Metaphorical Roots of Ethical Theories

A Work in Progress

Draft © by Jan Garrett

Last revised: March 10, 2005

Thanks to work by George Lakoff, we know that the pre-philosophical moralities found in our culture are rooted in metaphor, and in particular the complex metaphorical systems associated with early childhood experiences of family life.

But the power of this approach is not limited to making sense out of "folk morality." Our ethical (and arguably our religious) systems of thought regarding right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust, are modifications and refinements of ideas supplied by this folk morality, together with additional metaphors.

Virtue Ethics
Consequentialist Thinking (includes Egoism and Utilitarianism)
Libertarian Thinking
Autonomy Liberal Thinking

Virtue Ethics

Consider the Folk Theory of Essence:

Every entity has an essence or nature, a collection of attributes that makes it the kind of thing that it is and is the causal source of its natural behavior.

Key Metaphor: Virtue as Moral Essence

Aristotle understands moral virtue or moral vice as a "second nature." The term "second" indicates that he is aware that he is using the term "nature" in an extended (what we may call a metaphorical) sense.

Key Metaphor: Virtue as Moral Strength

Aristotle understands moral virtue as an acquired characteristic that enables its possessor to act in ways he would not be able to act without it. Just as one does not become strong physically without practice, so one does not become morally virtuous without practice of the corresponding actions in appropriate circumstances.
Metaphor: Disposition as long-term possession

A disposition or state is understood by Aristotle as a quality that is "had" for a lengthy period of time. (The Greek word hexis here rendered "disposition" derives from the verb meaning "to have.") A disposition need not be exhibited continuously, but can be expressed as an occasion for its use arises. Strength, in the literal sense, is a physical disposition. Strong persons are strong even when they are not lifting heavy things.

Metaphor: Dispositions as objects located along a line segment

Aristotle says that virtues, praiseworthy dispositions, lie in the mean or middle, while vices, blameworthy dispositions, lie toward the extremes. In his discussion of virtue, Aristotle defines regards (moral) virtue partly in this way:

a disposition [of the soul] related to choice [and feeling], lying in a mean . . .

Consequentialist thinking

(especially egoist hedonism and utilitarianism)

Consider the folk theory of capitalist business.

A good business will try to maximize its profits.
Profit is net income (i.e., total income minus total expenses).
It will try to predict income from each path of action.
It will try to predict expenses from each path of action.
A good business will make choices based on predictions of income and expenses.
Cost-Benefit Analysis

Key Metaphor: Benefit as Income, Cost as Expense

a. Alternative courses of action are distinguished.
b. The beneficial outcomes of an action are predicted, given a positive
     numerical value in a specific scale, and added up.
c. The cost outcomes of the same action are predicted, given a negative
     numerical value in the same scale, and added up.
d. The net benefit of the action is calculated (total benefits minus total costs).
e. Steps b-d are done for each of the alternate courses of action.
f. The best course of action is the one whose net benefit is greatest.

Key Metaphor: Moral Agents as Self-Managing Businesses

Moral agents should do cost-benefit analyses before deciding.
The action best for oneslf is the on that maximizes net benefit for oneself.

The morally right action is the action best for oneself, i.e., the one that maximizes one's net benefit.

Egoist Hedonism

Key Metaphor: Moral Agents as Self Managing Businesses.
Folk Theory of Hedonism: The essence of the good (benefit) is pleasure.

Any outcome pleasant for the person is a benefit.
Any outcome painful for the person is a cost.
Persons should do cost-benefit analyses (in terms of pleasure and pain relative
     to themselves) before deciding.
The best action for oneself is the one that will maximize net pleasures for oneself.

The morally right action is the action best for oneself, i.e., that which maximizes one's net pleasure.

Original (Hedonistic) Utilitarianism

Key metaphor: "Society" (or the collection of all sentient beings) as a Business
Key Metaphor: Moral Agents as Managers of the "Society" of Sentient Beings
Folk Theory of Hedonism (see Egoist Hedonism)

Secondary metaphor 1: Society as a container of persons
SM2: Persons as bodies external to one another.
SM3: Bodies outside one another as places for feelings.
So, persons are "places" where pleasure and pain may occur.

Moral agents should do cost-benefit analyses for "society" before deciding.

The best action is the one that will maximize total net pleasure for "Society."

The morally right action is the best action for the "Society," i.e., the action that will maximize total net pleasure for the set of all sentient beings.

Preference Utilitarianism

Key Metaphor: Society as a business.
Key Metaphor: Moral agents as Managers of Society.

Preference Theory of the Good: The essence of the good is preference satisfaction.

SM1: Society as a container of persons
SM2: Persons as bodies external to one another.
SM3: Bodies outside one another as places where preference satisfaction or preference frustration occurs.
So, persons are (metaphorically) places for the occurrence of preference satisfaction or preference frustration.

The best action for those affected is the one that will maximize the total net preference satisfaction for society.

The morally right action is the best action for those affected, i.e., the one that will maximize the total net preference satisfaction for society.

