The Mottoes We Live By

This is part 3 of The Next Enlightenment (but it should read fine on its own).

Imagine, for a moment, two cartoon societies.

In the first, each peasant tries to be a good peasant; each king, a good king; each father, a good father; and so on. They network with each other around their roles: so peasants and kings have a certain relationship; similarly with fathers and sons; and so on. This first society has adopted the motto: “everyone has certain roles; tradition tells us how to perform them”. And general principles emerge over time — duty, honor, the skillful expression of etiquette — because they seem necessary for people to fit together well with regard to roles.

Consider now the second society. In this one, people come up with individual goals, household goals, even business goals. A family decides to put their kids through school; a friend, to write a book; another friend, to start a company. They all inquire how to best accomplish their goals. And they network around their goals: they find opportunities to collaborate with one another, or to exchange favors so that each person’s goal is furthered. They have adopted the motto: “everyone has certain goals; we seek expertise on how best to achieve them.” Again, general principles emerge — freedom, affluence, and the scientific method. These principles seem necessary for people to fit together with regard to goals and expertise. They aim to leave each other free to follow different goals, and to give each other resources and knowledge relevant to their goals.

The first society resembles Europe before the Enlightenment, when the Church and the Monarchy were in charge; the second is more like Europe and the West today.¹

But truly we live in a mix of both societies. If you work at a company, you probably understand yourself both as fulfilling a certain role (being a “good employee”) and as having certain goals (“making money”, “solving technical problems”, “closing deals”). Depending on where you personally put the emphasis, different behaviors and facts will come to the foreground for you.

So to some extent, we all try to enact our roles (to be good workers, fathers, wives, children; to be good community members, even to be good Marxists, good Vegans, good Conservatives, or good Anarchists) and we all try to network and learn so as to achieve our goals (through the market, schooling, and democratic process).

But neither of these self-conceptions and mechanisms of social coordination are completely working out. Our systems based on roles and authority are in serious trouble, and those based on goals and expertise also seem to be causing problems in technology, in politics, and in economics.

To overcome these problems, we’ll need to develop a third social vision. In place of goals, this third vision understands each of us as having personal values, and supports networking — not just around goals or roles — but around those values (and related practices). In place of expertise and authority, we’ll need to develop new systems for reckoning with personal values and with our strategies to live by them. Expertise will be displaced by deliberative wisdom. Familiar social principles like freedom, justice, and responsibility will be reimagined with new names, like social capacity, integrity, and exposure to moral² consequences.

When this transformation is complete, we will have adopted the motto “everyone wants to practice certain values; we use deliberative wisdom to find them, and we design practices in which we explore them.”


  • The first two essays were called “Picking the Right Kind of Leader” and “How I Wasted My 20s
  • Next week, in “Cracked Foundations”, I’ll cover why the “goals” society isn’t enough to keep Science and Democracy in working order, and doesn’t even give us the right framework for measuring the success of products or businesses.
  • The week after, in “One Possible Future”, I’ll try to paint a picture of what a values-concerned society might look like.
  • After that, in “Clouds Hide the Moon”, I’ll discuss what blocks emergence of a value-concerned society; namely, our inarticulacy about our own values. I will show how this inarticulacy is maintained and reinforced.
  • Finally, in sections 6–10, I will sketch some of principles and institutions for a value-concerned society.

This short series, titled “The Next Enlightenment”, presents new social principles, developed within a small community of technologists, game designers, sociologists, and spacemakers. Thanks to Sam Hammond, Albert Kong, Nathan Vanderpool, David Chapman, Kevin Simler, Andy Matuschak, Kathryn Hume, and Boris Smus for reviewing drafts.

(And to Cora Marin for helping me draw the king and peasant.)

[1] I wrote about these changes (and the idea that talking about goals caused them) in Nothing to Be Done.
[2] And aesthetic consequences. For instance, architects need to know how it feels to stand and live in their buildings, and social network engineers need to be responsible for and exposed to how it is for people to live in their networks.