Moral Thresholds

If morality entails maintaining linguistic presence, then a further exploration of morality in these terms would look into the strengthening and extension of linguistic presence. We’re rarely in danger of the complete collapse of linguistic presence, and if we were it would probably be too late to do anything about it—the goal would be to defer ever further even the merest indications of such an eventuality. And, if we can sustain linguistic presence in, say, a two-person conversation, we can go on to sustain it in a three-way conversation, and then a larger group, across different media, at different levels of centrality (power, sovereignty), and so on. So, a theory of morality can set aside all the liberal obsessions with dialogue, respect, equality, dignity, and so on, and develop ways of thinking through the terms of enhancing linguistic presence wherever one happens to be.

The emergence of the successive linguistic forms (ostensive, imperative, interrogative, declarative) provide us with our model for studying linguistic presence: I continue to assume that “originary” refers not to something that happened once and for all, but to a founding event and structure that is iterated in innumerable ways and increasing degrees of complexity throughout the existence of the thing in question; indeed, that the thing in question is nothing but this continual, recursive, iteration. I also propose dissolving the distinction between speaking and acting into the succession of linguistic acts by simply saying that any act can be understood as an ostensive sign, emitted in response to some perceived or intimated crisis or potential crisis. Shaking someone’s hand, slapping someone’s face, ordering a hundred people to line up, those people lining up, walking down the street, preparing to go to sleep, etc.—all ostensive signs, maintaining some linguistic presence. So, questions about why someone does what they do, or what someone should do, can all be answered in terms of what kind of signifying succession, structure and presence your action would enter into, maintain, and initiate. Likewise, all desires (I want this, I want that) can be constructed as imperatives directed to some center, a center from which the desirer has or will receive corresponding imperatives upon obedience to which compliance with the petitioner’s request will be contingent (the imperative exchange).

So, actions (ostensive, in Peirce’s terms, iconic, signs) “throw off” imperatives: someone doing something demands that another respond in some way. If necessary, explicit imperatives are issued when the example itself is insufficient. As long as the other obeys these imperatives, he “confirms” or “authenticates” the action/sign, supplying the attention it needs to sustain the center it “orbits.” Depending upon how one obeys, the center can be more or less compelling. If the other disobeys, linguistic presence is put in danger, and the moral thing to do is find some other way of maintaining it. One can carry out another act, creating a new center that might attract those drawn to the previous one. One can draw out the imperative into a question, a request for information regarding the chain of actions and its “initial conditions.” In the meantime, the further consequences of the initiating action are not pursued. The question raised is whether the center that has been posited is really there, or still there, or what it was assumed to be. The answer will be in the form of a declarative sentence, and the declarative settles the case (if it “works”) by conveying the imperative the originating act was performed in obedience to (the “reason” for the act). Or, conveying the imperative that invalidates that act and transferred (has “always already” transferred) centrality to another act, conferring presence on a more originary center.

So, knowing or figuring out the right thing to do involves hearing the command whatever action you are currently in the midst of undertaking is performed in obedience to. If you hear and follow that command clearly and unequivocally, your act will generate the right imperatives, which will in turn create new conditions leading to questions regarding the further extension of those imperatives, and to framing sentences making the command you are following more explicit to others, in turn leading to new actions. This assumes that the higher command is always right, and that doing wrong involves suppressing or mishearing that command. But people hear “voices” (more or less literally) telling them to do all kinds of things. We can probably all think of times when we followed some intuition and were absolutely certain we were right, and turned out to be completely wrong. So, why should the higher command be right, and how can we be sure that we are capable of hearing it clearly and completely? What function does reasoning about moral decisions and character have in this process?

We need to have faith in language. There are a lot of ways of discussing faith in language, probably as many ways as there of discussing faith in God. I’m going to suggest one approach here. Anna Wierzbicka, whose work I have mentioned several times, has, along with her collaborators, identified a small group of words she claims exist in every language and have the same meaning in every language. She calls them “semantic primes.” The only value terms among the semantic primes are “good” and “bad.” So, we know that every human group distinguishes between good and bad. We also know that all other evaluations can ultimately be “translated” into some distinction between good and bad. By definition, we want good things, not bad ones, we want to act well, not badly, to be good, not bad, people. The “speech words” among the semantic primes are “say,” “words,” “true” (not even “false”). Saying the truth comes before lying: all humans agree on this, simply by virtue of speaking some language. The “mental predicates” among the primes are “think,” “know,” “want,” “feel,” “see,” “hear.” We can see what is good and distinguish it from what is bad, we can think and say what is true, we can know what is true and good—if we use language, we “believe” all this, even when we use language to deny it.

