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Grounding Moral Language: Did Enlightenment thinkers successfully reconstruct morality?

What makes language objective? How can a game of football help us understand the human condition?

If I were to say person X is ‘good’ at playing football, is this a purely subjective statement? The answer is no. If it were purely subjective, it would be impossible to ever call someone a ‘good’ footballer (and this is clearly not the case). Football has rules, parameters if you will, which allow us to comment, with a large degree of consistency, on what makes a person ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at the game.

Now if I were to say person Y is ‘good’ at kicking a football, is this a purely subjective statement? The answer, as I understand it, would be yes. Why? Because there are no rules or parameters around kicking a ball that signify how to kick a ball in a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ way. Whether person Y kicks the ball hard, soft, right, or left is irrelevant.

For something to be described as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ we need agreed upon criteria that specify its ultimate endpoint or objective; once agreed, actions that bring one closer to this endpoint might objectively be called ‘good’ while those that take one away ‘bad’. Much of our moral language suffers from the subjectivity problem exemplified in person Y. We like to think it is largely objective (as is the case with person X), however we have little consensus over what constitutes the ultimate endpoint or objective – telos to use the Greek term – of a human life in Western liberal societies.

The causes and consequences of this subjectivity problem are diagnosed thoroughly by Alasdair MacIntyre in his seminal work, After Virtue (1981), to which much of my argument is indebted. Borrowing one of Hume’s concepts, MacIntyre argues that we now live in an age of emotivism, where there is no way of measuring moral claims against one another and use of moral language merely signifies a coercive attempt to persuade others of one’s own moral principles and values. The question then becomes simple – how do we insert some objectivity back into our moral language, so that it signifies more than one’s own subjective opinion?

Medieval Moral Language (Life as a Game of Football)

Up until the late seventeenth century, Medieval Scholasticism – a blend of Christianity and Aristotelian ethics – was the dominant worldview across Europe. It was rooted in classical and religious understandings of the human condition, as having a designated start and endpoint (telos) which can be attained by practicing certain moral principles. Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) used the word eudaimonia or ‘the good life’ – a state of happiness or tranquillity obtained by exercise of virtues through a process of paideia or ‘moral education’.

Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) shared this essential understanding, though held that our telos is to be attained eschatologically (in the afterlife) – a similar understanding that can be found in Judaism with Maimonides (1138 – 1204) or Islam with Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126 – 1198). If we hold that God created all people with an inherent dignity, for example, we can then say it is ‘good’ to respect this dignity and that people have universal human ‘rights’ which should prevent this dignity from being offended.

From Ancient Greece to the late middle-ages, life was understood to be like a game of football. While each player fulfils a different role, they share a common objective (defeating the opponent). Within this context, it is ‘good’ for defenders to hold to line, and ‘good’ for strikers to shoot for goal; furthermore, the captain has the ‘right’ to command other players, because various roles and responsibilities have been delegated. If the manager shouts, ‘good shot!’, players do not ponder over what made the shot ‘good’. Everyone knows it was a ‘good shot’ because it nearly went in the opponent’s goal.

Enlightenment thinkers abandoned the idea that life is like a game of football; for them, life was like kicking a ball. It can be done in a variety of ways, none of which are necessarily ‘good’. What followed was a set of ideologies (‘isms’) that applied Medieval concepts onto an understanding of human nature without a specified telos. From the outset, such attempts were doomed to failure.

Enlightenment Moral Language (Life as Kicking a Ball)

David Hume’s (1711 – 1776) analysis of moral language epitomises the subjective turn taken by Enlightenment thinkers. In contrast to the Medieval understanding, Hume held that use of moral language merely expresses one’s ‘sentiment of approbation or disapprobation’ towards certain forms of behaviour. Saying ‘it’s wrong to steal candy from a baby’, essentially equates to saying, ‘I believe it’s wrong to steal candy from a baby’. Hume’s emotivism understands life to be like kicking a ball; by rejecting the idea that humans to have an objective telos, moral language becomes inherently subjective.

Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) diverged from Hume’s appeal to the passions, by grounding morality upon rationality. He claimed that it is the essence of reason to lay out ‘categorical imperatives’ which are universal, internally consistent, and ought to be followed by all rational people on every occasion, without the need for belief in God. Kant’s imperatives leave room for doubtful behaviour to say the least; he has been criticised for maintaining that lying is always wrong, even to save a Holocaust victim from being discovered by a Nazi officer. Kant tried to strip religion from morality; what he arrived at was a moral theory that borrowed the moral language of religion, while rejecting the conceptual framework underpinning it.

The contradictions that arise from this promiscuous borrowing of words and concepts are perhaps most prevalent in the American Declaration of Independence (1776). ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’, Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that amongst these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness’. It is more than questionable whether any truths are ‘self-evident’ – if there were, I would not even be writing this essay. Suppose Jefferson were correct on this occasion however, ‘rights’ are still explicitly grounded in the existence of a ‘creator’ that endows us with an inherent dignity. If one were to reject the existence of a creator, as many now do, where would one’s ‘rights’ come from (if they even exist at all)?

Moral Language Moving Forward

By failing to adequately reconstruct morality, Enlightenment thinkers reduced the content of moral language to the realm of subjectivity. Life is now merely kicking a ball, so to speak, and anyone can do it anyway they want, while claiming that their way holds some objective truth. This might not seem like a problem in casual conversation; but what about when politicians appeal to certain values or rights when trying to placate or persuade the public? Moral language acquires a coercive overtone in these contexts. Almost all contemporary politicians appeal to universal ‘rights’ but few would write the same thing on a sheet of paper, if you were to ask them to list 10 things all people should have a right to – and those who did would undoubtedly provide different justifications for each of the rights listed.

For MacIntyre, morality (and moral language) can only be understood in relation to the particular community from which they originate. It follows language can be used objectively in communities where there is broad consensus over the telos of individuals. This communitarian understanding focuses on ‘particulars’ rather than the Enlightenment’s emphasis on ‘universals’. It is more difficult to describe what is ‘good’ for humanity than what is good for a particular person in certain circumstances. Much like football; we can say what is ‘good’ for a particular team during a certain match, easier than we can say what is ‘good’ for all teams during any match. Objectivity in moral language requires consensus over parameters, which is easiest achieved at a local level.

Enlightenment thought gave birth to Western liberal societies, replacing Medieval Scholasticism in providing the theoretical framework that underpins our political system. Applying communitarian principles in the present day therefore poses challenges. People get touchy when you start questioning the existence of ‘universal human rights’ – a concept that we now put our faith in. Criticising Enlightenment philosophy does not imply that should reject it wholesale, however, only that these ideas require a new conceptual underpinning suited to the twenty-first century.

The concept of the ‘common good’ is delicate in the liberal West. We pay lip-service to the idea while being cautious not to develop it into too much detail, for fear that it might conflict with the individualistic rights we hold sacred. But if it is through consensus that moral language acquires meaning, perhaps we should double down our efforts at attaining greater consensus over the ultimate objective of society in the twenty-first century. Such considerations fall far beyond the scope of this essay. And though it is nice to end on a positive note, I can only make this argument in good faith by affirming my belief that unless we reconceptualise human life as having a specified telos, our moral language will continue to mean very little.

Hamza King

Hamza is a researcher and public speaking teacher, who is interested religion, politics, and philosophy.