Our words, our ethics

What does the language we use say about our moral imagination?  Does one shape the other?

In the movie Wallstreet, arrogant, greedy, and powerful capitalist Gordo Gecko proclaims:

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed — for lack of a better word — is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

The key phrase in Gecko’s otherwise rhetorically brilliant speech is “for lack of a better word.”  Gecko’s linguistic imagination is limited by his moral imagination. Indeed, applying the concept of greed to objects as diverse as money, love and knowledge, is a misnomer.  But wherein lies the problem?

Virtues and vices are the orderings and dis-orderings of our desires, which have been habituated over time by a series of wise or poor choices or encouraged by good or bad mentors. Unlike a worldview present in certain kinds of Buddhism, which admonishes the extinction of all desire from the human soul, Western culture and Christianity by and large teache the cultivation of desires.  That said, our desires do not cultivate themselves toward virtue. As Aristotle notes, moral virtues are not acquired by nature, though a properly nurtured soul acts in accordance with its nature.  Virtues must be taught habituated in the person over time. Aristotle noted that intellectual virtues can be taught, though moral virtues must be habituated through behavior.

The question is: If the way we speak is a linguistic practice, then the language we use daily habituates us in our behavior.  The intellectual and moral virtues are not so isolated from one another.  In a recent article by David Brooks, he reviews some recent findings on the use of our moral language:


That is to say, over those 48 years, words and phrases like “personalized,” “self,” “standout,” “unique,” “I come first” and “I can do it myself” were used more frequently. Communal words and phrases like “community,” “collective,” “tribe,” “share,” “united,” “band together” and “common good” receded.

The second element of the story is demoralization. A study by Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir found that general moral terms like “virtue,” “decency” and “conscience” were used less frequently over the course of the 20th century. Words associated with moral excellence, like “honesty,” “patience” and “compassion” were used much less frequently.

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Full article here.

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