[This is an early and much abbreviated discussion of the themes in my book Moral Politics.]
In Social Research, vol 62, no. 2 (summer 1995)
Metaphor, Morality, and Politics
Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust1
University of California at Berkeley
We may not always know it, but we think in metaphor2. A large proportion of our most
commonplace thoughts make use of an extensive, but unconscious, system of metaphorical
concepts, that is, concepts from a typically concrete realm of thought that are used to
comprehend another, completely different domain. Such concepts are often reflected in everyday
language, but their most dramatic effect comes in ordinary reasoning. Because so much of our
social and political reasoning makes use of this system of metaphorical concepts, any adequate
appreciation of even the most mundane social and political thought requires an understanding of
this system. But unless one knows that the system exists, one may miss it altogether and be
mystified by its effects.
For me, one of the most poignant effects of the ignorance of metaphorical thought is the
mystification of liberals concerning the recent electoral successes of conservatives.
Conservatives regularly chide liberals for not understanding them, and they are right. Liberals
don’t understand how anti-abortion “right-to-life” activists can favor the death penalty and
oppose reducing infant morality through prenatal care programs. They don’t understand why
budget-cutting conservatives should spare no public expense to build prison after prison to house
even non-violent offenders, or why they are willing to spend extra money to take children away
from their mothers and put them in orphanages --- in the name of family values. They don’t
understand why conservatives attack violence in the media while promoting the right to own
machine guns. Liberals tend not to understand the logic of conservatism; they don’t understand
what form of morality makes conservative positions moral or what conservative family values
have to do with the rest of conservative politics. The reason at bottom is that liberals do not
understand the form of metaphorical thought that unifies and makes sense of the full range of
To understand what metaphor has to do with conservative politics, we must begin with that part
of our metaphor system that is used to conceptualize morality—a system of roughly two-dozen
metaphors. To illustrate how the system works, let us begin with one of the most prominent
metaphors in the system—the metaphor by which morality is conceptualized in terms of
Keeping the Moral Books
We all conceptualize well-being as wealth. We understand an increase in well-being as a “gain”
and a decrease of well-being as a “loss” or a “cost.” This is combined with a very general
metaphor for causal action in which causation is seen as giving an effect to an affected party (as
in “The noise gave me a headache”). When two people interact causally with each other, they are
commonly conceptualized as engaging in a transaction, each transferring an effect to the other.
An effect that helps is conceptualized as a gain; one that harms, as a loss. Thus moral action is
conceptualized in terms of financial transaction. Just as literal bookkeeping is vital to economic
functioning, so moral bookkeeping is vital to social functioning. And just as it is important that
the financial books be balanced, so it is important that the moral books be balanced.
Of course, the “source domain” of the metaphor, the domain of financial transaction, itself has a
morality: It is moral to pay your debts and immoral not to. When moral action is understood
metaphorically in terms of financial transaction, financial morality is carried over to morality in
general: There is a moral imperative not only to pay one’s financial debts, but also one’s moral
The Moral Accounting Schemes
The general metaphor of Moral Accounting is realized in a small number of basic moral
schemes: Reciprocation, Retribution, Restitution, Revenge, Altruism, etc. Each of these moral
schemes is defined using the metaphor of Moral Accounting, but the schemes differ as how they
use this metaphor, that is, they differ as to their inherent logics. Here are the basic schemes.
If you do something good for me, then I “owe” you something, I am “in your debt.” If I do
something equally good for you, then I have “repaid” you and we are even. The books are
balanced. We know there is a metaphor at work here partly because financial reasoning is used
to think about morality, and partly because financial words like “owe,” “debt,” and “repay” are
used to speak of morality. 3
Even in this simple case, there are two principles of moral action.
The first principle: Moral action is giving something of positive value; immoral action is giving
something of negative value.
The second principle: There is a moral imperative to pay one’s moral debts; the failure to pay
one’s moral debts is immoral.
Thus, when you did something good for me, you engaged in the first form of moral action. When
I did something equally good for you, I engaged in both forms of moral action. I did something
good for you and I paid my debts. Here the two principles act in concert.
Moral transactions get complicated in the case of negative action. The complications arise
because moral accounting is governed by a moral version of the arithmetic of keeping accounts,
in which gaining a credit is equivalent to losing a debit and gaining a debit is equivalent to losing
Suppose I do something to harm you. Then, by Well-Being is Wealth, I have given you
something of negative value. You owe me something of equal (negative) value. By moral
arithmetic, giving something negative is equivalent to taking something positive. By harming
you, I have taken something of value from you.
By harming you, I have placed you in a potential moral dilemma with respect to the first and
second principles of moral accounting. Here are the horns of dilemma:
The first horn: If you now do something equally harmful to me, you have done something with
two moral interpretations. By the first principle, you have acted immorally since you did
something harmful to me. (“Two wrongs don’t make a right.”) By the second principle, you have
acted morally, since you have paid your moral debts.
The second horn: Had you done nothing to punish me for harming you, you would have acted
morally by the first principle, since you would have avoided doing harm. But you would have
acted immorally by the second principle: in “letting me get away with it” you would not have
done your moral duty, which is to make “make me pay “ for what I have done.
No matter what you do, you violate one of the two principles. You have to make a choice. You
have to give priority to one of the principles. Such a choice gives two different versions of moral
accounting: The Morality of Absolute Goodness puts the first principle first. The Morality of
Retribution puts the second principle first. As might be expected, different people and different
subcultures have different solutions to this dilemma, some preferring retribution, others
preferring absolute goodness.
In debates over the death penalty, liberals rank Absolute Goodness over Retribution, while
conservatives tend to prefer Retribution: a life for a life.
Suppose again that you do something to harm me, which is metaphorically to give me something
of negative value. Moral arithmetic presents an alternative to retribution. By moral arithmetic,
you have taken something of positive value from me by harming me. If I take something of equal
positive value back from you, I have taken “revenge.” Revenge is the moral equivalent of
retribution, another way of balancing the moral books.
If I do something harmful to you, then I have given something of negative value and, by moral
arithmetic, taken something of positive value. I then owe you something of equal positive value.
I can therefore make restitution—make up for what I have done—by paying you back with
something of equal positive value. Of course, in many cases, full restitution is impossible, but
partial restitution may be possible.
An interesting advantage of restitution is that it does not place you in a moral dilemma with
respect to the first and second principles. You do not have to do any harm, nor is there any moral
debt for you to pay, since full restitution, where possible, cancels all debts.
If I do something good for you, then by moral accounting I have given you something of positive
value. You are then in my debt. In altruism, I cancel the debt, since I don’t want anything in
return. I nonetheless build up moral “credit.”
