With Plurality Institute, I am hosting a reading and discussion group that will discussion Parts 4 and 5 of the Plurality book. In this note I will summarize some personal reactions to Part 4 of the book.

The first key idea in this section is the idea of rights as the foundation for democracy. The exact nature of these rights may vary e.g. across different societies; however, there is a general notion that democracy cannot exist without the protection of a certain set of foundational (individual?) rights. Why is this the case? Weyl & Tang cite Danielle Allen’s Justice by Means of Democracy; they say:

… government cannot respond to the “will of the people” if their will cannot be safely and freely expressed.

Of course, it seems that there is a big question of exactly which “rights” need to be protected in order for democracy to exist or be legitimate in this sense. I suppose that the usual liberal answer to this is some set of individual rights/freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association. Bill of Rights type stuff.

What do Weyl and Tang want to say about this? What is the “plural” perspective on foundational rights? In my reading, they offer two buckets of points:

Their driving metaphor in section 4-0 is an analogy between operating systems in digital environments and systems of foundational rights (constitutions?) in democratic societies. While I grant that there are some similarities here, I am not sure I find this analogy particularly useful. Why do Weyl and Tang find it important? They argue that both OSs and systems of rights can/should involve two key aspects that are distinctive to a plural perspective:

  1. Dynamism: the basic idea here is that both OSs and foundations of rights are “dynamic” – a feature they say is “central to plurality”; this dynamism arises from the fact that it is impossible to infinitely foresee what will arise out of a particular set of rights/affordances in the future. The key point seems to be that some degree of dynamism in these foundational systems is good / desirable:

    OSs and rights can and should evolve to support the applications and democracies that run on top of it, rather than collapsing to an external will.

  2. Rights and Relationships: The key point they seem to want to make here is the following:

    A ⿻ understanding of rights recognizes systems and groups as much as (individual) people.

In other words, they think that it is not enough to protect just individual liberties; you need protections like freedom of association etc; even apparently individual liberties can be viewed in more networked / interactional terms – e.g. free speech is not just about an individual, it’s about the individual’s ability to communicate with others in the network.

To summarize, they think that a “plural” approach to foundational rights should be “dynamic, networked, and adaptive”. This contrasts e.g. with libertarian approaches which they frame as being attached to a rigid set of primarily individual rights. They also contrast with “Technocracy” which is rooted in the pursuit of an “objective” and definable social good.

The remaining sections in this part outline ideas about how these systems of foundational rights could be updated in line with these plural approaches. The key areas of consideration are:

  1. Identity and personhood.
  2. Association and plural publics
  3. Commerce and trust
  4. Property and contract

Identity and Personhood

This section discusses digital identity systems, both as they exist today, and how they could be developed further in ways that are aligned with plural principles. There are a lot of different things going on in this section. What are the key concepts?

First, they frame a key conflict/question in digital identiy systems between (1) secure establishment and strong protection of identity and (2) centralized surveillance / privacy. In other words, it’s hard to formulate decentralized identity systems that can actually do the things that identity systems need to do. What is the way past this tension? Weyl and Tang propose:

The natural answer … (involves) harnessing the ⿻ nature of identity and the potential of network architectures. […] with the right mix of experimentation and standards building, a ⿻ approach to identity could reconcile the goals of establishing and protecting identities.

What does this ⿻ direction entail? The ideas are somewhat sketchy here; however, the rough idea centers notion of “identity as intersection” – identities are not defined by immutable biological traits like fingerprints or iris scans, but by an individual’s location in a network of interpersonal and sociological associations – communications, group memberships, interpersonal actions/exchanges, shared experiences or copresence. I think a lot of this kind of idea about identity is further outlined in the Decentralized Society paper. But in my own words, the basic idea is that identity is about your position in a social network; this notion of identity is rich enough to do most of the things we need identity to do (e.g. reputation), but also can be fully pseudonymous vis a vis the actual offline human being who is attached to it; it’s also decentralized of course, and has a few other benefits like social recovery.

There are various challenges to this kind of system. One concern is that a system grounded in networked associations might overstep on the “privacy” side of the identity equation. According to Weyl and Tang; we should reframe this side of the equation to focus on “contextual integrity” (Nissenbaum) – the idea of “information remaining in the social setting for which it was intended”. Here is where they land at the end of the chapter (emphasis mind):

Given that these are inherently social settings, furthermore, they are not primarily about the individual choice or protection (of privacy etc. - JF), but rather the protection of groups of people against violations of their collective norms about information. In short, the central problems are about another fundamental right: freedom of association. In essence , systems supporting and implementing the right of personhood must simultaneously bolster the freedom of association and the dual challenge of establishing and protecting association parallels those in the identity context.

