Sunday, January 23, 2005

Lakoff - X: Thinking about morality metaphorically

[Preamble: This is one of a series of posts about the relevance of the work of George Lakoff for public health. First a disclaimer. My aim here is not an explication of all of Lakoff, or where he stands in cognitive science versus analytic philosophy, or whether there is a "there, there" as Gertrude Stein once wondered about Oakland (where Lakoff is now situated at UC Berkeley). It is rather to take some elements of Lakoff's writings (and I think genuine insights), and see how they might illuminate a central problem in public health, having a Central Problem. Posts will be relatively short, as befits the medium. PF is Lakoff's book, Philosophy in the Flesh (1999). MP is Moral Politics (2002)]

When we move from the experiential basis for moral concepts (discussed in Lakoff - VI) to moral accounting (Lakoff - IX) we are making the move from non-metaphoric to metaphorical thinking. Lakoff notes that while there is nothing inherently metaphoric about "Health is good" or "Everyone should be protected from physical harm" [PF, chapter 14], the incorporation of these concepts into moral conceptual systems is done through the use of metaphor. This is a basic empirical claim of Lakoff, that we think, reason and understand our experience via metaphors. Moral accounting, with its basis in the simpler metaphor of well-being as wealth, is one example. There is a certain universality about human moral conceptual systems because they are experientially grounded. But different cultures at different times might vary considerably in the more complex metaphors they use and the priority they give to different coexisting metaphors. Thus, to give one of Lakoff's examples, western thought values Moral Balance, but Japanese thought weights it more heavily than we do.

Thus moral concepts are neither completely free and unconstrained, nor are they absolute. They are not free and unconstrained because they are, as Lakoff says:
. . . inextricably tied to our embodied experience of well-being: health, strength, wealth, purity, control, nurturance, empathy, and so forth. The metaphors we have for morality are motivated by these experiences of well-being, and the ethical reasoning we do is constrained by the logic of these experiential [sources] for the metaphors. [PF p. 331].
But because our experiences of what constitutes and promotes well-being is conditioned culturally and historically, these concepts are not absolute nor do they have the same priorities for everyone. Thus Lakoff should not be accused of either moral relativism or moral absolutism. His machinery is flexible enough to avoid either. Instead our moral concepts, like other conceptual systems we use, have an "imaginative character" which allows change and adaptation as situations change and we learn and adjust.

Lakoff makes a special point that the moral metaphors with which we think and reason mostly come from conceptual structures that we would not think of as "ethical." Just as the metaphor of Love as a Journey may reason via a metaphor of vehicular travel (see Lakoff - IV for the example "Our relationship is spinning its wheels"), moral thinking often uses metaphors we would not consider to involve morality. Moral Accounting, and Well-being is Wealth, are prime examples. There are other moral metaphors as well. A pertinent one for us is Morality as Health (leading to ideas of moral hygiene, moral purity, moral soundness, being morally diseased or depraved, etc.). There is also Moral Empathy, Moral Nurturance, Morality as Strength and a number of others (see PF Ch. 14). These different metaphors are not inherently consistent and can collide, leading to different inferences. When they do, which metaphor dominates, that is, how metaphors are ordered, becomes important. Lakoff takes up this theme when he considers the priority structures of the Strict Father (politically conservative) versus the Nurturant Parent (politically liberal) moral structures. Before we get to Lakoff's notion of the Family Metaphor for Politics, we need to sum up the theoretical machinery, which we do in the next post.

Links to previous posts on Lakoff in the side-bar.