Book Review: Moral Politics

Posted on September 14, 2012 by


The Book: Moral Politics–How Liberals and Conservatives Think, by George Lakoff, 426 pages.

Summary:In this book, Mr. Lakoff [wiki website UC Berkley profile], a professor of linguistics at UC – Berkeley, proposes that the differing political weltanschauung between “conservatives” and “liberals” are rooted in the differing mental models of the idealized family to which they subscribe.  He offers up two metaphors for these models, roughly approximating Left and Right, known as “nurturant parent” and “strict father” metaphors, respectively.  As these model/metaphors are central to Mr. Lakoff’s framing of politics–the nation as family and government as parent–and his explication of why the Left and the Right often have mutually opposing political philosophies, they will be discussed in more detail below:

In Mr. Lakoff’s “Nurturant Parent” model,

love, empathy, and nurturance are primary, and children become responsible, self-disciplined, and self-reliant through being cared for, respected, and caring for other, both in their family and in their community. Support and protection are part of nurturance.  The obedience of children comes out of their love and respect for their parents and their community, not out of the fear of punishment.  If their authority is to be legitimate, parents must explain why their decisions serve the cause of protection and nurturance; questioning by children is seen as positive, since children need to learn why their parents do what they do and since children often have good ideas that should be taken seriously.

The principal goal of nurturance is for children to be fulfilled and happy in their lives. A fulfilling live is assumed to be a nurturant life–one committed to family and community responsibility. What children need to learn most is empathy for others, the capacity for nurtuance, and the maintenance of social ties, which cannot be done without the respect, self-discipline, and self-reliance that comes through being cared for.

Of “Nurturant Parent” morality (NPM for short), Lakoff writes:

[while] this model of the family seems to have begun as a woman’s model, it has now become widespread in America among both sexes. [This model of] a family of preferably two parents, but perhaps only one. If two, the parents share household responsibilities.

Moral behaviors in NPM are defined as empathy, compassion, self- social-, and environmental-nurturance, happiness, self-development, fair distribution, and personal growth. Discouraged in NPM are actions that are likely to impair one’s or other’s health, acts that make one or others unhappy, harm children, violate some standard of “fair distribution”, or focus on retribution / punishment instead of restitution / rehabilitation.  Interestingly, about NPM, Lakoff claims that “morality as empathy and nurturance…means that one cannot maintain a strict good-evil dichotomy”; in other words, NPM morality is relative morality.

In contrast, Lakoff’s “Strict Father” model

posits a traditional nuclear family, with the father having primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family as well as the authority to set overall policy, to set strict rules for the behavior of children, and to enforce the rules. The mother has day-to-day responsibility for the care of the house, raising the children, and upholding the father’s authority.  Children must respect and obey their parents; by doing so the build character, that is, self-discipline and self-reliance. Love and nurturance are of course a vital part of family life but can never outweigh parental authority, which is itself an expression of love and nurturance–tough love.  Self-discipline, self-reliance, and respect for legitimate authority are the crucial things that children must learn. Once children are mature, they are on their own and must depend on their acquired self-discipline to survive. Their self-reliance gives them authority over their own destinies, and parents are not to meddle in their lives.

Strict Father morality assigns highest priorities to such things as moral strength (the self-discipline and self-control to stand up to external and internal evils), respect for and obedience to authority, the setting and following of strict guidelines and behavioral norms, and so on. Moral self-interest says that if everyone is free to pursue their self-interest, the overall self-interests of all will be maximized. In conservatism, the pursuit of self-interest is seen as a way of using self-discipline to achieve self-reliance.

“Strict Father” morality (hereafter abbreviated as SFM), in Lakoff’s book, deems Strength, Authority, Order/Hierarchy, Boundaries, as moral.  By contrast, SFM discourages any sort of moral, emotional, physical weakness, illegitimate and/or overstepping authority, violations of the natural order (i.e., God-man-woman-child, or God-man-animal), or deviant behavior.  In addition, Lakoff’s SFM values punishment over restitution, conceives of rights as impediment-free action (i.e., so-called “negative rights“), morality as wholeness/wholesomeness, and immorality as departures from or corruptions of the pure, whole state.  Interestingly, SFM under Lakoff’s taxonomy, incorporates the Lockean economic man, where acting in one’s own self-interest is seen as moral.

After defining SFM and NPM, and briefly explaining how human morality is operationalized through sometimes contradicting metaphors (thus explaining how human morality is often not internally consistent), Mr. Lakoff illustrates how conservatives and liberals apply their metaphors of  the idealized family and related sub-metaphors to certain moral / political quesitons of the day. For example, a conservative (by Lakoff’s definition, a person subscribing to SFM) will act to promote “traditional morality” in general, promote self-discipline, responsibility, and reliance, favor rewards and punishments, act to prevent interference with the pursuit of self-interest by self disciplined, self-reliant people, uphold and protect legitimate (parental and government) authority, and protect the citizenry from external evils.

