Sunday, November 10, 2019

Moral Fundamentals Part 2: Lexical And Contextual Considerations

     As I write in English (surprise, surprise), I frequently find myself grappling with one or more ambiguities built into that language. The English language is the largest currently spoken. According to various authorities, its vocabulary is larger than that of any other language known to linguistic history. That means an English speaker has many different ways of expressing a particular idea – and worse, many different ways of trying to express it, but missing his mark.

     (There’s the seed of an idea in there: “linguistic entropy,” the process by which a language’s lexical growth renders it ever more difficult to achieve precision in one’s statements. But that’s for another day.)

     English has two words, morality and ethics, that are commonly used to address the moral weight of the choices we make. The former is usually used to subsume the latter, which is how I intend to use it in this essay and subsequent pieces on this topic. However, strictly speaking they don’t mean the same thing. Moreover, the etymology of the words moral and morality casts a shadow over attempts to use them in a precise way.

     The root of moral is the Latin word mores, which means customs. When Cicero exclaimed “O tempora, o mores!” he was bemoaning what he saw as a deterioration in the customs of the Roman people, not their moral choices as we English speakers might have imagined. To English speakers, moral pertains to the rightness or wrongness of a given decision.

     To compound the damage, the societies from which America was germinated often confused matters of right and wrong with considerations of what “simply isn’t done.” The notion of behavior that’s morally neutral but “simply isn’t done” conjures up images of Victorian England and the straitlaced customs to which the upper classes were expected – and “compelled” by the prospect of social disapprobation – to conform. But here context matters; Victorian customs about what “simply isn’t done” involved the setting and the persons who would witness the deed in question. Many a thing about which the Victorians would say “That simply isn’t done” most certainly was done, by many persons and quite often, in other circumstances and with other participants.

     Many a writer of fiction has had some fun with this dichotomy. Have an illustrative snippet from one of the late Jack Vance’s wonderful novels, Araminta Station:

     “Why did you run from me as if I had a loathsome disease?”
     The question took Glawen by surprise, He stammered, “It seemed like a good time to be leaving.”
     Wayness shook her head. “Not quite. You left because you were furious with me. Why? I’ve been staring into the dark it seems forever, and I’m tired of being mystified.”
     Glawen groped for an answer which would leave him a few shreds of dignity. He muttered, “I was more furious with myself than with anyone else.”
     “I’m still baffled,” said Wayness. “Why should you be angry with either one of us?”
     “Because I did what I did not want to do! I had planned to be suave and polished, to charm everyone with my tact, and to avoid all controversy. Instead I blurted out all my opinions, caused a grand uproar, and confirmed your mother’s worst apprehensions.”
     “Come, now,” said Wayness. “It wasn’t all that bad; in fact, not bad at all. You could have done far worse.”
     “No doubt, if I’d put my mind to it. I could have become drunk and punched Julian in the nose, and called Dame Etrune a silly old blatherskite, and on my way out stopped to urinate in one of the potted plants.”
     “Everyone would have thought it simple Clattuc high spirits.”

     The behavior for which Glawen Clattuc, a youth of perhaps seventeen or eighteen, is berating himself, occurred at a dinner party held by the family of Wayness, his intended. He was invited by the host to express an opinion on a political subject – and he did so, to the discomfiture of two of the attendees. The host family was of a higher station in Araminta society than was Glawen, as were the attendees he upset. Yet the host approved of what Glawen said. Glawen is angry with himself for reasons of custom: for one of his station, an Araminta worker, to emit a contentious opinion as he did in the presence of “his betters” was “simply not done.” (Worse, it might have set Wayness’s mother against him.)

     I mention the above for two reasons. First, because there’s a great cleavage between what’s “not done” and what’s wrong on principle. By illustrating something that’s “not done,” I hoped to make the difference plain. Second, because context matters to what’s “not done” and what’s wrong on principle. Another useful illustration:

FWP: I saw something unusual earlier today. An old woman was tottering down the street when a young man tackled her to the ground, rolled her over a couple of times, and slapped her all over.
CSO: Horrible! Was he arrested?
FWP: No, not at all. The old woman’s clothes were on fire.

     That bit of extra context made all the difference, didn’t it?

     It might seem that this exploration is off to a slow start. Sorry about that; I felt a need to clear away some potential obstacles before plunging into the thickets. Language is often one of the problems, as people have a distressing tendency to distort the meanings of words in support of their own contentions. Context is another, as no decision nor action takes place in isolation from all else. Robinson Crusoe could do as he pleased without concerning himself with questions of right and wrong (or what’s “simply not done”)...that is, until Friday appeared. The rest of us aren’t that isolated.

     Yes, there’s more to come. For the present, be well.

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