Zak: I went down to see the Peiraieus yesterday with Glaucon son of Ariston.
Tim: Who? You saw what?
Zak: Not much. There were some rocks that used to be a building I think. I guess punctuality is kind of important when it comes to attending sacred rites.
Zak: Relatively speaking I wasn’t late. I’ve seen what time your family shows up to church on Sundays. Then again, not all sacred rituals are the same.
Tim: How’s that?
Zak: I mean… things would be different if I’d shown up late to your sister’s wedding…
Tim: You mean your wedding?
Zak: Do you know the legal ramifications of someone saying ‘I do’ with no one else at the alter?
Tim: Wait, are you referring to ancient Greece?
Zak: But you do find it curious then.
Zak: The way context affects language. The way ‘do’ doesn’t mean the same thing in the restroom as it would at an alter…
Tim: Oh, now I see where this is going. Before—
Zak: —An unfortunate phrase. At least in this context. Anyway, my point is this: language is at once the omni-subsuming stage where all moral dramas take place and also the most relative, contextually-dependent instrument available to human use. It couldn’t be more relative if it were a series of very expensive slits cut into a blank canvas. Nothing could be more morally involved than the decision to say ‘I do’ at the alter, but saying it in the bathroom is only embarrassing.
Tim: Point taken. So morality is relative?
Zak: Not at all! Life is guided by a bus driver who’s drunk himself silly, but he knows exactly where he’s going.
Tim: I’m confused. Isn’t that a paradox?
Zak: Life’s full of paradoxes.
Tim: But you usually aren’t. You’ve got a trick up your sleeve.
Zak: I do… I do… but like a good chess player, I’m saving it for later.
At this point, the conversation lingered as the participants took a moment to appreciate the exquisitely subtle use of foreshadow on the part of the author.
Tim: Okay, then riddle me this. How does one define the Good in relation to linguistic arbitration?
Zak: Go on.
Zak: Wohoo, wohoo, wohoo. Don’t get too excited.
Tim: I only mean from a semiotic—
Zak: Bless you! Here’s a tissue.
Tim: Well what words can I use then?
Zak: Most of them. I just happen to know you really wanted to say “semiotic” for no good reason.
Tim: I guess that’s fair.
Zak: As you were saying, language consists in a series of contrasting sounds. (We like to call those sounds “words” where I come from.)
Tim: Fine. And these different words have meaning in relation to other words.
Zak: Sure. Like the word “loquacious” or “pedantic”…
Tim: Yeah, or “laconic” or “philistine” or “Podsnappery”…
Zak: And not to be overtly patronizing, but how exactly do all these words “have meaning in relation to other words”?
Tim: Well they contrast with them.
Zak: In the sense that, if I looked up “loquacious” in the dictionary, right beside your picture I’d see a string of other words: perhaps “using large, unnecessary vocabulary, long since rendered obsolete in the post-Hemingway age. Antonyms: laconic.”
Tim: Exactly. Words having meaning relative to other words.
Zak: And your question is?
Tim: My question is what constitutes the Good when it comes to linguistic decisions? Which word does the Just man choose between those we’ve just cited?
Zak: Well it depends on context.
Tim: Walked right into that one. But suppose the context is known.
Zak: But it isn’t known. What’s that poetic mind of yours good for if you only use it to obsess about bow ties?
Tim: Fine… The context… Suppose you showed up late to some kind of sacred ritual…
Zak: What kind of ritual?
Tim: An ancient Roman sacrifice.
Zak: Delicious. What’s on the table?
Tim: A two-year-old Heifer.
Zak: Nothing but the finest. The gods must be huffing away on their lard fumes.
Tim: But you missed the whole thing. The procession, the liver examination, the anal retentive… well… everything.
Zak: An inauspicious beginning. So what’s the language decision?
Tim: The priest decides to cut you some slake in the form of a nice juicy rib—heifers have ribs, right?
Zak: It’s a good thing you’re a humanist.
Tim: Anyway, there’s an old lady there who’s just appalled at the whole thing. She’s been complaining the whole time that you, the priest and the heifer were all going to tick off the divinities.
Tim: When everyone starts to dig in she’s all, “so how’s the meat, need some tardy sauce?” or something like that. How does the Just man respond?
Zak: Well how is the meat?
Tim: What do you mean? It’s fine, or whatever.
Zak: Spoken like a just man.
Tim: So the Just man just says “it’s fine?” But why? How does he make that decision?
Zak: I presume he makes it the same way one makes any moral decision. He weighs all possible outcomes and chooses the one that’s most favorable.
Tim: So the one that benefits the most people to the greatest extent?
Zak: If you like, I suppose.
Tim: But how the heck is he supposed to know that? What if saying the meat is fine will throw the crazy lady into a fit of righteous indignation in which she sets fire to the temple—
Zak: Stone doesn’t burn. It’s a good thing you’re a humanist.
Tim: Or replying, “it’s terrible. My appetite is spoiled by profound guilt.” would lead her to depression.
Zak: Then you better not say that.
Tim: But how are you supposed to know?
Zak: Tim. Morality is just like chess.
Tim: I can’t play chess to save my life and you know it.
Zak: I’ll have to think about how the Just man would respond to that statement. In the meantime, let me explain a few things to you. Life is about anticipation. The whole assumption that life has any meaning at all presupposes a certain human capacity to anticipate the future. Chess is only interesting if you can anticipate your opponent’s moves to a certain extent. In other word, the Just man would respond to the lady by making a carefully reasoned calculation of the densely interrelated chain of causality that would follow from each possible linguistic choice.
Tim: And if he miscalculates? Do you mean to suggest that all bad chess players are reprobates?
Zak: Not at all.
Tim: What then? You’re on very thin ice.
Zak: We needn’t presume that morality as an experience and morality as an object are necessarily one in the same thing. It’s perfectly conceivable that the criteria by which we may, at least in theory, objectively evaluate a moral action are independent of those by which we undergo moral experience. The Just Man is someone who makes decisions that turn out to effect the greatest possible Good, but he may just as well do so without playing chess like a boss, or at least, without doing so presciently. He might not consciously perform any kind of “felicific calculus.”
Tim: Bless you.
Zak: Frankly, how he comes to those decisions is none of our business. It’s enough that he approaches it rationally and thoughtfully.
Zak: What’s that look on your face?
Zak: Come on. You couldn’t be smugger if you’d sold a solid grey canvas for a million dollars.