Research Article

Contours and Barriers: What Is It to Draw the Limits of Moral Language?

Reshef Agam-Segala1

a1 Auburn University


Does language limit the moral thoughts we can have? To answer that, I distinguish between two kinds of limits: (1) Boundaries or barriers fence things out. Identification and erection of linguistic barriers, defines, diagnoses, or places restrictions on what language can in principle grasp or be, and often involves abstraction from actual linguistic behavior. This is typically preformed by remarks I call ‘theses’; (2) Contours or outlines give real-life portrayals. Drawing the contours of a linguistic activity involves a certain attention to reality: to detail and particularity (‘Was this greeting contrived or genuine?’), and we typically draw contours by using remarks I call ‘helpers’. I examine the possibility that confusion can be diagnosed in Sabina Lovibond's attempt to apply the idea that moral language has necessary boundaries, and explain the alternative of drawing linguistic contours. I then examine Richard Rorty's position according to which the fact that we can shape our language indicates that the boundaries of language do not encompass all possible sense, and compare Rorty's discussion with Sarah Bachelard's discussion of euthanasia. My claim here is that trying to improve on the language we have might be part of drawing its contours, rather than redefining its boundaries. The discussion reveals a difference between two kinds of contour drawing, and thus between two kinds of helpers: ones that help to draw the contours of the actuality of linguistic activities, and ones that help to draw the contours of their potentiality. Finally, I argue that the value of drawing contours instead of barriers is that the former better reveal the fact that we care about our ways of making sense.

Reshef Agam-Segal is an instructor of philosophy at the University of Auburn. He received BA and MA degrees from the Hebrew University and wrote a DPhil thesis at the University of Oxford on the moral philosophy of Cora Diamond. His research focuses on figurative aspects of moral thought and language.