Conversation on Family Values

Draft © by Dr. Jan Garrett

Updated: September 21, 2007

Students and other interested persons may make single copies for their own personal use. For further reading, see George Lakoff, Metaphor, Morality, and Politics.--J.G.

Dramatis Personae

Matt A. Forr, a cognitive linguist (modeled on George Lakoff)

Adam Schmidt, businessman, holds a pre-philosophical version of Adam Smith's teaching that a laissez-faire form of capitalism promotes the greatest happiness of society, so that pursuit of one's own self-interest, while respecting rights of property and deal-making, is morally praiseworthy.

Strick T. Fahther, the CEO of the Family Values League, has the moral perspective described in the Strict Father Family Moral Model.

Cara N. Parenti, who heads a local chapter of Amnesty International, has the moral perspective described in the Nurturant Parent Family Moral Model.

Arthur Terrian, author of Spare-the-Rod-NOT!!, has a view corresponding to what Lakoff calls the Abusive Father Model. (The Nurturance Group metaphors play virtually no role in his thinking.)

Robby Sue Szart, author of the best-selling family relations advice book, FOLLOWING NATURE, has a view corresponding to what Lakoff calls the Permissive Family Model. She is a cousin of Suzie the ethical subjectivist and Rob the Relativist.

Olivia, the ethical objectivist, moderator

The Discussion

O. We're here today to explore the idea, defended in George Lakoff's book Moral Politics, that family values, moral values, and political values are very closely related, and that this is not only true where we might expect it, on the conservative side of the political spectrum but also at other points of the spectrum. I've invited you here because I know where you stand on either child-rearing practices, national policies, or morality. I am interested in whether your positions on morality in one area correspond to your positions in another. I've also invited Matt A. Forr, who is something of an expert on Lakoff's theory, to help me guide this conversation.

Let's start with Strick Fahther. Strick, tell us briefly your views on family values.

S. Men should lead and their wives should support them. It is the father's job to set the rules, the children's task is to obey them. Only if they do so will they acquire the moral strength that is so necessary for adult responsibility. The rules should be clearly stated. They are lines that cannot be crossed without definite consequences. Punishment should be fairly administrated, but nobody should get away with anything. There is a connection between moral strength and a person's self-interest. If you follow the rules, you deserve to prosper. There is a place for nurturing in this picture, but the main way in which a father nurtures his children is providing a clear moral framework and enforcing it. The goal is to help children grow up to be responsible adults, standing on their own. The world is a dangerous, competitive, sometimes violent place, and we need to prepare our children to deal with that fact.

O. Are women and men the same on your view?

S. No, not the same. Women need to develop moral strength too, but they function best if they stand behind their man and represent his authority in the home when he is away. If they are somewhat more nurturant than their husbands, that's all right so long as they do not contradict the moral guidelines he lays down. A house divided cannot stand.

O. Cara, what are your views on family values?

C. On my view, the task of parents is primarily to nurture and care for their children and to surround them with acceptance and a chance to find their own way, within reasonable limits. To be capable of nurture, the capacity for empathy is important. You have to be able to put yourselves into the position of other persons, and this includes children who are much younger than you are.

I see parents as equal partners in the home, and I don't necessarily assume that the partners will be a heterosexual couple. Parents have a protective function to perform, but we also have to teach that most people can be trusted. Most people are willing to cooperate if they are approached in the proper way.

We have to nurture not only individuals but also social ties, not only between members of the family, but also between individuals and families and other persons and families in the community. The boundary between the family and the outside world is a membrane, not a wall.

Parents exercise ultimate authority in the home, but we also encourage children to take responsibilities for which they are sufficiently mature.

We encourage them to develop and defend their own viewpoints. This will prepare them for critical thinking in life. On some decisions, we hold family councils and let everybody express his or her opinion, sometimes even permit a vote to decide what the family does. This prepares children for participation as citizens in a society with democratic institutions. Moral strength is important, but it is chiefly instrumental: will-power and courage are required to do one's job as a nurturing parent.

O. Adam, your turn?

Adam. What serves the family as a whole serves the individual, and vice versa. It's in the parents' self-interest and in the child's self-interest to do the right thing, i.e., to work hard, to keep promises, to develop personal skills and to enjoy the rewards.

The moral guidelines are those rules that happen to promote the rational pursuit of self-interest in the individual and family. I see no reason that the male parent has to be the dominant spouse, but I roughly agree with Strick that nurturance chiefly involves training the child to respect the moral boundaries.

O. Robby-Sue?

RS. I have no sympathy with the patriarchal views of Arthur and Strick, but I think Cara's approach is still too rigid. On my view, the job of parents is to provide food, clothing, shelter, and social interaction, but then just let kids discover for themselves how they want to live. There are consequences, of course, for different types of behavior. Those consequences will occur, and bad choices will produce painful consequences, sometimes painful social consequences such as the withdrawal of friendship. But I don't think it's my job to create those consequences. As long as the child is not threatening the health and life of a human being or a pet, she can pretty much do what she wants. We will still show love to her. The kids will turn out all right.

