Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Lakoff - VI: Prelude to politics

[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)]

We have almost arrived where most people start with respect to Lakoff's political analysis. But we are not quite there yet. Central to Lakoff's analysis is the proposition that political worldviews are derived from systems of moral concepts, so we need to do a quick overview of where moral concepts come from. By now the underlying method will be familiar.

Moral concepts depend on metaphorical understanding and that understanding is derived from experience. That experience becomes "embodied" in neural structures in the brain. For the moral conceptual system the relevant experience relates to experiences of well-being, where this is understood in comparative terms:
Other things being equal, you are better off if you are healthy rather than sick, rich rather than poor, strong rather than weak, free rather than imprisoned, cared for rather than uncared for, happy rather than sad, whole rather than lacking, clean rather than filthy, beautiful rather than ugly, if you are functioning in the light rather than the dark, if you can stand upright so that you don't fall down, and if you live in a community with close social ties, rather than in a hostile or isolated one. These are among the basic experiential forms of well-being. Their opposites are forms of harm or lack of well-being: poverty, illness, sadness, weakness, imprisonment and so on. Immoral action is action that causes harm or lack of well-being, that is, action that deprives someone of one or more of these . . . In the case of young children, it is the job of parents to do their best to guarantee their well-being. On the whole, young children are better off if they are obedient rather than disobedient to their parents, who, in the normal case, have their best interests at heart, know how to keep them from being harmed, and exercise legitimate authority. (MP, chapter 3)
We can see that Lakoff's version of morality is a material one and for the most part universal. He indeed claims that moral metaphors based on these universal life experiences appear in many cultures. If this is so, why do there appear to be differences in moral systems? In particular, what explains the "puzzles" of the last post? In another step or two this will bring us to the "framing" issue.

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