Language and Morality

Robert Peate
5 min readMay 11, 2022

My father was careless with his words, which taught me at a young age the power of words for good or ill. I would have cared about words either way, but his carelessness added to my feelings about them. He taught me that carelessness with words was carelessness with other human beings. How we speak to others is a part of how we treat them. One would think this to be a simple proposition, but it is not.

Why do we have schools? I think most of us would agree that we have schools to teach us things society (the majority of us) has decided everyone should know. That includes things like math, science, languages, and history, along with many other important and valuable subjects — and the things that are not on the curriculum, such as truth, justice, and good citizenship. And we all know there are some (many?) persons who do not care about education or a given subject of study, or even about truth and justice, but again, that is the goal or the ideal.

So when we leave school — are graduated — , we are supposed to know certain things, such as one plus one equals two, what goes up must come down (gravity), the French Revolution began in 1789, and that a sentence consists of certain types of words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, et cetera). These are things that are agreed upon; they are not subjective. No one says, “One plus one is three, because math is always changing, and anything goes.” And yet, though we have English classes, I have been told that whatever everyone does is correct usage, even if it goes against everything we were taught. (Linguistics tells us that every word uttered by a native speaker is correct a priori.) One friend told me that he felt spelling didn’t matter as long as the word was understood. The fact that words have different numbers of letters aside, what percentage of letters must be correct for a word to be understood? And if one is understood, does that make misspelling a word acceptable? It did to my friend.

The problem I see is the difference between the physical and the conceptual. It is easier for most persons to see and work with something physical, such as an engine. Someone is already thinking, “But math, science, and history deal in objective facts and language is subjective.” But it’s not. It’s metaphysical, but it is not subjective. Yes, I can create words and my own grammatic constructions, but that is separate from the conceptual framework by which we all agreed to abide when we went to school. One can argue that the framework is being adjusted and negotiated constantly, and it is, but again that is separate. We can all participate in the creation of a work of art, but we need to agree on at least what we are going to do together. We might not agree on the subject of the artwork or the materials we are going to use, but if we are going to work together, we have to have some mutually agreed ideas and methods. It is a conceptual/metaphysical framework, but that framework is a set of agreements nonetheless, and to go against that framework is to commit violence against both the framework and society. To go against society is by definition anti-social behavior.

It’s like a speed limit on a road. We all agree to drive on the road in the same direction in lanes, to stop at red lights and go on green lights, and not to drive too fast, all so no one gets hurt. It’s like getting vaccinated and wearing masks to protect ourselves and others. We agree on these things to help not only ourselves but others.

So when anyone is careless (or actively malicious) with words and abuses the agreed-on conceptual framework of language, that hurts anyone listening. When people drive excessively fast or refuse to get vaccinated, that endangers everyone. That is why to me language is a moral issue. If you are a moral person, you will be careful with others, whether with language, with driving, or with spreading a disease. If you are not a moral person, you will not care about others. You might not even care about yourself, so you won’t care what anyone has to say about any of this.

To me, if someone says, “Anything goes,” about language, she or he is saying she or he does not care about anything. If anything goes about language, how can I expect that person to honor a STOP sign or get vaccinated? To me, moral persons care to be moral in every area — morality does not end where words begin, as words are a part of how we treat others.

Someone will no doubt say, “That’s different! That’s life and death.” To that I will say, “It is different, but it is also life and death. Successful communication is necessary for life to survive, and torture can lead to death. If you abuse language, you abuse the mind of anyone hearing you, shortening her or his life, leading her or him to an early grave. It is a different form of torture, but do not tell me it is not life and death, those of you who have shortened my life with your abuses far too much already.”

I wrote a story about this, entitled “Language is Always Changing”, to show that it is a slippery slope. If you don’t care about masks or speed limits, you probably don’t care about grammar, and it’s all related. Yes, I exaggerated it into guns, but the point remains. If you are evil, you don’t care how you treat others, and that includes language. If you are good, you do, and that includes language.

I’m not the bad guy for pointing that out.

But do not misunderstand me: create words and uses. Language changing is not the issue, which is why I resent those who think it is and wrongly accuse me of opposing language changing. I create words and uses. And if you think a new use is an improvement over an old one, use it! But be prepared to explain why you think it is better, and do not begrudge our shared understanding of grammar and words because you cannot be bothered treating your fellow human beings with the respect that our society has taught you is necessary for good citizenship. Respect others enough to show why your innovations are improvements or honor what remains better.