Moral Politics
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Moral Politics

How Liberals and Conservatives Think, Third Edition

George Lakoff

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eBook - ePub

Moral Politics

How Liberals and Conservatives Think, Third Edition

George Lakoff

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Über dieses Buch

When Moral Politics was first published two decades ago, it redefined how Americans think and talk about politics through the lens of cognitive political psychology. Today, George Lakoff's classic text has become all the more relevant, as liberals and conservatives have come to hold even more vigorously opposed views of the world, with the underlying assumptions of their respective worldviews at the level of basic morality. Even more so than when Lakoff wrote, liberals and conservatives simply have very different, deeply held beliefs about what is right and wrong.Lakoff reveals radically different but remarkably consistent conceptions of morality on both the left and right. Moral worldviews, like most deep ways of understanding the world, are unconscious—part of our "hard-wired" brain circuitry. When confronted with facts that don't fit our moral worldview, our brains work automatically and unconsciously to ignore or reject these facts, and it takes extraordinary openness and awareness of this phenomenon to pay critical attention to the vast number of facts we are presented with each day. For this new edition, Lakoff has added a new preface and afterword, extending his observations to major ideological conflicts since the book's original publication, from the Affordable Care Act to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the recent financial crisis, and the effects of global warming. One might have hoped such massive changes would bring people together, but the reverse has actually happened; the divide between liberals and conservatives has become stronger and more virulent.To have any hope of bringing mutual respect to the current social and political divide, we need to clearly understand the problem and make it part of our contemporary public discourse. Moral Politics offers a much-needed wake-up call to both the left and the right.

