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Moral Politics

Moral Politics is a book by cognitive linguist George Lakoff. The book has been published with two different subtitles; see under "What conservatives know that liberals don't" for more information.

Table of contents


Lakoff's work can be seen as the product of at least two arguably contradictory motives. On one hand, he attempts to use the techniques of cognitive linguistics to better understand the mental frameworks that lie behind comtemporary American politics. In this sense, he strives to objectively describe which mental concepts make up a "liberal", and which a "conservative". (What Lakoff means by these two terms is considered below.) On the other hand, he also attempts to justify why "liberal" morals and politics (of which the author admits to partake) are superior to "conservative" morals and politics.

The book's form makes a distinction between these two goals; in theory, the majority of the text is devoted to objective study, while only the closing section is devoted to the author's personal views. In practice, however, the separation ends up being much less air-tight; both conservative and liberal readers could probably infer from almost any single chapter in the book that Lakoff is partial to the liberal viewpoint. This liberal coloration could be seen as anything from unnecessary malice against conservatives, to a successful demonstration of liberal superiority, to scientific ineptitude, to the unfortunate but inescapable fact that a completely neutral consideration of morality is impossible. Partly because of this, the book will mean different things to different people.

Lakoff wrote Moral Politics soon after the Republican Party's "Contract With America" takeover of Congress under the Clinton presidency, and his usage of the terms "liberal" and "conservative" is strongly correlated with how those labels might have been used in the 1994 elections, the former having much to do with the Democratic party and the latter with the Republican party; indeed, chapter 9, "Moral Categories in Politics", presents Hillary Rodham Clinton as a prototypical "liberal" and Newt Gingrich as a prototypical "conservative". (Lakoff actually puts this somewhat differently, suggesting that Clinton is the prototypical arch-nemesis of conservatives, while Gingrich is the prototypical arch-nemesis of liberals.)

The central problems

The major observations/assumptions and questions on which the book is founded include these:

  1. There is one cluster of beliefs that most conservatives share (including some kind of condemnation of abortion, a positive emphasis on military spending, and a fixed-percentage income tax) and another cluster that most liberals share (including some kind of support for abortion, a negative emphasis on military spending, and a progressive income tax). What is the explanation for this clustering? What "unifies each of the lists of moral priorities?" After all, each of these beliefs seems to be logically independent, e.g. it is possible to believe, as surely some people do, that both the right to abortion and significant military spending ought to be supported. Nonetheless, such "mix and match" views seem comparatively rare. How come?
  2. Liberals and conservatives usually not only disagree with one another but view the "other side" as largely incoherent. Many liberals, for example, see building more prisons a completely ineffective and illogical solution to crime, while many conservatives view it as the obvious solution. Why can't the one side even begin to understand the other?
  3. Why do liberals and conservatives tend to use the same words to mean different things? For example, a liberal might use the term "big government" to condemn the military, but, to a conservative, the term "big government" has nothing to do with the military, even though the military is a significant government institution.
  4. Why do liberals and conservatives make different issues the focus of campaigns? For example, why did the Republican leaders emphasize "family values" so much in their 1994 campaign, and why was similar emphasis not made by Democrats? Don't liberals also have families and a moral framework for reasoning about families?

The proposed solution: a metaphorical model

Lakoff tries to resolve these difficulties through a model in which liberals and conservatives have different and contradictory worldviews. These worldviews are thought to conflict in a number of ways relevant to the understanding of politics. Nonetheless, Lakoff claims that all these differences center around the two sides' respective understandings of the ideal nuclear family.

The family is central to Lakoff because he views it as our most common ways of understanding the country; Americans often metaphorically understand their country as a family, the government corresponding to the parent(s) of the family and the individual citizens corresponding to the children. Thus, one's understanding of how a family should be will have direct implications for how the country should be.

Liberals' ideal conceptualization is in terms of the "nurturant parent" family, while Conservatives' is in terms of the "strict father" family. Given the importance of these concepts in Moral Politics, it is important to consider what they mean, along with how each suggests and is justified by a corresponding way of viewing the natures of child rearing, morality, and justice.

