Words and Morals: An Open Inquiry

words and morals granddebateScholars often create their own vocabularies by giving special meanings to ordinary terms and phrases.

For example, when logical positivists use the word “nonsense” they do not imply the ordinary sense of “without meaning”, rather they refer to a statement that cannot be independently verified.

Giving specialized meaning to old terms allows scholars to say things what might otherwise be difficult to say in layman terms. Of course this may sometimes create havoc for us, the readers. Not that they care.

The heart of this presentation is that language enables, extends, and maintains human value systems. Even though the relation between language and morality can be examined from many perspectives, this presentation adopts a philosophical -linguistic perspective that is informed by evolutionary theory.

Philosophy of Language

One of the most important works in the philosophy of language is ‘Philosophical Investigations’ published by Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1953.

The main conception in this foundational work is that words cannot exist without meaning. Human beings create words to represent a meaning. Usually the meaning is correlated with the word used, but do precede words.

However, meaning is use. The meaning of words can only be known by how they are used in communication.

Since meaning is use, man has developed a moral vocabulary, or rather language that is deemed sensitive to relations that are lived and experienced.

For lack of time, I will avoid a comprehensive discussion of the general evolutionary theories explaining the origin of language. In brief, language evolved because human beings are social animals. Language is an attempt to develop generalized codes that make it easy for members of a society to communicate. The diversity of language as a result of cultural evolution tells us that language developed to satisfy specific needs. Every society had its own specific needs, therefore every society developed its own language. That explains why there are thousands of languages.

The specific needs that every society possesses are the foundations of morality. A baby is not born with the capacity to learn a specific language. They are born with the capacity to learn any language, and consequently the capacity to learn morality.

De Waal in the book ‘Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved’ tells us that there are three levels of morality. The first is the Building Blocks or Moral sentiments. Here language gives meaning to building blocks such as capacity for empathy, tendency for reciprocity, sense of fairness, and ability to harmonize relationships. The second level is peer pressure, where there is an insistence that everyone behaves in a way that favours a cooperative group life. The third level is judgment and reasoning, where we internalize the needs for a specific type of behaviour and rely on self-reflection and logical reasoning to make moral judgements.

I’m more interested in discussing the third level, that of judgment and reasoning. Here, we are always trying to pass judgment over our own actions and the actions of others. We rationalize what we do, trying to understand the meanings of our actions; why we do the things we do, and the way we do them. The way we can achieve this level of morality is by language. We need rationality to pass judgment over actions, but to let the other know how we feel or what we think, language is needed. High social interactions are needed to achieve this level.

One of the roots of morality is social interaction and language is at the roots of social interaction. If we pass language to other generations, we also pass morality through our judgments, and we teach them about morality through language.

From this argument, I think the debate about moral absolutism and relativism are important examples. While we may not consciously recognize it, we are passing over the same arguments that were developed by philosophers centuries ago to judge actions and determine whether they are moral or not. Now that is the beauty of language, it allows us to maintain valid arguments however old, and it also gives us the capacity to access and hopefully incorporate novel conceptualizations of morality in our lives.

Changes in Meanings, Changes in Language

Now because the meanings precede words, changes in meanings also mean changes in words. These changes are often a reflection of our understanding of moral values in the society.

Recently in a study published in Psychological Science, psychologist Patricia Greenfield from the University of California, examined changes in word use and its association with moral values in United States and Britain. The main argument in the study was to test whether the moral values of humans adapt to their social environments.

To discover the changes in values, the researcher analyzed more than 1.1 million books published in the United States and 350,000 books published in the U.K between 1800-2000.

I think it’s important to say that books rather than being mere objects on the shelf have actually grown to become participants in every conversation. Books may announce their presence or may not but they remain the greatest influence of how generations have discussed moral concepts, and how moral values have been spread to other societies.

Back to the study, Greenfield searched for tell-tale words such as “obliged” (a key concept in interdependent societies – collectivism) and “choose” (the power to make personal choices – individualism). She also searched for the synonyms of these words.

