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Stout and individual VIII

March 30, 2016

The precise form under which language and individual link up with ethical justification lies in a person’s vocabulary. The way in which a person’s vocabulary acts as a constraining medium for justification comes out more clearly in a passage where Stout underscores his holistic, coherentist approach as it relates to language:

[A modest pragmatism] insists that the creation of new vocabularies always begins with existing linguistic patterns, making something new out of something found. And it insists that choice between or among vocabularies itself always takes place within some vocabulary or other, although not always the same one, governed by entrenched standards and assumptions, as well as the perceived needs of the moment […] [T]he choice of a language for choosing itself must be couched in some language. It may not necessarily be a language we choose, of course, and it is perhaps only rarely a language we employ self-consciously. It may simply be one we find ourselves speaking, the only language at our disposal under the circumstances, or the only one a sane person could use for present purposes. And while we do not choose the circumstances in which we initially find ourselves – the age in which we live, the conceptual resources at hand, the traditions and problems impinging on us in our particular time and place – we can, if we have the requisite virtues and avoid being crushed by the secret police, choose to criticize received doctrines, repudiate specific authorities, and foment change in hope of serving justice and making things better (EB, pp. 264-265).

By the above, the author casts serious doubts on those views according to which a person would dispose of an underlying freedom to choose a language and a vocabulary for herself independent of any constraints. Although the above remarks serve to secure the link between vocabularies and persons, they simultaneously raise a set of objections of which Stout is keenly aware. For, in just such constraints, critics may see such a dispersion of vocabularies for ethical justification that the latter stands as irremediably fragmented. If ethical justification proceeds by vocabularies and vocabularies are so constrained by time and place, there seems reason to doubt that two persons from sufficiently different times and places could ever justify to one another candidate propositions for moral truth.

Just such a fear gives rise to the three-headed specter to which we alluded above: nihilism, skepticism and relativism. By these oft-confused terms, the author intends, respectively: the view on which there are no moral truths; the view on which no moral truths can be known; the view on which no moral truth is more true than another. Each poses a distinct danger for ethical justification and, more particularly, the emphasis which Stout places on the position of the individual. We must, however, proceed evenhandedly when weighing the dangers of constraints for the success of ethical justification between persons.

Certainly, constraints of time and place weigh too heavily on possibilities of justification for the person to consider herself free of influence. But neither does this amount to denying the person’s ability to influence those same constraints. In accordance with our claims about the position of the individual in Part I, we can, more modestly, uphold a plasticity of vocabulary and person. After all, neither represents a hermetic, static formation, and each is susceptible to change over time.

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