Lexicon of Meaningless Words: Moral

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

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6 comments on “Lexicon of Meaningless Words: Moral

  1. I would tend to agree with you – the English word “moral” – or any other English words – are ‘meaningless’ in themselves; it is the meaning behind the words which are intuitively understood. Different languages use different words, but are understood to mean the same thing.

    Chomsky’s idea of the Martian looking down at us, with our many different languages and words, is quite useful : our lmaginary Martian would identify ‘common denominators’/principles of behaviour/universal meanings behind the myriad of different languages and words.

    BTW, I also consider myself to be a Moral Realist – more specifically a Mega Realist.

  2. maphman says:

    I think I would agree with your claim that “moral” and any other English words are meaningless in themselves–if by this you mean that the words do not intrinsically refer to things in the world. However, I would add that certain terms simply by the nature of their usage lack a definite content even within the context of the meaning we have given them. So, yes it is true that “tree” does not necessarily mean those green growing things with tire swings attached to them–unless the speaker intends to speak of those things when he uses the word, the word exists within a symbolic vocabulary, and listeners understand the word as functionally applicable to those green growing things.

    However, the word moral seems to suffer from a further level of meaninglessness. I can intend to mean the moral in the Judeo-Christian sense, use the word as it exists within a symbolic vocabulary, and find that listeners understand the word as functionally applicable to something very different than I originally intended–like the moral claims of Westboro Baptist. I would argue that this is not merely a misunderstanding of the word “moral,” but an example of the fact that the meaning of the word “intuitively grasped” underdetermines the set of things to which it applies. In contrast, the word “tree” is unlikely to underdetermine the set of green growing things to which it might apply regardless of socio,political, linguistic culture.

    Now, it could be argued that many words follow the pattern of “moral” including “good/bad,” “attractive/ugly,” “useful/useless,” etc. However, people tend to realize that whether something is good or bad, attractive or ugly, useful or useless depends on the attitudes and ideas of both the speaker and the listener. Strangely, “moral” somehow slips through this determination and is often used as though it had–within its sense or meaning–some determinate content. Hopefully, I have demonstrated in this post that it does not.

    Thanks for your comment and your subscription to the bog!

  3. Maphman:

    I can see that, as you said in your post, “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.” I can also see that, as you said in your comment, “people tend to realize that whether something is good or bad, attractive or ugly, useful or useless depends on the attitudes and ideas of both the speaker and the listener. Strangely, ‘moral’ somehow slips through this determination…”

    It is precisely because of this that I do not identify as a moral realist. Perhaps there are objective moral facts, but we have no epistemic access to them. If we knew what the moral facts were – or, at least, with some lesser degree of certainty, we could somehow empirically test the rough edges of those facts and compare notes – our language would reflect it. But our language does not reflect it. When we say “moral,” we mean approval. Why don’t we have a word to mean “moral fact”? My conclusion is that, for all practical purposes, moral facts don’t exist. If they’re out there, they don’t affect us because we can’t discover them, and their inability to affect us rather contradicts anything meaningful about their “morality.” All meaningful morality exists within the observable human dimension.

    So I wonder how you maintain your moral realist stance while recognizing that language (the English language, at minimum) doesn’t seem to have vocabulary for moral realism?

    • maphman says:

      There are two ways that one can acknowledge the difficulty of locating a real, objective set of moral facts. Now, neither of them is going to be an intellectually satisfying answer to every person inquiring and, indeed, some–perhaps yourself included–will reject both of them.

      First, one can–with Hilary Putnam and others–argue that between metaphysical realism–the belief that persons can know the “facts” of the world through empirical observation–and total relativism–that there can be no (knowable) facts about a non-relative world–is an internal realism in which there might be many (relative) truths about the world, but there are also many falsehoods about the world. Putnam’s answer is to argue that while truth is not judged by a beliefs correspondence to an objective reality, it is possible to judge the rationality of a claim and come to agree that a non-relative truth is the ultimate outcome of a rational inquiry.

      Applied in a certain way–a way that Putnam, himself, would not–one could argue that a rational inquiry into morality, after processing the relevant claims, could establish a set of rational non-relative truths about a universal morality. Now, multiple sets of rational truths could be found and some might even conflict with one another, but where all these rational truth sets agreed one could posit a non-relative morality.

      Now, we might not call this answer intellectually satisfying because it could still be argued that the very quality of “rationality” employed as the standard of truth is every bit as dubious as the preference of a State or society. Further, it could be argued that even if rationality is a usable standard for truth we are still left with a non-realist system as we are still positing the existence of moral truths not accessing them directly.

