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What we’re going through right now, both in America and throughout the West, isn’t just any economic or political crisis but a moral crisis first and foremost. Get with it and act accordingly!

Moral Language and its Grammar: An Exercise in Wittgensteinian Logic

I’ve been sensitized of late to a troubling disconnect on the part of the modern human between morality (and moral language) and everyday life. This disconnect is all the more troubling because it seems to be shared by the educated and the simple folk alike. More so by the former, I’d venture to say, if I were a betting man.

It’s also troubling, not so much because it’s puzzling but precisely because it’s understandable, all too well understandable. And yet,the preponderance of evidence doesn’t come from ordinary usage, for 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 exactly what you mean, they just resent it! Which only compounds the trouble 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 we’re really up in arms about moral talk is when it’s directed against us? Why must we always be reactive whenever morality is concerned, rarely if ever pro-active? Why must our attitude take the usual form of resentment or outright dismissal? Why doesn’t it manifest itself more often in a modicum of humility and a moment’s pause, a pause prompted by the 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 many of our faults, the kinds of things people usually criticize one another. There’s a perfect reason for this. We all know the bulk of such accusations miss the mark by a mile and are really beside the point. They’re superficial when it comes to it and far from being constructive; and we’re so very right. The well-anticipated reaction is but a natural human response to another’s stupidity. Stupidity which manifests itself not only by not getting to the bottom of things and treating as significant what in the final analysis is trivial, but that stupidity which also reduces the art of communication and its underlying purpose, the building of relationships, to mere bickering.

But morality, the one and only aspect which goes to the very core of our being and defines what it means to be a human? For we all know, as the foregoing attests, there is no valid kind of criticism unless it’s moral criticism since all follows from that. There are no other grounds, everything else is fluff. It’d stand to reason, therefore, we should be more receptive to moral critique than any other kind of critique, and our responses less hostile. And yet…

I have an idea or two as to the “reasons,” so I may as well share them with you. 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), made popular by anthropological studies of diverse cultures the world over, accentuated besides by the conservative attack on the democratic values. Situation(al) ethics is the highest parody on the theme, the pinnacle, and the pronouncement appears to have stuck. Needless to say, 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 serious 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 which 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.

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 which 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.

Thus, 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 which threatens to upset our sense of normalcy and our habits of thought, 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 nothing but our fragile egos, so inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, for we’re still at the level of elementary psychology, right or wrong, and the usual array of human foibles, there are far more important 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 hopefully redress all injustices, real or apparent. There’s no other language available, no other terms, in fact, other than moral terms which are better suited for the task at hand. 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 with respect to self and others. And whenever push comes to shove, there’s no other force at our disposal except for moral force. Ultimately, that’s all there is.

What’s really pathetic, those who appear to be most concerned about injustice anywhere and everywhere are the very same ones who, for one reason or another, false pride, a touch of insincerity, a hope of personal gain, perhaps, but reasons aren’t really important, are they, fail to avail themselves of the only foolproof remedy that’s available to them, to all of us, in fact, the only kind of language that’s bound make a difference and be understood, besides, in the only terms that make sense, any kind of sense. And why? Because of false pride or any such silly thing? Again, the very humanity is on trial and the whole world is watching.

I don’t know ‘bout you, but to be discussing politics, economics, all the things that either matter to us or ail us, whatever subject may be fit for public consumption or polite dialogue, is an exercise in futility, a form of mental masturbation, unless morality is brought into play. Apart from values, moral values, all such debates are sterile, suffering from a major 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.

Political or economic malfeasance are definitely to be combated tooth and nail, I’ll be the first to fire the salvo. And yes, they do present us with an all-convenient, ready-made target to zero in on so as to shoot it down. But those aren’t really the sources of our discontent, our faltering morality is; these are but symptoms, deadly symptoms indeed, while general moral decay is the disease. So again, I say, to be focusing on the symptomatic rather than on the causative, all in the interest of what? absolving ourselves from taking personal responsibility for the existing state of affairs, is nothing but a fool’s errand. It ain’t gonna fix nothing!

To say pretty much the same thing in Wittgensteinian jargon, there’s no chance in hell you can fix whatever is wrong with our politics or economics while you remain captive to those language games, for the rules of the game are stacked against you, 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. You must be able to show that those language games are detrimental to your health for running counter to the language game of morals, the only language game that counts.

I believe I connected all the dots that needed connecting, if not explicitly then at least on the intuitive level. For those, however, 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, for instance, as though divorced from moral integrity, is to perpetrate 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 stances, 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, 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 a moral growth.

And what of justice?

Well, justice is like that shining city upon a hill.

I’ve been accused of late these are but “circular meanderings.” A less disparaging comment came by way of comparing my words to the words of a sage. The most disturbing thing about it was the source, the same source in both instances: a person whose opinions and judgment I used to respect and value. It is discouraging indeed, so discouraging, that even the brightest amongst us, the most educated and clear-headed, can be so blind. It doesn’t offer much by way of hope.

But to bring this overlong article to an abrupt end, let me say two things. First, I shan’t argue as to whether my thinking does or doesn’t merit the aforementioned characterization, be it in terms of being “circular” or simply “meandering.” Instead of combating the accusation, you the reader must decide. And second, I’m no sage, and my words aren’t the words of a sage. I’ll say this, however: these are our truths, our sacred and everlasting truths!

To put another Wittgenstein twist to top it off – it’s but the grammar of morals!

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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