Moralities Are Like Languages

“Moralities, I suggested at the opening of this chapter, are like languages, and to communicate effectively we have to be articulate in at least one language. None of us, at any given moment, stands poised between the six thousand languages spoken today, free to choose between them all. We may be multilingual. We may acquire a small vocabulary to help us on a foreign trip. But for most of us, there is one language in which we think and best express ourselves. And since language exists for the purpose of communication, and communication involves a listener as well as a speaker, we are constrained by our human environment. We need to speak in such a way as to be understood. That means that we need to live in a community of fellow speakers of the same language. We may use language to express our innermost feelings, but that language has rules of syntax and semantics, and we must obey them if we are to communicate effectively. It is those rules that define the community of those who speak our language. There has to be a ‘We’ – a community united by that language –before there can be an expressive ‘I’. To become moral, we have to make a commitment to some moral community and code. We have to make a choice to forgo certain choices. We have to choose the right restraints. And having fallen in love with some moral principle or ethical ideal, we have to build a structure of behaviour around it, for the moment when love falters. Politics may give us ‘freedom from’, but morality gives us ‘freedom to’ – to dance the choreography of interpersonal grace and be part of the music of loving commitment to the lives of others.”

“We may be more aware than any other generation of the multiple ways of being moral, but that does not mean that we are endlessly poised between them all. Just as marriage is a one-to-one relationship between two people, so morality is a one-to-one relationship between a person and a way of life. It is a choice that precludes other choices. Only the willingness to make a choice allows you morally to grow.”

Morality, Chapter 20, p. 283