The metaphorical frames of morality.

In their tome Philosophy In The Flesh, which is about applying insights about metaphors to philosophical concepts and philosophical ideologies, Lakoff and Johnson present a cognitive account of a number of philosophical concepts, including causality, time, mind, self, and morality. The latter is what interests me in this entry.

For those who have not read my entries on metaphors so far, here is a brief explanation of the theory. Complex concepts are almost entirely understood in terms of simpler concepts through a process known as conceptual framing. For example, we understand time as (amongst many other metaphors) money: we have, lose, spend, save and waste time, we lend people our time (but we can’t get it back), and so on. Like most metaphors, this is such an ingrained framework of our understanding that we rarely think of it as metaphorical at all. And yet it profoundly affects people’s behavior.

Metaphors are ultimately based on actual direct physical or sensory experience. We associate affection with warmth because of the experience of parental affection correlated with the warmth of their bodies, and that connection is repeated over and over again in our neural network until it becomes fixed. We universally identify greater quantities as being “up” and lesser quantities as being “down” because greater piles of goods are generally “up.” More complex metaphors are composed of simpler ones (e.g. morality as health + good health as up = good as up, evil as down).

The authors identify a number of metaphors that we use to make sense of morality and talk about it coherently. The two most important ones are those of moral strength and moral nurturance. They also identify two fundamental models of morality which are both related to the family structure (I will explain these two models after I explain the metaphors).

* Moral strength is the ability to act out on what we know is moral despite our hedonistic weaknesses (this metaphor presumes that hedonism is evil and self-denial is good). It holds that evil is a force, whether internal or external, and that morality is the strength we need to resist this force through self-control.
* Moral nurturance involves caring for others and their material and psychological needs. Self-nurturance is seen as akin to healthy self-interest.
* Moral authority refers to the demand of obedience to orders or precepts. Here the authors divide moral authority in two different conceptions, “legitimate authority” (that parents deserve to be obeyed when they fulfill their duties to their children) and “absolute authority” (that obedience must be unquestioned and complete).
* Moral empathy refers to the capacity to understand how other people feel and why they act.
* Moral essence refers to the belief in a person having a good or evil “character,” and to evil being a character defect which is part of the nature of that individual.
* Morality as health refers to the contagion model of evil as a disease or plague.
* Moral purity refers to evil as a corruption that must be purged, especially when brought about by the body against the will.
* Moral bounds refers to limits on freedom, such as human rights or laws in general.
* Moral order refers to the hierarchy of authority which, as developed in Christian thought, goes something like this: God>men>women>children>nature. This hierarchy is seen as part of the natural order.
* Moral accounting is the framework through which we speak of “paying you back,” “returning the favor,” and other metaphors based around debt (if you do a good action to me, I am in debt to you for a similar action). It also incorporates the many notions of fairness.

Lakoff and Johnson identify two fundamental moral frameworks, which they call the Strict Father Family Morality (which I will call Strict Father model) and the Nurturant Parent Family Morality (which I will call Nurturant Parent model). In these frameworks, the family is a metaphor for society as a whole, parents are a metaphor for authority figures, and children are a metaphor for the average citizen.

Now, before you accuse the authors of being elitist, note that they are talking about metaphors used in our language and are not literally saying that the average citizen should be bound to obey authority as children with their parents. Lakoff is a liberal, so we know he at least pays lip service to moral autonomy (I don’t think liberals seriously believe in moral autonomy, but that’s another matter entirely).

So first let me quote from Philosophy In The Flesh on the Strict Father model:

It is a model of the family geared toward developing strong, morally upright children who are capable of facing the world’s threats and evils… As you would expect, it gives top priority to the metaphors of Moral Authority, Moral Strength, and Moral Order… Moral Empathy and Moral Nurturance have a place in this family morality, but they are always subservient to the primary goal of developing moral strength and recognizing legitimate moral authority.

The metaphors are transposed to a family model, where moral nurturance refers to providing for children and raising children so they can take their place in the adult world, and moral strength (discipline, faith, obedience) is what children must be taught in order to become mature individuals. In the Strict Father model, moral strength is the end and moral nurturance is the means (as opposed to the Nurturant Parent model, which is the other way around): children must only be provided for as long as they learn discipline and obedience.

