The three languages of right and wrong

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You likely don’t realize it, but whenever you talk about issues of “right” and “wrong,” you are at least “bi-lingual,” and often “tri-lingual.” Just as many Americans unconsciously and fluidly slip between speaking English and Spanish in a linguistic hybrid, most of us intermix at least three “cultural languages” when expressing our views on morality and the law. [1]

I wrote a series of posts last year that walk through my perspective on morality, ethics and the idea that good people disagree, and I would like to revisit here what I call three “morality languages” that, even when each is spoken in English, are often mutually incomprehensible. When a person speaks using one of these languages while the listener hears in a different “morality language,” they will often disagree, although they are more accurately “talking past one another” in different “languages.”

The lines of demarcation between these language categories are quite arbitrary here, just as in the field of linguistics there are long battles over the differences between a “language” and a “dialect.” Nonetheless, I see major differences in how people talk about issues of “right and wrong” based on whether they use what I call God language, or instead philosopher language, or scientist language.

“God language” might also be called theology, but I am talking here of more of a “gut level” use of various ways to invoke a “supernatural divinity” as justification and rationale. As early humans acquired language, just about everything “natural” was described in “God language,” from night versus day to why the rains came or did not come.

By the end of the Bronze Age (about 1200 BCE) humans were beginning to differentiate between the actions of “the gods” (or “God”) and “nature,” for instance in learning enough about the movement of the planets in the sky to predict their paths, or about how some violent weather is quite predictable and “normal” (although some preachers have not yet figured this out). By around 400-500 BCE, Plato in Greece and Confucius in China were talking “philosophically” about issues of morality and ethics without necessarily invoking “the gods” at all, using emerging non-theological descriptions of beauty, truth and justice. [2]

In the West, the great “polymaths” of the 17th century, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, still seamlessly moved between these two languages in their writings, invoking God and philosophy both. But they also included the emerging Renaissance “language” of math and science that better describes natural phenomena. [3] By the next century, Immanuel Kant and other philosophers were intentionally avoiding or segmenting religious language in their philosophical discourses about ethics. And by the time of Charles Darwin in the 19th century, he and other science writers were more careful to “stick to the knitting,” using non-theological language in describing the workings of nature, and also consciously avoiding the “Why?” meanings of philosophy to focus instead on the “How?” of the observable and testable “material world.”

How multilingual are you?

Most of us are not so discerning when we flit back and forth between language with religious roots, or non-theistic philosophy roots, or established scientific observation. Just in talking about the weather, for instance, we might talk about the “grace” of rain after a dry spell, observe the aesthetic beauty in the greening of the landscape after the rain, and then note the scientific evidence of El Niño’s effects on the weather patterns.

Some of us are better at one of these languages than the others, or we may consciously reject, say, invoking the name of God unless we hit our thumb with a hammer. Religious fundamentalists often reject scientific explanations of natural processes like creation and climate that they believed were sufficiently described in the Bronze Age “God language” of Genesis.

“God languages” and their dialects

Our earliest human societies began to formulate “the rules” for moral behavior among fellow tribe members mostly using this “God language.” The “Code of Hammurabi” emerged around 1750 BCE in ancient Babylon, several hundred years before the better-known Ten Commandments of Moses. It’s preface read:

“Anu (King of Anunaki) and Bel (Lord of Heaven and Earth) called by name
me Hammurabi, the exalted prince…to bring about the rule of  righteousness in the land to destroy the wicked and the evil doers

so that the strong should not harm the weak

so that I should rule over the black headed people like Shamash and enlighten the land to further the well being of mankind.”

This and the Ten Commandments are examples of Divine Command ethics, in which something is morally wrong simply because “God says so.” [4] In the classic Genesis example of Abraham coming close to sacrificing his son Isaac, the murder of Isaac would have been justified because this was “God’s command.”

A major limitation of Divine Command ethics emerges as societies and religions get larger, intersect, diverge, and evolve. Today a male Baptist from Alabama and a female Episcopalian from Massachusetts would both consider themselves “Christian,” yet they would likely disagree and take nearly-opposite stances on every contentious moral issue, each using “God language” to justify their individual positions.

In effect, the Episcopalian and the Baptist, not to mention adherents to other Christian and non-Christian traditions, are speaking various “God dialects” in interpreting current issues of “right versus wrong.” They often rely on common sources of scriptural authority (Islam’s Koran has many references to the Bible, for instance) and all have at their base a faith in some supernatural power they denote “God” or “the gods,” but they derive very different prescriptions. [5]

It is not difficult to demonstrate that “God language,” when commonly applied to the most important moral issues facing us, is quite selective from its thousands of pages of ancient texts, and, as I have earlier noted, is often driven more by current political ideology than by adherence to tradition.

