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Metaphors We Moralize By

“He has a heart of gold.” “There’s
not a mean bone in her body.” “They’re rotten to the core.”
“We’re going to show them what we’re made of.”

What do all these statements have in
common? They all cluster around the idea that people contain fundamental
moral properties that define who they are and determine how they behave.
In other words, they form a conceptual metaphor that understands morality
as essence. There are other common conceptual metaphors for morality
as well: morality as bounds (leading astray, deviating
from the path, transgressing bounds) or morality as uprightness
(an upstanding citizen, a lowly thing to do). These moral
metaphors can tell us quite a lot, according to George Lakoff, a cognitive
linguist and author of numerous influential books like Metaphors We
Live By
and Moral Politics. In fact, Lakoff argues, metaphors may be
the key to understanding much of politics, culture, and human thought

In a recent
, Lakoff comments
on some
Times science reporting
lends support to his previous work. He explores several interrelated
ideas, such as embodied cognition, frame semantics, and biconceptualism,
but I want to focus on one in particular: the conceptual metaphor. As
Lakoff explains, metaphors are not just literary devices or explanatory
expressions – they shape and constrain how we understand and think
about the world. We understand our experiences in terms of, we reason
according to, and we make judgments on the basis of, metaphors.
These metaphors come from our repeated, bodily interactions with the
physical environment – interactions that then provide a structure
for our thoughts when we turn to more abstract concepts (like morality).
For example, in one study, people who were asked to think of immoral
acts like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to ask for
antiseptic wipes than those who were asked to think about good deeds.
In another study, holding a warm cup of coffee made subjects more likely
to judge a fictional person as affectionate and friendly. In both cases,
there is a direct link between our embodied experiences and our moral
judgments; a link, says Lakoff, explained by conceptual metaphors like
“Morality is Purity” or “Affection is Warmth”. These links seem
to have a neural basis – strengthened by the repeated activation of
distinct brain regions when experiences occur together (usually a physical
experience, like warmth, and an emotional one, like affection). While
these metaphorical concepts are often unconscious, they are revealed
both by our everyday language and by our reasoning.

Lakoff then takes his conceptual metaphor
theory into the
. He describes the
moral systems of the two political parties in the United States –
conservatives and liberals – as grounded in a conceptual metaphor
“Nation as Family”. Since children typically have their first experience
with governance in a family setting, the metaphor turns a family-based
morality into a political one. For conservatives, the family is led
by a Strict Father, who supports the family, has absolute authority,
uses strict disciplining and tough love to instill the values of right
and wrong into children who can then be trustworthy, successful and
self-reliant. Once the children have grown up they are on their own
– and the parents should not meddle.  For liberals, the family
is based on a Nurturing Parent, who protects the children, promotes
equality between family members, and encourages children to have fun
and explore diverse interests in order to develop their potential. Children
grow up to be interdependent members of a community, bound together
by empathy and care. These two family metaphors inform each political
ideology. Conservatives tend to dislike big government (no “meddling”
with independent children who can take care of themselves), oppose feminism
and gay marriage (there is only one father and he is the primary authority)
and support a strong military and gun ownership (the father has a duty
to defend his family). Liberals, on the other hand, tend to support
taxation and welfare programs (parents must provide basic needs to dependent
children), advocate for affirmative action and gay rights (nurturant
parents must enable all their children to fulfill their potentials),
and support government regulations (children need to be shielded from
external dangers like pollution, disease, and unsafe products).

Lakoff’s mapping of a family metaphor
onto two different moral systems is certainly not the only explanation
of the political differences in the United States (Jonathan Haidt, for
the liberal/conservative divide

in terms of varying priorities to five basic moral foundations). But
Lakoff does perhaps provide a useful framework for understanding some
of the disagreement between the political left and right. Could conceptual
metaphor theory be useful for understanding moral disagreements in other
situations? In a
, Edward Slingerland
suggests that it may help with cross cultural comparisons – for instance
between traditional Chinese and modern western morality. Because metaphors
arise out of structures of human cognition, we may find commonalities
that can provide a starting point for moral discourse.

Slingerland gives the example of a discussion
about human rights. In the modern West, morality is often understood
in terms of accounting, where rights are objects that we possess
and can be deprived of (Rights as IOU’s). But in China, morality
is more often understood in terms of bounded space, with notions of
overstepping boundaries
or hitting the mark. Slingerland
suggests that we replace Rights as IOU’s with an alternative metaphor
that is closer to the Chinese conception but still has metaphorical
force in the modern West: Rights as Right-of-Ways. By conceiving of
rights as paths along which individuals can move without being interfered
with or encroached upon, we can draw on a common conceptual metaphor
from the domain of physical space. This may create a point of departure
for genuine conversation.

Slingerland is quick to note that these
commonalities in metaphors do not reflect a moral order that is somehow
independent from humans or necessarily true. Rather, they come
out of the interactions between a “fairly stable physical world over
the course of both evolutionary and personal time, which makes the emergence
of certain primary metaphors… almost inevitable for creatures like

Whether you think metaphors have useful
applications to moral discourse or politics, it looks like – for creatures
like us, at least – they’re here to stay.

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