By contrast, liberals subscribing to NPM will value empathetic political behavior, promoting the liberal concept of fairness, helping and protecting those who cannot help and protect themselves, promoting personal fulfillment, and nurturing / strengthening one selves in order to carry out these values.

Mr. Lakeoff writes: “there are two opposed, highly structured, well-grounded, widely accepted, and utterly contradictory moral systems at the center of American politics”, and this point is made clear in how conservatives and liberals view the citizen’s relationship to the State.  Conservatives hold the so-called nuclear family as the ideal family model, and see that family as the atomistic fundamental building block of society that graduates independent, capable, autonomous citizens to interact with other autonomous independent citizens and with a government comprised of other autonomous, independent citizens.  Family authority, absolute and totalitarian, is vested  in the head of a household; that authority is limited to the boundaries of that household. Complementarily, the authority of the State is also limited  by the boundaries of the household, and only in very limited situations would State authority be considered legitimate inside a household.  Persons in a household, particularly children, are subject to the authority of the head of household.  Persons without are not, and are seen instead as other independent autonomous agents.

For liberals the line is much more blurred. In fact, in Mr. Lakoff’s book, the liberal concept of family is much more communitarian in nature. It may or may not have two parents, but is fine with only the mother, and grants to the community a much larger legitimate role in the daily operation of the family. This broader and looser concept of family is then implemented in their politics; whereas conservatives consider the independent adult as independent of the State, even on par or a peer of the State, vested with authority inviolate except under extreme circumstances, the NPM-subscribing liberal views the citizen as a child and the State as parent.  As such, even full-grown adults are ‘always in the parent’s house’ in liberal politics, whereas  conservatives differentiate between a parent’s house (and the totalitarian authority that exists within those walls) and wider society (where the authority of others, including the State, is quite limited).

The differing metaphors liberals and conservatives employ, their two contrary views of the family (atomistic vs  community), and the citizen’s role in each domain are central to Mr. Lakoff’s family-metaphor-drives-political-morality thesis.  The conservatives’ two-parent, patriarchal nuclear family model and SFM morality yields a unique set of expectations on how citizens interact with one another and the State, compared with the liberal’s more matrifocal / communitarian (“It Takes a Village” is an apt description) family model, which itself drives different expectations as to how citizens interact and encourages the State’s much more paternalistic and involved relationship with them.

To illustrate his thesis, Lakoff offers up several examples of how liberals and conservatives apply SFM and NPM to modern political questions and come up with very opposed viewpoints.  I’ll discuss three of his examples: abortion, welfare, and illegal immigration.  With abortion, as with any other moral question, it starts with framing: one can see the new life as a blastocyst, an embryo, a fetus and, once clear of the birth canal, an infant. Note that in this framing, there are no set, defined transitions between blastocyst, embryo, and fetus, just generally recognizable categories.  Alternatively, one may choose to see the new life as a potential human, a baby, regardless of the stage of development.  This choice of framing is important, for if one sees a clump of cells, an embryo, or fetus–all antiseptic, value-less terms–one is likely to see an abortion as a medical procedure of no moral significance.  It belongs in the medical domain of moral thinking.  However, if one sees a baby, the question of abortion takes on an entirely different character, a question of life and death, not merely the removal of invasive parasitic tissue.

This tissue-vs-baby framing sets in motion metaphors and values that drive the entire train of subsequent moral reasoning.  NPM sees abortion as moral because it promotes the moral virtues of empathy and compassion (for the abortion-seeking female’s plight) happiness (satisfying wants), self-nurturance (taking care of the self), social nurturance (relieving burdens from the welfare system, lowering infant mortality rates), environmental nurturance (one less burden on Spaceship Earth), and self-development (keeps the female in school/college/work).  In contrast, SFM sees abortion as immoral, an act that destroys innocent life (violating the morality of reward and punishment), that enables moral and emotional weakness and a lack of discipline (extra-marital sexuality, conceiving children one is not in a position to support), violates the natural law (the right to life, the right to self-defense), and violates the natural order (choosing school/college/career over family and motherhood/fatherhood).  Given this view, the SFM-subscribing conservative can see abortion as nothing other than irresponsibility-enabling infanticide, while the liberal NPMer can’t see what all the fuss is about, except that the SFM conservative is a misogynist for his/her lack of nurturance toward the distressed female (as a NPM liberal who sees nothing but a parasitic clump of tissue, Mr. Lakoff does not make room for the father’s or anyone else’s interest in what he deems a medical procedure in an autonomous, independent woman’s body).

