16 Jun

More values analysis of Britain’s Alternative Vote referendum: Lakoff’s categories of moral action

In my last post I identified the metaphors at work in George Lakoff’s two opposing morality systems of “Strict Father” (Conservative Authoritarian) morality and “Nurturant Parent” (Progressive Nurturing) morality, and applied them to Britain’s failed referendum on the Alternative Vote. This post goes further, exemplifying the way Lakoff applies those metaphors to create “categories for moral action”. This post will be of interest to anyone wishing to learn more about Lakoff or for a persuasive explanation of why the Alternative Vote failed.

In chapter nine of the book Moral Politics: how liberals and conservatives think, Lakoff lists the two sets of categories for moral (and hence political) action.

 Conservative categories of moral action:

  1. Promoting Conservative Authoritarian morality in general.
  2. Promoting self-discipline, responsibility and self-reliance.
  3. Upholding the morality of Reward and Punishment
  4. Preventing interference with the pursuit of self-interest by self-disciplined, self-reliant people.
  5. Promoting punishment as a means of upholding authority.
  6. Insuring punishment for lack of self-discipline.
  7. Protecting moral people from external evils.
  8. Upholding the Moral Order.

Progressive Nurturing categories of moral action:

  1. Sympathetic behaviour and promoting fairness.
  2. Helping those who cannot help themselves.
  3. Protecting those who cannot help themselves.
  4. Promoting fulfilment in life.
  5. Nurturing and strengthening oneself in order to do the above.

To give you some faith in just how well these categories work, let’s start with an example from Lakoff, that of university loans, called college loans in the US context. The following is quoted from Moral Politics:

“The federal government has had a program to provide low-interest loans to college students. The students don’t have to start paying off the loans while they are still in college and the loans are interest-free during the college years. The liberal rationale for the program is this: college is expensive and a great many poor-to-middle-class students cannot afford it. This loan program allows a great many students to go to college who otherwise wouldn’t. Going to college allows one to get a better job at a higher salary afterward and to be paid more during one’s entire life. This benefits not only the student but also the government, since the student will be paying more taxes over his lifetime, because of his better job. From the liberal [progressive] moral perspective, this is a highly moral program [in the US context]. It helps those who cannot help themselves (Progressive Category 2). It promotes fulfilment in life in two ways, since education is fulfilling in itself and it permits people to get more fulfilling jobs (Category 4). It strengthens the nation, since it produces a better-educated citizenry and ultimately brings in more tax money (Category 5), and it is empathic behaviour (Category 1) making access to college loans more fairly distributed (Category 1).

But through conservative spectacles, this is an immoral program. Since students depend on the loans, the program supports dependence on the government rather than self-reliance (Conservative category 2). Since not everyone has access to such loans, the program introduces competitive unfairness, thus interfering with the free market in loans and hence with the pursuit of self-interest (Category 3a). Since the program takes money earned by one group and, through taxation, gives it to another group, it is unfair and penalises the pursuit of self-interest by taking money from someone who has earned it and giving it to someone who hasn’t (Category 3a)”.

Although outside the US the context is different, hopefully the applicability of the categories for moral action are clear.

Now it’s worth re-listing and explaining in more detail how these categories worked in practice during the Alternative Vote debate. First the Conservative Authoritarian categories:

Conservative categories of moral action:

  1. “Promoting Conservative Authoritarian morality in general”. As Lakoff writes “Several Conservative Authoritarian metaphors [as discussed in my last post] imply a strict good-evil division, in particular, Moral Strength, Moral Boundaries, and Moral Authority. Moral Strength sees evil as a force in the world, reifying it and distinguishing it from good. Moral Boundaries are drawn strictly and clearly between right and wrong. And Moral Authority sets rules to be obeyed, rules that define what is right and distinguish it from what is wrong. The moral system itself, of course, is right – so right that it defines what right is. Defending that system, which defines the very nature of right and wrong, is the primary moral obligation. Actions promoting or protecting the moral system are therefore moral; actions against the moral system are therefore immoral”. The consequences of this mean that any politician or party under scrutiny has to act in a certain way or risk being tacitly labeled “bad”. Be morally weak, step across a moral line, or challenge moral (that is, valid) authority and you have not only made a mistake, you are actually being immoral; the stakes are high. This way of thinking is inherently judgmental, and Conservative Authoritarians, not prioritising sympathy in the way Nurturing Progressives do, are inherently less understanding and forgiving. Hence a need to tread carefully.
  1. “Promoting self-discipline, responsibility and self-reliance”. This is a moral imperative, but actions discouraging this are not simply incidental or inconvenient; they are in themselves immoral. So when Progressives propose an electoral system that increases fairness (a Progressive Nurturing priority), all that Conservatives are interested in is whether that “fairness” rewards the values of self-discipline, responsibility and self-reliance. The initial suspicion will be that it is some kind of progressive trick to undermine these values, for reasons we find in point 5 below. The question will be “if these candidates are indeed self-disciplined, responsible and self-reliant [which are all indicators of morality generally], then why aren’t they winners already under the current First Past The Post system? If they want to win and they think there’s some kind of structural impediment stopping them, why don’t they just show us their self-discipline by working harder to overcome it?”. Conservative morality does not fundamentally believe in structural, systemic or environmental barriers to success. It believes that enough self-discipline overcomes any barrier, thus in any situation it is always only ever self-discipline that is lacking.
  1. “Upholding the morality of Reward and Punishment”. Conservative Authoritarian morality assumes that it is human nature that people operate in terms of reward and punishment, although this is an incorrect folk-behaviourist “common-sense” view of how people work. The idea of “punishing the Liberal Democrats” who proposed the change, a repeated theme in the referendum, is a distinctly Conservative Authoritarian concept, which would have led to activation and reinforcement of Conservative values, as indeed would any talk of punishment, even of punishing the Conservative Party.
  2. “Preventing interference with the pursuit of self-interest by self-disciplined, self-reliant people”. Again, if the winners of an electoral contest have these qualities, they deserve their reward of victory, and any new system that would get in the way of that would be totally immoral.
  3. “Promoting punishment as a means of upholding authority”. This means that anybody challenging legitimate authority, which might be that of morally-superior electoral candidates or the authority of the Conservative Authoritarian moral system itself, deserves to be punished. It was widely felt that the Liberal Democrats had violated the authority the public gave them. This therefore was “asking for” punishment, under Conservative Authoritarian thinking.
  4. “Insuring punishment for lack of self-discipline”. Punishment – in the form of electoral loss – would also be due to electoral candidates not capable of winning under First Past the Post (lack of capability always indicates lack of self-discipline, since social or external causes for failure are not seen to exist in the Conservative Authoritarian mindset). To Progressives it is natural to argue for more proportional systems of representation, so that a second-placed candidate who loses with 37% of the vote to the winner’s 38%, should receive similar representation. To Progressives, to come so close and yet lose everything is unfair. But to Conservative Authoritarians it doesn’t matter that the winner takes all, despite only having come a pip ahead: those are the rules of the game (rules, of course, being more important to Conservative Authoritarians) and the second-placed candidate’s failure to win outright not only deserves not winning it deserves the punishment of getting nothing at all, if only “to make them try harder next time”. This moral priority of punishment for perceived lack of self-discipline does not exist in the Progressive Nurturing model of morality.
  5. “Protecting moral people from external evils”. Note that the moral imperative is not to protect everyone or just anyone, only moral people. Self-disciplined people at the top of the Moral Order (First Past the Post’s “winners”) could therefore be seen to be under attack and needing protection from less self-disciplined and moral people, especially if those people are trying to change and “rig” the system in their favour. This is how the Conservative Party managed to effectively broadcast messages about AV being “a politician’s stitch-up”, when arguably the reverse was true.
  6. “Upholding the Moral Order”. The Moral Order defines legitimate authority. Moral Order is assumed to take the order it does for a good reason. So indeed the winners under First Past The Post are assumed to be at the top of the pecking order for a good reason, especially since explanations for failure are never put down to systemic causes but to lack of self-discipline. To try to subvert the moral order and make the losers the winners would therefore be to tamper with natural forces and would be a serious affront to the Conservative Authoritarian moral system. You can also see from this why the No campaign used messages such as “Just let the winner be the winner”, which to progressives is a ridiculous tautology but to Conservatives is just “common sense”.