Turning the Other Cheek
If I harm you, I have (by Well-being is Wealth) given you something of negative value, and (by
Moral Arithmetic) taken something of positive value. Therefore, I owe you something of positive
value. Suppose you then refuse both retribution and revenge. You either allow me to harm you
further or, perhaps, you even do something good for me. By moral accounting, either harming
you further or accepting something good from you would incur an even further debt: by turning
the other cheek, you make me even more morally indebted to you. If you have a conscience, then
you should feel even more guilty. Turning the other cheek involves the rejection of retribution
and revenge and the acceptance of basic goodness—and when it works, it works via the
mechanism of moral accounting.
This example illustrates what a cognitive scientist means when he speaks of “conceptual
metaphor.” It is an unconscious, automatic mechanism for using inference patterns and language
from a source domain (in this case, the financial domain) to think and talk about another domain
(in this case, the moral domain). It also shows that a mode of metaphorical thought need not be
limited to a single culture. Cultures in many parts of the world conceptualize morality in terms of
accounting. Moreover, it shows that the same metaphor can be used in different forms by
conservatives and liberals. Conservatives tend to prefer the metaphorical scheme of retribution to
that of restitution.
Before we proceed with our discussion of metaphors for morality, we should point out the
obvious—that morality is not all metaphorical and that nonmetaphorical aspects of morality are
what the metaphorical system is based on. Nonmetaphorical morality is about the experience of
The most fundamental form of morality concerns promoting the experiential well-being of
others and the avoidance and prevention of experiential harm to others. Here is part of what is
meant by “well-being”: Other things being equal, you are better off if you are
healthy rather than sick,
rich rather than poor,
strong rather than weak,
free rather than imprisoned,
cared for rather than uncared for,
happy rather than sad, disgusted or in pain,
whole rather than lacking,
clean rather than filthy,
beautiful rather than ugly,
if you are experiencing beauty rather than ugliness,
if you are functioning in the light rather than the dark, and
if you can stand upright so that you don’t fall down.
These are among our basic experiential forms of well-being. Their opposites are forms of harm.
Immoral action is action that causes harm, that is, action that deprives someone of one or more of
these -- of health, wealth, happiness, strength, freedom, safety, beauty, and so on.
These are, of course, norms and the qualification “other things being equal” is necessary, since
one can think of special cases where these may not be true. A wealthy child may not get the
necessary attention of its parents, someone beautiful may be the target of envy, you need to be in
the dark in order to sleep, excessive freedom can sometimes be harmful, sadness and pain may
be necessary to appreciate happiness, and so on. But, on the whole, these conditions on
experiential well-being hold. And these conditions form the grounding for our system of moral
metaphors. For instance, Well-being is Wealth (and hence Moral Accounting) is based on the
knowledge that it is better to the rich than to be poor. Similarly, since it better to be strong than
to be weak, we expect to see morality conceptualized as strength. And because it is better to be
healthy than sick, we expect to see morality conceptualized in terms of health and attendant
concepts like cleanliness and purity.
What we learn from this is that metaphorical morality is grounded in nonmetaphorical morality,
that is, in forms of well-being, and that the system of metaphors for morality as a whole is thus
far from arbitrary. Because the same forms of well-being are widespread around the world, we
expect the same metaphors for morality to show up in culture after culture—and they do. Where
we find purification rituals, we find a manifestation of Morality as Purity. Because of the
widespread fear of the dark, we find a widespread conception of evil as dark and good as light.
Because it is better to walk upright than to fall down, we find the widespread metaphor that
Morality is Uprightness. In short, because our notion of what constitutes well-being is widelyshared, our pool of metaphors for morality is also widely shared. Indeed, the commonality of
shared metaphors for morality both within and across societies raises a deep question: What are
differences in moral systems and what is the source of those differences?
Of the roughly two dozen conceptual metaphors for morality in our conceptual systems, most are
used by both conservatives and liberals alike. But conservatives and liberals give different
priorities to those metaphors, and the same moral metaphors with differences in priority results
in radically different moral systems. The metaphor with the highest priority in the conservative
moral system is Moral Strength. This is a complex metaphor with a number of parts, beginning
• Being Good is Being Upright
Being Bad is Being Low Examples include sentences like:
He’s an upstanding citizen. He’s on the up and up. That was a low thing to do. He’s
underhanded. He’s a snake in the grass.
Doing evil is therefore moving from a position of morality (uprightness) to a position of
immorality (being low). Hence,
• Doing Evil is Falling
The most famous example, of course, is the fall from grace.
A major part of the Moral Strength metaphor has to do with the conception of immorality, or
evil. Evil is reified as a force, either internal or external, that can make you fall, that is, commit
Evil is a Force (either Internal or External)
Thus, to remain upright, one must be strong enough to “stand up to evil.” Hence, morality is
conceptualized as strength, as having the “moral fibre” or “backbone” to resist evil.
• Morality is Strength
But people are not simply born strong. Moral strength must be built. Just as in building physical
strength, where self-discipline and self-denial (“no pain, no gain”) are crucial, so moral strength
is also built through self-discipline and self-denial, in two ways:
1. Through sufficient self-discipline to meet one’s responsibilities and face existing
2. Actively through self-denial and further self-discipline.
To summarize, the metaphor of Moral Strength is a set of correspondences between the moral
and physical domains:
• Being Good is Being Upright
• Being Bad is Being Low
• Doing Evil is Falling
• Evil is a Force (either Internal or External)
• Morality is Strength
One consequence of this metaphor is that punishment can be good for you, since going through
hardships builds moral strength. Hence, the homily “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” By the
logic of this metaphor, moral weakness is in itself a form of immorality. The reasoning goes like
this: A morally weak person is likely to fall, to give in to evil, to perform immoral acts, and thus
to become part of the forces of evil. Moral weakness is thus nascent immorality—immorality
waiting to happen.
There are two forms of moral strength, depending on whether the evil to be faced is external or
internal. Courage is the strength to stand up to external evils and to overcome fear and hardship.
Much of the metaphor of moral strength is concerned with internal evils, cases where the issue
of “self-control” arises. What has to be strengthened is one’s will. One must develop will power
in order to exercise control over the body, which seen as the seat of passion and desire.
Desires—typically for money, sex, food, comfort, glory, and things other people have—are seen
in this metaphor as “temptations,” evils that threaten to overcome one’s self-control. Anger is
seen as another internal evil to be overcome, since it too is a threat to self-control. The opposite
of self-control is “self-indulgence”—a concept that only makes sense if one accepts the
metaphor of moral strength. Self-indulgence is seen in this metaphor as a vice, while frugality
and self-denial are virtues. The seven deadly sins is a catalogue of internal evils to be overcome:
greed, lust, gluttony, sloth, pride, envy, and anger. It is the metaphor of moral strength that
makes them “sins.” The corresponding virtues are charity, sexual restraint, temperance, industry,
modesty, satisfaction with one’s lot, and calmness. It is the metaphor of Moral Strength that
makes these “virtues.”