A "nuturant parent" family is one that revolves around every family member caring for and being cared for by every other family member, around open communication between all parties, and around everyone pursuing their own vision of happiness. It is also correlated with the following views:

  • Morality: The basis of morality is in understanding, respecting, and helping other people, and in seeking the happiness of one's self and of others. The primary vices are selfishness and anti-social behavior.
  • Child development: Children develop morality primarily through interacting with and observing good people, especially good parents. Punishment is necessary in some cases, but also has the potential to backfire, causing children to adopt more violent or more anti-social ways. Though children should, in general, obey their parents, they will develop best if allowed to question their parents' decisions, to hear justifications for their parents' rules, etc.. Moral development is a life-long process, and almost no one is so perfect as not to need improvement.
  • Justice: The world is not without justice, but it is far the ideal of justice. Many people, for example, do not seem properly rewarded for their hard work and dedication. We must work hard to improve the everyone's condition.

A "strict father" family revolves around the parents teaching their children how to be self-reliant and self-disciplined through "tough love". This is correlated with the following views:

  • Morality: Evil is all around us, constantly temping us. Thus, the basis of morality is strong moral character, which requires self-reliance and self-discipline. The primary vices are those that dissolve self-discipline, such as laziness, gluttony, and indulgent sexuality.
  • Child development: Children develop self-discipline, self-reliance, and other virtues primarily through rewards and punishment, a system of "tough love". Since parents know the difference between right and wrong and children still do not, obedience to the parents is very important. Moral development basically lasts only as long as childhood; it's important to get it right the first time, because there is no "second chance".
  • Justice: The world may be a difficult place to live, but it is basically just; people usually get what they deserve. The difficulties in one's life serve as a test to sort the deserving from the undeserving.

Let's consider how this model can be used to answer the central questions framed above. (Please feel free to expand this section. The original author views it as weak.) As for why we have liberals and conservatives, as opposed to a bunch of issue-by-issue voters, Lakoff claims that one's take on any given political issue is largely determined by which model one adopts. Thus, in Part IV, "The Hard Issues", he tries to demonstrate how the liberal and conservative worldviews outlined above lead to typical liberal and conservative positions on a wide range of issues, including taxes, the death penalty, environmental regulations, affirmative action, education, and abortion.

As to why liberals and conservatives view each other's as incomprehensible on an issue-by-issue basis, Lakoff claims the trouble lies in each side not grasping the other side's worldview, and how different it is from its own. Failure to do so results in both side thinking the other is hopelessly irrational and immoral, an obviously unfortunate state of affairs.

As to why liberals and conservatives use different vocabulary, even to the point of using the same words to mean different things, Lakoff would again point to his model. Liberals and conservatives have different worldviews, and words are very much influenced by the worldview of the speaker. As Lakoff puts it,

Words don't have meangs in isolation. Words are defined relative to a conceptual system. If liberals are to understand how conservatives use their words, they will have to understand the conservative conceptual system. (From chapter 2, "The Worldview Problem")

Here, he is talking about liberals having trouble understanding conservatives, but Lakoff obviously views the reverse situation as equally problematic.

As for why conservatives and liberals make different issues the focus of their campaigns, this, too, stems largely from the model. (Explain how.) The fact that Republicans in 1994 focused so much on "family values", while the Democrats did not, is quite interesting to Lakoff. He views this as a sign that conservatives understand the Country is a Family metaphor that lies behind people's views of politics much better than liberals, which has helped them to get ahead politically.

Clarifications of the model

There are several things Lakoff does not intend to mean with his model. Perhaps most importantly, Lakoff does not believe that all conservatives are the same or that all liberals are the same. Chapter 17, "Varieties of Liberals and Conservatives", is entirely devoted to showing a number of dimensions along which one can slide and still be a member of either camp. Among other things, he says that one might have one way to conceptualize a real nuclear family and a separate, even opposite way of conceptualizing a metaphorical country-family. Lakoff is certainly not trying to establish necessary and sufficient conditions for being liberal or conservative. In the terminology of cognitive linguistics, Lakoff views both liberal and conservative as "radical category" labels.

Another thing Lakoff does not mean is that people consciously believe in the family concepts that he has described. As a cognitive scientist, Lakoff believes he is describing mental structures that may well be mostly below conscious level. This does not mean, however, that they have little or no effect on one's opinions and consequent actions.

What conservatives know that liberals don't

It is interesting to note that the subtitle of the book changed between the first edition and the current edition. Once titled Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't, it has been rechristened as Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.

The original subtitle reflected Lakoff's idea that conservatives, at least 1994 conservatives, understood the nature of American politics better than liberals. In particular, conservatives were thought to better understand the importance of the connection between the family, morality, and politics, and, especially around 1994, were able to get quite a number of votes through making this important connection explicit for their constituents. In this framework, the original subtitle can be seen as something of a call-to-arms to liberals, along the lines of: you guys better get a better understanding of politics, or you'll never get back in office again.

