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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

George Lakoff Frames Progressive Morality: Part III

The Mamas and the Papas

In the first part of this series I introduced the Progressive’s problem with discussing morality in public. In the second part, I took a brief look at the way George Lakoff is attempting to address this problem. In this installment, I will take a closer look at the cognitive models Lakoff gives for progressive (liberal) and conservative morality.

According to Lakoff, liberal political morality is based on the conceptual model of a Nurturant Parent and conservative morality on the Strict Father model. Note that the descriptor for the liberal model is gender-neutral in contrast to the conservative's Strict Father, which is identified through the male parent. Even here we see the intrusion of political tropes in an allegedly neutral analysis of moral concepts. This is a thinly disguised ideological valuation that is already exalting egalitarianism over a male-dominated patriarchy. Even this step in Lakoff's analysis seems informed by his political ideology and not the allegedly neutral methods of his discipline.

Nurturant Parent models are characterized by the assumption
"that children learn through their attachments to their parent--which are, ideally, secure and loving attachments." (Moral Politics, p. 110)
That is a glowing description of an ideal family, but if we transpose "parent" to "government" and "child" to "citizen", as the Nation As Family metaphor suggests, it becomes a description of the worst kind of totalitarianism. Do we really want a State in which the citizens learn from their attachments to the government, even if those attachments are secure and loving?

Certainly, Lakoff would argue that there isn't a necessary one-to-one correspondence of features between his conceptual model and its political application, but this begs the question: just how are we to determine which features of the model will be be applied in any given situation? Because he fails prove an empirical mechanism for these correspondences, his models reduce to little more than a personal observation and preference about figures of speech in political discourse. As interesting as this may be, it does not provide any scientific justification for saying the models determine the behavior, unconsciously or otherwise. We will see later that Lakoff admits in some cases the subject can override his preferred model and apply the opposite in certain situations, which undermines his procrustean theorizing.

It is important to keep these issues in mind as you look at the structure of the conceptual models. According to Lakoff, the conceptual models consist in the following governing metaphors, which he ranks in order of priority to the system:


Nurturant ParentStrict Father
• Morality as Nurturance• Moral Strength
• Morality as Empathy • Moral Authority
• Moral Self-Nurturance • Moral Order
• Morality as the Nurturance of Social Ties • Moral Boundaries
• Morality as Self-Development• Moral Essence
• Morality as Happiness• Moral Wholeness
• Morality as Fair Distribution• Moral Purity
• Moral Growth • Moral Health
• Moral Strength • Moral Self-Interest
• Retribution and Restitution • Morality As Nurturance
• Moral Boundaries
• Moral Authority

The priority ranking of these governing metaphors is highly significant. Strict Fathers are nurturing, in a sense, but only as nurture is allowed within a system of moral strength and purity. Nurturant Parents value moral strength, boundaries, and moral authority, but only as these are allowed within a system that always nurtures empathetically. The hierarchical ranking means that similar terms have dissimilar meanings. One example will suffice.

As you see in the chart, the third highest priority in the Nurturant Parent model is Self- Nurturance and the second to lowest priority in Strict Father is Self-Interest. In the explanatory passages, Lakoff removes Liberal Self-Interest from the prioritization preferring Self-Nurturance saying,
"To someone who does not comprehend Nurturant Parent morality, Morality As Self-Nurturance, Happiness, and Self-Development might be confused with Moral Self-Interest...If one is serving the cause of nurturance...it is fine to seek one's self-interest". (p. 129-130)
On the other hand, conservative Self-Interest is "a metaphorical version of an economic idea. It is a folk version of Adam Smith's economics: If each person seeks to maximize his own wealth, then by an invisibile hand, the wealth of all will be maximized." Lakoff reinforces the economic aspect of this governing metaphor:

The link between Moral Self-Interest and free-market economics has, of course,
not been lost on advocates of Strict Father morality. Controlled-market
economies, whether socialist or communist, impede the pursuit of financial
self-interest. For this reason, advocates of Strict Father
morality have seen socialism and communism as immoral. Not just impractical, but
immoral. [Emphasis mine] (p. 94)
From a conservative perspective, this is an outrageous fallacy of emphasis. The judgment of bad and good involved in Adam Smith's economics is not discerned according to whether an action impedes or enables the pursuit of financial self-interest. Lakoff is either confused or deliberately deceiving his readers. Smith argued that by allowing natural liberty to take its course we would improve the quality of life of the entire society. Good commerce leads to good government, which confers liberty and security to the whole community.

