We have access to words, but not to the full range of denotation and connotation.
Except we do have access...if we care to look.
Because many authors of prior generations wrote stories that promoted or mocked various social norms and fads, we can reinvent the social "wheel" by paying attention to the issues and assumptions that preoccupied those authors. Mansfield Park is an excellent example.
Mansfield Park is about propriety. In fact, Jane Austen's characters in this novel are caricatures, occupying different extremes of propriety and social acceptability. Because they are only caricatures (and therefore, undeveloped as characters), the story itself is not the important part of the novel. Rather, the plot is simply a vehicle for a discussion of different social mores.
Here's what I learned:
- Modesty is not about how people dress, or even about an attitude. It isn't even about sexual temptation. Modesty is about social honesty. It is improper to behave in a way that allows people to draw the wrong conclusions about you and your relationships. Modest dress and behavior is a matter of going out of one's way to prevent such potentially damaging miscommunication. For example, behaving flirtatiously (for either sex) is immodest, because it communicates both availability and interest in another person with whom you haven't the slightest intention of forming a connection. The possible damage can include loss of your own good reputation, hurt feelings, lost opportunities for the other person, embarrassment for mutual friends and acquaintance, and possible loss of reputation for the other person.
- Morality is not about what is and is not right to do, although those basics are an important component of morality. Morality is about doing the right things without ulterior motives. If someone does charity work for their own personal gratification or because it promotes their own reputation, that charity work (however worthy) has served to reinforce bad habits and selfish thinking in the person doing it. The person is still being immoral, regardless of the benefit their immorality has on others less fortunate. It is good to enjoy doing good things and to enjoy the fruits of such labor, so long as the personal gain is not the primary end and unworthy impulses are not fed by the behavior.
- Knowledge of right and wrong is an insufficient education. One must also be able to discern degrees of rightness or wrongness and explain why a behavior has or lacks merit. To use an example from Austen's novel, it is not enough to know that adultery is wrong. One must know that it is a vice, rather than an error and that it is an expression of an overall lack of principle and duty. To say that adultery simply disrupts a family or community, that it shows want of judgment, and that the damage to reputation lies in adultery's inherent dishonesty is a gross underestimation of the wrong done.
As we try to rebuild a functioning family and social model from the ruins we inherited, it is very tempting to stick to simple, confined explanations or right, wrong, morality, and propriety. But simple explanations (a "because I said so" approach) is like building a house on sand. We need a structural understanding of the wheels and cogs that make a successful society tick.