words : Morality

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The Independent Online
THE trouble with trying to define abstract words is that it can be done only by means of other abstract words. The lexicographer who wants to define a cow can save a lot of bother by putting in a little picture, but there can be no picture for words like moral and morality. To say that they are to do with the difference between vice and virtue, or right and wrong, doesn't take us far, merely to more definitions. The Latin mos (adjective moralis) began by meaning "established practice", which begged a question or two. Political parties climbing on each other's backs to claim the high moral ground are saying that it's they who are against sin, whatever that is.

There was a time when morality was most often used with reference to sex; now it has widened out again and is understood to be also about honesty and obedience to the law, which Gillian Shephard proposes should be taught systematically in the schools. The New Statesman has a different list; it believes that Britain's moral stature, which it regards as high, comes from "tolerance, flexibility, international-mindedness and a love of personal freedom" and declares that the object of all moral action is "the good life". Good - now there's a word.

In the 1970s, the Oxford philosopher John Wilson invented a lot of new words like phil, emp, gig and krat to identify the various stages of a person's moral awareness, starting at the bottom with those whose behaviour depended on what their mothers or teachers had told them, then on what others thought of them, then on their own rational convictions, at which point they would have become morally autonomous beings. For some reason, Wilson's vocabulary never caught on. If it had, we would soon be hearing the left complaining that Mrs Shephard's curriculum had too much phil and not enough krat.

Nicholas Bagnall