The Loss of Moral Language

Tsze-lu said, “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done? “The Master replied, “What is necessary is to rectify names.” (Analects of Confucius)

At the beginning of his now classic work After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre asks us to imagine a future society in our civilization has collapsed. (Not too difficult to do). The remnants of our scientific knowledge would be perhaps remain in textbooks and other resources, and these would be carefully preserved and taught. At the same time, the whole scientific infrastructure that allowed that the content of the sciences to have truth and coherent meaning would be gone. The scientific nomenclature would become a body of opinion which might correspond with reality, but might not. It would be what later generations could make of it.

AfterVirtueMacIntyre’s thesis in After Virtue is that this imaginary post-apocalyptic view of the sciences serves as an accurate image of the present state of moral discourse: “The hypothesis which I wish to advance,” he writes, “is that in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described.” The problem is not then that we know what is right but fail to do it, the timeless problem of men everywhere. Rather, we no longer know the words to express the moral dimension of our experience.

In the Catholic school where I teach, I never cease to be impressed at the impoverishment of my students’ moral vocabulary. Many for example do not know the word gluttony. For them, the only “eating disorders” they know are psychological, not moral e.g. bulimia, anorexia. Neither do they know fornication, having grown up less judgmental terms like pre-marital sex or cohabitation. Correspondingly, few will know words such as woo or court. The whole language of courtship is a blank to them. One year, when I asked students for a synonym for “winning a woman’s love honorably,” a boy guessed “seduce” – probably because it was the only educated sounding word for that kind of activity he knew.

Many students can simply forget these things, even after they have been taught. But this task is rendered vastly more difficult by the countervailing trends in the larger culture. Christian morality has long ceased to inform our shared moral discourse. My students must feel that they are learning a foreign dialect. But of course, the bigger problem is not that this language has been lost by some great cataclysm, as MacIntyre’s scenario suggests. Our moral language has been intentionally destroyed.

JungleThe words we use shape our perception of the things we experience. When I was a boy, only ecologists used words like wetlands and rainforest. Ordinary folks used words like swamp and jungle. The language was changed to change our views about those things. Saving a rainforest sounds lovely – but who wants to save a jungle? Likewise, saving wetlands sounds considerably nicer than saving a swamp. This revision of language is particular evident in everything connected with the Sexual Revolution. Sodomy became homosexual and then gay. Prostitutes are mere sex workers. Living in sin is cohabitation and so on. Perhaps most notoriously, a baby is now a fetus, who is terminated in an abortion. Before Roe v Wade, only physicians used words like fetus or zygote. (It is hard to imagine someone asking a pregnant woman “Are you feeling your fetus kicking?”)

These distortions are not so subtle, but others are. Sex has been replaced by the word gender. Many might feel that that gender in fact might be better to use, since it does not carry the possible innuendo that sex does. But “gender” was a word that formerly was only used in grammar to describe nouns, e.g. masculine, feminine or neither. Gender is cultural. The word for “sun,” for example, in some languages is masculine, while in others is feminine. These are cultural perceptions, not facts. Sexual differences on the other hand are natural. Male and female are biological realities that have a natural basis. By replacing sex with gender, we have turned human sexuality into a cultural construct. (As I write, Facebook lists 58 possible “genders” for its user’s profiles, including gender questioning, gender fluid and non binary[1]).

Closely allied with the word gender are the words role and norm. People once considered the respective duties or tasks of men and women, especially as husbands and wives, mothers and fathers. If gender is a cultural construct, all these duties no longer have a natural basis – they are created. Hence, our modern age borrows from the language of theatre to describe the roles of spouses and parents. No actor is naturally related to his role – he may play many characters, good or bad, young or old. Similarly, men and women are not then seen as living out natural differences, but interpreting, even inventing, a culturally derived script.

Norm is a term borrowed from the realm of sociology. Norms are standards derived primarily from common practice. They are not prescriptive, establishing what people ought to do, but descriptive, stating what in fact most people choose to do. Hence, normal is not synonym for natural; indeed, cultures may create all manner of practices contrary to nature. And certainly, normal is not a synonym for moral, unless one believes that morality is mere opinion, free from a natural basis. Together, gender, role and norm collectively undermine any natural basis for family life as various arrangements contrary to nature are considered equally choice-worthy.