The emphasis on the evils surrounding us, the need to be strong to fight them, and the absolute necessity of being on the “right side” (i.e. the side of moral authority) is complementary to the Manichean worldview. In practice the two are often indistinguishable, as in-groups (led by the moral authority) need enemies to maintain cohesion, and weakness of the flesh or of the will can always be personified in all sorts of ways (the traditional target has been women, but nowadays there is a plethora of possibilities, including liberals, homosexuals, drug users, POC, and so on).

The authors identify the Strict Father model with conservatives in general, as well as most sects of Christianity (with God as absolute moral authority), and Kantian Universal Reason (with Reason with a capital R taking the role of absolute moral authority). To this I would add that ultra-rational ideologies in general would fit this category very well.

Now for the Nurturant Parent model:

The dominant metaphor is Morality is Nurturance. Nurturance is seen as the basis for all moral interactions within the family. Moral Empathy is also given special emphasis as a necessary condition for appropriate caring for other family members… Moral Authority is subservient to, and is legitimized by, the parents’ nurturant character and behavior. The metaphor of Moral Order plays little or no role in this model. Moral Strength is important, but it is understood relative to the obligation of the nurturant parent to be morally strong and to exercise that strength in protecting and caring for the children. It is part of the responsibility of nurturance to develop moral strength in the child.

As I pointed out before, the relation between the metaphors is reversed: in this view, moral strength is the means by which moral nurturance may be achieved. This is classified as liberal thought. Utilitarianism, with its emphasis on the common good, is also considered an instance of this model, although on this point I think the authors are dead wrong insofar as utilitarianism can be just as calculating and pitiless (e.g. supportive of human sacrifice and human misery) of a moral system as any Strict Father instantiations you can come up with.

Now, there are certain things that are obviously wrong in their account of these two models. As I pointed out, Lakoff is a liberal and therefore he has a rather rosy view of his own side of the (arbitrary) divide. For example, radical feminists would laugh at the belief that liberals do not believe in a moral hierarchy where men have power over women, because that’s precisely what gender is. Radical environmentalists will likewise be befuddled by the proposition that liberals do not believe that humans should have power over nature. Obviously liberals still believe in gender and ecocide, they’re just nicer about it.

But that’s a relatively small detail compared to the main issue I have with this whole Strict Father/Nurturant Parent dichotomy, which is its incompleteness. The authors do accept that there are other alternatives, but call them pathological:

The permissive family is what Lakoff calls a “pathological” form of the nurturant parent family, since it mistakenly thinks that letting the children do whatever they please is an appropriate form of nurturance.

The examples given are ethical egoism and existentialism. Far from me to stand in the way of anyone mocking ethical egoism, even if he is a liberal, so have at it. But this is still far from complete.

What all the models discussed by Lakoff and Johnson have in common is that they all assume the validity of pedagogy. The Strict Father model assumes the validity of “moral strength”-based pedagogy. The Nurturant Parent model assumes the validity of “moral nurturance”-based pedagogy. The Permissive model assumes the validity of “laissez-faire” pedagogy. What is missing is an explicitly anti-pedagogy model.

Because the metaphors are based on family models, it is therefore relevant to bring anti-pedagogical ideas to the table. The two I am most familiar with are the works of Alice Miller (for those of you unfamiliar with Alice Miller’s work, I recommend entries by Arthur Silber or Daniel Mackler’s articles on parenting), and Summerhill School (founded by A.S. Neill and explained in his wonderful book Summerhill School). Both point to a better life for children away from the family structure, away from the manipulation and poison we call “child-raising,” and towards children able to actually flourish, not just grow up, in full possession of their freedom. Both point to the fact that we need to tailor society to the child, not the child to society, if we ever hope to have a generation of healthy, relatively psychologically undamaged individuals. Perhaps most importantly, both show us that what children need is not discipline, or love, but listening and understanding: that you must be on the side of the child (a concept which is of high importance for both Alice Miller and A.S. Neill).

