Sunday, January 02, 2005

Lakoff - V: Setting the stage

[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)]

Lakoff does not see himself as a political theorist but as a cognitive linguist who studies political thought empirically. Thus the foundations of his thought are important to understanding what he is about. His previous work involved the empirical examination of conceptual systems, among them our conceptions and language about morality. It was here he "discovered" the conceptual models he claims are the metaphors that explain US liberal and conservative political thought and language at this point in history. His goal was to be able to explain how certain diverse positions come to be held by liberals and conservatives on many different topics, what holds the diverse elements together (makes them cohere), why neither side seems able to comprehend the other, and why the choice of topics and language differs so radically.

At the risk of making this post too long, let me quote from chapter 2 of MP where Lakoff sets out his "puzzles" for liberals and conservatives. It is important to see these as genuine puzzles to be solved and it is a failure not to recognize the potency of the opposing critiques on strictly logical grounds. One of the keys to understanding Lakoff is that this is not a matter of formal syllogisms but of another kind of logical inference. Lakoff's analysis of that "other" kind of inference is grounded in his analysis of the embodied nature of conceptual systems we touched on in previous posts.

Here are some of Lakoff's puzzles (I have selected those more pertinent to public health from a longer account):
Puzzles for liberals:

Conservatives are largely against abortion, saying that they want to save the lives of unborn fetuses. The United States has an extremely high infant-mortality rate, largely due to the lack of adequate prenatal care for low low-income mothers. Yet conservatives are not in favor of government programs providing such prenatal care and have voted to eliminate existing programs that have succeeded in lowering the infant mortality rate. Liberals find this illogical. It appears to liberals that "pro-life" conservatives do want to prevent the death of those fetuses whose mothers do not want them (through stopping abortion), but do not want to prevent the deaths of fetuses whose mothers do want them (through providing adequate prenatal care programs. Conservatives see no contradiction. Why?

Liberals also find it illogical that right-to-life advocates are mostly in favor of capital punishment. This seems natural to conservatives. Why?

Conservatives are opposed to welfare and to government funds for the needy but are in favor of government funds going to victims of floods [and tsunamis!], fires, and earthquakes who are in need. Why isn't this contradictory? [snip]

Conservatives are willing to increase the budgets for the military and for prisons on the grounds that they provide protection. But they want to eliminate regulatory agencies whose job is to protect the public, especially workers and consumers. Conservatives do not conceptualize regulation as a form of protection, only as a form of interference. Why?

Conservatives claim to favor states' rights over the power of the federal government. Yet their proposal for tort reform will invest the federal government with considerable powers previously held by the states, the power to determine what lawsuits can be brought for product liability and securities fraud, and hence the power to control product safety standards and ethical financial practices. Whys is this shift of power from the states to the federal government not considered a violation of states' rights by conservatives?

In these cases, what is irrational, mysterious, or just plain evil or corrupt to liberals is natural, straightforward, and moral to conservatives. [snip]

Puzzles for conservatives:

Liberals support welfare and education proposals to aid children, yet they sanction the murder of children by supporting the practice of abortion. Isn't this contradictory?

How can liberals claim to favor the rights of children, when they campion the rights of criminals, such as convicted child molesters? How can liberals claim empathy for victims when they defend the rights of criminals?

How can liberals support federal funding for AIDS research and treatment, while promoting the spread of AIDS by sanctioning sexual behavior that leads to AIDS? In defending gay rights, liberals sanction homosexual sex; they sanction teenage sex by advocating the distribution of condoms in schools; they sanction drug abuse by promoting needle exchange programs for drug users. how can liberals say they want to stop the spread of AIDS while they sanction practices that lead to it?

How can liberals claim to be supporters of labor when they support environmental restrictions that limit development and eliminate jobs? [snip]

To conservatives, liberals seem either immoral, perverse, misguided, irrational, or just plain dumb. Yet, from the perspective of the liberal worldview, what seems contradictory or immoral or stupid to conservatives seems to liberals to be natural, rational, and, above all, moral.
For Lakoff these puzzles are data to be explained. He therefore set himself the task of explaining the conservative and liberal worldviews in ways that made sense of these apparent puzzles.

First post here. Previous post here. Next post here.