Another important shift, again subtle in its effect, has been the replacement of specific words such as love and friendship with generic words like relationship. Relationship fuzzes over the distinct ways in which people relate for the sake of making these relationships a purely creative project. Unlike “love,” which makes demands, relationships become whatever those involved want them to be.[2] Similarly, the word partner is used where, once upon a time, wife or spouse or mistress or lover would have been more appropriate. Again, the goal is to have a generic word that puts a multitude of moral conditions all on the same level. As Allan Bloom succinctly remarks, “All relationships have been homogenized in their indeterminacy.”[3]

Without doubt, the most pernicious word in our contemporary moral discourse is value. Just as norm is taken from sociology and role from drama, value is a word borrowed from economics. Value expresses the comparative worth of a good or service in a system of free exchanges. Value may imply some objective basis for this worth, as in the “labor theory of value,” which insisted that the value of a commodity was related to the amount of exertion that someone would give to obtain it. Even so, this basis still demanded a market, that is, a group of people who were willing to exchange and so validate this “value.” Market values are not simple statements of fact, and they certainly do not tell us what things should be worth more than others. “Values” state rather what most people believe the worth of things to be, expressed in terms of free exchange.

One of the first, if not the first philosopher to import the language of values into moral discourse was Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche denied an objective moral law based on human nature. Rather, Nietzsche insisted that morality is created from different elements within society. In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche describes this process: “the noble, powerful, higher-ranking, and higher-thinking people who felt and set themselves and their actions up as good, that is to say, of the first rank, in opposition to everything low, low-minded, common, and vulgar. From this pathos of distance they first arrogated to themselves the right to create values, to stamp out the names for values.” (chap.2)[4] Simply put, the nobler elements of society see themselves as good, and hence their moral language is first and foremost self-affirming.

800px-Nietzsche187cOn the contrary, those who were ruled and dominated, the slaves of this aristocratic society create different “values.” On the bottom of the social ladder, they could only resent their place, and create a form of morality in which that lowliness has its own “goodness.” As Nietzsche explains, “The slave revolt in morality begins when the ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of those beings who are prevented from a genuine reaction, that is, something active, and who compensate for that with a merely imaginary vengeance.” (chap.10) For Nietzsche, the Biblical morality of the Jews is the very paradigm of “slave morality.” Dominated by the empires around them, the Jews turn their very victimhood into a virtue – the weak are “beloved of God,” the powerful are “evil.”

Most people who speak of “moral values” are completely unaware of this Nietzschean background. Yet it is important to note the implicit consequences that the word “values,” namely 1) morality is not based on a natural law which is universal for all men; 2) rather, morality is a free creation in response to natural drives and social circumstances; and finally 3) moral judgments therefore only provide psychological information about the people who hold them, but do not tell us how people should act.

By contrast, philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, and the Christian tradition that appropriated their moral insights along with biblical revelation, know nothing of “values.” They speak rather of virtues, habits of the soul that perfect man’s nature, raised further by the gifts of sanctifying grace. Virtues are grounded in human nature, while values arise from human creativity. Yet so pervasive is the language of values that even Church documents today will speak of “authentic values” or the “proper hierarchy of values.” As Allan Bloom observes, “Even those who deplore our current moral condition do so in the very language that exemplifies that condition.”[5]

The replacement of virtues by “values” is the root and foundation of the confusions that pervade our modern language. The various ways in which the Sexual Revolution has sent words like fornication and sodomy into oblivion, and made family arrangements a matter of social invention by terms like gender and role would be unthinkable if not for the previous uncoupling of morality from nature. Centuries ago, Confucius insisted on the rectification of names. “If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” Our language no longer reflects the moral realities of human life, but rather the revolutionary aspirations of the post-Christian world. If we are to recover the moral understanding we once had, we must recover the language that embodied that understanding. C. S. Lewis put it best when he observed “Men do not long continue to think what they have forgotten to say.”[6]

[1] http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2014/02/heres-a-list-of-58-gender-options-for-facebook-users/

[2] The tendency toward abstraction in language in democratic societies was well explained by De Tocqueville: “Men living in democratic countries are, then, apt to entertain unsettled ideas, and they require loose expressions to convey them. As they never know whether the idea they express to-day will be appropriate to the new position they may occupy to-morrow, they naturally acquire a liking for abstract terms. An abstract term is like a box with a false bottom: you may put in it what ideas you please, and take them out again without being observed.” (Democracy in America, pt.II, chap.16, “The Effect of Democracy on Language”)

[3] The Closing of the American Mind, p.132

[4] The relation between “language” and “power” has never been better illustrated than by Lewis Carroll in Alice’s exchange with Humpty Dumpty:

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’

“But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

(Through the Looking Glass, chap.6 “Humpty Dumpty”)

 

[5] The Closing of the American Mind, p.141

[6] “The Death of Words” from On Stories, p. 107

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