HXA articles

Name Morality: a basic model

What is the morality of personal names? The most efficient authority for a name is the holder, but to work with others it must harmonise with popular choices.

1096 words (5 minutes)


Your name is not your property, it is a public symbol: one of a set of distinct instances according to a common pattern. Naming is a cooperative mechanism – the intuition of personal authority or ownership of one's name is inaccurate. To understand the morality of naming, you must look at the working of the system overall, and discern the constraints that implies. For names, the resulting model is more like usufruct than owning: temporary stewardship of part of a communal resource.

Problems with ‘ownership’

What if you declare your name to be the tenth page of ‘Finnegans Wake’ followed by prostration by the caller? Is it right for you to demand others use it? What if some people start naming themselves with politico-violent references, so every usage promotes such unwanted stuff? Is it right for them to demand you use their names? The ownership intuition of names says yes: it says the owner of the name has authority to dictate its use. It is evidently faulty.

The public symbol model


Naming is a distributed informational system. Its moral structure follows from the requirements of that function: we should act in certain ways, because those ways would make naming work well (and naming is a utility we want).

Naming is informational. It replaces things with a symbols, so certain patterns and relations of features in the things can be captured in thinkable structures of symbols. This requires one important feature:

  • uniqueness – a one-to-one correspondance of things and names.

And naming is distributed. Multiple participants share information, by following a rough single common form with many variations of instance. This requires one basic feature:

  • commonality – pre-known components and rules, allowing ad hoc manufacture of conforming symbols.

Plus some enhancements:

  • handleability – the symbols are writable and speakable etc (this is where ‘Finnegans Wake’ names will be disqualified);
  • acceptability – undesirable associations or references are democratically filtered out (this is where politico-violent names will be disqualified).


You can now view this model in a more ordinary way. Does the name holder really feel better with ‘A’ than ‘B’? They may have a preference, as for a favourite colour, but one would think the dominant feeling was of being accustomed. And that points to the true important force behind this: that it would be more costly for the holder to have multiple names used by different callers. As with callers, the differences of names are negligable, but the cost is in departing from a single value. Consider the opposite alternative: everyone chooses the names for other people – like everyone making up nicknames for everyone else. But then everyone has multiple names. Callers still have to use multiple names for other people, but holders must recognise multiple names too. Any arrangement where more than one agent chooses is worse than the uniqueness constraint.

Each agent chooses their own name (in principle), but how are all these instances recognisable as names, as the same kind of thing? Names are not entirely unique: they have the same form. Communication depends on a shared infrastructure for the particularities of messages. (It is not just different bits, because you expect the same reactions to the same information.). How can this alignment be implemented? It needs a dissemination of constraint, but derived from a merging of preferences. We could have a single chooser purveying to all, but that is impractical: it would need an institutionalised centralisation. Hence the aptness of what we actually have: the looser flocking centralisation of culture: each agent gets a feel for what is OK and acts similarly; each act of compliance including a little feedback of divergence.

You might begin to roughly summarise this in a moral rationale. The benefit to the holder outweighs the cost to the caller: it costs no more to call someone ‘Albrecht’ than ‘Bill’, yet the holder feels better with theirs. But that is incomplete: the moral structure has a two-way constraint:

  • the holder chooses their name and callers must follow;
  • but the community chooses the name conventions and holders must follow those.

The uniqueness constraint leads to authority over a name naturally and efficiently residing with the holder. And the commonality constraint means that, to be understood and acceptable by others, the holders must harmonise with those others' amalgamated practice. So maybe the moral synoptic could be something like: the most efficient authority for a name is the holder, and to work with others it must harmonise with popular choices. And to restate the basis: we should act in these ways because they make naming work well, and naming is a utility we want.

Accompanying points

Extras attached to names, like titles, honorifics, ranks, and so forth are even more readily seen as not covered by an ‘owner’ morality. They are classification labels, of general features – they only mean something in their not being individualy chosen. Individuals carry the label correctly as far as they correctly meet its criteria, and that is externally imposed; the labels do not identify individuals and individual preference has no bearing.

People can choose their name, so can they set the pronounciation? No: an orthography is part of the community conventions – pronounciation is not an instance variability, at least not in itself. Anyone insisting on a pronunciation of their name against its appearance is claiming an authority not implied by the system. If a holder wants a name with a different sound, they can, and should, choose the appropriate spelling that produces it. Though that is not to say the current convention is absolute: you might ask for your choice, and if others agree, the convention might shift; but on the other hand, those being asked have no obligation to comply.

Do names not seem somehow like voodoo dolls, and that contortion of a name hurts the individual by it, and thus infringes some name right? No, it is not really about names. A name-mangling insult is primarily a compressed form of saying ‘(that person) is (bad)’. People do not have proprietorial control over what others say about them. If what is said is wrong, it is wrong factually and/or for some other moral reason, not because it is against the wishes of the individual regarding their name. Name-mangling is a compaction of two misdeeds: the misspelling is bad by the public symbol model above; and the calumny is bad for other, non-name, reasons. Even though this form confuses both, there are two separate aspects to be understood.


DC: {
   title: "Name Morality: a basic model",
   creator: "Harrison Ainsworth",

   date: "2019-06-02",

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