This metaphor has an important set of entailments:
The world is divided into good and evil.
To remain good in the face of evil (to “stand up to” evil), one must be morally strong.
One becomes morally strong through self-discipline and self-denial.
Someone who is morally weak cannot stand up to evil and so will eventually commit evil.
Therefore, moral weakness is a form of immorality.
Lack of self-control (the lack of self-discipline) and self-indulgence (the refusal to engage in
self-denial) are therefore forms of immorality.
Moral strength thus has two very different aspects. First, it is required if one is to stand up to
some externally defined evil. Second, it itself defines a form of evil, namely, the lack of selfdiscipline and the refusal to engage in self-denial. That is, it defines forms of internal evil.
Those who give a very high priority to Moral Strength, of course, see it as a form of idealism.
The metaphor of Moral Strength sees the world in terms of a war of good against the forces of
evil, which must be fought ruthlessly. Ruthless behavior in the name of the good fight is thus
seen as justified. Moreover, the metaphor entails that one cannot respect the views of one’s
adversary: evil does not deserve respect; it deserves to be attacked!
The metaphor of Moral Strength imposes a strict us-them moral dichotomy. The metaphor that
morality is strength induces a view of evil as the force that moral strength is needed to counter.
Evil must be fought. You do not empathize with evil, nor do you accord evil some truth of its
own. You just fight it.
Moral strength, importantly, imposes a form of asceticism. To be morally strong you must be
self-disciplined and self-denying. Otherwise you are self-indulgent, and such moral flabbiness
ultimately helps the forces of evil.
In the conservative mind, the metaphor of moral strength has the highest priority. Though it
clusters with other metaphors that we consider shortly, it is the one that matters most. It
determines much of conservative thought and language—as well as social policy. It is behind the
view that social programs are immoral and promote evil because they are seen as working
against self-discipline and self-reliance. Given the priority of Moral Strength, welfare and
affirmative action are immoral because they work against self-reliance. The priority of Moral
Strength underlies conservative opposition to providing condoms to high school students and
clean needles to drug addicts in the fight against teen pregnancy and AIDS. This are seen as
promoting the evil of self-indulgence; the morally strong should be able to “Just say no.” The
morally weak are evil and deserve what they get. Orphanages are seen as imposing discipline,
which serves morality. They may cost more than AFDC payments to mothers, but the issue for
conservatives is morality, not just money. Conservative opposition to student aid also follows
from this metaphor; morally strong students should be self-reliant and pay for the full cost of
their own education. Similarly, the opposition to prenatal care programs to lower infant mortality
stems from the view that moral mothers should be able to provide their own prenatal care, and if
they can’t they should abstain from sex and not have babies.
An important consequence of giving highest priority to the metaphor of moral strength is that it
rules out any explanations in terms of social forces or social class. If it is always possible to
muster the discipline to just say no to drugs or sex and to support yourself in this land of
opportunity, then failure to do so is laziness and social class and social forces cannot explain
your poverty or your drug habit or your illegitimate children. And if you lack such disciple, then
by the metaphor of Moral Strength, you are immoral and deserve any punishment you get.
The metaphor of moral strength does not occur in isolation. It defines a cluster of other common
metaphors for morality that are important in the conservative world view. Here is a list of the
Moral Bounds: Here action is seen as motion, and moral action is seen as motion within
prescribed bounds or on a prescribed path. Immoral people are those who transgress the bounds
or deviate from the path. The logic of this metaphor is that transgressors and deviants are
dangerous to society not only because they can lead others astray, but because they create new
paths to traverse, thus blurring the clear, prescribed, socially accepted boundaries between right
Moral Authority: Moral authority is patterned metaphorically on parental authority, where
parents have a young child’s best interests at heart and know what is best for the child. Morality
is obedience. Just as the good child obeys his parents, a moral person obeys a moral authority,
which can be a text (like the Bible or the Koran), an institution, or a leader.
Moral Essence: Just as physical objects are made of substances, which determines how they
will behave (e.g., wood burns, stone doesn’t), so people are seen as have an essence—a
“character”—which determines how they will behave morally. Good essential properties are
called virtues; bad essential properties are called vices. When we speak of someone as having a
“heart of gold” or as “not having a mean bone in his body” or as “being rotten to the core,” we
are using the metaphor of moral essence. The word “character” often refers to moral strength
seen as an essential moral property. To “see what someone is made of” is to test his character, to
determine his moral essence. The logic of moral essence is this: Your behavior reveals your
essence, which in turn predicts your future behavior.
Moral Health: Immorality is seen as a disease that can spread. Just as you have a duty to protect
your children from disease by keeping them away from diseased people, so you have a duty to
protect your children from the contagion of immorality by keeping them away from immoral
people. This is part of the logic behind urban flight, segregated neighborhoods and strong
sentencing guidelines for nonviolent offenders. Since purity and cleanliness promote health,
morality is seen as being pure and clean.
Moral Wholeness: We speak of a “degenerate” person, the “erosion” of moral standards, the
“crumbling” of moral values, the “rupture” or “tearing” of the moral fabric. Wholeness entails an
overall unity of form that contributes to strength. Thus moral wholeness is attendant on moral
We can see these metaphors at work in the conservative worldview, in conservative rhetoric, and
especially in social policy. The “three strikes and you’re out law,” which is popular with
conservatives, is a reflection of the metaphor of moral essence: Repeated criminal behavior
reveals an essence that is “rotten to the core.” If you have an immoral essence, you will keep
performing immoral acts that can be predicted even before they are performed. Locking you up
for 25 years, or for life , may seem like punishment for metaphorically predicted crimes, but if
you believe in Moral Essence, then is it simply protection for society.
The metaphors of Moral Boundaries, Moral Health, and Moral Wholeness can be seen clearly in
conservative views of pornography and sexually explicit art. Pornography should be banned to
stop the contagion of immoral behavior (Moral Health). If pornography is allowed, then it marks
out new paths of sexual behavior as normal and the old, clear paths and boundaries that define
right and wrong become blurred (Moral Bounds). Sexually explicit art defies the edifice of
traditional sexual values, leading those values to “crumble” or “erode” (Moral Wholeness).
Indeed, deviant behavior of any kind challenges all these metaphors for morality, as well as the
metaphor of Moral Authority, according to which deviance is disobedience.
From the perspective of these metaphors, multiculturalism is immoral, since it permits
alternative views of what counts as moral behavior. Multiculturalism thus violates the binary
good-evil distinction made by Moral Strength. It violates the well-defined moral paths and
boundaries of Moral Bounds. Its multiple authorities violate any unitary Moral Authority. And
the multiplicity of standards violates Moral Wholeness.
