We identify the excellent with the admirable, and we detect the admirable by the experience of admiration

Posted by

I will begin, then, with a notion of the exemplar that includes the saint, the hero, and the sage, but it will not include the genius.2 I assume that in-born talent is admirable, but in a sense that is non-moral even when the moral is broadly construed. I will, however, include the sage. Confucian ethics does not make sense without the sage, and I take it for granted that Confucian ethics is ethics. Exemplars are not just good; they are supremely excellent. I said that they are supremely admirable. That is because I assume that there is something in us that detects the excellent, and that is the emotion of admiration. We identify the excellent with the admirable, and we detect the admirable by the experience of admiration. We can be mistaken in what we take to be admirable, and hence excellent, and that means that the emotion of admiration can be mistaken. It can mislead us. (Pg.2)

Second, I have the practical purpose of producing a theory that can be used to actually make persons moral by structuring the theory around a motivating emotion, the emotion of admiration. (Pg.3)

1. The Principle of the Division of Linguistic Labor The descriptive theory of meaning maintained that understanding a word is being in a certain mental state, the content of which constitutes the meaning of the word. Frege had argued that meanings are public property, accessible to many different persons and the same person at different times, but that is because he thought that meanings are abstract entities—like numbers.1 Putnam argued that meanings are public in a more significant way. They are not just public because anybody can grasp them. They are public because they are partially constituted by social networks causally linking the individual members of the community to the referent of the term. The contents of a user’s thoughts about water or gold or tigers are determined outside the mind in two ways:

(1) They are partly determined by the way the world is—what water, gold, and tigers are like;

(2) what a user of a term like “water” or “gold” or “tiger” means is determined by the user’s connection to a social linguistic network.

In previous chapters I have used the first way in which a term can be externalist for the purposes of exemplarism. In this chapter I argue that moral terms are externalist in the second way. When we look at how users of moral terms connect with a social network, we see a significant difference between the semantic function of deontic terms like “wrong” and “duty,” and the semantic function of value terms like “virtue,” “good act,” and “good life.” An important feature of a linguistic network according to Putnam (1975) is that certain individuals have the role of expert in identifying the objects in the extension of terms such as natural kind terms. We can all refer to diamonds and tigers and elm trees because some of us can do so, and the rest of us rely on the experts for our semantic success. Putnam called this the Principle of the Division of Linguistic Labor. The “labor” of referring to natural kinds is divided between experts and ordinary users. The ordinary users defer to the experts to tell them what a diamond really is and to distinguish real diamonds from fake diamonds, but ordinary users also have a role to play in using a term correctly. In order to know what “elm tree” or “diamond” means, it is not enough to speak English and to be willing to defer to experts in identifying diamonds and elm trees. There is a linguistic obligation to have a certain minimal competence in the use of the term in order to count as knowing what the word means. Roughly, we need to grasp what Putnam calls the “stereotype,” a description that is usually vague but usually accurate. We need to know something about stereotypical tigers in order to know what “tiger” means. We need to know something about stereotypical elm trees in order to know what “elm tree” means, and so on (168). Interestingly, Putnam conjectures that it is linguistically obligatory to be able to tell tigers from leopards in order to know what “tiger” means, but it is not required that one be able to distinguish elm trees from beech trees in order to know what “elm tree” means.2 (Pg.184)

The causal connection to other speakers allows an individual user of a term to enhance her grasp of the stereotype under their influence. If a speaker has only a minimal grasp of the stereotype but she is properly connected to the linguistic network, she will be willing to adopt the richer descriptions of others in the network, and she will be willing to defer to others who are better than she is at identifying the objects to which the term refers. When appropriate, she recognizes experts who make the final determination of the extension of a term, but for the most part, she defers to anybody who knows more than she does about the kind in question. Few speakers are connected to experts directly or pay much attention to the experts. (Pg.185)

A term like “tiger” also has a reasonably robust stereotype, but the reason is probably cultural. We enjoy stories and pictures of tigers, even though few of us will ever encounter a tiger outside of a zoo. But if we are properly connected to our linguistic network, we will know that tigers are striped. (Pg.186)

Here I want to say that narratives serve a critical semantic function in connecting the users of moral terms to a causal network linking them with the extension of the term. The stereotype associated with a virtue term or the term “good person” includes narratives about the virtues. No one knows what these terms mean without the ability to refer to such descriptions and narratives. The function of narratives in the stereotype means that an ordinary user of the term “good person” needs to be able to identify some good persons in order to count as having acquired the term “good person,” and in this respect “good person” is more like “water” than “uranium.” (Pg.187)

The function of privileged users in the division of linguistic labor is different for moral terms than for scientific terms. We expect ordinary users of “diamond” or “gold” to be able to describe a stereotypical diamond or piece of gold, and perhaps pick out some examples, but we defer to the experts to tell us what is really gold or a diamond, and the experts are even more important for kinds that we do not regularly encounter in ordinary life, like cadmium or paphiopedilum orchids. In contrast, most of us probably think we are pretty good at identifying exemplars, probably as good as we are at identifying water, but as is the case with water, it would be a serious mistake to think that our community is irrelevant to our ability to identify exemplars and to convey to us the stereotype of a good person. The extension of “good person” is not determined privately, nor is it determined by democratic vote. Some members of the social linguistic network are linguistically privileged.

