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The Language of Our Apologies

October 9, 2016
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Since I seem incapable of getting a normal-length post out these days and since the second Presidential debate, which will generate all sorts of data for this article’s thesis, is on right now I am going to try to take a point I have been wanting to make at length for quite some time and make it briefly.  At least, more briefly than that sentence.

Everyone[1] operates within a moral language.  This isn’t to say that everyone takes morality seriously but that everyone has an idea of what morality is and has a way to speak about this.

This has two effects: first, the moral language a person uses may have little to nothing to do with their own morality.  Some people who are confident in their own morality will use their own moral language, but many people will instead attempt to adopt the moral language of their target audience.  This section was once intended to be much expanded as it explains many odd features of societies.  I’ve touched on the issue of religious wars before and this theory here explains why non-religious conflicts would be framed religiously.  It’s the moral language of that society.  Medieval Europe had a Catholic moral language and the medieval Middle East had an Islamic moral language.  Anyone justifying anything to anyone else in either of those societies could be expected to draw upon religious moral language.  Similarly, after the USSR enshrined a moral language based on Marxism a number of decidedly non-Marxist decisions were made and justified in Marxist terms.  Why?  Because people reach for the moral language of their society (or cultural splinter) to justify things, whatever those things actually are.

Second, if you want to understand the moral language of a culture you can’t do much better than listen to immoral people justifying their immorality or being berated for it.  Moral language is the language of a quasi-legal discourse and if you want to listen to legal discourse you need to listen to legal cases.

For instance, a number of celebrities have had to apologize for bad behavior that occurred while drinking.  In many cases they have defended their actions by pointing out that they were drinking.  This suggests that the idea of morality they are appealing to is one where their actions are morally worse than being drunk.  When Akio Toyoda issued a public apology for faults in Toyota cars he discussed how the issues with the vehicles damaged his name.  While I don’t pretend to understand Japanese culture well that’s the sort of statement that feels very Japanese to me – it’s framed in terms of honor.  However, I also don’t know exactly how it functions, and so its presence speaks of a moral language that I’m unfamiliar with.

Where this ties back to tonight’s main event (the second Presidential debate) is that politicians are constantly defending themselves on the campaign trail and in doing so give us an idea of what sort of moral values they think their constituents have.  While I have generally found this political season to be horrible it has also been a fascinating window into American moral values (which differ between parties).

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[1] Feral children might be an exception.  Might be.  People who live in societies have moral languages.

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