Liberal Strict-Father Intellectuals

by George Lakoff

from Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think
(Univ of Chicago Press, 2002), pp. 296-298

I remarked in Chapter 1 [of Moral Politics] that we do not all, or even mostly, have a coherent politics, that one might, for example, be conservative on foreign politics and liberal on domestic politics. The descriptions of Strict Father and Nurturant Parent moralities characterize just what it means to be liberal or conservative on an issue or an area of policy: it means to apply a given family-based moral model to a domain of politics through the Nation As Family metaphor.

But it is also possible for someone to be a strict political liberal, applying only the nurturance model in his politics, while being a conservative in other aspects of life. A familiar case is a class of liberal intellectuals who apply the Strict Father model to their intellectual lives.

Consider someone who is a thorough going liberal, but whose intellectual views are as follows:

There are intellectual authorities who maintain strict standards for the conduct of scholarly research and for reporting on such research.

It is unscholarly for someone to violate those standards.

Young scholars require a rigorous training to learn to meet those scholarly standards.

The only way they can learn appropriate scholarly rigor is to be given difficult assignments and held to a high standard of performance, for example, to be given difficult tests and graded harshly.

Students require the incentives of grades if they are to develop the self-discipline needed to be a scholar. High grades are rewards and low grades are punishments. Receiving consistently high grades is a sign of self-discipline and therefore of good scholarship.

Students should not be "coddled." They should be held to strict scholarly standards at all times.

The goal of scholarly training is to produce rigorous scholars who are self-disciplined and self-reliant, that is, who can maintain scholarly rigor and uphold scholarly standards on their own.

This is an application of Strict Father morality to academic life. Here academic scholarship is conceptualized metaphorically as a version of Strict Father morality. The conceptual metaphor can be stated as follows:
Academic Scholarship Is Strict Father Morality.

  • Mature Scholars Are Strict Fathers.
  • Intellectual Authority Is Moral Authority.
  • Scholarliness Is Morality.
  • Unscholarliness Is Immorality.
  • Scholarly Rigor Is Moral Strength.
  • Lack of Scholarly Rigor Is Moral Weakness.
  • Scholarly Discipline Is Moral Discipline.
  • Scholarly Standards Are Moral Standards.
  • Students Are Children.
  • Teaching Is Setting Rules for Moral Behavior.
  • Good Grades Are Rewards for Moral Behavior.
  • Bad Grades Are Punishments for Immoral Behavior.
  • The Prospect of a Good Grade Is a Moral Incentive.
  • Tests Are Tests of Moral Strength and Self-Discipline.
  • Scholarly Success Is an Indicator of Good Moral Character.
  • Scholarly Failure Is an Indicator of Bad Moral Character.
  • Among the entailments of this metaphor are:
    Intellectual authority must be followed; it is not only unscholarly to do otherwise, but it violates the system of academic authority as defined by Strict Father morality.

    Competition for grades builds character and is an incentive for good scholarly practice.

    Scholarly achievement is an individual matter, a measure of an individual's moral worth.

    Students who are intellectually weak should be allowed to fail; only if they are punished can they learn self-discipline.

    Coddling or indulging a student will make him intellectually weak.

    Grades are a measure of a student's intellectual worth.

    Much of the academic world and academic institutions are run according to this metaphor, which is based on Strict Father morality. Intellectuals who accept this view of the academic world may be political liberals, but they are intimately acquainted with Strict Father morality and practice it in their everyday professional lives.