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Ethical Language is just as Meaningless as Religious Language

Philosophers have struggled for centuries with the dilemma of how to talk about God- and how to talk about morality. These topics, which might be called meta-ethics and meta-theology, include a diverse array of opinions on how we can and cannot talk about the things we cannot ever fully understand- God and Morality. The link between God and Morality is also age-old; in Plato’s ‘Euthyphro’, Socrates presents the eponymous character with what has come to be known as ’Euthyphro’s Dilemma’- is Good good because God wills it, or does God will the Good because it is good? But what has meaning, and what is meaningless? Can anything ever be truly meaningless? These are the questions that must be answered.

There are two types of statement- Analytic statements and Synthetic statements. Analytic statements are true A Priori- to say they are false is contradictory. An analytic statement might be ‘All bachelors are unmarried’. Synthetic statements are true- or false- A Posteriori; they must be verified through experience. Synthetic statements include statements like ‘It is raining’ or ‘The Sky is Blue’.Some philosophical groups have used this to develop theories on the validity of Religious and Moral statements. Most prominently, perhaps, A.J. Ayer, along with the Vienna Circle of linguistic philosophers, proposed that any statement which cannot be verified has no objective meaning; therefore, if I say ‘God is Love’, then the statement is meaningless- as I cannot verify this. G.E.Moore applied a similar brand of Logical Positivist thinking to Ethical language- saying that statements of objective reality can never give birth to moral statements: for example, there is an implied step between ‘1000 people died in car accidents last year’ and ‘people should stop driving cars’- this ‘implied step’ is the application of the speakers own moral codes on the statement. This he called the Naturalistic Fallacy. Moore and Ayer, therefore, would argue that all religious and ethical statements are meaningless- and therefore neither is more meaningful. Hare might counter this, saying that meaning is governed by your blik- a sort of ideology. If God is one of my bliks, or ethical rpinciples, then religious and moral language has meaning to me- and to other people who share my blik.

Piaget, a Swiss philosopher and linguist, proposed the cognitive theory of language acquisition; children acquire language as they acquire understanding. According to Piaget, it is not until the age of 11 that a child reaches the point where any concept might be fully understood. According to Piaget, therefore, language is never meaningless, so long as the speaker understands the concept behind what he is saying- be it religious or moral. Piaget might therefore contradict Moore and Ayer and propose thatany statement has meaning, as long as the statement is about a non-contradictory topic. Ayer would counter, saying that the concept of God is, by nature, unknowable and contradictory- therefore, a meaningful statement about God can never be made. Moore might argue that Morality is a personal issue- to which Piaget might say that it is described in terms of non-personal terms. The idea of right and wrong is objective, even if the actions they are applied to is subjective.

William James was a Pragmatist- in both linguistics and philosophy. What this meant was that he claimed that the ‘value’- or meaning- of any statement was based on the pragmatic or practical value of the statement to the proponent. For example, when I say that ‘God is Love’, I am simply confirming and sharing my belief in God’s intrinsically loving nature. If I say ‘Killing is Wrong’, then I am sharing and confirming my own moral principle- and hence the statement has meaning. Stevenson might support this, saying, as an emotivist, that moral language expresses a personal feeling- and one that does have objective value. Ayer might argue that feelings cant be verified, but modern science might disagree- as with mental testing, it is now possible to spot patterns in brain activity- therefore, it is meaningful to say ‘killing is wrong’ because I mean ‘I don’t like killing’, which is a meaningful statement.

Dionysius the Areopagite suggested the ‘via negativa’- a method by which we talk about not what God is, but what he is NOT. He advocated a three-step program:
1) describe God by what he is not- i.e. God is not love- not as we understand it.
2) Find biblical definitions of what God is- i.e. God is a father.
3) God can then be described as beyond our understanding of the given words- God is beyond being a Father, God is beyond Love, etc.
It is unlikely that Dionysius would have had any such problem with moral language- as morality exists on some level in the mind of, arguably, everyone; we can have a clear conception of morality, and what morality means, even if we choose a different morality to another- however, God is by definition unknowable, so how can we discuss him? Piaget might support this idea, saying that a description of God, or an idea of God, is necessary before religious language can be meaningful. Wittgenstein might argue that religious language is meaningful in certain language games- socio-linguistic contexts. Dionysius would go against this, saying that religious language can be personal- where Wittgenstein would say that language without communication is simply artistic masturbation.

In conclusion, there are many suggestions as to how we might talk about God and morality- and hence, many ideas on the relative meaningfulness of the language of each. Ultimately, we must see moral language as more meaningful- as morality is a social value, and hence communication of ethical codes is essential. On the other hand, religious language could be seen as meaningless, because it describes a meaningless concept (in human terms)- God.

Ethical Language is just as Meaningless as Religious Language


Joined February 2008

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