Monday, January 29, 2007

Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think

Moral Politics : How Liberals and Conservatives Think

George Lakoff

Date: 2002-05-01 — Book

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Review of Moral Politics : How Liberals and Conservatives Think

George Lakoff takes a fascinating look at the reasons why the average liberal does not understand how the average conservative thinks, and vice versa. He shows that political opinions for both liberals and conservatives are based, most of all, on morality, and that while both persuasions pick from the same pool of moral metaphors, that each side gives different priorities to different aspects of morality. Furthermore, the basis for political thinking on both sides is based on a "Nation as Family" metaphor, which differs because each group favors a different ideal family structure, each emphasizing different facets of morality.

Lakoff prefaces his book by stating that both liberalism and conservatism are radial categories; that is, that both have a central model, each with variations on the central model, with the most typical variations being pure/ideological conservatism and liberalism, along with the more pragmatic varieties. For the purposes of the book, he concentrates on the central models, acknowledging that most individuals will not fit completely into one camp or the other.

Conservative political thought is based on a "Strict Father" family model. This is an absolutist, Calvinistic, black and white, moral view of the family (and by extension, politics). In order of importance, the strict father model emphasizes these moral metaphors

  • Morality as Strength: This is the strict father's central notion of self-discipline, both within the family and extended to morality in general.
  • Moral Authority: This is based on parental authority as it is extended to authority in general in the wider society
  • Moral Order: This define what are "natural", hence, legitimate types of authority
  • Moral Boundaries: What are the "right" and "wrong" paths of moral action, strongly discouraging "deviant" behavior.
  • Moral Essence: This details what makes up "character"
  • Moral Wholeness: This conceptualizes the importance of unity, stability, and homogeneity morality
  • Moral Purity: This shows how to distinguish immorality from the morality of this family model.
  • Moral Health: This outlines the effects of immorality as defined in this system
  • Moral Self-Interest: This links self-discipline and self-reliance in the family model
  • Morality as Nurturance: Links nurturance within the family to helping others in general
Liberal political thought, on the other hand, is based on a "Nurturant Parent" model of the family. This model is more flexible, seeing shades of grey, rather than viewing life in a yes/no, black and white fashion. The "Golden Rule" is an apt summary of this family model. The Nurturant Parent worldview emphasizes these moral metaphors:
  • Morality as Nurturance: Children who are adequately cared for will grow up to care for others, both personally and toward society in general
  • Morality as Empathy: This is the idea behind the Golden Rule.
  • Morality as Self-Nurturance: To give to others, one must take care of one's own needs; as one cannot give out of an empty vessel
  • Morality as the Nurturance of Social Ties: This is essential for nurturance within the larger community
  • Morality as Self-Development: This involves the tools which enable a person to attend to the principles above
  • Morality as Happiness: This is an anti-ascetic morality which increases a person's capacity for empathy
  • Morality as Fair Distribution: This involves equality of distribution, equality of opportunity, playing by the rules, and rights-based fairness.
  • Moral Growth: This involves evolving in the direction of moral nurturance
  • Moral Strength: Through the principles of Moral Nurturance, one can face evils, both external and internal
  • Retribution and Restitution: This involves protection, with retribution for those who harm children and others who are weaker, and restitution for those who make other kinds of mistakes.
  • Moral Boundaries: Similar to the strict father model, but with an emphasis different forms of transgression, specifically avoiding anti-nurturant behavior that can harm others
  • Moral Authority: This is not the ability to set and enforce rules, but is based on earned trust.
After detailed chapters explaining the above in how it relates to the two models of family life, Lakoff shows how each model translates into the "Nation as Family" metaphor, also including several chapters on how these worldviews influence a person's opinion on a wide variety of particular political and social views. He illustrates how certain opinions tend to cluster together under the "conservative" or "liberal" umbrellas; showing consistency in what seems inconsistent to those of the opposing worldview.

Also included are chapters about the varieties of liberals and conservatives; how they relate to and contrast with their central models, a chapter on how each side stereotypes the other side, pointing to extreme and pathological examples as falsely being typical of the central model.

Lastly, Lakoff, as an admitted liberal writes about why he believes that the Nurturant Parent model is better for both children and society in general.

Pragmatists, both liberal and conservative, will find much of use in this book for better understanding and working with the other side, but I'm guessing that the ideologically pure of both sides will remain unconvinced and unsympathetic of their ideological opponents.

However, I recommend this book highly to anyone of any political persuasion with an open mind who wants to know how the other side "ticks".

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