To quote Alice Miller’s basic position on pedagogy:

In contrast to generally accepted beliefs and to the horror of pedagogues, I cannot attribute any positive significance to the word pedagogy. I see it as self-defense on the part of adults, as manipulation deriving from their own lack of freedom and their insecurity, which I can certainly understand, although I cannot overlook the inherent dangers. I can also understand why criminals are sent to prison, but I cannot see that deprivation of freedom and prison life, which is geared wholly to conformity, subordination, and submissiveness, can really contribute to the betterment, i.e., the development, of the prisoner. There is in the word pedagogy the suggestion of certain goals that the charge is meant to achieve — and this limits his or her possibilities for development from the start.

A.S. Neill, writing about being on the side of the child:

That night [Homer Lane] showed me the solution that the only way was to be, as he phrased it, ´on the side of the child´. It meant abolishing all punishments and fear and external discipline, it meant trusting children to grow in their own way without any pressure from outside, save that of communal self-government. It meant putting learning in its place – below living.

A.S. Neill’s conclusions are not blind ideological faith or idealistic delusion: they are the end point of running a free school for more than forty years and observing the day-by-day results.

This provides an alternate metaphor to the three pedagogy-based models Lakoff and Johnson have listed. So what I want to propose, based on this new metaphor, is an alternate model which I will call Mutual Care Morality.

A Mutual Care community is designed to permit children to fully exercise their freedom without impeding other children’s freedom. It is based on the principle that the only sane way to help children flourish is to design systems that accommodate their natural needs, instead of family and school structures that are made to force children to conform to them. As such, it does not fit the description of the “permissive family” because it is not a family (i.e. it is not centered around an authority figure who has the “right” to be obeyed based on accident of birth) and it is not permissive, in that children, like adults, naturally seek to curb each other’s aggression.

The two core moral metaphors in the Mutual Care model are moral accounting and moral democracy. Moral accounting, again, incorporates notions of fairness, and the widespread concept of compensation for good deeds and repayment for bad deeds. It is dubious that we could talk about any morality at all without invoking this metaphor constantly, but it takes more importance in this model than in others.

The other metaphor, moral democracy, is not one described by Lakoff and Johnson, but I think it is one which is probably prevalent in self-governing systems. In a system where people share the same general values and interests, democracy can do what it’s supposed to do: to encourage debate and resolve issues through the interplay of perspectives. The formation of rules is not an individual endeavor imposed on the collective (as in moral authority), or the endeavor of one class using rules as a weapon against other classes (as in capital-democracy), but a collective endeavor itself.

The pro-pedagogy, pro-schooling view is based on the premise that children are not fully formed human beings (that they are of lower “intelligence”), that they are deficient in morality (that they are “born depraved“), and that therefore they must be subject to moral authority. This of course is the same argument used to justify God/Universal Reason/the State, and all those other important words that start with capital letters, as moral authorities over the average person.

It is difficult to connect the Mutual Care model to the moral metaphors, because there’s no pedagogy and therefore no explicit goal, no enforced conformity, beyond supporting the child’s development and material well-being. A mentally healthy and (relatively) mentally free child may or may not have more empathy or be morally stronger, but that’s not the objective. To set as policy or moral principle any “objective” for what a child’s life should be is a fundamental attack against the human rights of children.

But we may want to use the model as a springboard to question those metaphors as well, such as that of moral authority. The problem is that the family models are inherently authoritarian: no child can rebel against eir parents, because in a family structure the child’s freedom and livelihood depends on the support ey gets from eir parents. From that perspective, the only thing the child can rebel against is emself or other children. Therefore the radical standpoint, concentrating on examining and criticizing institutions, not individuals, stands in profound opposition to the family metaphor. This is why radical morality cannot be family-based, but must be based on Mutual Care. A drastically different view of society and hierarchies must be met with a drastically different view of ethics. A.S. Neill on the connection between the family model and authoritarianism:

[N]o child can make its school self-government a father-figure. I say that the future success of the world will come from the rejection of the father, the crowd leader. Most people accept father and mother, meaning that the great majority joins the Establishment, the anti-progress and usually anti-life [anti-vitality] majority.

As an extension of this problem, both family models propose individualistic solutions to collective problems. The Strict Father model proposes fighting against the ego as a solution to evil and the Nurturant Parent model proposes nurturance of the individual as the recipe for good character. These solutions are flawed, and as a result the metaphors fail to propose a sound basis for evaluating morality. The Mutual Care model is a morality directed against society and pushes moral criticism outwards, from the individual to institutions and society itself.

