moral: (adj.) approving of a person’s character, intentions, or actions or a word that seems to say far more than it actually does.
(I could never vote for that politician. He is im(moral) and would set a bad example for American children.)
Now, this post promises to be the most controversial in the series so I’m going to spend quite a bit of this post qualifying just exactly what I mean when I say that moral is a word without inherent content–and therefore a meaningless word. If you’ve managed to suffer through the whole thing and still believe that I am an idiot–or immoral–the comment box awaits your two cents. So, some preliminary distinctions.
Definitions and theories of morality can be broadly understood as divisible into one of two camps: that of moral realism or moral anti-realism.
Theories of moral realism include those that understand the term “moral” to refer to true moral statements that inscribe objective moral facts. Thus, when a moral realist tells you that someone is “moral” because they sold all the wealth they had and gave it to the poor, they might concede that social forces, culturally derived norms, and social convention/ custom might also approve of this person’s actions. However, they would argue that those person’s actions were moral not because of their conformity with social convention, but because they conforms to a universal existing moral code.
Theories of moral anti-realism include those that understand the term “moral” to refer to an arbitrary, subjective or–at least–contingent moral convention. Thus, when a moral anti-realist tells you that the previous person is “moral” the adjective is appropriate only because social forces, culturally derived norms, and social convention/ custom approves of the person’s actions. Thus, statements of moral “fact” are derived from either an unsupported belief that there are objective moral facts, the speakers’ sentiments, or are merely the product of prevailing cultural trends. Sometimes theories of moral anti-realism are lumped under the term “moral relativism,” but technically that term refers only to the theories that emphasize the importance of cultural conditioning on moral beliefs.
Now, I happen to be a moral realist. I do believe that there are objectively true moral statements that inscribe moral fact quite apart from mere preference or cultural convention. However, the very fact that there are many, many millions of people who–knowingly or not–believe that morality is arbitrary, subjective, or contingent suggests that when I make the statement “She is a moral person” I only seem to myself to be saying something definite and distinct about a person. But, what it the person listening to me was:
…from a little known headhunting tribe in Borneo in whose culture “moral” meant acting according to a fiercely hierarchical honor-based system tied up with one’s prowess in battle and “immoral” applied to anyone who was a pacifist.
…from a cult–like Westboro Baptist Church–in whose culture “moral” meant protesting soldier’s funerals and declaring that “God hates fags” and “immoral” applied to anyone who not a member of their church/ family.
…from the Occupy Wall Street movement in whose culture “moral” meant loudly and proudly decrying the inequalities in wealth distribution and “immoral” applied to anyone working in the finance sector that more money than they did.
…from an academic ivory tower in whose culture “moral” and “immoral” were highly debatable terms dependent upon one’s commitment to moral realism or moral anti-realism theories including moral-nihilism, emotivism, and ethical subjectivism, etc.
Now, the obvious argument from a moral realist–such as myself–would be that while people might misunderstand what is meant when one applies the term “moral” to someone, that does not prevent the word from referring to the universal, objective moral facts that are independent of cultural forces or conventions. That is to say,–in a parallel statement–you might misunderstand what is meant when I call a fire truck “red” and believe because of your cultural upbringing that I must mean the truck is “blue,” but the word “red” necessarily means the color of the firetruck–not the color of a smurf.
However, I would argue that there is no necessary or intrinsic reason that any word refers to any object or quality in the world. That is, there is nothing qualitatively red about the word “red.” Had one lived from birth in a culture whose word for the quality red was “blue” there would be nothing wrong whatsoever in calling a firetruck or a stop sign “blue.” There is no magical connection between the word “red” and the quality of red in the world. Therefore, while it might be true that there are objective moral facts existing apart from arbitrary, subjective, or contingent social conventions we call “morality” the word “moral” is still governed by the rules of language that say that its meaning is determined by the convergence of the intention of the speaker, the symbolic vocabulary of the culture, and set of things to which that culture applies the term. As the word “moral” can equally be intended by a speaker to denote different qualities and applied by different cultures to name a myriad of different characteristics, intentions, and actions–used as an adjective–it is merely a term of approval with no necessary meaning beyond it.
Now, it would be possible to lend the term further content by adding additional modifiers as in the phrases “She is a Christian-moral person” or “He is Socialist-moral person,” but in each case the new first adjective is doing the descriptive work and “moral” easily dropped while retaining the majority of the meaning. Thus, “moral” seems to say useful, descriptive things when applied to a thing in the world, but only so long as the speaker’s beliefs about what morality means match up with the listener’s beliefs about what “moral” means. In every other case where “moral” is use as an adjective to describe a quality about someone or something it is at best easily misunderstood and most often meaningless.
Good, you’re done… if you still disagree, the comment box is conveniently located below and to the left. Remember, if you don’t say anything I’ll go on being right.
Monday’s Post: Hypocrite