Moral Language

chrisnicolson / Foter / CC BY-NC

What is good? What is evil? What should I do? What should I not do? These questions are questions about morality, or ethics. There are at least four levels of connotation at work in moral language:

  • A value-laden expression of an individual’s own sentiments about a particular kind of human behavior (distaste or preference).
  • A value-free description of prevailing social norms.
  • A value-free assessment of the suitability of specific ends to bringing about an individual’s satisfaction (in the technical sense of this term).
  • A value-laden assessment of the correct resolution of a dispute

Moral language is complicated by the fact that human language tends to mash together the different connotations in ways that make it difficult to keep track of what exactly is being said.

Consider the proposition: “It is wrong to engage in homosexual sex.”

If we take this in the first connotation, it is saying something to the effect that engaging in homosexual sex is distasteful to the speaker. This connotation is value-laden because it is an expression of a subjective sentiment or opinion. It is always true as long as the speaker is speaking truthfully.

We can see this moral connotation embedded in the very words we use to express moral sentiment: indecorous, distasteful, unbecoming, unseemly, “out of line”, “out of place”, rough, unrefined, rude, mean. Each of these expressions has an aesthetic etymology or connotation as well as a moral connotation. Note, however, that this connotation of moral language is not necessarily normative. That is, simply expressing distaste at something does not necessarily entail a prescription that all others must share the same distaste.

If we take it in the second connotation, it is saying “people generally believe homosexual sex is immoral”. This connotation is value-free and is either true or false. The complicated part of this kind of moral language is that – to be completely clear – we must also specify in which connotation it is that people generally believe something is moral or immoral.

If we take it in the third connotation, it is saying “engaging in homosexual sex is an incorrect course of action for attaining happiness”. This is also a value-free statement and is either true or false but it is crucial to recognize that it is a statement about a population, not about an individual. The conditions under which the proposition is universally true (true for each and every individual) are more stringent than for the proposition to be simply true (with individual exceptions). For example, “eating is pleasurable” is a true statement about humans but it is not universally true (true for each and every individual without exception).

Finally, if we take it in the fourth connotation, it means that in disputes involving an act of homosexual sex, someone who has engaged in it should be considered to have “done wrong” from the standpoint of a judge in a legal dispute. This is a value-laden assessment because it is an expression of essentially the same subjective sentiment as in the first connotation but with the added force that the proposition is meant to justify a legal outcome.

The origins of moral language lie in dispute-resolution. Answering the question “who did wrong?” is, in the primitive situation, one and the same as answering the question “what is the correct resolution of this dispute?” But it is not at all clear that the role of law in society is to actualize prevailing moral sentiments, as legal activists would have it.

The desire of activists to use law to further their own interests (including their pet ideologies) gives rise to the political aspect of morality. When special interests begin to profit (materially or even psychologically) from altering the character of law, they become organized moral propagandists, otherwise known as political ideologues, political theorists, lobbies, religious leaders, and so on. Moral argument itself can become a basis for altering the character of law to suit the ends of special interests. So, the mere act of saying “homosexual sex is wrong” might be a prelude to making homosexual sex unlawful. This, in turn, can cause moral language in any connotation to be polarizing.

But the biggest problem is that it is precisely in the area of dispute-resolution that we would most desire to have a value-free assessment of the morality of the actors’ behavior. If Alice and Bob get into a dispute, we would like to have some unbiased way of determining who was in the wrong, that is, determining who will have to make amends or endure punishment. And it is precisely in this area where we can be sure that value-free assessment is impossible because humans are essentially self-interested and any dispute is, by its very structure, adversarial. No matter how the dispute is resolved, someone is going to be disappointed.

I intentionally chose a politically charged moral sentiment to illustrate an important point – once you specify the connotation in which you are expressing a moral sentiment, it often loses much of its potential to ruffle feathers. Specifically, I want to suggest that a source of the sensitivity surrounding moral language arises from vagueness (perhaps intentional) between the various connotations. In particular, the last connotation I mentioned – moral sentiment as an expression of the correct resolution of a dispute – is likely to be a source of disagreement whenever it is conflated with any of the others.


2 thoughts on “Moral Language

  1. wheylous 12/09/2012 at 21:33 Reply

    Pretty great! Love the deconstruction.

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