Moral Conversations

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that we have lost the language needed to discuss moral questions, and have thereby nearly lost the capacity even to think of them.

Reading him recently reminded me of several recent conversations I have experienced.

First Conversation:  Talking about problems with big corporations, a friend recounts his own experience with a utility. He was approached by a shady character who offered to “fix” his electric meter so that it would record only half of his actual usage.  He took the offer, and got half-price electricity for eight years.  Then the company, no doubt suspecting something, replaced the meter – but not before he had stolen a fair amount of power from them.  My friend recounted this in a pleasant and amusing narrative, and someone in our group remarked “Good for you,” in a “stick-it-to-the-man” tone.

My friend reacted sharply. “No. No!  It was wrong.  I never should have let that guy talk me into it.  I wish I’d never done it.” He was judging himself, in uncomfortable response to being applauded for his misdeed.   

The conversation paused awkwardly.  No one quite knew what to say, so someone changed the subject.

Second Conversation: A group is discussing movies they have seen.  When a particular movie is mentioned – an absolutely ordinary, mainstream comedy-drama – one friend reacts strongly.  “I am just so tired of movies about miserable families making each other suffer from their abuse of each other and their affairs.  I just don’t want to see any more of them.”

She was articulating her rejection of a culture that normalizes dysfunctional behavior.  We all agreed in a perfunctory way, but didn’t know what else to say.

Third Conversation: A man takes part with some friends in a weekly Trivia Contest at a local bar.  Sometimes they do well, sometimes not.  After another losing night in a long dry spell, the man bemoans his poor performance, saying how stupid he felt for not knowing some answers.  He talks of quitting the team.  Another team member responds “Oh, well.  It is humbling, and that’s not a bad thing.”

Instead of the customary words of locker-room inspiration (“We’ll lick’em next time”), she offered a moral reminder about pride.  It cheered the man, but he didn’t know how to respond, except to say “You’re right.  Thanks.”

In each case, when the conversation reached a moral point, there was an awkward pause, a fumbling for words, and a swift turn to other topics.

We have grown accustomed to the lack of moral consideration in our conversations with others.  But once you notice it, you start to find these absences everywhere.

As MacIntyre says, it is a kind of forgotten language – one we vaguely remember from long ago, but are too uncomfortable to use.  I think of those tales of frontier children abducted by Indians, and raised by them as tribe members.  When later returned to white society, they may remember some of English, but not enough to communicate effectively.  The language must be re-learned.

How, I wonder, will we re-learn the language of morality?

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