I am not sure I fully understand the argument here; however, I think the basic direction makes sense to me. Per above, I think that this section may be clearer in the context of other writing that I should review further.

Association and ⿻ Publics

This section starts out by making the foundational point that free association is central to a functioning democracy; per De Toqueville:

If men are to remain civilized…the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.

In Weyl & Tang’s words:

Only by facilitating and protecting the capacity to form novel associations with meaningful agency can we hope for freedom, self-government, and diversity.

They explain that digital technologies support free association in obvious ways, by making it easier to connect(at least for those with digital access); however, they also undermine association through the ease of surveillance. Free association “requires protecting this context from external surveillance”. The goal fo the chapter, then, is to

“outline a theory of the informational requirements for association”; ultimately they aim for a vision that is “not privacy or publicity but rather ⿻ publics”: “the flourishing of many associations of common understanding protected from external surveillance”.

Their vision is based on the following theoretical model of what a group/association is:

  • A group or association is defined by a set of “common beliefs” or “common goals” which may be distinct from the individual beliefs / goals of group members
  • The common beliefs in a group/community are “things that everyone believes everyone else believes”; likewise for common goals.

Freedom of association, then requires:

  1. The freedom to create common beliefs and goals.
  2. The ability to protect these associations from surveillance.

The rest of the chapter, then, involves discussing how digital spaces can support or undermine these abilities. The goal is to create “⿻ publics”:

⿻ publics is the aspiration to create information standards that allow a diverse range of communities with strong internal common beliefs shielded from the outside world to coexist. Achieving this requires maintaining waht Shrey Jain, Zoe Hitzig and Pamela Mishkin have called “contextual confidence”, where participants in a system can easily establish and protect the context of their communications.

Again, I think that there are some external references that are relevant here. There are references to a range of existing technologies that could help support this vision in varying ways (e.g. ZKP, MPC, blockchains, etc.)

A final key point in this chapter returns to the idea that free association and the identity are tightly connected in this vision:

if it is our entanglement in a diversity of social greoups that creates our separateness as a person, it is only by protecting the integrity of that diversity that separate personhood is possible.


without people with well-articulated identities, there is no way to create groups defined by common knowledge among these people.

Commerce and Trust

The basic idea is that cash arises to facilitate exchange across wide social divides – to keep track of value contributions in an exchangeable, univariate kind of way. With digital tools, we can keep richer records of these value exchanges and allow them to interact in different ways; is this useful? Maybe. Different sorts of social value contribution are useful for different things.

There is some discussion of plural money where:

  • Communities could have their own currencies that could be used in limited domains and interoperate.
  • We could replace currency with direct represetnations of interpersonal debt and trust. We could “call in a favor” rather than pay in cash; in analogy with kidney exchange protocols.

In general it seems like the arguments in this section could be developed more.

Property and Contract

Basic claim in this section is that there is currently an under utilization of digital and computational assets, both relative to physical assets, and relative to the potential of digital assets. We could benefit if we can find better ways to coordinate and share digital assets.

I think a lot of this section is pointing out toward the “Data trusts” idea in Radical Markets. I feel like I need more development in this section.


Basic idea here is that digital and informational access with integrity should be viewed as a fundamental right. Even if diffierent groups will interpret information in diffierent ways, everyon eshould have access to “uncorrupted input data” and information.

I think this section may be missing some important points. The whole issue in these kinds of context is: who gets to decide which is the “unbiased” or “uncorrupted” information? Or how do we create a plural notion of what that means? I am surprised that they don’t cite something like Community Notes or Polis here as a kind of constructivist and fundamentally plural way of deciding what constitutes shared ground of knowledge making.

Key References for Understanding this Section

  • Something on the basics of liberal rights
  • Excerpt from De Tocqueveille Democracy in America on free association.
  • Maybe something from The Public and Its Problems by Dewey.
  • Allen, Danielle. Justice by Means of Democracy. University of Chicago Press, 2023. Retrieved from https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/J/bo192735333.html.
  • Jain, Shrey, Divya Siddarth, and E. Glen Weyl. “Plural Publics.” Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University, March 20, 2023. Retrieved from https://gettingplurality.org/2023/03/18/plural-publics/
  • Ohlhaver, Puja and Weyl, Eric Glen and Buterin, Vitalik, Decentralized Society: Finding Web3’s Soul (May 10, 2022). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4105763 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4105763
  • Nissenbaum, Helen. “Privacy as contextual integrity.” Wash. L. Rev. 79 (2004): 119.