This cluster of metaphors—what I will call the “strength complex” defines the highest priorities
in conservative moral values. There is another metaphor that serves these priorities—the
metaphor of Moral Self-Interest. It is based on a folk version of Adam Smith’s economics: if
each person seeks to maximize his own wealth, then by an invisible hand, the wealth of all will
be maximized. Applying to this the metaphor that Well-being is Wealth, we get: If each person
tries to maximize his own well-being (or self-interest) the well-being of all will be maximized.
This metaphor sees it as the highest morality when everyone pursues his own self-interest
In conservative thought, self-reliance (a goal defined by Moral Strength) is achieved through the
disciplined and unimpeded pursuit of self-interest. In metaphorical terms, the complex of
strength metaphors defines the moral goal and Moral Self-Interest defines the means for
achieving that goal. In moderate conservatism, the reverse is true. There maximizing self-interest
is the goal and conservative values (defined by the strength complex) is the means. Thus, the
difference between strict and moderate conservatism is a matter of priorities. Strict conservatives
are moralistic, giving highest priority to the conservative moral metaphors and seeing the pursuit
of self-interest as the natural means for achieving conservative moral values. Moderate
conservatives are more pragmatic and less moralistic, seeing conservative moral values as the
natural means to achieve the pragmatic end of maximizing self-interest.
Consider for a moment what a model citizen is from the point of view of this moral system. It is
someone who, through self-discipline and the pursuit of self-interest, has become self-reliant.
This means that rich people and successful corporations are model citizens from a conservative
perspective. To encourage and reward such model citizens, conservatives support tax breaks for
them and oppose environmental and other regulations that get in their way. After all, since large
corporations are model citizens, we have nothing to fear from them.
At this point, a natural question arises. What gives rise of the cluster of conservative moral
metaphors? Why should those metaphors fit together as they do? The answer, interestingly
enough, is the family. Conservatives share a ideal model of what a family should be. I will refer
to as the Strict Father Model.
The Strict Father Model. A traditional nuclear family with the father having primary
responsibility for the well-being of the household. The mother has day-to-day responsibility
for the care of the house and details of raising the children. But the father has primary
responsibility for setting overall family policy and the mother’s job is to be supportive of the
father and to help carry out the father’s views on what should be done. Ideally, she respects
his views and supports them.
Life is seen as fundamentally difficult and the world as fundamentally dangerous. Evil is
conceptualized as a force in the world, and it is the father’s job to support his family and
protect it from evils—both external and internal. External evils include enemies, hardships,
and temptations. Internal evils come in the form of uncontrolled desires and are as
threatening as external ones. The father embodies the values needed to make one’s way in
the world and to support a family: he is morally strong, self-disciplined, frugal, temperate,
and restrained. He sets an example by holding himself to high standards. He insists on his
moral authority, commands obedience, and when he doesn’t get it, metes out retribution as
fairly and justly as he knows how. It is his job to protect and support his family, and he
believes that safety comes out of strength.
In addition to support and protection, the father’s primary duty is tell his children what is
right and wrong, punish them when they do wrong, and to bring them up to be selfdisciplined and self-reliant. Through self-denial, the children can build strength against
internal evils. In this way, he teaches his children to be self-disciplined, industrious, polite,
trustworthy, and respectful of authority.
The strict father provides nurturance and expresses his devotion to his family by supporting
and protecting them, but just as importantly by setting and enforcing strict moral bounds and
by inculcating self-discipline and self-reliance through hard work and self-denial. This builds
character. For the strict father, strictness is a form of nurturance and love—tough love.
The strict father is restrained in showing affection and emotion overtly, and prefers the
appearance of strength and calm. He gives to charity as an expression of compassion for
those less fortunate than he and as an expression of gratitude for his own good fortune.
Once his children are grown—once they have become self-disciplined and self-reliant—they
are on their own and must succeed or fail by themselves; he does not meddle in their lives,
just as he doesn’t want any external authority meddling in his life.
This model of the family (often referred to as “paternalistic”) is what groups together the
conservative metaphors for morality. Those metaphorical priorities define a family-based
morality, what I will call “strict father morality.” Though many features of this model are
widespread across cultures, the No-meddling Condition—that grown children are on their own
and parents cannot meddle in their lives—is a peculiarly American feature, and it accounts for a
peculiar feature of American conservatism, namely, the antipathy toward government.
Conservatives speak of the government meddling in people’s lives with the resentment normally
reserved for meddling parents. The very term “meddling” is carried over metaphorically from
family life to government. Senator Robert Dole, addressing the senate during the debate over the
Balanced Budget Amendment, described liberals as those who think “Washington knows best.”
The force of the phrase comes from the saying “Father knows best” which became the title of a
popular tv sitcom. It appears that the antipathy to government shown by American conservatives
derives from the part of the strict father model in which grown children are expected to go off on
their own and be self-reliant and then deeply resent parents who continue to tell them how they
Despite the fact that strict father models of the family occur throughout the world, this aspect of
the strict father model appears to be uniquely American. For example, in strict father families in
Spain or Italy or France or Israel or China, grown children are not expected to leave and go off
on their own, with a proscription on parents playing a major role in guiding the life of the child.
Similarly, conservative politics in such countries does not involve a powerful resentment toward
the “meddling” of government.
The centrality of the strict father model to conservative politics also explains the attitudes of
conservatives to feminism, abortion, homosexuality, and gun control. In the strict father model
of the family, the mother is subordinated to running the day-to-day affairs of the home and
raising the children according to the father’s direction. It is the father that bears the major
responsibility and makes the major decisions. The strict father model is exactly the model that
feminism is in the business of overthrowing. Hence, the appropriate antipathy of conservatives to
feminism (although there is the recent phenomenon of conservative feminists, namely, women
who function with the values of conservative men such as self-discipline, self-reliance, the
pursuit of self-interest, etc.). The conservative opposition to homosexuality comes from the same
source. Homosexuality in itself is inherently opposed to the strict father model of the family.
The conservative position on abortion is a consequence of the view of women that comes out of
the strict family model. On the whole, there are two classes of women who want abortions:
unmarried teenagers, whose pregnancies have resulted from lust and carelessness, and women
who want to delay conception for the sake of a career, but have accidentally conceived. From the
point of view of the strict father model, both classes of women violate the morality characterized
by the model. The first class consists of young women who are immoral by virtue of having
shown a lack of sexual self-control. The second class consists of women who want to control
their own destinies, and who are therefore immoral for contesting the strict father model itself,
since it is that model that defines what morality is. For these reasons, those who abide by strict
father morality tend to oppose abortion.