The findings show that the use of the word “obliged” (moral obligations) steadily declined from 1800 to 2000, as use of the word “choose” (moral choices) gradually increased. (“Choose” passed “obliged” in the early 1920s.)

Similar findings were reported for the words “give” and “get.” While “give” began the 19th century with a huge head start, “get” caught up around World War II, and the two were neck and neck until the 1970s, when “get” forged ahead, never to look back. In short people don’t wait patiently to be given, but strive to get what they want. It seems like patience, as a virtue, is dying.

Use of the words “individual,” “self,” and “unique” all steadily rose over the course of the two centuries, while “obedience,” “authority,” “belong,” and “pray” all gradually declined. The use of the words “feel” and “emotion” also increased, reflecting “the growing importance of psychological expression.”

These findings confirm that words change as the environment changes. Meanings attached to moral values change in response to social changes. While people living before the 19th century were obliged to act according to specific moral codes, the 21st century seems to support the argument that every person is a ‘unique, individual self’ hence moral choices define decisions over moral values rather than blind obedience to an absolute moral standard.

The Universalization of moral codes

How are these moral codes universalized?

In introducing the theory of Evolution, Darwin, in Chapter Four of ‘The Origin of Species’, noted that the human moral sense is the most important difference between humanity and the lower animals. There is consensus from multiple disciplines of study that language stands out boldly as a uniquely human characteristic.

It is therefore safe to admit that human morality requires language. Linguistically based moral codes often oblige people towards morality. Language helps us to access moral thinking and enforce moral codes at low cost.

Language also supplies us with a shared representation system that supports our pursuit of moral actions. When people share a language, they are able to cooperate and foster morality.

However, it is important to reiterate that cooperation always requires groupings. Within these groups, symbolic language can be used to facilitate group cohesion and cooperation hence fostering group-oriented morality.

From history, it is possible to see how cooperative moral values have been expressed and spread through language. For instance, all the organized religions in the world are word-centred. This means that they strongly emphasize that followers must memorize cooperation-oriented moral concepts presented in their books.

From the Bible, we learn that Deuteronomy teaches that followers were to learn the religious commandments in their hearts and verbally pass them on to their children. The Quran calls on all Muslims to memorize the holy text. The similarity between these religious traditions is that they want their followers to internalize a normative code that promotes cooperation. This cannot be possible without language.

However, we have also known that morality, descriptively speaking can function for the benefit of the in-group at the expense of the out-group. This is because of the prescription of what a group considers moral or prescriptive, what they think they ought to do, what they think is right and wrong. Such in-group moralities can brutally disadvantage or even terminate an out-group, or they can work in a way that benignly protects the in-group from out-group influences, with little or no detriment to the out-group.

Note that even though we might consider such a “moral system” as ethically corrupt, it would still act as a normative and moral system within a group in a functional sense. These in-group moral codes stated in language illuminate inter-group conflict and the differential fitness of human groups in history.

To summarize this argument, we can say that it is hard to assess moral norms without language. For example, language makes it easier to assess the moral behaviour of people considered to be deviants. This can be done through gossiping.

Secondly, language provides a low cost means to enforce social control. For example, since punishment endangers the person who metes it out, it is much less costly to mark a deviant individual with a word than to punish him.

Third, the whole process of assessing, marking, and tracking behaviour becomes more efficient through the shared representation system of abstract and symbolic language. Allow me to give a lengthy example of what a shared representation system means in the world today.

For some time now I have been interested in the language of human rights. We have a political system, such as the United Nations, that have been given the responsibility to pursue and actualize collective moral values on behalf of the countries of the world. Now this supra-political unit has been developing certain moral codes presented as ‘Conventions of human rights’. The phrase ‘human rights’ comes with specific descriptions of what that entails.

Now if you have also been watching You Tube videos – especially those involving Sam Harris or Dawkins, you’ll have noticed that there are certain cultural practices such as FGM and child sacrifice that have featured prominently as examples of why morality is absolute. What we don’t always realize is that before the establishment of the human rights conventions, FGM was never cited generously an absolutely immoral act, but rather as a culturally retrogressive practice. Without direct intervention, it was assumed that as the society progresses, FGM will die a natural death.

