adequacy conditions (cognition and morality)

George Lakoff’s important book, Moral Politics, describes the root metaphor at the base of conservative and liberal worldviews. “Cognitive studies,” Lakoff explains, have concluded “that moral thinking is imaginative and that it depends fundamentally on metaphorical thinking” (p. 41). The explanatory metaphor for both conservatives and liberals extends a notion of the family/parent to the nation/government. “The resulting moral systems, put together out of the same elements, but in different order, are radically opposed” (p. 35).
One of the interesting challenges of Lakoff’s book (i.e., another finding of cognitive science) is the myth of being conscious of one’s own worldview, and “that all one has to do to find out about people’s views of the world is to ask them” (36). Lakoff describes realizing the myth of transparent belief as “the most fundamental result of cognitive science” (p. 36).

“What people will tell you about their worldview does not necessarily accurately reflect how they reason, how they categorize, how they speak, and how they act” (p. 36).



Lakoff is careful not to tell us what our politics or our morality should be; he is not preaching or giving a prescription. Instead, he is describing the two logics composing the deep split in political thinking between conservatives and liberals in the United States. This is not philosophy; this is description. It is up to us to understand the descriptions and then figure out how to talk and reason based on the reality of these starkly different moralities.

“Our public discourse about the nature of morality and its relation to politics [is] sadly impoverished. We must find a way to talk about alternative moral systems and how they give rise to alternative forms of politics. Journalists – including the most intelligent and insightful of journalists – have been at a loss. They have to rely on existing forms of public discourse, and since those forms are not adequate to the task, even the most thoughtful and honest journalists need help. Public discourse has to be enriched so that the media can do its job better.” (2nd edition, 2002, p. 32)

Lakoff goes much further and deeper than merely slapping labels on certain brands of politics. “Classification in itself,” writes Lakoff, “is relatively boring” (p. 17). What we need – what Lakoff provides – are models. Models do much more than mere categorization, they

  • analyze modes of reasoning
  • show how modes of reasoning about different issues fit together
  • show how different forms of reasoning are related to each in other in such a way that they are all understood to be instances of the same thing (in this case, politics)
  • show links between forms of political reasoning and forms of moral reasoning
  • show how moral reasoning in politics is ultimately based on models of the family

Lakoff’s hope – and mine in reading his book and trying to understand the basic point – is that by understanding how our minds work, and especially how our words give clues to how our minds work we can address political dilemmas more effectively.

“The same mind that we study for scientific reasons creates moral and political systems of thought and uses them every day. For this reason, the findings of conceptual systems research will eventually come to matter more and more in understanding moral and political life” (p. 17).

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