It is important to understand that conservative opposition to abortion is not just an overriding
respect for all life. If it were, conservatives would not favor the death penalty. Nor is it a matter
of protecting the lives of innocent children waiting to be born. If it were, conservatives would be
working to lower the infant mortality rate by supporting prenatal care programs. The fact the
conservatives oppose such programs means that they are not simply in favor of the right-to-life
for all the unborn. Instead, there is a deep and abiding, but usually unacknowledged, reason why
conservatives oppose abortion, namely, that it is inconsistent with strict father morality.
The protection function of the strict father leads to conservative support for a strong military and
criminal justice system. It also leads to an opposition to gun control. Since it is the job of the
strict father to protect his family from criminals, and since criminals have guns, he too must be
able to use guns if he is to do his job of protecting the family against evil people who would
harm them. Although the NRA talks lot about hunting, the conservative talk shows all talk about
protecting one’s family as the main motivation for opposing gun control.
The Nation as Family Metaphor
What links strict-father family-based morality to politics is a common metaphor, shared by
conservatives and liberals alike—the Nation-as-Family metaphor, in which the nation is seen as
a family, the government as a parent and the citizens as children. This metaphor turns familybased morality into political morality, providing the link between conservative family values and
conservative political policies. The strict father model, which brings together the conservative
metaphors for morality, is what unites the various conservative political positions into a coherent
whole when it is imposed on political life by the Nation-as-Family metaphor.
The strict father model of the family, the metaphors that are induced by it, and the Nation-asFamily metaphor jointly provide an explanation for why conservatives have the collection of
political positions that they have. It explains why opposition to environmental protection goes
with support for military protection, why the right-to-life goes with the right to own machine
guns, why patriotism goes with hatred of government.
The requirement of such forms of explanation is not the norm in discussions of politics. Political
commentators are all too ready to accept random lists: conservatives favor A, oppose B, favor C,
and so on. But on occasion explanation is attempted and all the other attempts I know of have
failed. For example, William Bennett defines conservatism thus:
Conservatism as I understand it . . . seeks to conserve the best elements of the past. It
understands the important role that traditions, institutions, habits and authority have in our
social life together, and recognizes our national institutions as products of principles
developed over time by custom, the lessons of experience, and consensus . . . Conservatism,
too, is based on the belief that the social order rests upon a moral base . . . [Bennett, 1992, p.
This does not explain which elements of the past are judged to be best (certainly not witch
burning or child labor or slavery) or which moral base the social order rests on. It also does not
explain why traditional institutions like public schools are not to be preserved. Nor does it
explain conservative views in cases where there is no consensus, such as abortion.
Other conservatives claim that conservatives just want less government at the federal level. This
does not explain cases where conservatives favor more government. The obvious examples are
increased military funding, the three-strikes law which requires many more prisons and the costs
of keeping prisoners, the promotion of orphanages (which would be more expensive than the
welfare programs they would replace), and tort reform, which would take enormous powers from
the states and give them to the federal government. In short, conservative theorists are not very
good at explaining what unifies conservative positions.
Conservatives sometimes claim that they are just following the Bible. But the Bible requires
interpretation, and there are plenty of liberal interpretations (e.g., the National Council of
Churches, Liberation Theology). It is strict father morality that determines what counts as a
conservative interpretation of the Bible.
Liberals haven’t done much better. The common liberal idea that conservatives are just selfish or
tools of the rich does not explain conservative opposition to abortion, feminism, homosexuality,
and gun control.
To sum up, the conservative world-view and the constellation of conservative positions is best
explained by the strict father model of the family, the moral system it induces, and the common
Nation-as-Family metaphor that imposes a family-based morality on politics.
The conceptual mechanisms I have just described are largely unconscious, like most of our
conceptual systems. Yet conservatives have a far better understanding of the basis of their
politics than liberals do. Conservatives understand that morality and the family are at the heart of
their politics, as they are at the heart of most politics. What is sad is that liberals have not yet
reached a similar level of political sophistication.
Liberal politics also centers on a family-based morality, but liberals are much less aware than
conservatives are of the unconscious mechanisms that structures their politics. While
conservatives understand that all of their policies have a single unified origin, liberals understand
their own political conceptual universe so badly that they still think of it in terms of coalitions of
interest groups. Where conservatives have organized for an overall, unified onslaught on liberal
culture, liberals are fragmented into isolated interest groups based on superficial localized issues:
labor, the rights of ethnic groups, feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, abortion rights,
homelessness, health care, education, the arts, and so on. This failure to see a unified picture of
liberal politics has led to a divided consciousness and has allowed conservatives to employ a
divide- and-conquer strategy. None of this need be the case, since there is a worldview that
underlies liberal thought that is every bit as unified as the conservative worldview.
The family-based morality that structures liberal thought is diametrically opposed to strict father
morality. It centers around the nurturant parent model of the family.
The Nurturant Parent Model: The family is of either one or two parents. Two are generally
preferable, but not always possible.
The primal experience behind this model is one of being cared for and cared about, having
one’s desires for loving interactions met, living as happily as possible, and deriving meaning
from one’s community and from caring for and about others.
People are realized in and through their “secure attachments:” through their positive
relationships to others, through their contribution to their community, and through the ways
in which they develop their potential and find joy in life. Work is a means toward these ends,
and it is through work that these forms of meaning are realized. All of this requires strength
and self-discipline, which are fostered by the constant support of, and attachment to, those
who love and care about you.
Protection is a form of caring, and protection from external dangers takes up a significant
part of the nurturant parent’s attention. The world is filled with evils that can harm a child,
and it is the nurturant parent’s duty to be ward them off. Crime and drugs are, of course,
significant, but so are less obvious dangers: cigarettes, cars without seat belts, dangerous
toys, inflammable clothing, pollution, asbestos, lead paint, pesticides in food, diseases,
unscrupulous businessmen, and so on. Protection of innocent and helpless children from such
evils is a major part of a nurturant parent’s job.
Children are taught self-discipline in the service of nurturance: to take care of themselves, to
deal with existing hardships, to be responsible to others, and to realize their potential.
Children are also taught self-nurturance: the intrinsic value of emotional connection with
others, of health, of education, of art, of communion with the natural world, and of being able
to take care of oneself. In addition to learning the discipline required for responsibility and
self-nurturance, it is important that children have a childhood, that they learn to develop their
imaginations, and that they just plain have fun.
Through empathizing and interacting positively with their children, parents develop close
bonds with children and teach them empathy and responsibility towards others and toward
society. Nurturant parents view the family as a community in which children have
commitments and responsibilities that grow out of empathy for others. The obedience of
children comes out of love and respect for parents, not out of fear of punishment. When
children do wrong, nurturant parents choose restitution over retribution whenever possible as
a form of justice. Retribution is reserved for those who harm their children.
The pursuit of self-interest is shaped by these values: anything inconsistent with these values
is not in one’s self-interest. Pursuing self-interest, so understood, is a means for fulfilling the
values of the model.