      Against these claims it could be said that persons don’t need–and could not have–a moral system corresponding to a universal system that is beyond their rationality–as such a universal system could never be implements since humans could not understand its mechanisms. Such a system could no longer be universal as it excluded human beings from its application. Thus, rationality is the highest standard that a moral system could appeal to as its truth. However, the second claim, that such a system of internal realism would still fail to attain the standard set in a moral realism category is harder to overcome.

      So, the second possible answer would be to say that the epistemological problem–that even if there were objective moral facts in the world no one could be guaranteed that they had grasped them–is overcome if 1) there is a God and 2) this God intended to communicate the moral facts necessary to guide humanity into a flourishing life. It is upon this set of presuppositions that I argue for moral realism. I do not think it takes any greater faith to believe absolutely that God exists than to believe that absolutely that God does not exist. If one takes an agnostic approach then Pascal’s wager seems to apply. Thus, I would argue that the Judeo-Christian God has communicated moral truths to humanity and the argument in this post is merely that–as you say–the word moral is merely one of approval.

      However, I would disagree that I have “recognizing that language (the English language, at minimum) doesn’t seem to have vocabulary for moral realism.” In fact, I would argue that the problem of the word “moral” stems from the fact that humanity and human language assumes a category of moral realist absolutes to which they assume the word “moral” must refer. The proper referent of “moral” is fixed by applying a particular modifier to the word–in my case, “Judeo-Christian” morality–or when both speaker and audience share such a modifier even when it is left unspoken.

      Thanks for your comment! Even if you are left unconvinced, I hope that I have sketched a logical progression that at least allows for the possibility of moral realism.

      • Thanks for the Putnam reference. It looks to me as though “total relativism” and “internal realism” are complementary rather than being different grades on the same continuum. Personally, I believe that, at least within the realm of ethics, I can’t know any objective stuff (“total relativism”) but I know plenty of relative stuff (“internal realism”).

        I’m still struggling with your position on how we use the word “moral.” Yes, the word “moral” generally means that someone is giving approval (whether it is the speaker’s personal opinion or whether the speaker is using some other system to make the evaluation). Yes, it helps if people can provide an adjective to clarify “moral-according-to-what?”. To me, that looks more like relativism/internal realism than metaphysical realism.

        However, I see how, if you have faith in some degree of divine revelation of moral truths, that can take you to moral realism; indeed, it implies it. So if you have that faith in divine revelation, then perhaps people’s very use of the word “moral” implies some realist content underpinning their choice of words. They use the word “moral” because at some point they were inspired by a revealed metaphysical truth. Someone like me, on the other hand, who doesn’t have that faith is probably reading people’s language differently.

        I disagree (in a “::shrug::” kind of way) that it requires the same amount of faith to believe or disbelieve in X invisible thing. If there’s no good evidence of some fantastic spirit, space alien, lost sunken continent, etc., our default state is unbelief. The leap occurs when you postulate the unseen.

        Although (in an “::insight!::” kind of way) perhaps this is, again, different for people with relativist/internal realist and metaphysical realist worldviews. As someone who leans relativist/internal realist, if I don’t see evidence for something in the world around me, it would be an extra leap to postulate that it exists in some unverifiable/inaccessible external world. The normal course of behavior would be to assume it isn’t important and isn’t there. But maybe a metaphysical realist, who has to vote everything up or down in the external world anyway (time permitting!), finds that the up-vote and the down-vote require the same amount of energy and faith.

        So if you start out as a general metaphysical realist, you might be more likely to believe in God, which could lead to you being a moral metaphysical realist, too.

        Incidentally, Pascal’s wager has never made any sense to me for the simple reason that a monolithic Christianity and atheism aren’t the only choices. If you include a Protestant and a Catholic in the wager, each thinks the other has got it gravely wrong, and because the risk/reward is the same either way, they’re reduced to flipping a coin – the wager’s terms can’t help them decide. And that spectacle is no help to the outright atheist, either. Include Mormonism and you’ve got different tiers of “eternal bliss” to gum up your calculations about infinity. And so on, with non-Christian religions, or with any implausible spiritual scheme anyone cooks up. But Pascal’s wager is a different topic altogether.

  4. TL says : Why don’t we have a word to mean “moral fact”?

    We do – it’s called “Values” – which I consider to be both subjectively immanent within us, and objectively transcendent of us (eg a Christian Moral Realist).

    Mega Theory states there are 7 such Values (or ‘Moral Facts’) – Beauty, Freedom,
    Happiness, Life, Love, Peace & Truth.

    A powerful ‘realist’ case could be made that the “Soul” is a Moral Fact – and “Evil”

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