I'd like to lay out a few thoughts about how ideas rise and fall within communities. Is there a philosopher I can read that expresses these kinds of ideas better?

Some communities adopt ideas more as a matter of "fashion" - which is to say that social considerations dominate when it comes to choosing ideas. This may involve methods of thought like the following:

  • A high status member of my community says X. Therefore, I will think or say X.
  • Many of my friends say X. Therefore, I will think or say X.
  • X is flattering to myself or my community, or unflattering to an opposing community. Therefore, I will think or say X.
  • Someone contradicts X. Therefore, they are not part of my community and must be defeated rather than considered.

These tendencies are present in every community, but not to the same extent in every community.

Some communities have more "impersonal accountability." This is to say that there is an external, impersonal influence on the community, distinct from any of the above social methods of thought. Ideas in the community, as well as members of the community, rise or fall depending on how well they comport with the external, impersonal influence.

Most communities have some level of impersonal accountability, but again, the amount varies from community to community. Communities that lack external accountability circulate ideas among themselves only as a popularity contest, unmoored from impersonal facts or observations.

Competitive sports with objectively-measurable outcomes, such as scoring goals or obtaining a fast time around a track, involve impersonal accountability. The impersonal influence is whether the contestants win or lose. This is a strong influence that causes contestants to adopt ideas that help them win.

Hard science has a relatively high level of impersonal accountability, through experiments. Ideas that contradict experiments (the impersonal influence) tend to fall out of favor or be revised. Naturally, there is an element of fashion even in hard science; we are speaking of degrees, not in absolutes.

Prediction markets are another example of a community with impersonal accountability; those who make flawed predictions will lose money, pushing participants to make better predictions or drop out of the market.

Examples of communities with relatively low levels of impersonal accountability could include religious or political communities, or conspiracy theorists.

So, which philosophers should I read to learn how to better defend this type of perspective?

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    If most members of a group don't have examined ideology but only let spontaneous natures develop within a group, no matter how many groups one participates, one would endure similar and familiar ebbs and flows. OP's "social considerations" could be reduced to the topic of groupthink in modern psychology: Janis emphasized that cohesiveness is the main factor that leads to groupthink...In a cohesive group, members avoid speaking out against decisions, avoid arguing with others, and work towards maintaining friendly relationships in the group... Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 5:07
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    @DoubleKnot I mean to include groupthink when I talk about "fashion," but I'm also including some other social biases I mentioned, like in-group favoritism and copying the views of high-status group members. But that's only half of what I'm saying. The other half is that the social biases can be counteracted if there is an objective, outside source of data, and the system is set up in a way that the ideas of group members are eventually accountable to this outside data, not just to the ideas of other group members.
    – causative
    Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 7:43
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    @DoubleKnot and that furthermore we might evaluate how likely a group is to reach legitimate conclusions, based on how strongly accountable it is to an impersonal, external source of information
    – causative
    Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 8:18
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    I didn't say a word about the "presence of ideologies" or "higher levels of cultural development." I thought I was being clear. The notion, in brief, is that ideas in a community need to be validated by something external to the community, or else the community is unlikely to come to correct conclusions.
    – causative
    Commented Feb 15, 2022 at 2:14
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    For your main concern if the group has a strong "impersonal accountable" to objectively measure its group decision, then such decision should be ideally same as each individual's own decision provided each member has enough means to carry out such measurement such as in a scientific group. Thus ideally not much need to form such a group. In reality individual lacks the means to do such measuring or lacks enough ideas to solve a problem, so they form group to collaborate. Then the group dynamics depends on the ideology and psychology of members, same for those without such strong accountable. Commented Feb 15, 2022 at 6:45

1 Answer 1


The question here appears to discuss the locus of control over a group's beliefs. We could say that groups have a personality, or style of reasoning. This personality is presumably the emergent collective of individual members' personalities. Since the focus here is on accountability, the area of interest is specifically moral reasoning.

Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately if one is afraid to question the nature of morality, the style and progression of moral reasoning in the individual is covered in Kohlberg's stages of moral development (emphasis mine):

The theory holds that moral reasoning, a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for ethical behavior, has six developmental stages, each more adequate at responding to moral dilemmas than its predecessor. [...] Kohlberg's six stages can be more generally grouped into three levels of two stages each: pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional. Following Piaget's constructivist requirements for a stage model, as described in his theory of cognitive development, it is extremely rare to regress in stages—to lose the use of higher stage abilities. Stages cannot be skipped; each provides a new and necessary perspective, more comprehensive and differentiated than its predecessors but integrated with them.

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)

  • 1. Obedience and punishment orientation [might makes right]
  • 2. Self-interest orientation [ends justify means]

Level 2 (Conventional)

  • 3. Interpersonal accord and conformity [make peers happy]
  • 4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation [make powerful happy]

Level 3 (Post-Conventional)

  • 5. Social contract orientation [ends before pleasing others]
  • 6. Universal ethical principles [ideology before individuals]

[suggested by Kohlberg]

  • 7. [Transcendental or Cosmic] [focus beyond the flesh]

The methods of thought mentioned earlier in the question fall mostly into stages 3 and 4, or basically making peers and or superiors happy; with maybe a hint of stage 2, or pure self-interest (of the group). Again, the style of reasoning for the collective can be expected to mirror the individuals, or at least the leaders and celebrities. So if most influential members are at stage 3 or 4, the group should think and act around stage 3 or 4. Naturally some actions may reflect peripheral stages, even for one person, since an impulse or old habit can sometimes come through.

Each community to which an individual may belong has its own culture and norms, which are partly set by leaders (if hierarchical) and partly emergent through time. Still, at some point the origin of these traits is presumably from someone's moral reasoning.

As the above theory is controversial on its surface, a couple of key points ought be considered:

One, a person's morality, or goodness, is not necessarily dependent on the stage of reasoning. Other factors such as empathy and compassion can help one at lower stages to be kind and caring. Often people take after what they observe, which even if not fully understood, could mean better behaviour if good examples are abundant.

Two, a person at a higher stage may well act badly if operating under the wrong delusions or otherwise misguided about something critical.

Three, when a person finds through experience that a given stage gets the job done without much left for want, the person tends to stay at that level. The impetus for arriving at higher stages usually comes from suffering or failure at lower stages. Hence, generally only those having significant trouble at their current stage have enough cause for changing their views.

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    Piaget said: "Nothing new is learned until existing systems have failed to maintain equilibrium." Basically, we grow when we must. I liked the point about how a person normally at a higher stage can sometimes act badly, which is otherwise mystifying.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 20:25
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    @ScottRowe -- The provided quote aligns with the belief in modern psychology that all volitional action is the result of cognitive dissonance, or the existence of unresolved mental conflict. Without the right failures, we may never grow. Immorality is ultimately the result of ignorance, so technically any stage of reasoning may succumb to broken understanding. Moreover, every worldview is but a heuristic about the world and its function. Higher stages are generally more fit. But thoughts may never fully align.
    – Michael
    Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 18:27

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