Is Morality Real?

Morality is real in the same way that language is real.

Posted Apr 27, 2020

JimGonz/Flickr
Source: JimGonz/Flickr

The Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has described what he calls the euphemism treadmill:

"Terms for concepts in emotionally charged spheres of life such as sex, excretion, aging, and disease tend to run on what I call a euphemism treadmill. They become tainted by their connection to a fraught concept, prompting people to reach for an unspoiled term, which only gets sullied in its turn. For instance, toilet, originally a term for bodily care (as in toilet kit and eau de toilette), came to be applied to the device and room in which we excrete. It was replaced by bathroom ... As bathroom became tainted (as in bathroom humor), it was replaced in successive waves by lavatory, WC, gents’, restroom, powder room, and comfort station. A similar treadmill cycles for terms for the handicapped (lame, crippled, handicapped, disabled, challenged) ... ” 

One reason words run on this euphemism treadmill is because of how fashionable they are. 

Suppose people use a certain word to refer to a group of people. Then a person with high prestige (say, a celebrity) uses a different word in a public setting. Over time, that new word will be widely adopted. 

Morality is similar to language. Both are human universals, even though the specifics of each vary by culture and change over time. 

Both morality and language are governed by certain rules. Even though languages differ, they all have some underlying similarities. Same with moralities. Though the specifics differ, all languages have rules about nouns. And though the specifics differ, all moralities have rules about harm.

Language and morality both evolved to help humans survive and mate.  

Language arose to communicate crucial information about resources, social problems, and potential threats. Morality arose to promote cooperation and establish rules that increase the odds of survival.

Additionally, both language and morality signal social status. Your accent and your values both indicate where you stand on the social ladder. And your accent and values reveal what social groups you belong to.

The link between language and morality is encapsulated by the origin of the word “shibboleth.” The word comes from a biblical story.

The Gileadites were at war with the Ephraimites. To identify and kill their Ephraimite enemies, the Gileadites told those they captured to say the word “shibboleth.” 

Why? Because the Ephraimites could not say the “sh” part of the word. To the Gileadites, it sounded like “sibboleth.” 

Today this word refers to any custom that distinguishes one group from another. E.g., “conservative shibboleths about education” or “liberal shibboleths about sex.” 

A shibboleth functions as a linguistic password. If you are a member of a political group and you are trying to determine whether someone you’re speaking with is on your side, you can give them the test. Can they pronounce the “sh?"

Or what if you are required to undergo such an examination? It might be time to brush up on the Ideological Turing Test, just in case.

If you are trying to determine someone’s social status, you can give them a test, too. How they speak will give you some clues. So will their moral values.

Moreover, there is the fact that we absorb both language and moral beliefs through osmosis. Who you grew up around is the best predictor of what language you speak and what your moral principles are.

This means that expressing outrage that someone centuries ago had different moral beliefs than today is not unlike being angry at them for speaking Late Middle English instead of whatever modern variant of English you now speak.

You would have spoken the same language and held the same moral beliefs as them. The most morally enlightened person in 1732 would be canceled today.

People modify language to elevate their social standing. Cool people start using a certain word, and then others, hoping to emulate their coolness, start using it too. The word becomes fashionable. The same goes for moral beliefs. 

I describe this phenomenon in detail in my essay about luxury beliefs

In the same way that people refashion language with the intent to be unique, or interesting, or obtain prestige, they also do this with beliefs.

Finally, morality is “real” in the same way that language is real. Some think that there is a “true” morality, or a “universal” morality, and we should seek to find it. This is like embarking on an attempt to find a “true” or “universal” language. 

Some observe that morality varies, and think this implies that morality doesn’t exist. This is like observing that people speak different languages, and thinking this implies that language doesn’t exist. 

Saying morality isn’t real is like saying language isn’t real. Both language and morality shift over time, but still operate within certain constraints. There are rules to every language, and rules to every morality. 

We don’t have a choice about whether they exist. They preceded us. Though the specifics might be unfamiliar to us today, people were communicating and adhering to moral commitments long before we were born. Language and morality will be around long after we’re dead. Even though they, too, will someday cease to be familiar to us.