31 Oct

The Values We Live By: a new reader-friendly version of George Lakoff’s morality systems

In his book Moral Politics, Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff sets out the two opposing value systems that he believes are predominant in Western society: Strict Father and Nurturant Parent. As part of my mission to make Lakoff more accessible I have drafted an “easy language” version of what he calls the Moral Metaphors and the Categories of Moral Action. I am also substituting “Nurturing” for Nurturant Parent and “Authoritarian” for Strict Father, as we’ve been doing elsewhere on this blog. I believe the new versions below are powerful everyday expressions of the moralities the world lives by.

First, here are Lakoff’s original “Moral Metaphors”:

Strict Father Moral Metaphors
1.    Moral Strength
2.    Moral Order
3.    Moral Essence
4.    Moral Self-interest
5.    Moral Nurturance

Nurturant Parent Moral Metaphors
1.    Morality as Nurturance
2.    Morality as Empathy
3.    Morality as the maintenance of Social Ties.
4.    Morality as Self-Development
5.    Morality as Moral Growth
6.    Morality as Happiness
7.    Moral Strength
8.    Moral Authority

And here are Lakoff’s original “Categories of Moral Action”:

Strict Father 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
a.    Preventing interference with the pursuit of
self-interest by self-disciplined, self-reliant people.
b.    Promoting punishment as a means of upholding authority.
c.    Insuring punishment for lack of self-discipline.
4.    Protecting moral people from external evils.
5.    Upholding the Moral Order.

Nurturant Parent 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.

These are great but they are a little abstract for people to understand immediately. They don’t resonate. In my new everyday-language version I have merged the Moral Metaphors and Categories of Moral Action for each morality system and put them into positive-action language, like a set of master guidelines for how to “be moral”. They can also act as a checklist for how to create or critique political campaigns. The number-ordering does not indicate a strict priority or hierarchy (that is, the uppermost points are roughly but not necessarily more important than the points below them). Here they are:

Authoritarian, Conservative morality
1.    Always do what you should.
2.    Be strong. Life is a struggle. Be self-disciplined, responsible & don’t rely on people.
3.    Respect authority.
4.    Choose your path: be virtuous, be a winner. Be pure and whole in your commitment. If you work hard enough, with any luck you will succeed. Losers have only themselves to blame.
5.    Protect the good. Enjoy the rewards of success & reward success in others. Condemn the bad.
6.    Protect your loved-ones.
7.    Help others to be good, successful people.


Nurturing, Progressive morality
1.    Open your eyes to the world around you. Life is wonderful & people are good.
2.    Be sensitive, be caring. Love and be loved.
3.    Treat people fairly.
4.    Help those in need.
5.    Protect the weak.
6.    Be good to people. Society matters.
7.    Be open. You can change for the better.
8.    Let people (including yourself) fulfil their dreams.
9.    Take care of yourself & let yourself be happy.
10.    Be strong to protect what is good.
11.    Demonstrate that you care and you will be well respected.

I’m keen to receive feedback from Lakoff enthusiasts on the helpfulness of these translations. My feeling is that this language is much more immediate and popular than Lakoff’s language, but hopefully does not significantly alter the meaning. To me, they work well for the majority of people in British and American English.
There is however no excuse in my mind for retaining overly-academic language. After all, if these values cannot be presented in a way that makes someone say “Yes! Those are my values, and well-expressed”, then maybe the values do not apply as strongly as Lakoff claims. I think they do, and that there are different phrasings to express the same underlying concepts. And this, let’s face it, is the skill and job of the persuasive politician, whether conservative or progressive. I hope this expression of these values can help us understand ourselves, each other and our political opponents.