As Americans, we have a tendency to speak of morality as if it were one and the same thing for all people at all places and at all times. The popular notion that “everyone knows right from wrong” is a function of this propensity. It also manifests itself by way of other popular expressions: “There is right and there is wrong;” “Moral values are absolute;” “All human beings have rights;” “Everyone everywhere values liberty,” and “We are all equal,” to reference but a few.
The pervasiveness of this tendency aside, it is misplaced. There is indeed a very real sense in which it can be said that human beings are moral beings. However, this is just like saying that human beings are linguistic beings: just as the linguistic realm encompasses a rich, even a dizzying variety, of mutually distinct and incompatible languages, so too is the ethical landscape replete with a multiplicity of moralities.
From this analogy between morality and language we can actually get much mileage, for there is more than one respect in which the two resemble one another.
Morality, like a language, is essentially a tradition. In fact, a “natural” language supplies us with a model of tradition at its best.
After years and years of laboring indefatigably to undercut the institutions of the lands within which they were reared, radicals of all stripes are now reaping the fruits of their labor. One of these fruits is the delusional assumption, uncritically embraced by far too many, that tradition—any tradition—is an antiquated, possibly even superstitious, way of attending to matters. To observe a tradition is to act thoughtlessly. Tradition is static.
In reality, though, as we learn from the example of a language, we rely on tradition because we have nothing else to rely upon. We are no freer to extricate ourselves from tradition than we are free to relieve ourselves from language. So, the radical’s first error lies in his belief that there are alternatives to tradition; there are not. Of course it is true that there are always other traditions to which we can turn, just as we can always avail ourselves of the study of other languages; but this is far different from abandoning tradition altogether. And even then, the adoption of other traditions and languages is possible only because there is an original tradition or language by way of which we approach them.
Yet the radical’s first error is by no means his last.
Tradition is no more and no less static than a language. This is to say that it isn’t static at all. As one philosopher once put it, if tradition is “blind,” it is “blind as a bat.” The same can be said for language. Language, like tradition, is the present generation’s inheritance, a magisterial estate that its ancestors, over the course of centuries and millennia, worked continuously, even if mostly unconsciously, to erect. For as expansive, as palatial, as this property is, however, it remains incomplete. By using and reusing what has been handed down to us, we preserve it while re-imagining it. Our legacy—the words and phrases of our language—is pregnant with possibilities for the present and future that each use of the language goes at least some distance in unlocking.
Tradition is just as stable, and just as open-textured, as language. This is no less so than when the tradition in question is a moral tradition.
To this line of thought many, including and especially those who regard themselves as conservative, will object that it is a species of “relativism.” The critics are wide of the mark.
For starters, “relativism,” is supposed to refer to a family of views that holds that in a contest of moral judgments where the contestants are different cultures, all are victors—or at least none are losers. There is nothing in what I said that lends support to this position.
If “relativism” is true, then the moralities (if this is what we can still call them) of different cultures must be incomparable. Yet on the view that I offer, there can be and has always been commerce between moral traditions—just as there is exchange between languages. What this in turn means is that it is most certainly possible, as well as desirable, that we judge them against one another: some traditions, in other words, are superior or inferior to others.
Yet our evaluations transpire against the backdrop, not of some supra-historical standard of Reason, but the standards peculiar to each tradition. For instance, let us say that we have a choice to make between Christianity and Islam. We need to determine which of the two is more defensible as a tradition. This is a judgment that can be made, but it obviously can’t be made from the standpoint of one or the other. Each of these traditions—like every other morality—has some conception of human happiness. To this end, they have developed standards—catalogues of virtues and vices and precepts of various sorts—by which their adherents are to abide. It is by the standards of Islam that we judge Islam, and the standards of Christianity that we judge Christianity.
If there are tensions within the set of standards in question that have not been satisfactorily resolved, or if those standards have failed to promote the tradition’s ideal of the good life, then on its own terms, that tradition must be deemed inferior to that tradition or those traditions that are free, or at least not as burdened, by such problems. At the present moment, with revolution spreading throughout the Islamic world, it appears that Islam just might be undergoing a crisis of epic proportions. If so, this could very well be as powerful an indication as any that it is a tradition in ill repair, a tradition that is suffering from some mounting incoherence to which its own standards have given rise.
An ethical tradition is like a language in another crucial respect.
From a living language we abstract rules and principles, what we call its “grammar.” Ethical traditions can also be summarized in terms of principles. But this is the point: “moral principles” constitute a summation of the tradition from which they have been distilled. Contrary to what all of the talk of “natural rights” and “human rights” and all of the rest would have us believe, “moral principles” no more precede the tradition from which they have been abstracted than do grammatical principles exist in advance of the language to which they owe their being.
Linguistic principles constitute a language’s grammar. Similarly, moral principles constitute a tradition’s ideology. Both linguistic and moral principles are their respective traditions’ cliff notes.
There are many folks, from across the political spectrum, for who my account of morality will be unsettling. In a future article, I will explain why.
Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.