Text theory may be relevant to moral philosophy insofar as moral acts may be regarded as texts to be read or interpreted. The textuality of moral acts may be defined by their structural cohesion and coherence,1 by their ability to be "read" or interpreted, and by their relations to other texts (their intertextuality or transtextuality).
The textuality of moral acts may have syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic dimensions. The syntactic dimension(s) of a moral act may be based on its "grammaticality" (its conformity to the formation rules specified by the moral "language"). The semantic dimension(s) of a moral act may be based on its meaningfulness or capacity to signify perceptions, thoughts, and feelings, as determined by its conformity to specified rules of meaning and signification. The pragmatic dimension(s) of a moral act may be based on its usefulness, adaptability, instrumentality, or functionality, as determined by the purposes and functions for which it is used, and by the moral (sociocultural, linguistic, or discursive) context in which it occurs.
Moral acts may belong to lexical and semantic fields (or domains) that provide linguistic, discursive, and situational contexts for their interpretation. The meaning of moral acts may be determined not only by their form and content, but also by their moral (sociocultural, historical, and psychological) contexts and subtexts.
The meaning or signification of moral acts may be determined not only by the intentions of their "author(s)," but also by their semantic content, their situational and interpretive context(s), and the accompanying interpretive process in which the reader(s) or audience participate(s). The "readers" or interpreters of a moral act may include all those individuals to whom the act is presented as a linguistic (sociocultural, psychological, or moral) text and all those individuals for whom the act is relevant. The authorial intentions behind or underlying a moral act may be part of the author's motivations for performing that act.
The interpretive or hermeneutic process may be influenced by the reader's preconceptions regarding the author's aims or intentions, although those preconceptions may in some cases be misleading. Accurate, well-placed, and well-founded preconceptions on the part of the reader may, in some cases, facilitate his/her understanding of the author's intentions, but inaccurate, misplaced, and baseless preconceptions may lead to his/her misunderstanding of those intentions.2
The intended meaning of a text may also be different from the actual meaning of that text, and the actual meaning of the text may depend on the temporal, sociocultural, and interpretive context.
Textual analysis may include study of the rhetoric, stylistics, semantics, pragmatics, ideology, sociolinguistics, and psycholinguistics of a text (speech-act, linguistic sign, sign system, or mode of discourse). Textual analysis may also include study of the discursive strategies and communicative competence of a text, as well as study of the text's linguistic (discursive, sociocultural, or historical) context, and the text's relations to other texts.
Any text may be subject to overreadings (assignments to the text of meanings that are not actually expressed or implied by the text), underreadings (instances of failure to recognize meanings that are actually expressed or implied by the text), and misreadings (misrepresentations of meanings that are actually expressed or implied by the text).3
Moral acts as texts may be dialogic interactions4 between "authors" and "readers," and between texts and other texts (acts, events, sign systems, or fields of interpretation, insofar as they are also texts). The moral meaning of any particular act or text may always be further interpreted in light of the contribution to its meaning by other acts or texts.
A text may exhibit both an internal and external dialogism. It may engage in dialogue with itself, as well as with other texts.5
The interpretation of moral acts may include examination of not only their actual meaning(s), but also their potential meaning(s). A single moral act may have multiple levels of actual and potential meaning. Interpretation of a moral act may thus entail study or clarification of the conditions that made that particular act possible.
Since a moral act or text may always be further interpreted in light of other acts or texts, no interpretation can be called final or definitive. Hermeneutics as a process of textual understanding is never finalizable.6
The relation between moral philosophy and text theory may be further illuminated by examining the relation between ethics and language. Just as there is a language of ethics, there is an ethics of language. Just as moral philosophy may illuminate text theory, text theory may illuminate moral philosophy. Moral understanding may be based on an ability to correctly "read" or interpret the meaning of moral intentions, principles, acts, etc. and their respective outcomes. Moral misunderstanding may similarly be based on an inability or failure to correctly "read" the meaning of moral intentions, principles, acts, etc.
A given reader may read a text repeatedly, and yet read that text in a slightly different way each time she returns to it. The reader may experience the text as in some way changed (perhaps in the light of her own formative experiences in the interim) with each subsequent reading. The reader may herself be changed in some way by each subsequent reading of that text.
1M.A.K. Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan, Cohesion in English (Hong Kong: Longman Group Ltd., 1976), p. 22.
2Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), p. 263.
3H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 239.
4Mikhail Bakhtin, "Discourse in the Novel," in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 279.
5Ibid. p. 282.
6Leslie A. Baxter, Voicing Relationships: A Dialogic Perspective (Los Angeles: Sage, 2011), p. 26.