O. Don't you ever, in other cases, stand up for what you personally think is right in relation to kids?

RS. Sometimes I ask the child if she has considered what is likely to happen if she does something I personally think is wrong. Sometimes I ask if she would want others to do what she is thinking of doing, and I point out that she would be setting an example.

O. Arthur?

Arthur. I'm just disappointed that we no longer live according to the Old Testament Code that entitles parents to execute disrespectful children. OK, I know that the laws have changed, and I live within the law, but so far as possible, I follow the maxim that a man's home is his castle, and he is the absolute ruler of the castle. His word is his wife's command, and his children's command. Every social structure must have a leader (because without a leader, things fall apart) and in the family, that leader is the father. Period. Severe punishment, within the scope of the father's legal rights, must be the consequence when a child strays over the line. The world is an evil place; you never know in advance who your enemies are. By the time he leaves the household, the child must develop moral strength, and be ready to rule his own household.

M. Olivia, if I may, I would like to comment on what we have heard from the panel. Although it may not be obvious, everybody is using a certain set of metaphors, but they are using them in a different way.

O. I don't quite understand. Explain.

M. They fall into three groups. There are what Lakoff calls the Strength Group of Metaphors, which are most prominent in the Arthur's and Strick's perspective, the Nurturance Group of Metaphors, most prominent in Cara's perspective. The third element is the Moral Self-Interest Metaphor, which most prominent in Adam's perspective.

O. The Strength Group? What metaphors are in this group besides Moral Strength?

M. Moral authority (based on the metaphorical understanding of Authority as Parental Authority); Moral Boundaries (based on Moral Rules Are Boundaries); Moral Order (based on the idea that Moral Order is the "Natural Order." "Natural order" is folk theory according to which Men are over Women, Women over Children, and Children over Animals. Sometimes Moral Health and Moral Purity metaphors are included in the Strength Group too.

O. And the Nurturance Group?

M. Key to this is the metaphor that right conduct is nurturance. The source of this metaphor is the physical nurturance than goes along with feeding, clothing, and the like, but it is extended metaphorically to include cuddling, complimenting, encouragement, etc. Other parts of the Nurturance Group are Moral Empathy and Moral Self-Nurturance.

O. You think it's no accident that Strick's view prioritizes the Strength Group of metaphors and Cara prioritizes the Nurturance Group, and the each includes but gives last priority to the metaphors prioritized by the other.

M. I do. Each is a widespread perspective, and each perspective is more or less coherent internally. I should add that while the Nurturant model has a modified view of Moral Strength, Moral Authority, and Moral Boundaries, it does not preserve the patriarchal aspect of the Moral Order metaphor.

O. How about Adam's view?

M. I think that Adam's metaphor system is similar to Strick's, except that he gives priority to Moral Self-Interest and downgrades the Strength Group to second place. The Nurturance Group is still in the least prominent position.

O. Now, I understand that you think there's a connection between views regarding the family and views of morality more generally.

M. That's right. But let's ask our panelists about their views on national or global policy. Then I'll explain what my theory says about the connection.

O. All right, Strick. Let's hear your position on abortion, capital punishment, foreign aid, international security.

S. Abortion should be illegal unless the life of the mother is in danger. There's a bright moral line ruling out sex outside marriage. Abortion is usually employed in this kind of case, when a pregnancy occurs. There are consequences: you mess around, you have to live with the consequences, whether it's raising a child for 20 years or coping with an STD.

People who break the law should be punished, and punishment should fit the crime. Capital punishment is an appropriate punishment for murder. The law should be applied as fairly as possible, of course. Procedures to ensure fairness must be maintained so that we do not execute people who do not merit death.

The world is a dangerous place. We need a strong military, and must be willing to strike at our enemies when they are striking at us, or just about to do so. As for foreign aid, we should help those nations who are acting in our interests. Others should solve their own problems.

O. Cara?

C. My position is pro-choice on abortion. Abortion should be safe, legal, and ideally rare. As a society we should promote enlightenment on sexual matters, and not treat it as a subject too tender to discuss frankly. The full range of options for preventing pregnancy should be available. Every young person should be informed of the psychological and physical risks of casual sex. I am opposed to capital punishment. Not only does it risk killing an innocent person-since no procedure is immune to manipulation in times of crisis-but I think that the human right to life is one of the most basic rights. I prefer life without parole, when people are convicted of first-degree murder.