We see a similar dynamic at play when it comes to social programs, albeit without the starkly juxtaposed framing as is the case with abortion.  For liberals, who see the government as super-parent whose duty it is to nurture all these citizen-children, social programs are moral.  They help people (caring, nurturing, empathy, compassion), help government strengthen itself (self-nurturing), metaphorically “invest” in the people for a later “payoff”, and promote fairness (by metaphorically levelling the playing field).  Those who do not support social programs are seen as immoral, irresponsible citizens. For conservatives, who see the head of household as an autonomous, independent unit vested with his own authority independent of the State, social programs coddle people, interfering with their learning to be independent and self-sufficient.  They make the citizenry morally, physically, and financially weak, interfering with their ability to climb the ladder of opportunity on their own.  Furthermore, people receive goods and services they themselves don’t earn, are rewarded for immoral behavior or lack of self-discipline, thereby violating the morality of reward and punishment.  Moreover, social programs violate the natural law of private property, by forcefully expropriating private property only to give it to others without the citizen’s express consent, interfere with nuclear family formation (violating the natural order of God-husband-wife), by taking from men and married fathers and giving to unwed/remarried mothers an income independent of a husband, and also violate authority boundaries–becoming in effect, illegitimate authority–by excessively interfering in a head-of-household’s affairs.   Additionally, social programs violate Lockean self-interest and undermine the free market by allocating rewards by political processes rather than impartial free market mechanisms.

Another issue of fundamental disagreement between liberals and conservatives, again stemming from differing metaphors for family, is illegal immigration. For liberals, illegal aliens are morally innocent, being exploited by employers or were lured into the country by the availability of work.  These innocents provide value to the nation’s household, and it would be immoral to throw them out.  It is the ‘parent’s’ job to care for these children-in-making.  For conservatives, illegal aliens are not citizens, therefore are not in our national family, to say nothing of our immediate family, and are breaking the law to boot, hence providing goods and services to illegal aliens is akin to providing goods and services to children who barged into our home uninvited.  We can see how conservatives and liberal metaphors of family explain their differing positions on political questions.

Given these differences, it is not difficult at all to see how liberal arguments for abortion, social programs, and fondness for illegal aliens make no sense at all for conservatives and vice versa. Compassion, fairness, wise investment, financial responsibility, self-interest…all are defined and implemented differently.  And both sides consider the other to advocate immorality.

Mr. Lakoff completes the last quarter of his book by advocating for the superiority of NPM over SFM, an unsurprising position for a nurturant liberal who works in a nurturant institution (education).

Commentary: Overall, I found Mr. Lakoff’s book to be a very interesting attempt at faithfully characterizing the disparate ways that liberals and conservatives approach political questions. I learned quite a bit from this book about metaphorical moral reasoning, and gleaned a much fuller realization at just how far apart liberals and conservatives are on cultural questions as a result of these metaphors.  And although he tries very hard to honorably separate his self-admitted liberal and pro-NPM politics from his analysis of conservative thought, his political stripes still show through in many places.  It starts with the language that he uses, i.e., ‘strict father’ vs ‘nurturant parent’.  The former term is sex-specific and is freighted with negative connotation, the implication being that conservatives are stern and intolerant and maybe even violent.  The latter term however, is not sex-specific and possesses a positive connotation–the implication is that liberal NPMs are caring and empathic, non-violent, somehow better.  This bad-father-good-mother framing pervades through the entire book;  “nurturant parent” and “strict father” terminology load the analysis dice already, in effect “settling” issues of ‘strict father’ and ‘nurturant parent’ morality are “once the words are chosen” (Mr. Lakoff’s own words, used when discussing how liberals and conservatives view abortion, apply equally here).

Try as hard as he does, Mr. Lakoff’s view of SFM tends toward caricature.  He casts SFM as caring more about “upholding itself”, maintaining the SFM moral structure, and the SFM moral order, than real questions of judging right and wrong.  Furthermore, having defined SFM in pejorative terms, Mr. Lakoff moves quickly and easily from “strict father” imagery to “abusive father” assertions in several places in the text (the author does parenthetically say “and mothers who subscribe to SFM morality” where “abusive father” occurs, but my point still stands). This framing, a tell-tale indicator of Mr. Lakoff’s true feelings about SFM, nonetheless conflicts with the evidence that highlights women–nurturers in his conceptualization–as the primary perpetrators of child abuse and neglect and equal abusers of spouses (on par with men).

The author also betrays his negative feelings about SFM morality with reference to faith.  He mischaracterizes conservative Christianity’s concept of God, ascribing to conservatives a transactional faith-by-works religion and reserving for liberals the concept of Grace.  Which I find a bit ironic in that, in practice, it is conservatives who incorporate grace and repentance into their weltanschauung (grace being necessary to redeem flawed, fallen, sinful beings whose flesh tends to evil) and liberals whose actions suggest that the works of their hands alone can make man holy and perfect.  Mr. Lakoff makes the mistake of conflating nurturant permissiveness with grace, and confuses conservatives’ focus on the necessity of repentance with legalistic intolerance.

