Speaking about Ethics

How should we begin to speak about what is morally or ethically right or wrong?  In a way, simply speaking with each other already involves some level ethical accord.  Paul Grice and others have presented us with good reason for thinking that even basic communication requires or presupposes shared values.  Additionally, the way we look at each other when talking, how we talk, and what we say can all have great moral significance.

In many languages, there are (sometimes implicit) codes of conduct in terms of the primacy of who speaks, the length of time for a conversation, rules about interrupting or dominating a discussion, conventions about when a conversation ceases to be a conversation and becomes a shouting match or, worse, a site for making terroristic threats.

There are currently about 6,000 languages being spoken on our planet, and we know of no overriding reason why one language would be better in ethical reflection than another.  In terms of the great language groups (in terms of numbers of speakers), however, English has a slight advantage in being simpler than, say, Chinese.  Additionally, there are more translations into English of works not written in English than one finds in other languages.  Perhaps Chinese will someday surpass English on this front, and there will then be more works in Chinese of translations of work originally written in languages other than Chinese.

In general, we note that speaking and writing in ethics can reflect some subtle differences in terms of one’s values.  So, in English, it is becoming more common to use non-gender specific names or titles like “firefighter”, because “fireman” seems to refer only to males.  Also, there is currently a significant difference between the language of commerce and business and the language of education and religion, though this is not always the case.  So, in a college or university, the persons involved are often referred to as students, professors, and administrators rather than clients, customers, patients, or managers.  Similarly, terminology from one field (e.g. the marketplace) may be employed in another field (e.g. religion), though often with a slightly different meaning (e.g. “redemption” in an economic sense means “buying back”, while in religion it involves being saved from sin, error, or evil).