Morality, Society And Politics: Moral Language And Its Grammar

Morality, Society And Politics: Moral Language And Its Grammar

(A version of this article was published in Blogcritics on November, 2011)


I’ve become sensitized of late to a troubling disconnect between morality, moral language in particular, and everyday life. This disconnect is all the more perturbing because it seems to be shared by the educated and the simple folk alike.

More so by the former, I venture to say, if I were a betting man.

It’s also troubling, not so much because it’s puzzling but because it’s understandable, all too well understandable. And yet, the preponderance of the evidence doesn’t come from ordinary usage. Expressions such as “get off your high (moral) horse” or “stop moralizing” are ample proof that the respondents are quite at home with the intricacies of moral language and the intended effect, that they don’t regard it in any way as being fantastic or fictive. They know full well what you mean; they just resent it!

Which only compounds the problem because a perfectly natural question suggests itself:

Since we’re all so much at ease with moral language and the terms of moral discourse, why don’t we see it employed more often when discussing ordinary affairs, public or private? Why is it that the only time that we’re up in arms against moralizing is whenever we are the target?


Must we always be reactive whenever morality is concerned, rarely if ever pro-active? Must our attitude take the usual form of resentment or outright dismissal? Why doesn’t it manifest itself more often in a measure of humility and a moment’s pause, a pause prompted by invitation (OK, provocation if you insist!) to take a step back and reflect, to take a reckoning of ourselves?

I can well understand a reactive, if not downright hostile, stance whenever we’re being criticized for our many faults, the kinds of things people usually fault one another. There’s a perfect reason for this. 

We do know that the bulk of such accusations miss the mark by a mile and are really beside the point. They’re superficial and far from being constructive, and we know it. The well-anticipated reaction is but a natural human response to another person’s stupidity. 

Thus, it is stupidity that manifests itself by not getting to the bottom of things and treating as significant what may be trivial in the final analysis. And that stupidity also reduces the art of communication and its underlying purpose, the building of relationships, to mere bickering.


Doesn’t morality, the only aspect that goes to the core of our being, define what it means to be a human? 

For we all know, there is no more valid kind of criticism than moral criticism since all follows from that. There are no other grounds; everything else is fluff. Thus, it’d stand to reason that we should be more receptive to moral critique than any other and our responses less hostile.

And yet?


I have an idea or two as to the “reasons.” The first, ours is a secular society, doing its damnedest to stay free and clear of any stigma associated with religion or religious belief; and insofar as morality, however remotely, could be said to spring from the former, it suffers the same fate. “Guilt by association” is the verdict.

The second has to do with the doctrine of moral indeterminacy (or relativity). It’s been popularized by anthropological studies of diverse cultures the world over and accentuated by the conservative attack on democratic values.  Situation(al) ethics is the highest parody on the theme, the pinnacle, and the pronouncement appears to have stuck.

Both implications are wrongheaded, but this is neither the time nor the place to disprove them. Suffice it to say, both serve as a pretext not to take morality seriously


Far more severe are the consequences which afflict our everyday practice, our abilities, that is, coupled with a dogged determination to think and act as full-fledged moral agents, the only way any of us should ever think or act. That’s the tragedy that befalls the modern, enlightened type of human: the apparent incapacity to respond in the only way a human should, by registering a moral kind of response.

And so I ask, why do we do it? Why are we so reticent about invoking moral language and values to bear on our discussions of politics and economics, on the hard times we’re in, on all our travails both public and private (to include our relationships and the way we [mis]communicate)?


There’s one thing that comes to mind, and it’s not very complimentary. Sheer discomfort, I say, discomfort brought about by a sense of guilt (or suspicion, if we want to be kinder) that perhaps we’re not living up to our potential, the human potential. It’s the inconvenient truth that we’re all so intent on avoiding, inconvenient because it points an accusing finger at us, all of us.