The authors are somewhat deluded on that point: they acknowledge the existence of numerous social influences but claim that “all of these get filtered through the child’s family morality.” There are a lot of dubious assumptions here: for one, that social influences will never reach the child in self-contained forms and that the child will, no matter the age, be able to analyze content from the perspective of their indoctrination. I’ve used the example of gender before to disprove this sort of belief: again, the fact that families who try to raise their children without gender always fail because of social influences demonstrates clearly that they are not just “filtered.” Same for race, intelligence, status, marriage, and so on. What family, except the most obsessive, abusive family, can “filter” indoctrination based on these constructs? As far as I know, none.

In describing the Nurturing Parent model, the authors display an authoritarian streak. I think Alice Miller would have a field day with the following quote:

Children should obey their parents because their parents have the responsibility of nurturing, protecting, and educating them, because their parents care about them, because their parents have the knowledge and wisdom to carry out their responsibilities of nurturance, protection, and education, and because their parents themselves set an example through moral action… Children have a right to adequate nurturance, protection, and education, and parents have a moral duty to provide it. When parents perform their moral duty, they earn the right to be respected and obeyed.

What we have here is the basic essence of pedagogy: parents are wise and know best, and by performing their duty they prove their superiority over the child and therefore gain the “right” to be obeyed. Given that the frameworks equate parents with moral authority, this passage becomes rather confused.

In For Your Own Good, Alice Miller points out the motivation behind such beliefs:

[A]ll advice that pertains to raising children betrays more or less clearly the numerous, variously clothed needs of the adult. Fulfillment of these needs not only discourages the child’s development but actually prevents it. This also holds true when the adult is honestly convinced of acting in the child’s best interests.

The Nurturant Parent model is actually a form of benevolent tyranny, which becomes a source of confusion for children because they will end up equating love with domination and authority. It hampers the child’s development because they will take to heart the belief that they are inferior and must obey the “wisdom” of their parents. Slavoj Zizek made a point similar to this, to make a more political analogy, but I think it applies at all levels:

He uses the metaphor of a child being instructed by his strict, authoritarian father to visit Grandma. The child doesn’t want to, but he also knows that this is irrelevant; he must do as he is told or suffer the consequences. In another world, a tolerant liberal father emotionally manipulates his child into visiting Grandma by saying “You know that your Grandma loves you and it would mean a lot to her, but you should only visit if you want to”. The child is not an idiot, and still knows he has no choice. He is additionally now obliged to want it for himself or it means there’s something wrong with him as a person.

By its very structure, the family unit is necessarily tyrannical. Liberals just want a benevolent tyrant, a non-coercive tyrant, which is a notion better relegated to fantasy; power corrupts.

The metaphor that moral strength means to resist one’s ego and desires is pervasive, naturally leads to the belief that children are born evil or only half-human, and to the need for authoritarianism (or a “right to be obeyed”) as a “remedy.” This, I think, is where evolutionary intuitionism comes in (it is, of course, not necessary to be an evolutionary intuitionist in order to promote self-government for children, or vice-versa).

Evolutionary intuitionism is the position that morality is a by-product of the evolution of long-term, social planning in our primate ancestors, and that fundamental moral principles are intuitions which most human beings (apart from those whose DNA does not contain that specific adaptation, i.e. sociopaths) innately understand. The upshot is that morality is not fundamentally something you learn, train, inculcate, or beat into someone, it’s something we’re all born with; while the implications of the intuitions are developed by discussing with other people, taking stock of what’s already been tried and whether it’s been successful, reasoning on what’s known, and so on, the intuitions themselves are part of what we might call “human nature,” like the fact that humans are social animals.

Evolutionary intuitionism is radical in nature because it assumes an equal and innate value to all human lives, unlike utilitarianism, where human beings stop being valuable when their sacrifice beings about greater utility for everyone else. As such, it necessary entails at least anti-genderism, anti-racism and antinatalism (the latter connection being detailed here), and provides a pretty solid moral basis for all the other radical positions (as it also backs up the Prime Directive).

