Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Lakoff - IX: moral accounting

[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)]

Moral accounting. To this point Lakoff has been closer to his roots in cognitive linguistics than politics. But with the set of complex metaphors that moral accounting entails, things start to wander further from their neural science origins. Not that the logic of the method has changed. Indeed, it remains remarkably true to its roots in that regard. Thinking is embodied in neural structures; those structures are conditioned by the fact that some survived and others didn't over biological time; that what we call "well-being" is optimized by those favorable outcomes; that the embodied concepts of well-being are fairly widespread in many cultures and times, as befits their biological origin; that the neural structures of well-being (our concepts of well-being) can appear, interact and function in ways that adapt to their changing environment (which is what gives them their survival advantage); and that the way they interact with the environment and other organisms, human and non-human, gives rise to what we call technology and culture.

But there now appears a discernible gap between that method and the complex metaphors Lakoff has selected to base his analysis on. He would say he has chosen because the empirical evidence points to these choices. Perhaps there is some latitude for disagreement here, even if you buy the cognitive science machinery that lies beneath. But we will let him speak for now. Consider Moral Accounting (MP, chapter 4 and FP, chapter 14, passim):
The metaphors we use in discussing moral questions are abundant. We use these metaphors to frame moral issues; to interpret them, understand them, and explore their consequences. We will see that they play an absolutely central role in our judgments about what is good behavior and what is bad, what is the right thing to do and what is wrong.
Lakoff then makes a strong claim, which he supports primarily by giving uses of everyday language that exemplify it:
We all conceptualize well-being as wealth. We understand an increase in well-being as a "gain" and a decrease of well-being as a "loss or a "cost." When we speak of the "costs" of a fire or an earthquake, we do not mean just the monetary cost but also the "cost" in human well-being -- deaths, injuries, suffering, trauma. When we speak of "profiting" from an experience, we are speaking of the kinds of well-being we might "gain" from that experience -- perhaps knowledge, enjoyment, sophistication, or confidence.
Lakoff considers the "well-being = wealth" metaphor to be both ubiquitous and central to our thinking (while it is not always clear how universal he means this to be, he clearly means it to be characteristic of our own culture at this time). This equivalency carries with it other conceptual schemes, especially accounting and "balancing the books." Money arose as a common medium to facilitate the exchange things of differing value to the well-being of the parties in the transaction. It is neither outlandish nor shocking that money (or wealth) could play a central metaphorical role in our society, even for things that are not literally "exchangeable" in the physical sense. But that doesn't necessarily make the conceptual equivalency true, so Lakoff buttresses his contention by examining the many everyday phrases that seem to echo the financial metaphor: Reciprocation--"I owe you one"; Retribution: "I'll pay you back!"; Restitution--"Paying back a debt for a harm you have caused"; Altruism--"Building up moral credit by giving but not requiring repayment"; and many more.

In Lakoff's world, this is part of an elaborate metaphorical requirement to "balance the moral books." Those books can be balanced in different ways. Preferring different strategies and priorities for doing that balancing is one of the ways that people wind up with different political positions on things like welfare or the death penalty. But there is more to it than that. The strategies and priorities also bundle together in certain regular and predictable ways that we tend to identify as "liberal" and "conservative." We are now approaching Lakoff's family metaphor for politics.

Links to other posts in the Lakoff series in the sidebar.