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Thursday, January 12, 2006

George Lakoff Frames Progressive Morality, Part IV

Morality as Matter in Motion

In parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series, I alluded to problems related to George Lakoff’s methodology for analyzing political morality. There is an even more fundamental assumption permeating through all his work: Lakoff’s work presupposes that only the natural, material world is real. This is evident even in his theoretical use of the term "metaphor", which is a functional substitute for metaphysical terms like "concept", "idea", "principle", and even "spirit".

In Lakoff's philosophy, mental figures that govern thought and behavior emerge from our embodied interactions in the world. For instance, when we refer to certain behavioral patterns as "pure" and "upright", it imbues them with a sense of universal, higher sense of right and wrong. However, according to Lakoff, behind the curtain of this appearance is nothing more than a series of physical interactions with the natural world. We come to associate the physical states of standing straight up as preferable to those conditions where we are unable to so. We are primordially more content when our bodies are clean than when they are dirty. Thus, we unconsciously associate the figures given in language as "upright" and "pure" with those embodied conditions that promote these particular states of physical being. It is only an illusion of language that leads us to think that these behavior patterns have a disembodied moral value.

This is why Lakoff does not include the cognitve metaphors of Moral Order and Moral Essence in his ideologically preferred model of Nurturant Parent. Moral Order and Moral Essence are the fundamental illusions Lakoff seeks to undermine with his theory of Idealized Cognitive Models. The problem he is attempting to overcome is the issue of apparent moral groundlessness if moral concepts are derived from what amounts to our accidental interactions in the natural world. Morality has force in society because it is regarded as being above the circumstances of our existence.

We abide by moral principles because they are "higher", "above us", even "given from above". Our movies are full of evil characters who justify their actions on the basis that laws are nothing more than the preferences of those in power. We are fascinated by the Mafia in part because "organized crime" is only distinguished from "organized society" according to the disembodied moral valuations we make of each.

If morality is "higher" or "given from above" only because our guardians and instructors were taller when we were children, this figure is not going to have much force as we physically grow into adulthood. Without the disembodiment of this figure into a metaphysical principle or God, as Dostoevsky’s Ivan and Sartre both realized, "anything goes".

Lakoff believes he can circumvent this anarchy and relativism without recourse to divinity or metaphysics. His "metaphors" are a substitute for divine or natural law. Metaphors are derived from our bodily interactions with the world, so
"metaphorical morality is grounded in nonmetaphorical morality, that is, in forms of well-being, and that the systems of metaphors for morality as a whole is thus far from arbitrary." (p. 43)
Lakoff argues that since physical well-being is a common characteristic for all humanity and cogntive metaphors for morality are tied to this common characterististic, metaphors as the basis for a moral system are not arbitrary.
"The use of metaphorical thought and language in moral reasoning and discourse in no way impugns the metaphorical schemes involved. It does, however, serve to remind us that these are commonplace products of the human mind, not principles built into the objective structure of the universe." (p. 63)
Lakoff believes he can reduce morality to a product of human minds without reducing society to anarchy and relativism. He believes he can establish morality and standards of political justice without recourse to religion or an "objective structure of the universe" and thereby give those in the secular faction of the Democratic Party a moral vocabulary that doesn't embarrass their secular perspective.

While those in the secular faction may seize upon Lakoff's theories, they are not going to play in the mainstream once the underlying philosophy is made apparent. Cognitive Linguistics is a relatively new discipline. It may have some usefulness in explaining some cognitive phenomena, but Lakoff has pushed it beyond its field of competence by imposing his materialistic reduction of morality. Lakoff certainly isn't the first intellectual to attempt a naturalization of morality. This perspective of morality has a tradition going all the way back to the Greek hedonists, Epicurus and Aristippus.

The essence of traditional morality is its oughtness. A behavior doesn't receive its moral value according to perceived or actual results. Obviously, if a particular action has predictably or consistently bad consequences, we don't imbue it with a good moral value, but the consequences alone are not sufficient to render it good. If it were, how would we discern, apart from our personal preferences, which consequences were good and which were bad? Utilitarian ethics fall into an infinite regress.

There is a sense of ought in traditional morality. This, of course, comes from the idea of Moral Order, which Lakoff rejects. Tradition and religion regard certain moral values as transcending the individual and even the society. Our country was founded on this idea. There would have been no legitimate legal claim against George III if there wasn't a "higher law". Neither is this a relic of our national past. The judgments against the Nazis at Nuremberg would be illegitimately—and by U.S. standards, unconstitutional—ex post facto if we did not presuppose a "higher law". Without the concept and reality of higher law, our nation and its actions are reduced to being nothing but the products of power politics.

There is no ought if morality is reduced to humanity's physical well-being in the state of nature. While certain behavior patterns may be conducive to certain desired ends, it does not follow from this that either the patterns or the ends are the ones we should be pursuing. The description of means and ends is not equivalent to their prescription.

We can push this criticism even further by questioning “What is ‘humanity’?” There is no concrete reality to which I can point and call "humanity". We may want to think of it as a class defined by the likenesses shared by individual human beings, but this raises the question of how we come to know the class of humanity. Perhaps cognitive linguistics could help us to understand this psychological process, but "humanity" would share the same fate of "morality" if we stick to Lakoff's theorizing. If “humanity” is a product of the human mind, then in reality humanity is nothing more than an electro-chemical configuration of individual brains. As such, it is only a collection of disparate metaphors (brain products) by which many, but not all, brains operate. Just what conditions in our state of nature would necessitate regarding all homo sapiens as human?

If Lakoff happens to think all homo sapiens should be regarded as human, that is little more than a fortuitous coincidence with traditional morality. His theory lends philosophical support to all the historical atrocities in which some homo sapiens were regarded as less than human. While some of these atrocities have been perpetrated by both religious and philosophical moralities, at least in a debate over religious morality, we are concerned with normative ethics. There is at least a framework for saying religious racism is wrong. We don't have a normative category for wrong in Lakoff's system. He gives description in the place of prescription.

In the next part of this series, I will take a look at the problem of grounding a stable meaning in metaphors, which threatens to undermine Lakoff’s entire project.

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