A very old Charles Schultz cartoon

Philosophical languages for discussing morality

The most conservative religious people are typically suspicious of philosophers’ expressions of good versus bad using non-theological language, but as earlier noted, moral philosophy has a long tradition in both Eastern and Western cultures. In earlier posts I have roughly categorized moral philosophy language down four vectors: seeking the “good ends,” rules/duties, empathy/compassion, and “meta-ethics.” Philosophers have long used logic and other tools of rationality to focus on one of these paths, formulating more-or-less comprehensive explanations of human decisions that we classify as concerning “moral choice.”

However, many religious people reject these philosophical formulations as being too secular, and for sometimes coming up with conclusions at odds with favored proof-text scriptures. At the same time, invoking “God” or other supernatural explanations into the moral conversation often turns off moral philosophers. And so, “what we’ve got here is failure to communicate” although both are nominally speaking English. [6]

We do see cases where these languages intertwine, although most of the listeners likely fail to realize this. On the conservative side, Joel Osteen will pepper his sermons with a “prosperity gospel” that borrows heavily from secular, conservative economic consequentialism. On the left side of the political equation, current presidential candidate (at least as of this writing) Marianne Williamson has made a career of intermixing “God language” and “philosopher language” into an often-vague and supernatural-sounding mishmash.

Scientific languages and volition

Even though science has its roots in a philosophy called materialism, my interest here, expressed an earlier posts, is in how science drops down a level of conceptual aggregation and asks, “How do we physically decide between alternative actions with moral consequences?” This is the neuroscience of volition (and its more heavy-baggage near-synonyms of “free will” and “choice.”

My favorite analogy of this brain process is that of the baseball player standing at home plate attempting to hit a ball coming at him at high speed. In my simplistic description, this is a combination of conscious, unconscious and probabilistic neuronal activity in our brains, and the best hitters “choose correctly” only about one-third of the time at the plate.

This mode of thinking can be extended to those decisions we have collectively deemed “moral choices.” Do I extend a hand of help to this stranger or do I instead attack him in self-defense (what I call the first ethical dilemma)?  Or how do I express my emotional and sexual feelings about this other person? In the end most of our moral dilemmas as humans seem to come down to matters of violence and sex. And biology appears to be as much involved as are religion or philosophy.

And so, scientists often speak a third language that sometimes flummoxes both the “God speakers” and the philosophers. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould managed to aggravate people from all three “language groups” in his 2007 book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, where he tried to parse through these alternative modes of human expression. Gould suggested the concept of non-overlapping magisteria, where all parties get more humble about the limitations of their own perspectives on “How? versus “Why?” questions.

Even those of us who like to think that we are fluent in multiple moral languages are often barely speaking at a level where we can ask where the baño is, and that’s about it. We all continue to talk past one another. I have found it helpful to view the many conflicting voices of religious language and philosophy as individually saying, “I don’t know, but I really hope…” or “I really wish…” or “I really fear…” And I can put myself there as well.


  1. Note that English itself is one of the most “hybridized” of commonly-spoken human languages. It evolved from multiple other languages and it continues to evolve.
  2. For more on my take on the differences between “morality” and “ethics,” see this earlier post.
  3. One way to look at mathematics is as a “bridge language” between philosophy and science derived from developments like the geometry of Greece’s Euclid (c. 300 BCE) and the algebra of Persia’s Muhammad al-Khwarizmi (c. 780 – c. 850) as a more succinct language describing “how nature works.” By the way, we get the word algorithm from the latter’s name.
  4. Not to mention a very early apparent justification for official racism.
  5. Note our common written cultural convention that “our God” gets capitalized while “their gods” from other traditions fail to merit this level of respect. Richard Dawkins has noted that “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in.”
  6. The classic line from the film Cool Hand Luke (1967):

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2 thoughts on “The three languages of right and wrong

  1. Bruce Lindgren

    Not only is English commonly spoken, it is probably the most widely used lingua franca at this time. A lingua franca (literally, “Frankish tongue”) is a language in which two people can communicate when their native languages are mutually unintelligible. So, a native Swahili speaker and a native Japanese speaker might use English as a way of communicating with each other. The problem, of course, is that there is currently no commonly accepted lingua franca for moral speech. This either because we have not yet found one or because we refuse to budge from our preferred language. (“I’m an American; speak English, please!”)

    1. @rklindgren Post author

      Moral theologians and moral philosophers often use common language with different supporting approaches, allowing them to talk with one another. For instance, rule/duty ethics becomes “deontology” in both disciplines. But the”people in the pew” typically don’t speak the language of theologians. Their denominations’ theologians often agree with secular philosophers to a greater extent than would make them comfortable.


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