After all, according to Adam Smith, "no society can surely be flourishing and happy of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable." It's not that impeding the pursuit of financial self-interest is wrong in itself; it's that controlled economies result in a loss of liberty, security, and quality of life for everyone except the people controlling the economy. This is an evil to be avoided.

To be fair, Lakoff probably is confused, being blinded by his own worldview. Notice that Moral Order does not even exist in the Nurturant Parent conceptual structure. Lakoff, justifiably, includes Moral Order as an aspect of Strict Father (Conservative) morality. However, he can't even get two sentences into describing it without discrediting the idea.
"This [Moral Order] metaphor is based on a folk theory of the natural order." (p. 81)
"Folk theory" is Lakoff's code-word for the way the unenlightened masses think, although it even applies to the thought of intelligent people who maintain theories that are opposed to his. It is just this "folk" idea of a natural order that Lakoff cannot allow in his understanding of free-market economies, lest conservative Self-Interest start to look like Social Nurturance. It is only pure ideological prejudice that leads one to interpret the folk understanding of Wealth of Nations as just so much rhetoric to justify greedy self-interest.

We can see just how strained—or flexible—Lakoff's analysis is by taking a brief look at the section The Resentment Toward "Illegitimate" Authority (p. 78 - 80). This resentment is an aspect of Strict Father morality. Are Strict Father family units uniquely characterized by resentment toward "illegitimate" authority, or does Lakoff just need to say this about Strict Fathers in order to keep his analysis from falling apart? Are Nurturant Parents ever accepting of "illegitimate" authority? Why does Lakoff need to put "illegitimate" in quotes if he isn't anticipating the conservative political value of limited government in this allegedly neutral analysis about moral categories?

We have in this passage on resentment clear evidence that Lakoff has failed to distinguish between his presumably neutral ICM analysis and his personal preference for collectivist/egalitarian politics. This passage is under Part II "Moral Conceptual Systems", not "From Family-Based Morality to Politics" (Part III) or "Who's Right and How Can You Tell" (Part VI). How can we avoid the conclusion that Lakoff is stacking the deck toward his political conclusions in the way he's defining his models? He fails to establish a criterion of legitimacy at this crucial point. Lack of clarity on this point causes his argument to lack cogency.

Without the scare quotes, the Strict Father model is supposed to be differentiated from the Nurturant Parent model by its hostility to illegitimate authority. If this does in fact distinguish the two models, then Nurturant Parent types are either immoral or stupid. We should all be hostile to illegitimate authority. Of course, this begs the perennial question of who has the authority to define the criteria of legitimacy.

Obviously, this characteristic doesn't belong in the preliminary part of the analysis and Lakoff has only inserted it attempting to shore up a weakness in the foundation of his models. It is incongruent to model the political value of limited government according to a family dynamic. If we transposed limited government to a family dynamic it ought to be described as a system wherein the children choose those parents who promise the least interference, but this description could hardly qualify under Strict Father morality!

Lakoff has to change constantly his frame of reference to force conservative principles into his family modeling scheme. When does the Strict Father model apply to the child's (citizen's) perspective in the Nation As Family metaphor? When does it apply to the Father's (government's) perspective? Is the cognitive model the same whether the policy is social or economic?

Given what Lakoff has said about the Strict Father's valuation of Moral Authority and Moral Order, it wouldn't be hard to describe a totalitarian regime—communist, fascist, or socialist—in terms of this model. Since his analysis of Self-Interest is suspect to begin with and is a low priority in his own modeling, one could easily make the case that since it is universally right (according to a Moral Order metaphor) to distribute wealth equally, then those leaders who follow this program have the Moral Authority to do so all within proper Moral Boundaries. If communist leaders are using Nurturant Parent rhetoric, it does not prevent us from analyzying their actual behavior in terms of the opposite model.

In the past, it was understood that there are different spheres of authority. The family has a kind of authority that is unique to that institution. The church has another. The state has still another. Lakoff's Nation as Family modeling comes from an ideology that has eroded the legitimate boundaries of these spheres. Without a justification for natural moral order, this is inevitable within the Progressive worldview, which will take up the next part of this analysis.

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