Moral Models Exist Beneath the Surface

Posted: February 26, 2012 in Uncategorized
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Often behind the pack, I have just now completed George Lakoff’s Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (University of Chicago Press, 1996). A friend suggested it to me, no, gave me a copy. It was well worth the read. And Lakoff’s strong, balanced and scholarly analysis provided a real legitimacy to his project: Identifying the moral models and metaphors that underlie particular political thought.

At the center of his work is the identification of family moral systems that are projected into the public sphere. These moral systems, with their accompanying worldviews, explain why persons and parties believe and act in the ways they do. In many respects the moral systems are incompatible with one another. And when a system is understood to be absolute by its advocate, any other system can only be described as mistaken or, in the worst case, immoral.

The two family models, with variants, are these: Strict Father Morality and Nurturing Parent Morality.

Strict Father Morality is an authoritarian system of hierarchy, with a strict father figure at the top establishing rules and discipline to conform to the system. Women have domestic responsibility as well as making sure the father’s rules are followed. Children must obey parents and never rebel. The goal is for children to become self-reliant and responsible. Good parents do not meddle in their lives later in adulthood. Being good is becoming self-disciplined, succeeding, and prospering. Weakness is immoral. Protection is manifested in protection of the family from all outside threats.

Nurturing Parent Morality is a model of caring for and caring about, living with mutually beneficial relationships. Children are shaped through understanding, respect and reasonable freedom, all of which creates a caring and responsive member of society. Children become obedient through respect of parents, not fear of punishment. The goal is to create self-fulfilled children who help others to become the same.Therefore the most important characteristics to learn are empathy, the capacity to nurture others, and freedom to explore many thoughts and ways of understanding the world.

Both of these moral models hold certain worldviews and they are instrumental in political life. They also manifest themselves in different forms of Christian churches. If you are operating primarily out of one or the other then your conclusions about social policy, the role and place of government, and operative values are a reflection of those worldviews.

This explains the radically different conclusions that emerge when it comes to political or social choices. They are distinct ideologies based in a moral outlook. And unless we understand the underlying moral code by which people operate we will never understand why they would come to the conclusions they do. They are often not reconcilable. The reasons that people make the decisions they do are often not for the stereotyped reasons their opponents present. Rather, they are motivated by a paradigm, a model, and principles that are accepted as the way the world should be. You can like that outlook, hate it, or want to argue about it. But to ignore the moral underpinnings of each system is to entirely misunderstand why they are the way they are.

  1. Jan Coffman says:

    Ooooooo, very good!

  2. Gloria Beranek says:

    Are you sharing your reading list with a short synopsis? You seem to be a magnet for thought-provokiing, contemporary literature!

  3. David McGee says:

    A great Bill Moyers interview in the same vein as this post

    This is all so very informative for gaining a frame of reference for political discussions without demonizing the “opposition” or sanctifying your own perspectives.

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