Why do we use moral language?
Hello, I’m Dom and I am a human. Like other humans, I play the language-game of morality. I say things like, “Lying is bad,” “You ought not to steal,” “Rape is immoral,” “Sadistic psychopaths are evil,” “Abortion is ethical,” “Euthanasia is morally right,” and “A government should express the will of the people.” But why do I talk like that? What am I trying to communicate with such statements? More generally, what’s the use of moral words? Let’s look at six reasons why people use moral language:
1. Social Conditioning
We say, “Stealing is bad” to condition children to feel guilty about stealing. We thus use moral language as a tool for linking social emotions to cultural values. This establishes order and improves cooperation in a society.
We say, “You ought not to steal” to shame people for violating social norms. Such judging reinforces social conditioning and maintains order. How effective moral judgments actually are, compared to non-judgmental feedback, is another question.
3. Emotion Rationalization
We say, “Stealing is immoral” to rationalize the shame and guilt we feel when we’ve stolen something and the embarrassment when we get caught. Moral language extols social emotions (shame, guilt, embarrassment, envy, pride, etc.) as if they revealed truths beyond mere cultural conditioning. We speak in moral terms to make our emotional reactions seem reasonable, justified, even sublime (the idea of spiritual conscience). Three more examples are feelings of disgust (e.g., “I find homosexuality disgusting, so it must be immoral”), empathy (e.g., “I empathize with refugees, so opening national borders must be moral”), and resentment (e.g., “I resent the capitalist elite for their wealth and power, so they must be evil”).1
4. Value Glorification
We say, “Thieves are evil” to glorify our own values and preferences. We don’t want to be stolen from, but since others might not care about what we want, we resort to moralizing. Hence, moral language functions as an exalted expression of will, often in the form of a political opinion. Of course, renowned words don’t transform will, value, or opinion into moral truth.
We say, “He’s a thief, so he’s unethical” to signal our own moral worth. By shaming other people, we not only reinforce social conditioning and demonstrate that we can recognize shameful behavior; we also imply that we would never act like them. Moral language allows us to signal our virtue and our conformity to group values. We use moral statements to show how loyal we are to a tribe, how devoted we are to a religion, how much empathy we feel for the poor, the powerless, or non-human animals, and how insightful we are about some “higher truth” or “greater justice,” apparently to gain influence and rise in status within our social group.
6. Objective Statement
We say, “Stealing is morally wrong” to state an (allegedly) objective fact about the world. This might be an anthropological fact about the culture we’re currently in (moral relativism), a metaphysical fact invoking a universal moral principle (deontology), a sociopolitical fact about what we collectively want as reason-able beings (morality as a matter of cooperation),2 or a psychological fact about probable effects on sentient beings (morality as a matter of consciousness).3
These are the six reasons why people use moral language. If you can think of an additional one, please let me know in the comments below.
- Will Precedes Morality
- Against Values & Principles
- Egoism, Tribalism, and Utilitarianism
- Let’s Unriddle The Is–Ought Problem (Meta-Ethics)
- Are Consequences All That Matter? (Intentions Vs. Outcomes)
- Rationalizing the emotion of resentment (ressentiment as an expression of the weak and downtrodden’s will to power) captures the essence of Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of what he calls “slave morality.”
- Morality in terms of effective cooperation, or what I call collective true will, is philosophically grounded in social contract theory. The moral objective thus becomes playing positive-sum games, finding win-win solutions.
- Morality in terms of probable consequences for conscious beings is philosophically grounded in utilitarianism; the moral objective thus becomes maximizing well-being in the long term.