So, in summary, Conservative Authoritarian morality said from the start that winners are probably winners for a good reason, believed that losers deserve punishment rather than accommodation through a more proportional voting system, believed that the system and its winners might be under attack from morally bad people trying to “stitch it up” to get their way, believed that the Liberal Democrats and their ideas deserved punishing for being morally bad and that there was no possibility that the Liberal Democrats could simultaneously be bad people yet have a good idea, suspected from the start that the proposal to change the system might be an attack on the morality of self-discipline through which winners are identified, and was committed to upholding that morality to maintain clear moral boundaries between virtuous winners and morally-bankrupt losers.

In short, to anyone largely holding a Conservative Authoritarian mindset, the Alternative Vote was clearly never going to get a look in. We agree with George Lakoff however that most people are more complicated than to operate using all of and only the Conservative Authoritarian metaphors in their mind. Most people are “bi-conceptuals”: they have both sets of metaphors in their mind, and might well apply different models in different situations. But this only increased the dangers of “activation” of one model over the other: the more the No campaign and the Conservative Party successfully “activated” Conservative Authoritarian values in people’s minds, the more those values were likely to become reinforced and to spread. This is what happened, and how the debate came to be dominated by the Conservative framing. This is also what lies behind my assertion that Britain has a progressive majority. It is a claim of political faith, that most people in Britain are genuinely good – from the perspective of progressive morality – but they are still liable to be swayed by strong Conservative arguments, since almost everyone contains both morality models in their heads. The strong Conservative framing activated Conservative Authoritarian values, thus neurally “inhibiting” and blocking the future possibility of people understanding the debate through the progressive framing. This was exacerbated by ridiculous strategies on the side of the Yes campaign such as not launching its ads until the final two weeks of the campaign: “There’s not a great deal to be gained from advertising too far ahead. People have got other things on their minds” said the Yes campaign’s advertising adviser. By that point however, the minds of the British public had been well and truly shaped by the Conservative framing and the facts and self-interested appeals of the Yes camp “bounced-off”.

Let’s take a brief look at how different the Progressive reasoning behind the wisdom of AV was.

Progressive Nurturing categories of moral action:

  1. “Sympathetic behaviour and promoting fairness”. Right from the start we can recognise a laudable and just goal in the Progressive Nurturing mindset. Sympathy and empathy dictate that we feel the pain of the candidate who loses by 1%, and imagine how we would feel if that was us, including the injustice and unfairness of it. But look how different this is from the Conservative Authoritarian priority!
  1. “Helping those who cannot help themselves”. If people cannot help themselves, progressives believe it is due to some environmental or systemic factor, not merely a lack of self-discipline. Progressives therefore can imagine changing the system to help create fairness, whereas to Conservatives the self-disciplined would win-out under whatever system, because they believe that with enough self-discipline you can achieve anything, and the system in place is at best irrelevant.
  1. “Protecting those who cannot help themselves”. This category applies normally to children, to weaker members of society, to animals or to the environment, but you can also imagine it applying to protect people from the harshness of Conservative judgement that the unsuccessful deserve to be punished. It is part of Progressive kindness and sympathy. These last two categories also make progressives on the look out for abuses of power, and First Past The Post effectively constitutes such an abuse, perpetrated on democracy and the disenfranchised people of the nation, as well as on the candidates. After all, in a nation-as-family metaphor upon which these morality systems are built, the citizens are children, and in this case the children are being manipulated, harmed and ignored by a system set up by their arrogant and intransigent parents that is misrepresenting their democratic wishes. Progressive morality naturally rails against that.
  1. “Promoting fulfilment in life, including developing your potential”.
  1. “Nurturing and strengthening oneself in order to do the above”. These last two categories include metaphors of Self-Development and Moral Growth, developing potential. To a Conservative Authoritarian the contrasting metaphor of Moral Essence means that people are essentially winners or losers, or at least good or bad, and that doesn’t, in fact shouldn’t change. Progressives believe differently, that losers can become winners, and still deserve to, not through a trick but by self-development and moral growth. This is anathema to Conservative thinking.