Evolutionary intuitionism also discredits, as I’ve already pointed out, the belief in moral strength as conquering oneself. If morality is part of oneself, then fighting oneself would be rather (pardon the pun) counter-intuitive. This is not to say that an individual cannot be dysfunctional as a result of abuse, or of the more commonplace mistreatment that we take for granted in family structures and schools. But in this case the solution is not to redouble on the mistreatment and force the individual to become moral: rather, the solution is to allow the individual to experience freedom and express eir frustrations and desires until a better equilibrium is achieved (as has happened at Summerhill School time and time again).

Incidentally, the authors do discuss evolution in Philosophy In The Flesh. They reason that evolution is not survival of the fittest, as has been wrongly portrayed; this view has been extensively used to support some variant of the Strict Father morality. They posit that evolution is really all about the survival of the most nurtured. From their perspective this might make sense, but it doesn’t make much sense to me. At least, I’ve never seen any evidence that greater nurturance in species is correlated with survival: it is true that longer-lived species also parent for a longer time, but that’s because the youth of those species take longer to mature.

No, I think the evidence is on the side of evolution being survival of the cooperators (see for example the first two chapters of Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid). Species where the individuals cooperate with each other, and even with other species, are more likely to flourish. And this is true of human organizations and societies as well. Of course the Mutual Care standards of “flourishing” will be somewhat different from the Strict Father and Nurturance Parent standards of “flourishing.”

Anyway, there may seem to be some tension created by adding intuitionism to the mix, insofar as it seems intuition may be a moral authority, but this is not the case. In the case of God or Universal Reason or social norms, what we have is an external element imposing a moral system on the individual. In the case of intuition, the moral system is part of the individual. To say that the intuition is imposed on a human being is as silly as saying that bipedalism or the capacity to feel love are imposed on a human being. They are just part of the kind of animal that we are. Likewise, we don’t say that fairness is imposed on chimpanzees, even through they have it, too.

Now consider the concept of self-government in general (not just for children). Self-government, of course, is a metaphor (but so is the State and the nation, for that matter). It means that decision-making is left to those people who are affected by the decisions, in an egalitarian or consensus-based manner. Self-government is the political ideology which corresponds to the Mutual Care framework, as opposed to the paternalistic State (Nurturant Parent morality), the police State (Strict Father morality), and voluntaryism/Libertarianism (Permissive morality).

In the other frameworks, the crucial relation is that between moral strength and moral nurturance. In the Mutual Care model, this relation makes little sense, and the relation between the individual and society is the crucial one. But if we rephrase morality in this way, then the metaphors make more sense:

* Moral strength can be interpreted as the strength to resist conformity and “moral authorities.”
* Moral nurturance can be interpreted as the need for every individual to be provided with (and free to use) the resources they need to flourish.
* Moral essence could refer to social institutions and the roles that people play within them.
* Morality as health could refer to the infestation of hierarchical thinking within self-governed organizations. Moral purity could also be interpreted along the same lines, esp. in terms of ideological purity.
* Moral bounds can be interpreted as the limits imposed on freedom that prevent it from turning into license, i.e. accountability to the other people in one’s group.

Of course these are just basic possibilities, my attempt at portraying a real alternative to the two main frameworks, and not at all a realistic portrayal of how such a metaphorical system would develop in real life.

Some may object to everything I’ve said here on the basis that metaphors are meant to describe how people understand concepts, not an idealized version of those concepts. That is true, but even Lakoff and Johnson describe alternative metaphors; for instance, in Metaphors We Live By, they go into great detail about a new metaphor for love called LOVE IS A COLLABORATIVE WORK OF ART. This metaphor is meant to highlight aspects of love which are not targeted by the conventional metaphors. Likewise, the Mutual Care framework highlights aspects of morality which are not explained by our conventional metaphors.

There is also the political aspect: if liberals and conservatives, as ideologically close as they are, have such wildly different moral frameworks, then it stands to reason that radicals should be free to reimagine morality to a much greater extent. We urgently need better metaphors about morality, and this is my little contribution to that dialogue.

One thought on “The metaphorical frames of morality.

  1. […] But more importantly, believers see God as the ultimate father. How do they see this fatherhood relationship? Well, they see God as the owner of all humans. They see humans as so inferior to God that humans cannot figure out what is moral and what is not without God telling them, and disobedience against God’s wishes as the ultimate evil. They see God as perfectly justified in punishing humans, up to and including genocide. This is basically the ultimate form of the Strict Father morality. […]

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