Ethics After Babel uses the biblical story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) as a metaphor for talking about the cacophony of various moral languages. This biblical image serves Stout well in his descriptions of the moral diversity of contemporary society. Contemporary moral philosophers, politicians, and theologians tend to use moral language and privileged ethical codes that are particular to their experience and their institutions. Such conversations often exclude those who do not have access to this language or those who have access to it but are confused by it. Thus, a liberal or conservative politician who speaks about justice will be using a moral language very different from that of a biblical theologian who speaks about justice. The politician will describe justice as retribution and punishment, while the theologian will describe justice as fairness and equity.
Stout cannily argues that the lack of a shared moral language does not mean that we should give up on searching for moral truths in our society. Although he disagrees with them in various ways, Stout goes back to Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther King, Jr., to demonstrate the ways that they were able to use various moral languages to make their points. For example, in his “I Have a Dream” speech (1963), King wove biblical language about a promised land of liberty and the language of freedom and equality from the Declaration of Independence into a pattern that stressed America’s moral dilemma and promise.
Following Augustine, Stout contends that we need to distribute our loves justly rather than making idols out of external objects. Unjust love extends value to objects in improper proportion. The good of human life can be achieved by distributing our love in proper proportions to objects worthy of our love. Such virtue, combined with the social practices of justice—including people of all races, genders, and religions—offers a vision of society in which each person’s or group’s moral language makes a difference. Stout strongly argues that the diversity of moral languages in contemporary society need not be a completely negative phenomenon but may instead be a fruitful and promising indication of the moral strengths of our society.