You can see, therefore, just how far away these two camps were, even though the moral priorities here are extreme “ideal” ones.

There are no ways in which the Conservative morality is friendly to moving to a new electoral system, indeed in every way it is hostile. Likewise, the reverse is true of the Nurturing Progressive morality.

How could the Yes campaigners have used this information to create a different outcome? Much harder to answer! But I think the key centres around activating and establishing Progressive frames to inhibit the growth of Conservative ones, and being aware of the “flash points” of Conservative Authoritarian thinking, the ones that “set them off”, and steering clear of them. For example, I mention above that the Liberal Democrats were “asking for punishment”; they really were, and as many people have rightly commented without the benefit of a Lakoffian analysis, this poisoned the campaign from the start. Before they even got themselves into that position the Liberal Democrats should have realised that no side of the public – progressive or conservative – was going to approve of them betraying their own values, no matter what technical gain it bought them in individual policy concessions wrangled out of their Conservative Party coalition partners. Interestingly, this is something that both Progressive and Conservative morality systems can agree upon: betraying one’s values is bad. There are other points of mutual alignment that could have been exploited rather than suffered, principally that both Progressives and Conservatives are fundamentally interested in doing what is morally right. But when the progressives don’t speak their deepest feelings but instead dress up their objectives as “Make Your Vote Count” it just if anything reinforces Conservative values of self-interest in progressives, and to conservatives it sounds like a partisan appeal to change the system to make something that doesn’t count at the moment – presumably for some good reason – count, with no reference to morality.

Before the referendum, I offered the following as alternative frames that needed to be put across:

1) The “Take Back Parliament” frame

2) The “AV is morally good” frame

3) The “AV is easy” frame

4) The “AV is British and popular” frame

5) The “AV hurts extremists” frame

I still think they are valid. Note how the “Take Back Parliament” frame intimates that somebody has stolen something that is rightfully ours, arousing the moral motivation of both Conservatives and Progressives. The “AV is morally good” frame is obviously perfect for both morality systems: the controversy would be in the details. “AV is easy” was designed to counter a popular No contention that AV was fiendishly complicated, which of course further implies, especially to the Conservative Authoritarian mind, that its complexity is either a deliberate stitch-up or an incompetent mistake, since in the Conservative mindset things are ideally good or bad, right or wrong, black or white. Conservatives don’t do complexity. “AV is British and popular” not only provides much-needed social proofing but ties in to existing Conservative values (likely to involve a strongly positive perception of Britishness and having social standing). And lastly the “AV hurts extremists” frame conveniently takes an Other (in this case the justifiably alienable British fascist party) and frames them as the true enemy, diverting attention away from a Yes vs No dynamic. I believe that if these frames had not worked, the main reason would have been that the No campaign had already launched messages that directly countered each of them. It’s almost as if the No camp effectively brainstormed what messages the Yes campaign should have, found all the best ones, and then launched their opposites at us before we had even started. In future, it needs to be Progressives who understand Conservative morality, and strike first.

This type of analysis can, I believe, help us do that.