What do we mean when we use moral language?

In an earlier post I differentiated between three questions of meta-ethics.  In this post I will make some comments on the first question:

What do we mean when we use moral language?

You might expect the answer to this question to be a set of definitions of moral words such as “good”, “bad”, “right” and “wrong”. But I don’t think that is either feasible or required.  Definitions are useful when taking an unknown word and defining it in terms of known words.  But these are not unknown words.  We use them all the time.  A definition would simply move the problem on to other words that could hardly be more well known and might be less familiar. 

More subtly – what appears to be a definition may actually be  an answer to the second question:

What is the justification for our moral judgements?

For example, an utilitarian holds that to do good is to being the greatest happiness to the greatest number. This looks a bit like a definition of “good”.  But it isn’t.  It is a proposed ultimate justification for calling a person or an action “good”.  If it were a definition then it would correspond to how the what majority of people intended when they talk of a good person and clearly this is not the case. Many people base their evaluation of whether someone is good on other criteria such as – “doing their duty” or “living the good life”. 

What kind of answer is going to help?  Famously Wittgenstein compared using language to playing a game. When we use language we take part in an activity which is a bit like a game, and like many games (and other activities) we may be able to perform it proficiently without being able to describe what we do.  Even a professional soccer player might struggle to describe what he is doing to someone who has no knowledge of soccer – and soccer is a straightforward game. What philosophers can do is try to describe the game of using moral language.

So what do we do when we play the moral language game?  One of the rules seems to be that when we use moral language we expect it to influence the actions of ourselves and others.  It is perfectly logical and consistent to say “abortion is difficult, but that is not a reason for avoiding it”. It would be very strange to say “abortion is wrong but that is not a reason for avoiding it”.  This could only make sense if we create a very strange context which twists the usual meaning of “wrong” (perhaps we mean that many people regard it is a wrong but we ourselves do not). In other words we are no longer playing the language game. Similarly, describing something as “right” carries with it logically the desire to see that act performed.

But this is far from the whole story.  Moral language is not just an injunction to perform or refrain from performing certain activities.  I don’t want to eat too many sweets, it is bad for my health, and on the whole I would prefer it if other people didn’t – it is sad if people become unhealthy.  But I wouldn’t say that eating sweets was ethically wrong – just ill-advised.  Moral language involves a particular set of reasons for doing or not doing things.  These reasons are such things as minimising human suffering, allocating rewards fairly, and conforming to commonly accepted practice on sex.  So how can we describe which reasons are moral and which are not?

It would of course be circular to describe these reasons using moral language.  We would be no further forward if we say “asserting that something is wrong means we want people to desist from it because it is wrong”.  But now we can use another lesson from Wittgenstein – family resemblances.   It was an insight of Wittgenstein’s that just as the members of a family may resemble each other without sharing a common feature,  a concept can comprise a number of different components none of which are necessary or sufficient – as he put it they are like multiple strands entwined in a rope.  You cannot say that any strand is the essence of the rope – but they all contribute.  In the same way we can point to a variety of reasons for action which are moral in nature: minimising the suffering of other people or creatures, allocating resources fairly, preventing the death of others.  Some are recognised as moral by a very wide range of people.  Others, such as retribution may be not so widely recognised.  But none has to be the defining the motivation for morality.  We recognise when a reason for action or inaction is a moral reason – but that doesn’t mean we can specify exactly what those reasons are.  I call these reasons moral motives.

So moral language is to do with guiding action in ourselves and others for one or more moral motives.  But even that may not be  sufficient.  If I describe abortion as wrong I may do it for the moral motive that I want to minimise suffering in others.  But this implies that abortion has certain objective features – for example that one or more sentient creatures suffers.  The moral motives carry with them certain expectations about features of the world – so whenever we assert something is right or wrong we are necessarily asserting that some of these features are present.  The moral language game has a descriptive as well as a prescriptive element.  You might ask which is the essential element but that would be a mistake.  As the two always go together we are never asked to play the game where only one applies and so the question of which has priority does not arise. Certain features of the world cause us to want to promote or proscribe actions or events for moral motives.  Moral language describes the presence of these features and does the promoting or proscribing.

It is a fact of observable natural history that humans encourage certain types of behaviour in themselves and others for a set of reasons that we describe as moral.  This encouragement can develop into complicated patterns which vary from one culture to another, but also has common elements found across cultures and times. We could call this the morality game which is not to imply that it is trivial or “only a game”. Our moral language is an essential element of this game and gains its meaning from the game – just a piece of wood called a “Queen” gains its meaning from the rules of chess.

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5 Responses to “What do we mean when we use moral language?”


  1. 1 Toronto November 26, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    I like the language/game analogy because it describes very well what we see when individuals or groups interact.

    Language is not strictly a way to exchange knowledge, it is a very subtle way of communicating commands and establishing hierarchy.

    In the case of “moral language”, a suggestion of behaviour that is accepted may mean more than simply agreement between peers. It may or may not also establish ranking in a society.

    When “StephenB” of UD and others talk of an absolute moral code, I think of it more like the question, “Are you one of us? If so, bow to the common code of behaviour of our group”.

  2. 2 Mark Frank November 26, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    Toronto thanks.

    On looking at my post I see it needs a little editing for clarification – although you seem to have understood it.

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