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Part One
The Mind and Politics
Contemporary American politics is about worldview. Conservatives simply see the world differently than do liberals, and both often have a difficult time understanding accurately what the other’s worldview is. As a student of the mind and of language, I think we can make much better sense than has been made of the worldviews and forms of discourse of conservatives and liberals.
I work in a discipline that studies how people conceptualize the world. It is called cognitive science, which is the interdisciplinary study of the mind. It is a broad discipline, covering everything from vision, memory, and attention to everyday reasoning and language. The subfield most concerned with issues of worldview, that is, with everyday conceptualization, reasoning, and language, is cognitive linguistics. I have been a cognitive linguist virtually from the birth of the field, and it is my profession to study how we conceptualize our everyday lives and how we think and talk about them. The study of political concepts and political discourse falls under the job description of those in my field, though until now research in the area has been relatively sparse.
Common Sense and Unconscious Thought
A few words about my profession might be useful at the outset. One of the things most studied in cognitive science is common sense. Common sense cannot be taken for granted as a given. Whenever a cognitive scientist hears the words “It’s just common sense,” his ears perk up and he knows there’s something to be studied in detail and depth—something that needs to be understood. Nothing is “just” common sense. Common sense has a conceptual structure that is usually unconscious. That’s what makes it “common sense.” It is the commonsensical quality of political discourse that makes it imperative that we study it. I hope that you will see by the end of this book just how deep, complex, sophisticated, and subtle common sense is, especially in the domains of morality and politics.
One of the most fundamental results in cognitive science, one that comes from the study of commonsense reasoning, is that most of our thought is unconscious—not unconscious in the Freudian sense of being repressed, but unconscious simply in that we are not aware of it. We think and talk at too fast a rate and at too deep a level to have conscious awareness and control over everything we think and say. We are even less conscious of the components of thoughts—concepts. When we think, we use an elaborate system of concepts, but we are not usually aware of just what those concepts are like and how they fit together into a system.
That is what I study: what, exactly, our unconscious system of concepts is and how we think and talk using that system of concepts. In recent years, my work has centered on two components of conceptual systems: conceptual metaphors and categories, especially radial categories and prototypes. A conceptual metaphor is a conventional way of conceptualizing one domain of experience in terms of another, often unconsciously. For example, many people may not be aware that we commonly conceptualize morality in terms of financial transactions and accounting. If you do me a big favor, I will be indebted to you, I will owe you one, and I will be concerned about repaying the favor. We not only talk about morality in terms of paying debts, but we also think about morality that way. Concepts like retribution, restitution, revenge, and justice are typically understood in such financial terms. As we shall see, examples like these are the tip of the iceberg. Much of moral reasoning is metaphorical reasoning, as will become apparent below.
It should also become apparent, if this example does not already make it clear, that metaphorical thought need not be poetic or especially rhetorical. It is normal, everyday thought. Not every common concept is metaphorical, but a surprising number are (see References, sec. Al).
Metaphorical Common Sense
Much of what we read on the daily op-ed pages of our finest newspapers is metaphorical commonsense reasoning. Let us consider a very simple example, taken from a column by Washington Post columnist William Raspberry (as it appeared in the Houston Chronicle, section A, p. 30, February 4, 1995). The column begins straightforwardly enough.
The government of the District of Columbia is reeling from a newly discovered budget shortfall of at least $722 million and there is growing talk of a congressional takeover of the city.
After an example of spending he considers questionable, Raspberry says,
What is about to do us in . . . is the poor but compassionate mother with a credit card.
To put it another way, a huge amount of the city’s stupendous debt is the result of the local government’s effort to do good things it can’t afford.
He then gives a list of examples of good things the city government wants to do and which he thinks it can’t afford, and finishes the column as follows:
But a good chunk of the underlying problem is the compassionate mom attitude that says: If it’s good for the kid to have, then I ought to buy it—and worry later about where the money will come from.
Well, Mom not only has reached her credit limit: she’s in so much trouble that scrimping and saving now won’t solve the problem. She’ll need a bailout from Congress.
But then, she has to learn to say no—not just to junk food but to quality cuts of meat she can’t afford.
None of Raspberry’s readers have any problem understanding this column. He writes it as if it were just common sense. Yet, it is an elaborate conceptual metaphor, and he is reasoning in terms of this metaphor.
In the metaphor, the government is an overindulgent, impractical mother and the citizens are her children. She has no self-discipline; she is indulging her children irresponsibly, using money she doesn’t have. This is not merely politics, it is a story with a moral. The moral is that Mom will have to learn self-discipline (“to say no”) and self-denial (“to quality cuts of meat she can’t afford”). Only then will she be a good mother.
We all understand this column, and to many readers it will seem like common sense. But why? Is the metaphor that government is a parent and the citizens are children newly made up? Or is it familiar, a metaphor we already know? And why should readers be willing to reason about a government in this way? Why don’t they just reject the metaphor as ridiculous? Why don’t readers—all readers—say in response, “What’s all this nonsense about indulgent moms? Let’s get real and talk about the details of economics and policy.” But readers don’t. The column is “just common sense.” And moreover, it is conservative common sense.
The logical structure of the column is determined by metaphor, not by facts. One could have taken the same budget shortfall and framed it in a different way. One could have observed that Washington, D.C., must have city services beyond its population to serve the large number of relatively well-off civil service workers, lobbyists, and others who live in the wealthy suburbs but work in town. One could also have mentioned that it is the responsibility of Congress to see that the city is maintained properly and that it lives by a humane standard, indeed that it should set a standard for the country. One could then apply the metaphor of the government as parent to Congress, seeing Congress as a deadbeat dad, refusing to pay for the support of his children, the citizens of Washington, D.C. One could then have drawn the moral that deadbeat dad Congress must meet his responsibilities and pay, no matter how tough it is for him. This is just common sense—a different kind of common sense.
What, exactly, is conservative common sense? How does it differ from liberal common sense? And what role, exactly, does metaphorical thought play in the everyday common-sense reasoning of conservatives and liberals? As we shall see, the metaphor used in this column, that of the government as parent, has a great deal to do with conservative common sense in general, as well as with what conservatism is as a political and moral philosophy.
