"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
The Word 'Moral'
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September 24, 2007
I dislike polysemous words in writing if I cannot understand the meaning from the context. For example, 'I'm going to a play' is easy to distinguish from 'I'm going to play' even though the word 'play' has 20 or more meanings. The word 'moral' is not as easy.
A friend sent me a NYT article titled Ayn Rand's Literature of Capitalism. On Atlas Shrugged, Harriet Rubin wrote:
'Gore Vidal described its philosophy as 'nearly perfect in its immorality.''
Later she quotes Jeff Britting, Rand archivist, on Alan Greenspan: 'He was attracted, Mr.Britting said, to 'her moral defense of capitalism.''
Did either man say anything meaningful? Not to me. 'Moral' has six meanings as an adjective and three as a noun, all referring to human behavior in the judgmental sense of good and bad, right and wrong. Therein lies one problem with the word. There is no socially agreed upon standard for good and bad, right and wrong.
What is 'immoral' about Rand 's philosophy? Here we could have Cotton Mather preaching from the pulpit in thundering condemnation, but what is he condemning? Capitalism? Serial sexual affairs? Innovators quitting? Vidal could have said her philosophy is baloney and let it go at that, but no, it's immoral. That takes me to the other problem with the word. It triggers an emotional response.
People are drilled in behavior from their pre-verbal condition in the cradle on, particularly during toilet training. The individual's limbic system is learning to respond as well, and there is a gradual association of feelings with behavior and words. Speech writers understand this perfectly well, so words that stimulate anger or fear are laced into political bloviating over and over. Vidal knew what he was doing.
So did Mr. Britting. Rand set up her own standards of behavior and attached two key words to them, rational and moral. While I would agree with the statement that she offered a rational defense of capitalism, if capitalism ever existed, which I would dispute, calling that a moral defense enters the realm of political polemics, i.e., it's deception.
Personally, I would call any behavior good that did not interfere with my life and I would call any behavior bad that did, so the initiation of force or fraud are wrong. The state initiates both force and fraud against me and everybody else day in and day out ' a truly universal principle ' and I would call the state immoral if I thought I would be understood.
However, I have no assurance that what I mean by moral will be understood to mean the same thing by anybody else. Even repeatedly defining 'moral' in my terms would not change the emotional response in some reader. I cannot use the word.