Specialized functions in the network of virtue terms do not necessarily involve authority. I have already mentioned the importance of narratives, and storytellers have the important linguistic function of filling out and transmitting stereotypes of virtues and other qualities of a good person. Empirical scientists have the role of finding out how widespread the extension of a virtue term is, how changeable the extension is (whether virtuous persons tend to remain virtuous), and whether there are any connections between the extension of one virtue term and another. I think that philosophers also have specialized functions that include making the functioning of the network clearer and pointing out inconsistencies in the stereotype, in addition to contributing their powers of abstract reasoning to the community. (Pg.188)

The people who deserve to be linguistically privileged are the people who are good at distinguishing true exemplars from the counterfeits, and who are good at spotting counterfeit virtues. Unfortunately, the people who have great influence in determining both the stereotype and the extension of moral terms often have that influence because of their political power or media presence rather than because of their wisdom. There are people who have a great deal of influence over the stereotype of a good person and the individual virtues, and their judgments affect the use of terms by the people in their community. If the opinion makers do not have good judgment, the result can be confusion about the meaning of these terms.

Imagine what it would be like to live in a community in which the acknowledged experts at identifying certain natural kinds start to misidentify the members of the kind, and put out to the public an inaccurate stereotype. The experts and ordinary users have the right semantic intentions, but they start to lose their causal connection to the extension of the term. The result would be semantic confusion. I think that this has happened in the use of moral terms when the opinion makers misidentify the persons, traits, or acts to which we refer in our moral vocabulary, thereby leading those they influence to misidentify the members of the extension of these terms, and leading to a change in the stereotype that makes it less accurate than it was previously. It should not be surprising that this can happen, given that what we admire is partly determined by what the people who influence us the most admire, and what those people admire may not be admirable. (Pg.189)

A virtue term can go out of use when people no longer admire a person who fits the stereotype, and this often happens when the stereotype changes. I think that happened with the word “chastity.” In Christian moral theology, chastity is the virtue that governs sexual desire and leads to appropriate sexual behavior. In that sense it is a virtue everyone needs. But many people identify chastity with sexual abstinence. Obviously, people are not going to think of sexual abstinence as a virtue for everybody, and if the stereotype of chastity is a person who does not engage in sexual acts, it is no wonder that the word has gone out of common use.

A virtue term can go out of use for another reason. When people say they have no use for the word “chastity,” the reason does not necessarily have anything to do with a change in the descriptive stereotype of a chaste person. It may mean that people do not admire the chaste person as described in the original stereotype. Persons who do not have a negative emotional response (contempt, scorn, disgust) to the acts that fit the description of lewd acts do not use the word “lewd.” Similarly, the word “chaste” is used only by persons who admire the acts that fit the description of chaste acts.3 That suggests something very interesting about virtue and vice terms. Even when there is no change in the descriptive part of a stereotype, if the emotional reaction to the stereotype changes, the word no longer has any meaning. Admiration for virtue and contempt for vice are imbedded in the referential intentions of words for virtues and vices. Members of a linguistic network understand that. If a member of the network does not admire persons as described in the stereotype of a virtue term, that person will cease using the term except perhaps in an ironic way. If most members of the network cease to admire persons who fit the stereotype, the word goes out of use. (Pg.189)

Sometimes new words need to be invented. Miranda Fricker (2009) has made an important contribution to social epistemology in her work on ways in which the use of language can be unjust. One kind of injustice she identifies is hermeneutical injustice, a type of injustice in which a person’s social experience is obscured from interpretation because the shared resources for interpretation are blind to that experience. An example is postpartum depression. Another is sexual harassment, an experience that can be invisible until someone invents a word for it. Fricker’s point can be extended to a problem in the division of moral linguistic labor. The lack of an interpretive framework and the need to invent new words sometimes opposes the accepted division of linguistic labor. That is because the people with the greatest linguistic influence might be the same people who are ignoring the social experience of some members of the community. If so, I think that there can be a kind of injustice in the division of linguistic labor itself, which might be a different problem from the hermeneutical injustice already identified by Fricker.

Before words like “sexist” and “sexual harassment” were added to the general vocabulary, the stereotype of a good person did not include everything that expressed the full range of the value of respect for women. The stereotype changed for the better when these words became commonplace, and it is very difficult to see how that change could have happened without the change in vocabulary. If I am right that moral critique sometimes requires critique of a linguistic network, that will include critique of the claims of people who are most influential in the network. Fortunately, we are in a position to critique opinion makers as long as we become reflective about our emotions of admiration and contempt. It can be hard for a non-expert to know if someone is a climate expert or an expert economist, but we have ways to identify persons whose moral judgment is most trustworthy. We can do that through reflection on our moral emotions, and that can be used to critique moral discourse. When we do so, we may need to invent new words like “sexual harassment.” We can also change a stereotype for the better without changing a word. For instance, we may want to eliminate the inclusion of vengeance in the stereotype of justice without eliminating the word “justice.” These changes can be effected by extended reflection on what we admire as a community.

A moral linguistic network can therefore change by internal critique, not just by the accident of political power and cultural influence. ( Pg.190)

E&P by EZorrilla

Leave a Reply