Radial categories are the most common of human conceptual categories. They are not definable in terms of some list of properties shared by every member of the category. Instead, they are characterized by variations on a central model. Take the category mother. The central model is characterized by four submodels. (1) The birth model: the mother is one who gives birth. (2) The genetic model: the mother is the female from whom you get half your genetic traits. (3) The nurturance model: your mother is the person who raises and nurtures you. And (4) The marriage model: your mother is the wife of your father. In the most basic case, all conditions hold. But modern life is complex, and the category extends to cases where only some of these conditions are met. Hence, there are special terms like birth mother, genetic mother, foster mother, stepmother, surrogate mother, adoptive mother, and so on.
Another example of a radial category is forms of harm. The central case is physical harm. But the category also includes kinds of harm that are metaphorically understood in terms of physical harm, e.g., financial harm, political harm, social harm, and psychological harm. Our courts recognize that these are all forms of harm, yet they also recognize the centrality of physical harm, for which the most severe penalties are usually reserved.
Radial categories, with central cases and variations on them, are normal in the human mind. And, as we shall see, the categories of conservative and liberal are also radial categories. This is important to realize because conservative and liberal are very complex categories, with a great many variations. The theory of radial categories allows us to account for both the central tendencies and the variations. For an introduction to radial categories, see Lakoff (1987) and References, sec. A2.
The central members of radial categories are one subtype of a general phenomenon called “prototypes” (see References, sec. A2). There are many types of prototypes and it is important to discuss them at the outset since they will play a major role throughout the book. A prototype is an element of a category (either a subcategory or an individual member) that is used to represent the category as a whole in some sort of reasoning. All prototypes are cognitive constructions used to perform a certain kind of reasoning; they are not objective features of the world.
Here are some of the basic types of prototypes that play a role in American politics and that will recur throughout this book:
1. The central subcategory of a radial category: This provides the basis for extending the category in new ways and for defining variations.
Political examples will include central types of liberals and conservatives.
2. A typical case prototype: This characterizes typical cases and is used to draw inferences about category members as a whole, unless it is made clear that we are operating with a nontypical case.
For example, what we consider to be typical birds fly, sing, are not predators, and are about the size of a robin or sparrow. If I say “There’s a bird on the porch,” you will draw the conclusion that it is a typical case prototype, unless I indicate otherwise. If I speak of a typical American, what comes to mind for many is an adult white male Protestant, who is native-born, speaks English natively, and so on.
3. An ideal case prototype: This defines a standard against which other subcategories are measured.
We will be discussing what conservatives and liberals think of as an ideal parent, an ideal citizen, and an ideal person.
4. An anti-ideal prototype: This subcategory exemplifies the worst kind of subcategory, a “demon” subcategory. It defines a negative standard.
Liberals and conservatives have very different kinds of demons, and we will discuss the types and how they are used in reasoning.
5. A social stereotype: This is a model, widespread in a culture, for making snap judgments—judgments without reflective thought—about an entire category, by virtue of suggesting that the stereotype is the typical case.
Social stereotypes are commonly used in unreflective or biased discourse. Examples include the Drunken Irishman (used to suggest that the Irish typically drink to excess), the Industrious Japanese (used to suggest that the Japanese are typically industrious), and so on. Ethnic and gender stereotypes constantly enter into political discourse, as do political stereotypes. Stereotypes can either be based on myth or on individual well-known examples.
6. A salient exemplar: A single memorable example that is commonly used in making probability judgments or in drawing conclusions about what is typical of category members.
It is commonplace in political discourse to use a salient exemplar as if it were a typical case; for example, popularizing the case of a single welfare cheater to suggest that everyone on welfare cheats.
7. An essential prototype: This is a hypothesized collection of properties that, according to a commonplace folk theory, characterizes what makes a thing the kind of thing it is, or what makes a person the kind of person he is.
Essential properties of birds are, among others, that they have feathers, wings, and beaks, and lay eggs. Rational thought is seen as an essential property of human beings. In moral discourse, the notion of character is seen as defined by an essential prototype. Your character is what makes you what you are and determines how you will behave.
None of these should be strange or unfamiliar. All of these are normal products of the human mind, and they are used in normal everyday discourse. There is nothing surprising about their use in politics, but we do need to be aware of how they are used. It is important, as we shall see, not to confuse a salient exemplar with a typical case, or a typical case (say, the typical politician) with an ideal case (like the ideal politician).
The Present Book
In my previous writings I have been concerned with the details of conceptual analysis and their consequences for such fields as cognitive science, philosophy, and linguistics. The present book came out of such routine research. Around the time of the conservatives’ victory in the 1994 elections, I happened to be working on the details of our moral conceptual system, especially our system of metaphors for morality. During the election campaign, it became clear to me that liberals and conservatives have very different moral systems, and that much of the political discourse of conservatives and liberals derives from their moral systems. I found that, using analytic techniques from cognitive linguistics, I could describe the moral systems of both conservatives and liberals in considerable detail, and could list the metaphors for morality that conservatives and liberals seemed to prefer. What was particularly interesting was that they seemed to use virtually the same metaphors for morality but with different—almost opposite—priorities. This seemed to explain why liberals and conservatives could seem to be talking about the same thing and yet reach opposite conclusions—and why they could seem to be talking past each other with little understanding much of the time.
At this point, I asked myself a question whose answer was not at first obvious: What unifies each of the lists of moral priorities? Is there some more general idea that leads conse...


  1. Cover
  2. Copyright
  3. Title Page
  4. Dedication
  5. Contents
  6. Preface to the Third Edition
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. Part I: Introduction
  9. Part II: Moral Conceptual Systems
  10. Part III: From Family-Based Morality to Politics
  11. Part IV: The Hard Issues
  12. Part V: Summing Up
  13. Part VI: Who’s Right? And How Can You Tell?
  14. Epilogue: Problems for Public Discourse
  15. Afterword, 2002
  16. Afterword, 2016
  17. References
  18. Index
Zitierstile fĂŒr Moral Politics

APA 6 Citation

Lakoff, G. (2016). Moral Politics ([edition unavailable]). The University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)

Chicago Citation

Lakoff, George. (2016) 2016. Moral Politics. [Edition unavailable]. The University of Chicago Press.

Harvard Citation

Lakoff, G. (2016) Moral Politics. [edition unavailable]. The University of Chicago Press. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Lakoff, George. Moral Politics. [edition unavailable]. The University of Chicago Press, 2016. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.