Our Moral Vocabulary

“Not only has the dominance of the market had a corrosive effect on the social landscape. It has also eroded our moral vocabulary, arguably our most important resource in thinking about the future. In one of the most influential books of recent times, After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argued that ‘We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.’”

“The very concept of ethics (Bernard Williams called it ‘that peculiar institution’ ) has become incoherent. Increasingly, we have moved to talking about efficiency (how to get what you want) and therapy (how not to feel bad about what you want). What is common to both is that they have more to do with the mentality of marketing (the stimulation and satisfaction of desire) than of morality (what ought we to desire). In the public domain, the two terms that dominate contemporary discourse are autonomy and rights, which share the mentality of the market by emphasising choice while ruling out the possibility that there might be objective grounds for making one choice rather than another. This has made it very difficult for us to deliberate collectively about some of the most fateful choices – environmental, political, and economic – humanity has ever faced. It is difficult to talk about the common good when we lose the ability to speak about duty, obligation and restraint, and find ourselves only with desires clamouring for satisfaction.”

The Dignity of Difference, Prologue, p. 27