As for global policy, I think we should treat other nations as equals, so far as possible. We should learn to be less dependent on raw materials located elsewhere, and we should pay fair prices for those we acquire. We should promote respect for human rights and human dignity in general. The international conventions against torture should be upheld. We need a military, but only for defense. We ought to promote arms reduction treaties, ban nuclear and chemical weapons by treaties, etc. Better to provide technical and economic aid to help other countries meet the needs of their citizens than to kill those citizens through warfare.

O. Matt, do you have anything to say about this?

M. I think if we analyze Strick's and Cara's position carefully, we'd see that they have taken, perhaps without recognizing it, the same metaphors that they use to think about family values and projected them onto the national and global community. For them, the nation is (metaphorically) a family, and humanity is (metaphorically) a family. In the national context, is citizen is metaphorically a child in the family, and our duties to our fellow citizens are metaphorically duties to other children in the national family. In the global context, each human is metaphorically a child in the global family. Moral relationships on the national or global scale are understood, metaphorically, as relationships within the national or global family.

Strick, whose model of the ideal family has been called the Strict Father Model, seems to be projecting that model onto the nation as a whole. Cara, whose model of the ideal family has been called the Nurturant Parent Family model, seems to project that model onto the nation and the world as a whole.

I must issue a warning here: the correspondence we have observed between family values and national policy or between family values and global morality in Strick's and Cara's cases is not inevitable. Most people know all the major metaphors and can understand the various perspectives. Many of us are quite capable of preferring one model for the family and a different one for the nation or the church or the world. But the starting points for our concepts of morality in the national or church or global context are the metaphors for family morality.

Adam. If I may, I'd like to present my view of national and global ethics. I'm in favor of free trade. It's the solution to just about any problem that there is. Almost everybody in the country has some skill he or she can market. And the same is true for every country and region in the world. Let people make the best deals they can with one another, without force or fraud. Those who work harder and who have the better ideas will come out ahead, of course. But that will only encourage the others to be more efficient.

Government should be in the business of making sure that people do not deceive one another when they are negotiating contracts and, once the contracts are formed, everyone should keep his or her contracts. Governments should also have sufficient military power that they can repel aggressors who may wish to get by violent conquest that violates individual liberty or property rights.

Arthur. What we need is a stronger government that will clamp down dissent and other forms of disloyalty. The world is full of evildoers and we need to be unified and ready to deal with them. We should stop coddling murderers and execute more of them. Ignore the whiney liberals who say even lethal injection is dehumanizing. I could care less.

We also need to reestablish God at the center of our politics. And not just any Tom, Dick, or Jane's notion of God, the true notion, the one in the Holy Scriptures. God will not tolerate any other gods before Him, and that means He will not tolerate any false ideas of Himself, which are just idols. Once we do that, we will be able to rid our society of the liberal teachings that people can pursue happiness any way they choose. We will close down all those Planned Parenthood clinics where they teach girls about contraception, thus encouraging them to have premarital sex.

Once we have established God as our Leader, and made the one true faith dominant at home, we will put our resources behind missions to the heathen. If the heathen expel us, we will use whatever means are necessary to save their heathen souls.

M. You notice, Olivia, how Adam's national and global preferences reflect his family values. He prioritizes the pursuit of self-interest, but is convinced that it will solve the world's problems, just in case the rules of the game are free trade rules. As for Arthur, he not only wants an authoritarian father in the Family situation but an authoritarian government over the nation as a whole. He not only opposes abortion, as Strick does, but he also wants to shut down organizations that teach family planning. Even his notion of God expresses his Authoritarian Father model of the family.

Once again, I must remind you that this correspondence between one person's family values and his or her national or global morality is not inevitable, for reasons I stated earlier.

O. Let's see what Robby Sue says.

RS. There's no absolute right and wrong, but it is cowardly to refuse to face the facts and deny responsibility for choosing one's own values. Each person is his or her own moral authority. This is true even when you deny it. Because we are inherently free creators of values, the only way to face this fact is recognize that we are always responsible. We are responsible not only for ourselves but for everybody else insofar as they may imitate us. I do not mean that those who imitate others have an excuse. There are no excuses.

So it makes a big difference what values you choose. At the same time everybody is in the same boat, except that some are self-deceivers and some are not. Self-deceivers include people who claim that they get their moral values from God, as if they did not have to decide what Holy Book to read or what prophet speaks for God, as if they did not have to decide to obey the picture of God they have acquired or adopted. Self-deceivers also include people who claim they get their values from political or religious authorities, as if they had not decided to follow those leaders. In fact, without followers, the leaders would not be leaders.

Having said that, I will tell you what values I have chosen, values for which I take complete responsibility.

I am opposed to the death penalty and in favor of a woman's and a man's right to chose what goes in their bodies. I also favor family planning and a rational population policy that can get our numbers down to where we can cohabit with nonhuman species on this planet. These are expressions of my values. True, they are not entirely original with me because I have formed them after listening to others. Yet I accept complete responsibility for them. I cannot promise not to change my mind tomorrow. At that point I will still be responsible (in the historical sense) for the values I held today. I will also be responsible for the new values I have when I have adopted them.