This model of the family induces a very different set of moral priorities, which can be
characterized by another set of metaphors for morality. Here are those metaphors:
Morality as Empathy: Empathy itself is understood metaphorically as feeling what another
person feels. We can see this in the language of empathy: I know what it’s like to be in your
shoes. I know how you feel. I feel for you. To conceptualize moral action as empathic action is
more than just abiding by the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have them do unto
you. The Golden Rule does not take into account that others may have different values than you
do. Taking morality as empathy requires basing your actions on their values, not yours. This
requires a reformulation of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as they would have you do unto
Morality as Nurturance: Nurturance presupposes empathy. A child is helpless and to care for a
child, you have to care about that child, which requires seeing the world through the child’s eyes
as much as possible. The metaphor of morality as nurturance can be stated as follows:
• The Community is a Family
• Moral agents are Nurturing parents
• People needing help are Children needing care
• Moral action is Nurturance
This metaphor entails that moral action requires empathy, involves sacrifices, and that helping
people who need help is a moral responsibility.
Moral Self-Nurturance: You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself. Part of
the morality of nurturance is self-nurturance: maintaining your health, making a living, and so
Morality as Social Nurturance: There are two varieties of moral nurturance—one about
individuals and the other about social relations. If community members are to empathize with
one another and help one another, then social ties must be maintained. The metaphor can be
stated as follows:
• Moral agents are Nurturing Parents
• Social ties are Children needing care
• Moral Action is the Nurturance of Social Ties
This entails that social ties must be constantly attended to, that maintaining them requires
sacrifices, and that one has a moral responsibility to maintain them.
Morality as Happiness: This is based on the assumption that unhappy people are less likely to
be empathetic and nurturant, since they will not want others to be happier than they are.
Therefore, to promote your own capacity for empathy and nurturance, you should make yourself
as happy as possible, provided you don’t hurt others in the process.
Morality as Fairness: Fairness is understood metaphorically in terms of the distribution of
material objects. There are three basic liberal models of fair distribution: (1) equal distribution;
(2) impartial rule-based distribution; and (3) rights-based distribution. Metaphorical fairness
concerns actions conceived of as objects given to individuals. One can act to the benefit of others
equally, impartially and by rule, or according to some notion of rights. According to this
metaphor, moral action is fair action in one of these ways.
Moral Growth: Given that morality is conceptualized as uprightness, it is natural to
conceptualize one’s degree of morality as physical height, to understand norms for the degree of
moral action as height norms, and to therefore see the possibility for “moral growth” as akin to
physical growth. Where moral growth differs from physical growth is that moral growth is seen
as being possible throughout one’s lifetime.
These are the metaphors for morality that best fit the nurturant parent model of the family, and
accordingly they are given highest priority in liberal thought. The metaphor of Moral Selfinterest, here as in conservative thought, is seen as operating to promote the values defined by
this group of metaphors. And as in the case of moderate conservatism, moderate liberalism can
be characterized by placing Moral Self-interest as the goal and seeing these metaphors as
providing the means by which to help people seek their self-interest.
Applying the metaphor of the nation as family with the government as parent, we get the liberal
Social Programs: The government, as nurturant parent is responsible for providing for the
basic needs of its citizens: food, shelter, education, and health care.
Regulation: Just as a nurturant parent must protect his children, a government must protect
its citizens—not only from external threats, but also from pollution, disease, unsafe products,
workplace hazards, nuclear waste, and unscrupulous businessmen.
Environmentalism: Communion with the environment is part of nurturance, part of the
realization of one’s potential as a human being. Empathy includes empathy with nature.
Caring for children includes caring for future generations. Protection includes protection
from pollution. All of these considerations support environmentalism.
Feminism and Gay Rights: Nurturant parents want all their children to fulfill their
potential, and so it is the role of government to provide institutions to make that possible.
Abortion: Women seeking abortion are either women who want to take control of their lives
or teenage children needing help. Considerations of nurturance for both require providing
access to safe, affordable abortions.
Multiculturalism: Nurturant parents celebrate the differences among their children, and so
governments should celebrate the differences among its citizens.
Affirmative Action: Since women and minorities are not treated fairly in society, it is up to
the government to do what it can to make sure that they have a fair chance at self-fulfillment.
Art and the Humanities: Knowledge, beauty, and self-knowledge are part of human
fulfillment, and so the government must see to it that institutions promote such forms of
Taxation: Just as in a nurturant family it is the duty of older and stronger children to help out
those that are younger and weaker, so in a nation it is the duty of citizens who are better-off
to contribute more than those who are worse-off.
Again, what we have here is explanation—explanation of why liberal policies fit together and
make a coherent whole: what affirmative action has to do with progressive taxation, what
abortion has to do with affirmative action, what environmentalism has to do with feminism. And
again the explanation centers on a model of the family, the moral system that goes with that
model, and the Nation-as-Family metaphor.
Unfortunately liberals are less insightful than conservatives at recognizing that morality and the
family lie at the center of their political universe. The cost to liberals has been enormous. Where
conservatives have organized effectively in a unified way to promote all their values, liberals
misunderstood their politics as being about coalitions of interest groups And so have remained
divided and unable to compete effectively with conservatives.
Filling in Some Details
As discussed at the outset, this is a brief overview of a long study and, as such, it has been
drastically oversimplified. Some of those oversimplifications are so important that they must be
addressed, if only in a cursory way.
All of us—liberals, conservatives, and others—make use of all of the metaphors for morality
discussed here. The difference is in the priorities assigned to them. Thus, conservatives also see
morality as empathy and nurturance, but they assign a lower priority to them than liberals do.
The result is that nurturance and empathy come to mean something different to conservatives
than to liberals. In conservatism, moral nurturance is subservient to moral strength. Thus, moral
nurturance for a conservative is the nurturance to be morally strong. For conservatives, moral
empathy is subservient to moral strength, which posits a primary good-evil distinction. That
distinction forbids conservatives from empathizing with people they consider evil, and so
empathy becomes empathy with those who share your values. Thus, where liberals have empathy
even for criminals (and thus defend their rights and are against the death penalty), conservatives
are for the death penalty and against decisions like Miranda, which seek to guarantee the rights
Correspondingly, liberals too have the metaphor of Moral Strength, but it is in the service of
empathy and nurturance. The point of moral strength for liberals is to fight intolerance and
inhumanity to others and to stand up for social responsibility.
The resulting picture of the priorities of the strict father and nurturant parent moral systems is as
Strict Father Morality (Basic Conservative Morality):
The Strength Complex
The Nurturance Complex
Nurturant Parent Morality (Basic Liberal Morality):
The Nurturance Complex
The Strength Complex
Here one can clearly see the opposition in moral priorities.
