Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Lakoff - XI: The Moral Toolbox

[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)]

It is time to sum up Lakoff's underlying theoretical machinery. This will bring us to his Family Metaphor for Politics, the point where most people begin. I have started much farther back in Lakoff's thinking because I believe its value lies less in the specific formulation and more in the underlying method. As one passes from his earlier work to his most recent precis of MP, Don't Think of Elephants, one is struck by how much of the motivating ideas drop away, until in the short, but popular summary (...elephants) none of it is left.

This has two undesirable effects. The first is that we are led to either accept or reject a specific application of his method (his particular formulation of the Family Metaphor); and second, that to the extent we accept that formulation we run the risk of using it mechanically and uncreatively. Lakoff himself has applied it to a variety of questions, sometimes very convincingly, sometimes much less so. To the extent one finds his analysis unconvincing one might also be led to reject the whole package. I think this would be a grave error as there is much of value there. And to the extent we allow him to apply it to fields with which he is very unfamiliar (and here I am talking about public health), we run the risk of winding up with an unsatisfactory analysis. It seems to me that if one sees value in some or much of what Lakoff has alerted us to (see Lakoff VII), it is better that a Lakoffian analysis be done by experts in an area who appreciate the method than by someone who is a Lakoff expert unfamiliar with the content or by an expert in the content ignorant of the method.

After ten posts I will summarize (appropriately enough) with a metaphor of my own, the Moral Toolbox.

When we think politically, we reason with moral concepts. That reasoning is done metaphorically, that is, it uses images, concepts and bits and pieces of grounded experience that is not itself specifically moral. There are many such metaphors in our moral concept toolbox, although they don't all produce the same results and not all are equally useful in all circumstances. The tools themselves are derived from living in the real world (they are embodied). Our politics are largely determined by which tools we prefer to use when making political and moral inferences.

You can think of identity politics in terms of these tool preferences. Do you think of yourself as a plumber or a carpenter? This will determine which tools you pick up to solve particular problems. While it is true that "to a man with a hammer the whole world looks like a nail," it is also true that if you present the problem as involving a threaded pipe, even a carpenter will pick up a wrench. Carpenters may prefer hammers, but they aren't stupid and they know how to use a wrench when a wrench is appropriate. Instead of carpenters and plumbers, Lakoff presents us with Strict Fathers and Nurturant Parents. They each have roughly the same toolbox of moral concepts, but each prefers to use some tools rather than others.

Lakoff's claim in both PF and MP (but not in Elephants) is that on strictly empirical grounds, the tools the Strict Father uses will not bring about the claimed or desired effects, i.e., that the moral virtues claimed by political conservatives cannot be produced by a Strict Father morality. Lakoff considers this an established result of psychology, sociology and cognitive science. It is not an ought but an is.

The moral political metaphor of The Family is our next stop.

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