Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

The Ethics of Language

Posted Jan 12, 2013 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments

Ethics, as I understand it, is a question: a question about what we should do and who we should become.  We answer these questions in language and action, but we never answer them alone.   In fact, if we are really alone, we do what we think is right, considering the world we think we live in.  The isolated person is always a righteous person; because they have no way of knowing whether what they think is right is actually right.

Ethics is a question we cannot ask of ourselves.  True, we may engage in an inner dialogue, wondering what we should do or who we should be, but this inner dialogue is dependent on an external dialogue where someone or something has questioned us.  A person who has engaged in ethics is a person who has been questioned.

All of this occurs, or does not occur, of course, in language.  Language: what a mystery!  Participating in it makes us human.  We learn by listening. Our humanity depends on listening before speaking.  We are fundamentally dialogical: existing in the cadence of questions and answers.  This human rhythm is what makes life worthwhile.

We yearn for the questioner.  What do you think about this?  What do you think about that?  I remember my father who wanted to die because no one asked him for his opinion.   Someday, no one will ask me.  If no one asks, what is there is say?   Nothing.

To participate requires the stranger—the one who is different and yet curious. “What do you think about this?”  This is the question that stimulates the soul.  It is the fundamental ethical question that keeps us alive—that invites us to participate in the dynamics of language.

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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

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