Wierzbicka categorizes these words as “primitives” because they cannot be defined in terms of other words that wouldn’t in turn depend upon these words for their definition. In other words, we just know what these words mean by being able to use them. This is surely true—I’m definitely not arrogant enough to challenge Wierzbicka’s scholarship or reasoning here. But since I have an originary theory of language, I can ground these words in ostensives and imperatives. For example, all of her time and space terms would at some point need to be accompanied by pointing. Now, if we treat the verbs Wierzbicka counts among the semantic primes as imperatives, something interesting happens. We may not be able to define “think” in terms of simpler words, but we know when we tell someone to think: mainly, when we don’t want them to act just yet (when we think they might “do” or “move” in a way that will be “bad”). When do we tell them to “say” something?—well, when we think they “know” something that we also want to know—when we think that “good” things will come from saying what they know. When do we tell them to “know” something?—when we think or know that now they only “think” it. So, we start to see how all these words are related in a kind of borderline imperative-declarative language, one in which moral clarity is virtually certain. All moral questions come down to when we should tell someone to think, to say, to know, to want, to do, to feel, to see, to hear. And in deciding when to tell someone to do or not do any of these things, we are thinking, knowing, saying, etc., and someone has told us to do so, even if not immediately or directly, someone has told us that it is “good” or “bad” to think, know, say, do… this “kind” of thing when something “happens” “like” “this.” So, the imperatives that have told us to do things that turn out to be good, that now, therefore, also tell us to see one “now” or “moment” as like another, will get amplified—assuming we want to keep doing the things that not only everyone would see as “good” now, but that people will continue to see as good once other things, lots of other things, will have happened.

So, as language users we want to be people who “do good,” who are the kind of people who do good. The more we want to be that kind of person, the more we want to insist that we can see, hear and feel the relations between seeing, hearing, thinking, saying knowing and doing. If we want to do good, we want to know when we think something and when we know it; we want to know when we should say what we think or know, when we should do what someone says, and when we do something “because” someone else has said to. Being good, or, leaving NSM behind for a moment and moving into a more complex vocabulary, being virtuous, courageous, truthful, trustworthy, faithful, and so on, simply involves “factoring” the NSM into those “composite” terms. What does it mean to be “courageous,” for example? Wierzbicka’s method of translation is very interesting and challenging, but I’ll give just a very partial taste here. I would say that “courage” means to do what is “good” even though one “knows” that something “bad” can “happen” to you if you do. So, to be courageous means that you want to do good, and that you want to know if something bad can happen (if you don’t want to know that you’re just reckless), but you don’t let this knowledge drown out what you now know, simply by persisting, to be a command to do good; others may say to you that this bad thing and that bad thing can happen, but you hear whoever has said to you to do good more than you hear those who say that. Now, can you be courageous and still do the wrong thing? Of course! But that means that courage also means wanting to know after you have tried to do good whether you in fact did do good, even though bad things can happen if it has turned out to be bad, and others will say that to you. And this courage will then help you to know that what you thought was good because it was like something else that you knew was good was not, in fact, like that other thing. So you are better prepared to identify such likenesses in the future. You may even find that the original good thing that has serve as the measure for goodness was something you only thought was good—but that can only happen because something else has better stood the test of goodness and can now serve as the measure.

In each social order the vocabulary made up of primes and a great number of composites all provide, in a way specific to that order and language, the means for searching out, thinking about saying to others, hearing from others, knowing, what the highest or most originary command is turning out to be. Deciding what you should do becomes a process of studying what you are doing, what others tell you to do, what others do as a result of what you do, how one situation can be likened to and differentiated from others, and which actions most tenaciously attract particular attributes. And the way to get it right, and serve as an example that will help others get it right, is to have faith in language; a faith that can now be far more informed than ever before.

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a Reply