Thursday, January 13, 2005

Lakoff - VIII: entering the thicket of morality

[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)]

The center of Lakoff’s political thought is his analysis of how we think about morality. For Lakoff it is an “empirical finding” of cognitive science that our unconscious moral reasoning makes use of an extensive collection of metaphors. A metaphor is a figure of speech or an image whose features roughly correspond to something else and which is used to reason or think about that other thing. For example, early nuclear physicists thought of the atom in terms of a miniature solar system with electrons whirling around the nucleus-sun. Of course this was not literally true. There were no people living on the third electron out. But the image was an important initial way to “think” about the atom and actually was the basis for important experiments and theories. Some of the metaphors we use in our moral thinking are conscious, but most are unconscious. These various unconscious metaphors may be triggered (“activated”) by particular uses of language. This is the “framing” concept that has achieved so much notoriety.

Having said that various metaphors for moral ideas exist, Lakoff makes a further claim that their range is fairly limited because our moral concepts are themselves grounded in our experiences of what constitutes “well-being,” especially physical well-being (see earlier post):
In other words, we have found that . . . our metaphors for morality are typically based on what people over history and across cultures have seen as contributing to their well-being. [PF, ch. 14, p. 290]
This view, which is both ahistorical and acultural, runs counter to many prevalent currents of progressive thought. On the other hand, as noted in the last post, there is ample room in Lakoff’s thought for the form and content of our unconscious metaphors to be modulated and influenced by culture and history. If “Love is a Journey” is a relatively universal image, the means, ends and experience of traveling are culturally and historically conditioned and hence so is the reasoning about traveling transferred to human love relationships via the metaphor.

Moral acts, in Lakoff’s formulation, are acts which enhance well-being, especially of others. Indeed acts designed only to enhance our own well-being are seen as selfish, not moral. Enhancing our own well-being as a goal can only be moral if it is coupled with an “invisible hand” theory that maximizing individual well-being also maximizes the well-being of the collective, as many libertarians believe. There thus is a fundamentally social aspect to morality, no matter what your political ideology.

Lakoff asserts that increasing well-being is seen as a gain, decreasing well-being is seen as a loss. This leads to his claim that one of our main moral metaphors conceptualizes well-being as wealth and moral action as a financial transaction. Hence we arrive at Lakoff’s moral accounting schemes.

First post here. Previous post here.