‘Morality’ is Equivocal

It’s a truism that people disagree about what actions are morally right, good, bad, or wrong, and this fact is often expressed by saying that they have different ‘meanings’ or ‘definitions’ of morality, a turn of phrase which is close enough to the truth but somewhat misleading (the disagreements are over content, not what the word is to mean – it’s precisely because people mean the same thing that their different opinions are in conflict).

But I think that a stronger claim can be made, which would be properly expressed by talking about different ‘meanings’ of the word ‘morality’: that is, it may be that there are in fact two or more distinct things that the word ‘morality’ confusingly refers to. The term ‘morality’, that is, may be ‘equivocal’ – like the term ‘trunk’, which refers both to an elephant’s nose, a car’s boot, and a human’s torso, with no single meaning applying to all.

An interesting consequence, which I’ll explore in the next post, is that ‘moral relativism’, or even ‘nihilism’, may be similarly equivocal.

I’m prompted to this thought by this interesting site, essentially a collection of questionnaires aiming, among other things, to measure statistical differences in the reasoning of different political groups (which I was put onto by Rumblegumption [top link]). The particular questionnaire I wanted to talk about was called ‘moral foundations’, and worked on the basis of ‘moral foundations theory’ (more info here).

Read the rest of this entry »