The new, more bland title may reflect Lakoff's disappointment with how his work was seen as more political than scientific. Thus, perhaps it is an attempt to get more attention from the scientific community, and less from political pundits. (Has anyone read the new book? Does this interpretation seem valid? Also, has the content of the book changed as well?)

Arguments against shallow stereotypes

Perhaps because some argue that he fails to rise above this, it is important to note that Lakoff claims to oppose superficial, stereotypical, and patently false characterizing of both liberals and conservatives. In pursuit of this this goal, he tries to disspell some common oversimplifications about both political positions.

In chapter 7, "Why We Need a New Understanding of American Politics", Lakoff tries to refute several conceptions of "Conservatism" that he views as much too simplistic to be true. First, he claims that any liberal or conservate thinking that "Conservatives just believe in less government" is incorrect. Common misconceptions that liberals hold include that "Conservatism is 'the ethos of selfishness'" and that "Conservatism is no more than a conspiracy of the ultrarich to protect their money and power and to make themselves even richer and more powerful." Common misunderstandings of conservatives by conservatives are that "Conservatism [and nothing else] is for traditional values", and that "Conservatism is just what the Bible tells us."

In chapter 18, "Pathologies, Stereotpes, and Distortions", he tries to refute certain stereotyped views of liberals, including the viewing of them "as lovers of bureaucracy", "as defenders of special interests" and "as advocating only rights and no responsibilities" (p. 317, 1996 edition)

Comparison to other thinkers

Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions also seeks to explain the inner logic behind the apparently ad-hoc collections of political views that tend to clump together. Whereas Lakoff focuses on contemporary "Liberals" and "Conservatives" in the United States, Sowell focuses mainly on Western political writing, both contemporary and from the past few centuries. Lakoff's being a linguist and Sowell's being an economist and political scientist also lend rather different feels to each book. Nonetheless, the similarity between the books is compelling.

Other social scientists and political commentators have proposed a "family values" as key to understanding a conservative mindset. In The Interest Group Society, for example, political scientist Jeffrey Berry describes "the new right movement that developed in the late 1970s" as being founded on "a belief that the American way of life is threatened", chiefly because of "the decline of the nuclear family." At this time, Berry says, feminism was seen as one of the greatest threats to the family, and, therefore, "conservative groups see feminism as one of the root causes of divorce, growing welfare caseloads, out-of-wedlock births, and many other trends they decry." (See Berry, pp. 34-35.)

George Orwell, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, describes a fictional totalitarian regime lead by Big Brother, which teaches its citizens a version of English ("Newspeak") in which opposition to it cannot be expressed. Some claim that Moral Politics likens either liberals or conservatives (usually the latter) to Big Brother; the offending party is said to deliberately impose its views by repeating idioms and altering terms of reference in debate.

Regardless of whether parts of the text might suggest this view, there are several reasons to believe that Lakoff was not intending to liken anyone to Big Brother. Consider:

  • No obvious reference to Orwell or Nineteen Eighty-Four is made anywhere in Lakoff's work.
  • An Orwellian claim is much less serious if one doesn't believe in an objective, speaker-independent meaning of every word. Lakoff does not seem to believe in such a thing, as can be seen, in part, in the above quote from chapter 2, "The Worldview Problem".
  • Lakoff suggests that liberals have trouble understanding conservatives just as much as conservatives have trouble understanding liberals. Thus, it would seem, if one party is at fault, then both are.

What the book means to different people

The book's duality of purpose means that it will be a very different work for different people. For those sympathetic to cognitive science in general or cognitive linguistics in particular, the book might provide "enough" objective content to suggest a useful model of how human language and concepts are structured. For conservatives the book's failure to provide a truly objective view of politics may render it useless as anything but an arrogant, liberal diatribe. For those who view Lakoff's "liberal" or "conservative" views as poor taste parodies of their own beliefs, the book may seem much more insulting or condescending than scientific. For others, the book may be uninteresting as far as scientific implications are concerned, but insightful in terms of better understanding the political thought of either themselves or "the other guys".

Some have criticized Moral Politics as being overly ahistorical. The work certainly is fixed in a very particular point in time, although it might be helpful to consider that Lakoff sees his job to explain politics not in terms of political forces that act through time, but through the structures inherent in the particular human minds of the here and now. It can be argued that both perspectives have their merit.


one could argue about whether Hillary and Newt makes sense as prototypical figures

Publication Information

  • Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't. University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Other References

  • Berry, Jeffrey. The Interest Group Society. 2nd edition. Glenview, Illinois and Boston: Scott, Foresman/Little, Brown. 1989.

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