn: A Reader in Ethics, Culture, and Literary Theory (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 2001), Amanda Anderson, The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory (Princeton, 2006)

** Simon Blackburn, “Securing the Nots,” in W. Sinnott-Armstrong and M Timmons, eds., Moral Knowledge (New York, Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 95

*** This is basically my thesis in Reforming the Humanities: Literature and Ethics from Dante through Modern Times (Palgrave Macmillan, December 2009).

mapping a moral network: Auden in 1939

We can think of a person’s moral mentality as a network. The nodes are ideas or values; the links are various kinds of connections among the ideas: implications, explanations, influences, and meaningful tensions. For instance, I believe that all human beings have exactly equal value, yet I also believe that my primary obligations are to my own family. These are two nodes in my personal moral network, connected not by a contradiction but by a tension.

A good moral mind comprises important and correct nodes. For instance, it is better sincerely to endorse a principle of equality than to advocate hating some of one’s fellow human beings. That example shows that a single node can affect–even determine–a person’s character. But it is hard to argue for any given idea all by itself. (Why equality, for instance?) And it is not enough to have the right principles; they must also be well organized.

Those two considerations lead us to think not merely about which principles are right or good, but also about the overall shape of a person’s moral network. Does it include enough ideas to handle the actual complexity and variety of human affairs? Are weighty and serious ideas central to the network? Do ideas just stand by themselves, or are they linked together in meaningful ways?

I’ve been thinking about these questions introspectively–but that is a somewhat private matter. Another way to demonstrate this kind of analysis is to examine the moral network map of a famous person.

A full personality would be an immensely complicated thing to map, since it comprises all kinds of principles, desires, aversions, memories, virtues, vices, memberships and identifications, hopes, plans, skills, and facts. It changes constantly and is inconsistent, replete with thoughts that are only half-endorsed, only half-sincere. But if we are interested in moral questions–What should we do? How should we live?–we can simplify the analysis to a person’s moral ideas.

Most people (including me) are not sure what those are; we would have great difficulty explaining our moral premises adequately to other people. We are not terribly clear or articulate. Fortunately, some writers describe moral ideas cogently and concisely, not merely listing them but putting them in a formal arrangement that reflects appropriate amounts of tension, irony, ambivalence, and ambiguity. Whether the resulting text reflects the author’s sincere, inner motivations doesn’t matter; we are not interested in psychoanalysis, but in finding a moral worldview to analyze. It is the text, not the writer, that we will use for analysis.

Morally conscious lyric poets are especially helpful for this purpose because their writing is concise and is concerned with form and organization as well as discrete ideas. Also, poetry can accommodate abstract concepts, concrete stories, personalities, reasons, and emotions–as the poet sees fit. I don’t believe we should screen out any of these kinds of ideas in advance but should see how they work together in a particular mentality.

Recently, I offered a brief reading of a great and influential moral poem, W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” I explored the complexities of Auden’s pronouncements, some of which we know he did not mean literally. For instance (as he himself said later), the line “We must love each other or die” is false, since we will die even if we do love each other. So its place in the poem is more complicated than just a proposition that Auden endorsed. The setting–a gay bar on the first night of World War II–may be as important as some of the abstract themes.

One way to think of the structure of the poem is as a literal network map. See the top of this post for an example. To make that image, I selected ideas (and in some cases, quotes) from the poem. I used software to place them in literally random locations on a blank plane, connected the ones that seemed related–using dotted lines for nodes that are in mutual tension–and then applied an algorithm that moves the nodes around as if they were billiard balls connected by springs, until the diagram stabilized at an equilibrium. That yielded a picture of the relationships among Auden’s ideas as presented in this (partly fictional) poem.

An important disclaimer: the labels of those nodes are simplistic; they reduce subtle and ambivalent ideas to slogans. So you must actually read the poem. Nevertheless, the network analysis brings out certain points:

Auden presents a rich view in just a few pages. I found 16 nodes and 52 links, and I’m sure I could have found more. None of these nodes can be collapsed into others, but a few separate areas of emphasis emerge. As shown at the bottom-left of the map, Auden is anti-collectivist: against the state, mass society, and ideologies (including corporate capitalism). He admires personal conscience–but not the retreat into private life.

Another important ideal for him is disinterested love, which is threatened by the universal desire to be loved exclusively.

I put “gay identity” on the map because the setting is known to have been a gay bar, and Nijinsky/Diaghilev (mentioned in the poem) formed a same-sex couple, as did Auden/Kallman. But I can’t connect that node to others because Auden is not explicit about homosexuality. This is a case where what is unstated is also part of the map.

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.