Of course, not all liberals are the same, nor are all conservatives. This model oversimplifies
many divisions within the liberal and conservative ranks. First, there are moderate versions of
both, pragmatic views in which Moral Self-Interest is put first:
Moderate Conservative Morality:
The Strength Complex
The Nurturance Complex
Moderate Liberal Morality:
The Nurturance Complex
The Strength Complex
Another source of variation on all these categories comes within the Nurturance and Strength
complexes, where different kinds of liberals can assign different priority to the morality
metaphors there. For example, President Clinton, unlike most other liberals, assigns higher
priority to the nurturance of social ties than to moral nurturance itself. That is, he sees it of the
utmost importance to compromise for the sake of trying to bring people together. This makes
him seem like a waffler to liberals for whom the nurturance of social ties has a lower priority.
The point is that these are rich systems, with lots of room for variations of all sorts. In addition,
there are lots of other factors that are not part of this analysis that distinguish other political
positions. This is, after all, not intended to account for everything there is in politics.
It is important to understand that one can have different family-based moralities in personal and
political life. Thus, one can have strict father morality at home and nurturant parent morality in
politics—and the reverse. And finally, the strict father model does not rule out strict mothers.
Though, it is based on a masculine family model, women can use that model. And though I have
used the gender neutral term “nuturant parent”, that model ultimately derives from a woman’s
model of the family.
In short, the models are ideal and the general tendencies are simple, but in practice there are
extremely complex variations on these models.
It is one thing to analyze a moral system and another to criticize it. Criticisms of moral systems
are often suspect because they come from within opposing moral systems. I would like to
suggest that it is possible in various ways to criticize a moral system on other grounds—either on
structural or empirical grounds. I believe that is meaningful to speak of moral pathologies, and I
will briefly discuss three of them, namely:
Deviational Pathology: Here a deviation from an ideal model turns out to harm people the ideal
model was supposed to help.
Foundational Pathology: Here a moral system contradicts its own foundations.
Empirical Pathology: Here the moral system simply makes an empirical error about the helpful
effects it is supposed to produce.
Let us begin with cases of deviational pathology. Since models of the family are ideal ones,
while real people are less than ideal, real family life may very often fall short of what the ideal
models would project. The same is true of political ideals, which in practice often fall short of
their aims. Interestingly enough, valid critiques of both the strict father and nurturant parent
family models are critiques not of the ideal cases, but of cases that fall short of the ideal. For
each such critique, there is a parallel critique of the shortcomings of liberalism and conservatism.
Parents can misuse the nurturant parent model in a number of ways:
Overprotection, where parents fail to teach their children self-discipline, responsibility, and
self-reliance through interpersonal ties, support, and trust.
Self-sacrifice, where the overly self-sacrificing parent fails to take care of himself or herself and
cannot nurturate properly as a result.
Hedonism, where the cultivation of happiness ceases to be in the service of empathy and
nurturance and becomes an end in itself, draining resources needed for nurturance.
Interestingly, each of these corresponds to classical critiques of liberalism by conservatives. In
overprotection, the government helps people without being sure they have the means to become
self-reliant. In self-sacrifice, the government spends too much, gets deep in debt, and cannot help
people very much any more. Hedonism is overspending for our own sake now without thinking
of the future.
Similarly, the strict father model can also be misused in various ways:
Excessive discipline: When normal desires are seen to be evils to be punished or when
punishment is excessive and results in harm.
Authoritarian behavior: When rules are laid down either for no good reason or without
appropriate explanation and discussion.
Neglect: When there is neglect for the purpose of building self-reliance and it results in harm.
Selfishness: When those needing care are ignored out of selfishness in the name of building selfreliance.
These correspond to common liberal critiques of conservatism.
In short, both models can be misused. Many of the critiques of the models are really critiques of
the misuse of the models. Are such critiques fair? Yes and no. No, because they not critiques of
the ideal models in themselves. Yes, because those ideal models have to be used by real people,
who will fall short in many cases in just the ways indicated.
While deviational pathologies clearly occur in both liberal and conservative family-based moral
systems, foundational and empirical pathologies occur, so far as I have been able to tell, only in
the conservative family-based moral system. To see the conservative foundational pathology,
recall that the foundation of any abstract moral system is experiential morality, as described at
the beginning of this paper. Experiential morality consists in helping, not harming, people in
experientially-basic forms of well-being: health, strength, wealth, etc. As we saw, the abstract
metaphors for morality are grounded in the experiential moral system. Nurturant parent morality
contains a structural feature that guarantees that experiential morality is not overridden, namely,
that moral empathy has the highest priority in that moral system. The idea that Morality is
Empathy entails that if you feel what others feel, you will abide by experiential morality since,
by empathy, you yourself will experience any harmful effects of what you do to others.
But strict father morality does not have empathy as its highest principle. Instead, moral strength
is its highest principle and moral empathy is relatively far down on the list. But the metaphor that
Morality is Strength allows experiential morality to be overridden regularly. Strict Father
morality allows one to impose experiential harm on others in the name of the abstract
metaphorical principle that Morality is Strength. In short, strict father morality allows you to hurt
people in the name of morality. That violates experiential morality, which is the foundation of
every abstract moral system.
Finally, strict father morality has an empirical pathology. At its core is a model of the family that
makes empirical claims about the raising of children. It says that the way to raise a child to be
self-reliant and responsible to others is through discipline and denial. If your child cries at night
or shows a neediness, you don’t pick him up and pay attention to him and play with him. If you
do, you will be spoiling him, making him dependent, not imposing discipline, and therefore not
allowing him to grow up to be self-reliant, self-controlled, and responsible. In fact, the major
empirical studies in child development over the past quarter century show just the reverse.
Children who are nurtured and taken care of and played with when they are needy are more
likely to grow up self-reliant and socially responsible than those who are ignored or punished for
showing neediness. Such children are called “securely attached.” Insecurely attached children,
who are ignored or punished for showing neediness are more likely to engage in anti-social
behavior and to show inner rage.
In short, the strict father model of the family is just plain wrong—indeed, it is harmful to
children—on its most central points. In fact, if proponents of conservatism have grown up in
strict father families with insecure attachment, then we may have an explanation of conservative
rage at the government: It is the rage of the insecurely attached child toward its parents,
especially its father.
The deviational pathologies of both nurturant parent and strict father moralities can be remedied
in principle: by sticking as closely as possible to the ideal models and avoiding pathological
deviations. But the foundational and empirical pathologies in strict father morality, and hence in
conservatism, are inherent and cannot be remedied. They make strict father morality an
inherently pathological moral system.