Another example is terrorism. Even though we know that the branding of these violent acts as ‘terrorist activities’ helps the United States to pursue a political agenda, we should not forget the Judeo-Christian conservatist agenda that supports that branding. Thus, the US and allies can simply forget the atrocities they are committing in the Arab world and send drones to kill innocent Pakistani children under the guise of ‘anti-terrorism’. Note that if someone says that terrorism is an absolutely immoral act, it follows that ‘anti-terrorism’ is a moral response. This is what we call in international relations studies as a “humanitarian intervention”. But is in actually one? That is a discussion for another day.

While this does not in any way support the heinous acts and crimes, it tells you how meanings are structured when you have an existing moral code to guide interpretation. The human rights conventions are moral codes and adoption by member countries is a way of universalizing these codes past linguistic boundaries. The human rights and all the UN conventions are moral value systems.

The bridging of the gap between legal codes and moral codes is important because law and morality are both means of social control. Their language is descriptive and directive. Descriptive language gives information, directive language guides conduct.

Fourth, language significantly extends social control mechanisms and helps “allow groups to evolve into adaptive units” and this advances cooperation.

Finally, linguistically based social controls also help facilitate group fitness in relation to conflict problems with other groups and environmental pressures.


In closing, it is to be understood that the human person is the basis of realizing moral values. There is none, under and above, that is needed to guide humans to act morally. The human person is the sole guarantee for social stability, harmony, peace and authentic development and progress, and language and communication function as special cultural tools for the attainment of this social objective. Language can therefore, be a positive instrument for the humanization of the social order. In an era of moral choices, we should all be vigilant of not only the description of moral codes but also its effect on our moral conduct, at all times.


Download PDF here: Words and Morals FIKA

Richard Oduor

Prepared for the Freethinkers Initiative Kenya (FIKA) Debate on ‘Morality and Religion’ on August 17th, 2013

6 thoughts on “Words and Morals: An Open Inquiry

  1. Now this is a descriptive essay on lingusitics. The argument is prolific and well augmented. If evolutionary linguistic can kill cultures that are deemed inhumane, should we bank on language development for a dire situation to be dealt with (FGM)? – and also do terms really matter? Studying the extensive argument you’ve brought out, should morality be guided by language i.e communication and/or socialization? If moral absolutisim is the apex of the whole debate, teach me – if a rapists rapes a woman, after failing to convince her for sex while he had depended on communication which the woman disregarded and the worse happend, should we therefore say that the rapists language wasn’t advanced or is moral absolutisim right to defend his actions (Silly but school me)
    Finally, I gather that some terms override each other in terms of their potent power – does that mean the death of say “give but get” shines?
    I am not completly au fait with linguistics and absolutisim thats why I have alot of questions!

    • Rape, far from being a moral question, is best understood as a legal question. Some cultures do not hold for example ‘marital rape’ to be immoral because they do not understand how having sex, even if forcefully’ with your wife can be termed as immoral. These are cultures that are patriarchal and the wife is ‘owned’ by the man who marries them or if they are not married, girls are ‘owned’ by their family. Rape as a moral concept only comes into being because we have a universalized moral code of human rights that guarantees equal human dignity for all and the right for an adult to consent to anything they are being involved in. That is why rape is “forced carnal knowledge” or having sex with anybody without ‘their consent’/’non-consensual sex’ while consensual sex is not rape. One is only a rapist when it has been proved/morally judged that the sex was forced or without consent. The act of convincing does not apply, what matters is whether the woman (or for homosexuals, man) consented. In law, the burden of proof lies on the evidence provided to prove that ‘it happened’ and that ‘it was non-consensual’. Now back to language, note that before the universalization of moral codes in the name of inalienable human rights, the understanding of non-consensual sex was varied from culture to culture, and it is still so in some places.. but since it has been universalized, the moral code has been married to the legal code, and non-consensual sex is rape – illegal and immoral. Without language, there is no way the ‘human rights and conventions’ as a moral code would have been universalized. Finally, as meanings change, so does words and word use change, and that reflects changes in moral values in the society.

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