George Lakoff – Moral Politics

George Lakoff ,the Berkley professor and Cognitive Linguist published an unusual book in 2002 called Moral Politics which was met with widespread bewilderment and some polite interest.  He made the same claim as Haidt that politics is fundamentally shaped by our moral sense, but unlike Haidt he asserted, a little confusingly, that our morality was decided by one of two moral frameworks – on the right something called a Strict Father Morality and on the left a Nurturant Parent model, these models are deeply cognitively instantiated is his central claim and what flows from them is series of related metaphors about what is right and what is wrong.  Sometimes however, he appears to suggest that our metaphor selection leads us to one or other of the models and then we are led to think in terms of the model, and in turn select and use other metaphors supportive of and structured within the model. In other words we are stuck in one or other of the metaphorical tangles.  Lakoff as liberal, expresses surprise at the extent to which Conservatives worldviews are morally underpinned but his purpose is to alert liberals to the models and their metaphorical structure so that they can undermine the right’s Strict Parent Model and pursue their “superior” more caring model, so appears to suggest that models are simultaneously instantiated but amenable to change if the correct anti-metaphors are deployed.

The psychologist Steve Pinker, is critical of the idea that we get snared up in metaphorical nets, and critical of Lakoff’s metaphorical ideas in general, but what is interesting about Lakoff in terms of Haidt’s claim and researches on the moral basis of politics is the way in which Lakoff shows that moral claims permeate our political discourse.

Lakoff enumerates the existence of supporting metaphors for, in the Strict Father Model in sub-domains as follows:

Moral Self-Interest

Moral Strength

Moral Authority

Moral Order

Moral Essence

Moral Wholeness

And in the Nurturant Parent Model as follows

Morality as Nurturance

Morality as Empathy

Morality as Self-Development

Morality as Fair Distribution

Moral Growth

Moral Strength


Can Lakoff’s models be understood as operating from Haidt’ moral foundations and Fiske’s social relations?

See the Strict Father Model

“A traditional nuclear family with the father having primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family as the authority to set overall family policy.  He teaches children right from wrong by setting strict rules for their behaviour and enforcing them through punishment.  He gains their co-operation by showing love and appreciation when they do follow the rules.  But children most never be coddled, lest they become spoiled; a spoiled child will become dependent for life and will not learn proper morals. 

The mother has day to day responsibility for the care of the house, raising children, and upholding the father’s authority.  Children must respect and obey their parents, partly for their own safety and partly because by doing so they build character, that is, self-discipline and self-reliance. Love and nurturance are a vital part of family life, but they should never out-weigh parental authority, which is it itself an expression of love and nurturance – tough love.  Self-discipline, self-reliance and respect for legitimate authority are the crucial things that a child must learn.  A mature adult becomes self-reliant through applying self-discipline in pursuing self-interest.  Only if a child learns self-discipline can he become self-reliant later in life.  Survival is a matter of competition and only through self discipline can a child learn to compete successfully.

Can we see here Haidt’s In-group authority and Loyalty foundations allied closely to Fiske’s notion of Authority Ranking? Also the supporting moral structures of Essence and Wholeness go directly to Haidt’s claim that Sacrality/Purity is a moral foundation.

See the Nurturant Parent Model

“The primary experience behind this model is one of being cared for and cared about having one’s desires for loving interactions met, living as happily as possible, and deriving meaning from mutual interaction and care.

….children become responsible, self-disciplined, and self reliant through being cared for and respected, and through caring for others.  Support and protection are part of nurturance and they require strength and courage on the part of parents.  The obedience of children comes out of their love and respect for their parents, not out of fear of punishment. 

Protection is a form of caring, and protection from external dangers takes up a significant part of the nurturant parent’s attention. “

 Here are can clearly see the Haidt Care/Harm foundation as the basis of liberal morality in Lakoff’s nurturant parent.  In the supporting sub-domains Morality as Empathy goes strongly to the underlying compassion which liberals claim is the basis of harm reduction.   Haidt says in the Righteous Mind that he believes that the liberals Care/Harm foundation is rooted in the adult care of children so if he is right Lakoff’s claim that this social action is moralised is wholly consistence with Haidt.  There is a controversial view that the left has a feminised world view, and the right a masculine one, some new research contributes further to this controversial point.

Clearly Lakoff is seeing the Haidtian moral foundations working through in common political metaphors used in every day political discourse.  Like Haidt he spots the Conservative advantage, but defines it as manifesting it sense in richer and stronger metaphorical pickings for the right.  It is reasonable to assume that these metaphors largely originate from a time when human social life was, in Fiskian terms, dominated by CS and AR social relationships.

What is in Lakoff that isn’t in Haidt?   One of the puzzles of the work in progress that is political psychology is where the Conservative enthusiasm for free markets, business and capitalism come from.  In the 250,000 years of our history as human beings there were trading relations and the notion of contractual obligations, this is the social relationship know as MP in Fiske, but capitalism has only arrived in the last two seconds of our evolutionary history yet it is deeply respected and valorised across the right as being of critical moral worthiness.

What is it about capitalism other than its relevance to MP that appears to electrify conservatives? Lakoff has this intriguing comment about the Strict Father model:

“people become self-reliant by using their self-discipline to pursue their self-interest.  The pursuit of self-interest is thus moral, providing of course, that other, “higher” principles like moral authority and moral strength are not violated.  Indeed, without the morality of pursuit of self-interest, there would be no moral link between self-discipline and self-reliance”

Lakoff detects the moralisation of self-interest, relating it to other moral goods such as self-discipline and self-reliance.  Self-interest operating here in the same Haidtian moral space as In-group loyalty, Authority and Sacrality, giving depth, breadth and form to political Conservatism.


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