Libertarianism and Non-Interference Rights

Lakoff describes libertarianism as a variation on Strict Father Morality according to which Moral Self-Interest has priority over the Strength Group of metaphors and the Nurturance Group of metaphors is in the bottom position


1. Moral Self-Interest
2. Moral Strength Group
3. Moral Nurturance Group

Strict Father Family Moral Model

1. Moral Strength Group
2. Moral Self-Interest
3. Moral Nurturance Group

But to understand the reasoning of libertarian philosophers we need also to understand their notions of rights, and this, as we might suspect, is a notion rooted in metaphor.

In his discussion of the metaphor of moral boundaries, Lakoff tells us that rights are often considered "rights of way," e.g., "I am permitted to 'go there.'"

Rights are also often partly understood in terms of possessions, as things had.

The idea of rights presupposes a "family moral background," in particular the notion of moral authority (able to authorize control). "Parental figures are moral authorities."

Metaphor: Rights as possession.
Metaphor: Possession as authorized control.

"This is my teddy bear. I can play with him when I want to." (said by toddler, who has not learned the language of rights)

"He has a right to play with the teddy bear; it's his." (said by an older family member, who has learned the language of rights).

Rights over the body are rooted in the metaphor language of self-control.
Language suggests a subject-self distinction:

"Now he can dress himself."
"I restrained myself from slapping him."
This suggests that the subject is distinct from the body but able to control it.
Metaphor: body as possession of the subject.
The libertarian philosopher says that human beings have rights over their own body.
"I have a right to decide what is to be done with my book."
"I have a right to decide what is to be done with my body."

Note that we tend to conceive of the possessions to which rights are attached first of all as objects with clear boundaries, e.g., teddy bears, tools, houses, plots of land.

Philosophers in the individualistic natural law tradition like John Locke (late 17th century) and a libertarians like Hospers derive the rights to liberty and to property in things other than one's body from rights to life (i.e., to the preservation of one's property in oneself).

Locke, being more traditional, did not believe we had a right to commit suicide (because he still accepted the background belief that human beings are the possession of God, which he held ruled out suicide). The most consistent recent libertarians defend the right to suicide and voluntary euthanasia (that is, it has to be voluntary on the part of the person dying).

Libertarians tend to make an absolute out of non-interference rights based on our experience of authorized possession and control. In general, the only things that can limit one person's rights are the similar non-interference rights of others.

There are complications, however, based on the necessity of having a government to protect these rights.

There are also complications based on the fact that we tend to treat rights as if they are not merely the authorized possession of something but a detachable object. Just as I can have a house, I can also have a right to the house; just as I can sell the house, I can sell the right to the house.

So far there seems to be little difference between the right to X and X itself, but sometimes it seems that rights are exchanged without any real object being exchanged. For instance, one bank buys up your mortgage from another. The only thing that has changed hands is the right to collect.

And if I have a right to my life, do I have a right to sell my life into the possession of another, i.e., into slavery? Short of that, do I have a right to sell my kidneys, or even just one of them? Do I have a right to rent my uterus as surrogate mother?

Under capitalism, I have the right to my body, including the ability to work, but I can transfer this right (temporarily) to a boss who contracts with me to perform labor.

Autonomy Liberal Rights

Autonomy liberals and human rights liberals use the language of rights derived from people like Locke ("classical liberals") but they reinterpret the notion of rights. Rights are now understood in terms of a complex network of mutual obligations constrained by the notion of justice or fairness and fundamental social protections.

Social Justice as Equality

Justice in this sense is metaphorically understood in terms of equality, especially equality of life chances, something that can be visually represented. Life chances are positive things and could be pictured as bar graphs. The ideal is for everybody's bar graph to come up to the same height.

More common metaphors for this sort of justice is the metaphor of a social safety net or a floor. The idea is for nobody to fall through the net or below the floor.

It's important not to confuse equality of life chances with equality of well-being. Even with genuine equality of life chances, we cannot guarantee that everyone will be equally happy.

For contemporary liberals or progressives it's not fair for persons to have different life chances because of who their parents were or what has happened in their environment that is beyond their control. However, contrary to the stereotypes some conservatives have of liberals, most liberals do not think that the world can be made as perfectly fair as they might wish. (See below "Complexity".)


Such a metaphorical understanding of equal life chances must be modified by the liberals' recognition that we are not entirely self-contained individuals but mutually interdependent and at various life stages primarily dependent upon other human beings for whatever degree of well-being we enjoy. A common metaphor to convey interdependence invokes the image of a web.

Key Metaphor: Persons as connecting points in a web.


Liberals, however, know that reality is complex and that this notion of social justice is not equally compelling to everyone. As Nurturant Parent moralists, they are often willing to make some compromises so long as this value of social justice is taken seriously and used in policy planning and it significantly contributes to social decisions.


My thinking on this matter is indebted to Lakoff and Johnson, some of whose important books are listed here:

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson, 1980. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson, 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh. University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, George, 1996. Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press. 2nd edition, 2002.
Johnson, Mark, 1993. Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics. Univ. of Chicago Press.