Sunday, February 06, 2005

Lakoff - XII: "family values"

[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)]

Prior to the Elephants book Lakoff was most well-known in the political realm for his "family metaphor" interpretation of conservative and liberal politics. It was explained in some detail in MP in 1996, with a second edition, containing an addendum on the 2000 elections, published in 2002. The genesis of the idea came, as he tells us in Elephants, when he was pondering the "puzzles" we noted in Lakoff-V. What "bundles" them together? He remembered a paper from one of his students on the metaphor of the "Nation as a Family" (e.g., Founding Fathers, "sending sons" to battle, DAR) and wondered if the conservative and liberal positions might be related to different metaphors of the "family." So he took the bundles of seemingly contradictory positions of conservatives and liberals and "ran them through the metaphor backwards" to see what kinds of "family" each would be a product of. The result was his famous metaphor of the Strict Father versus the Nurturant Parent.

I won't go through the details because you can read them for yourself in MP, PF, or free online at the Rockridge Institute site (Family Values and links therein). But given our extended discussion of Lakoff's theoretical worldview I need to situate them within that thinking. While the whole package seems to spring fully blown in 1996 in MP, the later book, PF takes the trouble to put them in context. PF (published in 1999 between the two editions of MP) is an ambitious account of how new discoveries in cognitive science require a complete revamping of Western philosophical thought and its tradition. A single chapter (14) is devoted to Morality. In it Lakoff catalogs certain metaphors for morality he believes are widespread if not universal: Keeping the Moral Books, Well-being as Wealth, Moral Strength, Moral Nurturance, Moral Authority, and some others. As we have noted earlier, Lakoff believes their sources are primarily basic human experiences of well-being and as such they are embodied concepts.

This is also where the Nation as Family metaphor is discussed and this is how Lakoff says introduces it:
What we have seen so far is clear: Our abstract moral concepts are metaphorical, and we reason via those metaphors. We believe that the evidence for the metaphorical character of moral understanding is quite substantial. We have surveyed only a small part of it.

We now turn from this relatively well-established claim to one that is far less obvious and more highly speculative. This concerns the issue of what, if anything, binds these several metaphors together into a coherent moral view. As you read through the list you may sense that, in your own experience, they somehow must fit together. But how? What connects them, gives certain metaphors priority over others, and makes them form a coherent system that a person can actually act on?

What we are about to propose does not have the massive body of convergent evidence to support it that is available for conceptual metaphor. But the thesis we propose does explain how our metaphors might get organized into the systems we have described, and it also shows how they can be criticized.

In studying the metaphors that underlie Western political liberalism and conservatism, Lakoff [he refers to himself here in the third person and cites MP] proposed that these two political orientations are ultimately based on different models of the family. Mainstream conservatism, he claimed, is grounded on what he called a "strict father" model, whereas mainstream liberalism is based on a "nurturant parent" model. Since each family model includes its own morality, political liberalism and conservatism express different views of morality. Each family model organizes the culturally shared metaphors for morality in different ways, giving priority to certain metaphors and downplaying others. Moreover, each particular metaphor for morality (e.g., Moral Strength or Moral Nurturance) gets a unique interpretation depending on which family model it is identified with. In the Strict Father model . . . moral strength is given top priority as the key to acting morally, whereas in the Nurturant Parent model moral strength is also important, but it does not override empathy and responsibilities for nurturance.

[ . . . ]

Our hypothesis about moral understanding, then, is that it is models of the family that order our metaphors for morality into relatively coherent ethical perspectives by which we live our lives. [PF, pp. 312 - 313]
When I first encountered Lakoff I was initially skeptical. It was the seemingly enormous explanatory power of the Strict Father interpretation for understanding conservative thought that impressed me, and Lakoff makes clear this explanatory power was an important element in his own thinking despite the fact it was frankly speculative. Where the Nurturant Parent fits in is something that we will take up shortly. Clearly it is of some importance for how we talk about public health.

[Links to previous Lakoff posts in sidebar on left]