One observation I had from reading this book is how much of a coup it was when leftists successfully instituted Hindu-Prussian-style compulsory public schooling in American and throughout Western Civilization in the 19th century.  As Mr. Lakoff puts it, “to be in charge of the teaching of morality is to be in charge of the teaching of politics”, and I don’t think even Mr. Lakoff would argue with the assertion that nurturants…women, leftist men, are in charge of the public schools.  Therefore it is nurturants, and not Mr. Lakoff’s demon SFMers, who are in charge of teaching morality and therefore political education.  Nurturants have already answered Mr. Lakoff’s call to arms, where he exhorts fellow leftists

if progressives want young Americans to grow up to have progressive values, the first thing they should do is promote Nurturant Parenting

What Mr. Lakoff fails to mention is that leftists have already captured the schooling institutions from primary school through university.  They already have hundreds of thousands of taxpayer-funded churches that inculcate NPM to millions of fresh young minds each year.  Seen in this way, we again see how revolutionary an act it is for conservatives to homeschool their children. Not only do homeschoolers–a plurality of whom are conservative Christians–ensure the transmittal of SFM morality, values, and politics to the next generation, they are throwing a wrench into the entire Leftist reproductive machinery, whose mechanism for self-perpetuation is it to create new, cookie-cutter, unthinking cogs for the big government left-wing (but I repeat myself) social machine.

Another observation I gleaned from this book, on the order of “liberals are from another planet”, was Mr. Lakoff’s assertion that liberals believe in relative morality, in effect, that liberals have gone beyond good and evil.  They apparently sees things not in black and white but in grayscale instead.  The implications of this blew me away…that perhaps conservatives are alone in recognizing that objective good and evil do exist, and that liberals don’t consciously elect to ignore evil, rather, they can’t recognize evil qua evil at all.  Their philosophical blinders won’t let them.

About rights, I found Mr. Lakoff’s take interesting.  As a rightist and as a Believer, I believe our fundamental rights come from God. Men may heap other rights on top of this basic natural-rights foundation, but this addition does not effect our God-given rights with which each of us were born.  This perspective apparently clashes with that of Mr. Lakoff, who claims that rights are paired with duties, duties being burdens upon others to provide.  This is classic leftist dogma that locates all rights as emanating from the State, dogma that completely ignores the whole host of natural rights that pre-existed the State, rights like property, life, and self-defense, and lumps natural rights into one big commingled batch with man-made constructed rights like the “right to work”, the “right to housing”, etc.  Rights, then, in Mr. Lakoff’s construction, are little more than favors granted to citizens by the privilege-granting power of the State, ones that are bought via taxation of other citizens:

[W]here the duty of guaranteeing rights falls to the government, those rights are “purchased” through taxation. Lower taxes may mean fewer rights. If you want rights, somebody’s got to pay for them or provide them. Rights and duties don’t come into existence out of nothing.

This view that rights spring from the State helps explain some liberal frustrations with small-government conservatives, minarchists, and libertarians.  In their view, the nanny state, Big Momma, is the provider and guarantor of what they have and what others have.  Your neighbor has at least partial claim to your property.  Self-defense is a collective right.  Your right to live is subject to the rationing of the collective; the elderly or infirm may not be worthy of healthcare resources or the unwanted or the disfigured not deemed worthy to be born.  Liberty then is a function not of an absence of legal impediment, it is more a freedom that comes from having the materiel and abilities to do what you want, stuff and abilities supplied in equal measure as to the next fellow, all guaranteed by Leviathan.

Mr. Lakoff hit the target in this book by dynamiting the notion that either conservatives or liberals are in any way internally logically consistent in their philosophical views. To the contrary, Mr. Lakoff claims that, beyond some basic fundamental principles, both conservatives and liberals are equally logically inconsistent in their moral philosophies. These inconsistencies are a function of the differing metaphors that an individual person may put in play for a particular situation…”their morality is a hodge-podge of values based on the metaphors they use”.

If I were to sum up, in one sentence, the take-away from Mr. Lakoff’s book, it would be this: liberals have “mommy” morality, while conservatives have “daddy” morality.  A unique and novel characterization, to be sure. Applied to politics, were I required to decide which sort of government I had to live under, well let’s just say that under a mommy state, there is no limit of the amount of “nurturing” the State will do for me and to me, since it’s “for my own good”. The State will go to all sorts of lengths in its nurturing, satisfied that she is doing me a favor. A daddy state, on the other hand, lays out the rules and more or less leaves you alone provided you follow the rules.  He’ll coach you, encourage you, mentor you, and spank you when you get out of line, but he respects boundaries enough to stay out of your chili.

Posted in: Book Review