And so, we seem to live in a state of cognitive dissonance, although “emotional dissonance” may be an apter term. On the one hand, we seem to resent, and for good reasons, all forms of rebuke, simply because they’re not “moral” or in any way connected to morals; and yet, on the other, we’re just as obstinate whenever we’re faced with a predominantly moral critique, just or unjust.


Is this the human predicament, this tunnel vision of ours that no matter what’s thrown our way, whether by way of a detour or an obstacle, we’re determined never to be forced into a contemplative mood, a mood for self-examination and self-reflection? 

“Damned if you do and damned if you don’t!” — is this our only option?

I certainly hope not, for our future would surely be foredoomed.


But even apart from these strictly personal considerations, which concern but our fragile egos and the usual array of human foibles, there are far more critical things to consider, things which transcend what’s merely personal or idiosyncratic.

To mention but one, it’s the sheer efficacy of our moral language to redress all injustices, real or apparent. There’s no other language available, no other terms that are better suited to the task at hand than moral terms. Moral language is our last line of defense, our only line of defense against all forms of injustice, large or small, none better. 

It’s been a long-proven, revolutionary formula designed to combat all manner of injustice the world over, from times immemorial to the present, and it’ll always remain so. Indeed, the very concept of justice has been writ large at the very heart of morality and moral thought: justice concerning self and others. And whenever push comes to shove, there’s no other force at our disposal other than moral force. Ultimately, that’s all there is.

What’s pathetic, those who are concerned about injustice are the very same persons who, for one reason or another (false pride, a touch of insincerity, a hope of personal gain, but reasons aren’t really important) fail to avail themselves of the only foolproof remedy that’s available to them. And that remedy is our moral language.


I don’t know about you, but to discuss politics or economics, all the things that matter, is an exercise in futility, a form of mental masturbation unless morality comes front and center.

Apart from our values, moral values, all such debates are sterile, suffering from a disconnect whereby whatever is superficial, or merely a symptom ends up masquerading as the real. For truth be told, what we’re going through right now, both in America and the West, isn’t just any economic or political crisis but a moral crisis, first and foremost.

We must combat political and economic malfeasance tooth and nail, and I’d be first to fire the salvo. And yes, these present us with an all-convenient and ready-made target to zero in on and to shoot it down. 


But those aren’t the sources of our discontent. Our faltering morality is! They’re but symptoms, deadly symptoms indeed, while general moral decay is the disease. Absolving ourselves from taking personal responsibility for the existing state of affairs is nothing but a fool’s errand.

It’s not a fix. 

There’s no chance in hell — to use Wittgensteinian jargon — that you can fix whatever’s wrong with our politics or economics while you remain captive to those language games. The rules of the game are stacked, just as in a Vegas casino. 

The only way to freedom and eventual victory lies in adopting the stance of an outside observer looking in. We must show that those language games are detrimental to your health for running counter to the language game of morals, the language game that trumps all others.


I believe I connected all the dots that needed connecting, if not explicitly, at least on the intuitive level. However, for those who are either visually or conceptually impaired, let me spell it all out by way of the following propositions. It’s the gist of this and the immediately preceding article.

1. The ultimate concern for the other is the crowning achievement of humanity, all human thought, in fact; a lifelong stance made possible only by taking morality seriously.

2. The same goes for personal integrity, another fruit of distinctly moral development. There’s no integrity aside from moral integrity. To speak of intellectual integrity, as though divorced from moral integrity, is to perpetuate a lie.

3. The key to attaining moral integrity is predicated on aligning our emotional and intellectual faculties and bringing both into perfect harmony. The emotional in us, the stances we take, must be moral, the only stances that count. Once so aligned, the intellect falls into place, its rightful place, which is another way of saying there’s no intelligent thinking unless it’s moral thinking.

4. There’s only one kind of immaturity, emotional immaturity. It’s a state in which our intellect is as good as useless. But then again, all is never a lost cause because our moral language, if taken seriously, provides a ready-made remedy, the only remedy. There’s no growth, emotional, intellectual, or otherwise, unless it’s moral growth.

And what of justice? Well, justice is like that shining city upon a hill.


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