Moral Politics, by George Lakoff

Amazon link

I’ve been pretty interested in the work of George Lakoff recently, so I figured I should read one of his books to learn more. Moral Politics was the one available in a bookstore when I stopped by, so that’s the one I picked up. It’s also the one most relevant to my political rants recently. This book is Lakoff’s attempt to explain how the typical conservative and liberal positions tend to cluster. Why is that liberals are in favor of preserving the environment, against the death penalty, pro-choice on abortion, pro-affirmative action, etc? And why are the conservatives opposed? Why is that certain issues like abortion tend to be such hot points and others elicit only a shrug of the shoulders?

Lakoff, being a cognitive scientist, relates the question back to mental models. In particular, mental models of the family. To quote an interview with him:

…the progressive worldview is modeled on a nurturant parent family. Briefly, it assumes that the world is basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward that. Children are born good; parents can make them better. Nurturing involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible. On a larger scale, specific policies follow, such as governmental protection in form of a social safety net and government regulation, universal education (to ensure competence, fairness), civil liberties and equal treatment (fairness and freedom), accountability (derived from trust), public service (from responsibility), open government (from open communication), and the promotion of an economy that benefits all and functions to promote these values, which are traditional progressive values in American politics.

The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline – physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline. The good people are the disciplined people. Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own. Those children who remain dependent (who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant) should be forced to undergo further discipline or be cut free with no support to face the discipline of the outside world.

He posits that these mental models of the family and of the world project directly onto people’s view of government. Government is metaphorically viewed as a family, with the president acting like a father. Therefore, your view of how a family should be run will influence your choice of presidential candidate. These mental models explain a lot about why certain people get elected (that interview has a good one paragraph synopsis of how Arnold Schwarzenegger exemplifies the Strict Father model), and why they take the political positions they do. That’s the basic thesis of the book – most of the book is an exploration of how these models and metaphors apply to various political issues.

These models makes a lot of sense to me. I can see them everywhere now that Lakoff has brought them to my attention. And I’m sure I’ll be making reference to them in my political rants going forward – heck, I’ve already started. I’m not sure it’s necessary for most people to read the whole book – the two paragraph summary from the interview above gives you the basics, and the book is mostly an exploration of specifics to bolster his argument. If you’re into that sort of thing, it’s of interest to see how he believes people apply the models in various cases.

In particular, the different models have a lot of utility in helping to explain some apparent conflicts in positions. One obvious one is how conservatives can be “pro-life” when it comes to abortion, and for the death penalty at the same time. Lakoff explains that it’s a consequence of the Reward and Punishment system – if you do wrong, you must be punished; hence the death penalty. It also applies to abortion – the conservative model has a strong moral component. Most abortions in conservatives’ minds are due to “lust” and unsanctioned sex between unmarried couples; that is wrong in their minds, and therefore the parents should suffer the consequences of their actions and be forced to have the baby, to take responsibility and learn the self-discipline necessary to survive in the Strict Father world. There are many such analyses in the book that I found interesting, but I’m not sure they’re of general interest.

What I’m going to spend a while ranting about here, is how these models interact in my own mind. I grew up in the Midwest, outside of Chicago, in a suburb which was all about the Strict Father model. It was a heavily conservative, heavily Christian fundamentalist town and, according to Lakoff, those tendencies tend to go together, because one of the main components of the Strict Father model is the concept of Moral Order, where God has dominion over Man, and the father has dominion over his family. Since that was the only model on display in my hometown, that is the one I adopted.

As I grew up, moved away from Illinois and was exposed to other viewpoints, I moved towards more of a Nurturant Parent morality. I don’t believe in the power of punishment that is central to the Strict Father model – I believe that punishment only engenders resentment and leads to a vicious circle (one might note the parallels to the Middle East here). I don’t believe that there are evil people in this world, or evil nations – I believe that nobody is evil in their own minds, and you have to work to understand their viewpoint if you ever want to make progress – calling them evil is just a short circuit that leads to inevitable conflict – it’s pointless. Their actions may have negative consequences (as I believe, say, Bush’s do), but you have to attempt to reason with them on their terms or you will never change their mind. I tend to be a social relativist – what people do with their own lives is their own choice, so long as they don’t impact mine. I am liberal on most issues – most would call me very liberal, but since I live near Berkeley and San Francisco, my scale is shifted :).

But my underlying mentality is still that of a Strict Father mold. This is unsurprising, given that a lot of our fundamental attitudes are set in childhood. My instinctual response to many situations is definitely of the Strict Father model. I tend to believe that people should have to earn what they are given; one of my pet peeves is being congratulated or rewarded for something I did poorly – unearned praise feels wrong to me. I tend to believe that people should be given opportunities, but if they don’t take advantage of them, that’s their responsibility. I don’t believe that people can change their fundamental nature, their “character”; if somebody betrays me, I rarely ever trust them again. These are all aspects of the Strict Father model.

So it’s an interesting mix in my head, and it definitely causes conflicts occasionally. The question of the poor is a good example. I tend to be against welfare (and I never give money to beggars on the street) because of my belief in earning what you are given. But I am in favor of work or educational programs targeted to the homeless to give them the opportunity to move towards getting a job. It’s things like that where I straddle the conservative/liberal line, and I think it’s because of the conflict between the empathetic compassionate Nurturant Parent model, and the Strict Father model of my youth. Then there’s that libertarian or objectivist streak in me, which Lakoff deems a different variant of the conservative model, but definitely also ties into the “earning what you’re given” belief.

I guess I don’t really have a point here, except that the different models provide a useful tool for analyzing how people think about different issues. And since one of my main interests is trying to understand how people (both myself and others) think, this book and Lakoff’s work in general is of great interest to me. It’s definitely provided a good vocabulary for discussing various issues, especially with regard to the campaign this year, and even of my own mind.

As a last side note, Lakoff’s work was of such interest to me that I actually applied for an internship at his institute this summer. Alas, I was not accepted, but I’m glad I at least tried. Maybe next year. I’ll definitely still keep an eye on his work.