What are the foundations of morality? The Ten Commandments? Our Lord’s summary of the Law in which we are commanded to love God and to love our neighbour? Does Aristotle “golden mean between the extremes” appeal? Or you might like to try Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only on that maxim which you would will to be a universal law.” In the philosophical bargain basement, you can find the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill which declare that the rightness of an action is to be judged by its consequences. if you fancy a bit of positivism and moral anarchy, you can take your cue from A.J.Ayer and C.L. Stevenson who said that the propositions of ethics are strictly “meaningless” and merely emotive: according to these two gentlemen, when I say, “Slaughtering the innocent is wrong,” all I really mean is, “I don’t like slaughtering the innocent.”
Bewildered, we turn to the church. But what do we find there?
In the Season of Easter edition of Faith in Sussex, the Chichester Diocesan magazine, the Bishop of the Diocese, clearly with the election in mind, writes:
“But essentially the vote is an expression of engagement with a process in which law and taxation provide the foundations of what we believe to be morally right.”
I’m sure that if we were to ask the Bishop to clarify this perplexing utterance, I’m sure he would oblige with a qualification something like this: “Of course, I didn’t mean to say that law and taxation are the foundations of morality; only that what we choose to tax and the sorts of laws we make reveal the things that we value most.”
But, if that’s what you meant, Bishop, why was that not what you said?
There is a foolish notion, widespread particularly in politics and social policy-making, that it is the speaker or the writer who means. As if the same sentence in the same context from two different mouths could carry two different and even contradictory meanings. This is not so. It is not we who mean: it is words that mean. And, unfortunately even for bishops, the choice of words determines what is being said.
It is no defence to reply to a challenge by saying, “That’s not what I meant!”
Then why did you say it? If you meant something else, why didn’t you choose words which would state that something else?
Unfortunately for all our public conversations, politicians, journalists – and it appears, even bishops – have all been reading Alice Through the Looking Glass and they have become the disciples of Humpty Dumpty:
“’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less’.”
No wonder Alice became irritated. And so am I!