Bart Wilson  

Language and Social Justice

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Jason Brennan argues that language can be used as an example by which we can judge the moral consequences of a spontaneous order. His argument is to suppose that a language "through no fault of their own" results in some speakers of a language being poorer than others. Since we can't control the language that we speak, the spontaneous order of language is morally blameable.

The tacit assumption is that language constrains how we think and therefore how we act. It is also the assumption in the paper that Brennan links to, which is critiqued by linguists here and here. What if, as Steven Pinker argues in The Stuff of Thought, how we act also determines how we speak, our language? Then language is no longer a constraint on our thinking. The relationship between how we act and how we speak and think is bi-directional. Yes, the habits of language are habits, but our minds are not constrained by the habits of language so that we can pinpoint language as morally blameworthy. The spontaneous order of an institution does not predetermine our thinking any more than the spontaneous order of the mind predetermines our external institutions. Both are plastic, to varying degrees, and feedback on each other.


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Andrew_FL writes:

Thought must precede language, it doesn't make sense to say language determines thought.

Eli writes:

That 40% ownership is comprised partly of people own guns because other people own guns. They're not receiving any value from guns being available, they're just shielding themselves from the cost of other people's guns.

Jason Brennan writes:

"Blameable" is not quite the right word here. What I mean is that the language could turn out to have bad consequences from a moral point of view. And, if so, then all things equal we would have grounds for wanting to change languages, if we can.

Troy Camplin writes:

He is wrong about this: each of us CAN control the language that each of us speaks, even if each of us cannot control the language around us. We can participate in a variety of language-influencing institutions (like literature, writing classes, speech classes, etc.), each of which in turn affects the language order.

Yes, language does affect the moral order -- but morals also affect the language order. It works both ways.

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