At this point, it is crucial to raise the issue of the Oklahoma City bombing, in which more than a
hundred adults and scores of children were killed by a radical conservative who saw himself as
striking at the “meddling” of the federal government in the lives of citizens. Do conservatives
and conservative ideologues bear any responsibility for that bombing? Here is the answer of
Gary L Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, an arm of the religious right (Family
Research Council Newsletter, May 22, 1995):
How could any of us have imagined the horror of the bombing on Oklahoma City? ...What
do the hundreds of thousands of parents who educate their children at home, or the millions
of Americans who oppose high taxes, have to do with the thugs who bombed the federal
Gary Bauer is in denial, as are others on the right. The Family Research Council promotes strict
father morality. It is the strict father model of the family that, under the ubiquitous Nation-as19
Family metaphor, gives rise to the resentment of government “meddling” and the conservative
hatred of government, and it is the application of discipline and denial in child rearing that
produces conservative rage. When tens of millions of people are daily told that strict father
morality is the only morality and that their rage is justified, the result is bound to be not just
right-wing militias with automatic weapons and bomb-making capacity, but eventually action
upon that rage. The lesson of Oklahoma City is that strict father morality does bear major
responsibility for that unconscionable act. The Gary Bauers of this country, who promote strict
father morality, have a heavy moral burden to bear. And so do most liberals, who have left the
fields of morality and the family to the conservatives.
If this analysis is right, or even close to right, then a great deal follows. Liberals do not
understand what unifies their own worldview and so are helpless to deal effectively with
conservatism. Not only is there no unified liberal political structure, but there is no overall
effective liberal rhetoric to counter the carefully constructed conservative rhetoric. Where
conservatives have carefully coined terms and images and repeated them until they have entered
the popular lexicon, liberals have not done the same. Liberals need to go beyond coalitions of
interest groups to consciously construct a unified language and imagery to convey their
worldview. This will not be easy, and they are 30 years behind.
If this analysis is right, there are implications not just for contemporary politics, but also for the
long-term philosophical study of moral systems. I have argued that perhaps the most important
part of any real moral system is the system of metaphors for morality and the priorities given to
particular metaphors. If I am correct, then vital political reasoning is done using those
metaphors—and usually done unconsciously. This means that the empirical study of
metaphorical thought must be given its appropriate place in ethics and moral theory, as Mark
Johnson has argued.4
Finally, there are major consequences for social research itself. Social research these days tends
not to take into account empirical research on conceptual systems done within cognitive science
in general and cognitive linguistics in particular. Cognitive explanations, like those given here,
are not the norm. Instead, explanation has tended to be based on economics, or class, or the
rational actor model, or models of power. I would like to suggest that the study of conceptual
systems is a major tool for explanation in social research—tool so vital in our current situation
that it cannot be ignored.
Coda: Deep and Superficial Metaphor
The metaphors I have discussed so far in paper have been both conceptual in nature and deep, in
the sense that they are used largely without being noticed, that they have enormous social
consequences, and that they shape or very understanding of our everyday world. It is important
to contrast such deep conceptual metaphors such as Morality is Strength and The Nation is a
Family with superficial metaphors, which are only of marginal interest but which often lead
analysts astray. Consider the following quote from the International Herald Tribune, May 8,
1995: “Senator Phil Gramm told a college commencement audience that the social safety net
erected by government by the New Deal and the Great Society had become a ‘hammock’ that is
robbing the country of freedom and virtue.”
The safety net metaphor for social programs and Phil Gramm’s hammock metaphor are
examples of such superficial metaphors. The safety net metaphor is used consciously and evokes
a vivid image that organizes much deeper metaphorical concepts. The image of the safety net has
been a mainstay of the rhetoric of liberal moral politics for many years. The safety net metaphor
presupposes as part of its background an image of the citizen on a tightrope. The tightrope is
straight and narrow—a moral path. The citizen is doing what he is supposed to be doing—
working with skill and dedication. But one thing we all know about tightropes is that all but the
most skilled are bound to fall—and if there is no safety net, they will be severely hurt when they
do. If walking the tightrope is working, falling off is losing your job. The safety net is a means of
support—temporary support till you can pull yourself up again and get back on the tightrope.
The physical support of the net is the financial support of social programs designed to help
moral, dedicated, hard-working citizens who might not survive without it.
This is not all conscious, but it is implicit and it is what gives the safety net metaphor its moral
force. People who need a safety net are moral people of ordinary skills who walk the straight and
narrow. To remove it is to virtually guarantee harm to the normal moral citizen who would rather
be working than lying helplessly in a net.
The safety net metaphor may be superficial, but its power consists in evoking a worldview
beyond itself. It invokes a worldview about the typical working citizen of ordinary or less than
ordinary skills. He is moral, wants to work, and needs and should have protection. To remove the
safety net is immoral. No ordinary tightrope walker should be required to work without a safety
When Phil Gramm turns the safety net into a hammock, he is doing more than just replacing one
image with another that looks similar. He is imposing another worldview. The man in the
hammock is lazy; he isn’t interested in working. The hammock isn’t necessary; it is a luxury.
When you replace the safety net with the hammock, you also replace the tightrope, the desire to
walk the tightrope, and the morality of following the straight and narrow. You replace the
energetic, athletic tightrope walker with the paragon of laziness in the hammock. Changing
metaphors means changing prototypes. The typical person who relies on social programs is no
longer moral, skilled, and energetic. He is unskilled and lazy, and his laziness makes him
immoral. The moral implication is clear: the government shouldn’t be supplying the luxury of
hammocks to lazy people. It just encourages them in their laziness.
The safety net and hammock metaphors pack a complex worldview into a single image. But they
are nonetheless still superficial metaphors that rely on much deeper and less obvious metaphors
for their power. Those deeper metaphors are the ones we have already explored: Moral Strength,
Moral Bounds, Moral Nurturance, Moral Empathy, The Nation-as-Family. It is the deep
metaphorical moral systems underlying liberal and conservative values that the safety net and
hammock metaphors are tapping into. It is that deeper metaphorical system that must be
1. Copyright George Lakoff, 1995. This paper is an all-too-brief overview of a book now in
press, tentatively titled “Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t.”
The following friends, students and colleagues have helped enormously in working out the
details of the analysis given here:
Paul Baum, Michel de Fornel, Kathleen Frumkin, Joshua Gutwill, Mark Johnson, Andrew
Lakoff, Tal Lewis, Eve Sweetser, Laura Stoker, Mark Turner, Lionel Wee, and Steven
2. For an introductory survey of basic results in the theory of metaphor, see Lakoff, 1993. Other
suggested readings include Gibbs, 1994; Lakoff and Johnson, 1980; Johnson, 1987; Lakoff,
1987; Sweetser, 1990; Turner, 1987; Lakoff and Turner, 1989; and Winter, 1989.
3. This analysis is taken from Taub, 1990; Klingebiel, 1990; and Johnson, 1993.
4. Johnson, 1993.
Gibbs, Raymond W. Jr. 1994. The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Language, Thought, and
Understanding. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.
Johnson, Mark. 1987. The Body in the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Johnson, Mark. 1993. Moral Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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