I believe in social justice, not only for people here in my own community but across our country as a whole and in other countries too. I favor political action to secure equal opportunity for members of groups that have been discriminated against. I favor dialogue between peoples, help to the hungry and those needing medical care not only at home, but internationally. Rather than monopolizing technology and intellectual property rights, I favor sharing them as part of the global commons. Nations with valuable resources should both conserve them for future generations and share them with other nations who really need them. Obviously, we cannot maximize justice both between generations and between peoples now. But we should try to maximize justice.

As long as there are international tensions, I prefer negotiations over violence. Nonviolent civil disobedience may be appropriate when there is internal discrimination or colonial domination. We can learn a lot from Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

All currently existing cultures encourage self-deception. Pockets and occasions of honesty exist here and there, in most societies otherwise very different. But no society is so free from self-deception as to be an adequate model for other countries. Frequently, the cultural elements exported by one country to others are closer to its worst than to its best. The best patriots are also the truest citizens of the world. They deny that being born in certain countries morally entitles a person to a larger share of resources and privileges than being born elsewhere.

Rarely has life been improved by imposing values by military conquest. We should peacefully promote respect for human rights, including freedoms of religion, expression, and criticism, because without that freedom, the illusion that something besides the individual human will is the source of value is likely to retain its hold over us.

Arthur. Robby Sue is possessed by the Devil. She not only leaves God out of the picture, but she makes human beings gods. I refuse to be polluted by her evil ideology. And the rest of you are wimps. I am out of here. (Leaves abruptly.)

Robby Sue. I'm not surprised that Arthur thinks that. But when I say the individual human being is the source of value, I don't mean that we are gods. I mean that ultimately we have nothing else other our own fundamental judgments on which to base our values. That's true for everybody who is, or was, here today.

O. What do you say about that, Matt? I would have expected a different big-picture morality from Robby Sue. I got the impression from her philosophy of family values that she would accept a warmer and more cuddly adult morality than Cara, a more socialist version of global morality. And while elements of that picture shows up in her personal position, her views on the human condition, responsibility, and freedom are more demanding even than Adam's libertarianism.

M. As I said before, everybody knows all the major metaphors, so it is not necessary to apply the same family model to every community to which one belongs. Even so, Robby Sue's over-all philosophy is not so odd, given her family moral values.

Remember that one of the characteristics of the Nurturant Parent model is that children are encouraged to develop their own perspectives and express them within the family context. But the Nurturant Parent model balances that by emphasizing social ties, including the interdependence of persons within the family: Autonomy and Justice are blended with attention to relationships, so to speak.

But in the Permissive Family Model, which is what Robby Sue recommends for the family context, interrelatedness becomes less important and parental authority almost disappears. Robby Sue's existentialist view that each individual is the ultimate source of moral values and is thus radically responsible for whatever she does and for the model she sets is therefore a plausible global extension of the Permissive Model. It may not be the only possible extension of that model.

O. All this is very interesting, Matt, but what significance does this have for my search for objective moral truth? I need to know. I am looking for but have not found a fully adequate moral theory.

M. This may unsettle you a bit, but the consequence of this theory is that there are no pure moral truths. The metaphors we use to conceptualize even family morality are rooted in physical experience and in intimate relationships within the family, the primary human community. There is no pure idea of authority; the basis for our idea of authority is metaphorical, based upon parental power. We may try to remove from it the possibility of arbitrariness--and we should, but we can never purify it entirely of its origin in childhood experience. As we mature, we can conceive the possibility of our parents' being wrong, but that's because we have conceived the possibility of our teachers or political leaders or God or even ourselves being right on one or another point, against our parents. We originally understood pedagogical authority, political authority, and divine authority on the model of parental authority.

O. How do we conceive the authority of human reason as a parent?

M. We conceive the mind metaphorically as a community, consisting of reason, perception, imagination, emotion, and will. And sometimes we treat these faculties as persons. In some views, this community is metaphorically conceived as a family with practical reason (or the Will) as the Strict Father. This is the case in Kant's moral philosophy. For Kant, moral responsibility lies within each adult moral agent. But it is easy for him to think that way because he is using a version of the strict father model applied to the mind.

O. Kant says that using the Categorical Imperative is a pure case of moral judgment.

M. But this cannot be right if Kant himself conceives practical reason as a metaphorical father by use of imagination. In Kant's view, imagination is too dependent upon perception since it gets the materials with which it works from sense-perception.

O. So there is no pure moral rationality, contrary to what Kant claimed?

M. None that humans can have, if what cognitive science claims to have discovered is right.