The Metaphorical Basis of Folk Morality

Contact: Dr. Jan Garrett

Minor revision: January 24, 2005

This set of notes owes much to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Lakoff and Johnson are authors of Philosophy in the Flesh, 1999, and Lakoff is the author of Moral Politics, 2002. Almost all of these ideas on this web page are found in these two books. Some of the material in Moral Politics may be found online in Lakoff's Metaphor, Morality and Politics.

These are lecture notes, not for direct quotation in scholarly work. Use careful paraphrase if you need to repeat some of the ideas you find here.

Students in my courses may directly quote short passages from the Lakoff and Johnson material directly quoted in these notes but documentation should refer to the original sources I have quoted.

1. Elementary examples of moral metaphor
2. Basic terms
3. Moral accounting
4. Several key moral metaphors
5. Strict father morality
6. Nurturant parent morality
7. From family to community
8. Conservative and liberal action categories
9. Key contrasts (on separate page with #10)
10. Public policy comparisons (on separate page)

1. Elementary examples of moral metaphor

If you have $1000 and I give you another $1000, you have gained in wealth.

Now suppose you immensely admire Oprah and would just love to be her guest to discuss something you've done and don't mind sharing with others. And, voila, now you have the chance. You are "happier" after the news than you were before. You think of yourself as gaining, not losing.

These examples show that, on the common sense level (before philosophical reflection) we often conceive well-being in the same terms as wealth. You can gain and you can lose well-being just as you can gain and lose wealth. Originally wealth is meaningful in the area of possessions and money, but we apply the idea metaphorically in non-financial matters as well.

Suppose Jason does some good thing for Mark, e.g., finds and returns some valuable misplaced object; we say that Mark owes Jason something, or Mark is in Jason's debt.

This is another example of metaphor. "Owe" is used in a metaphorical sense; it's original home would seem to be financial relationship, but it is being applied in other areas, e.g., personal well-being or human obligation.

2. Key terms

a. Conceptual metaphor

A conceptual metaphor (or just a metaphor, for short) is a customary or culturally agreed-upon ("conventional") way of understanding one domain in terms of another.
The two domains are called Source Domain and Target Domain. In our example, the SD, from which the metaphor comes, is financial. The TD, to which the metaphor is applied, is non-financial personal relationships.

b. Folk theory

To make further sense out of what I am going to say about the origin of moral language, we need to understand the difference between a folk theory and a theory in the usual sense of the term. It is enough to say here that theories are general ideas developed by specialist groups in order to explain things and, sometimes, to recommend particular ways of acting. The specialist groups include philosophers, theologians, and all kinds of scientist.

By contrast folk theories are general ideas that exist in human communities before there exist any such specialist groups and specialist theories. Folk theories continue to exist alongside the specialist theories. Ordinary folks are not immediately persuaded to give up their folk theories and adopt the specialist theory in their place.

3. The moral accounting scheme

This consists of several metaphorical ideas.

Reciprocation (tit for tat)

If A does something good for B, then A owes B something, A is in B's debt.

If B does something equally good for A, then B has repaid A and they are even.

Elementary Folk Principles of Moral Action

Rule 1: Right action is giving something of positive value, wrong action is giving something of negative value.

Rule 2: There is a moral rule to pay one's moral debts, and failure to pay them is wrong.

Retribution and Revenge

If Jason harms Alice, then Jason has given Alice something of negative value (metaphorically cost Alice something).

To give someone something of negative value is considered the same as taking something of positive value.

Now Alice has a choice. Alice can harm Jason in turn, which violates R1. ("Two wrongs don't make a right.")

Or Alice can do nothing, which violates R2. (Alice "hasn't repaid Jason [harm] for the harm" or "made Jason pay for" the harm [by receiving harm].)

There are two responses to this, Morality of Absolute Goodness, and Morality of Retribution/Revenge.

Retribution puts Rule 2 first, while Goodness puts Rule 1 first.

Two variants of Rule 2:

1. Retribution in the strict sense: A legitimate authority (e.g., the state) "pays back" the offender.

2. Revenge: A private person takes it upon himself to "pay back" the one who injured him.


This is a way of avoiding the dilemma that required us to choose between Absolute Goodness and Retribution. Jason, who has harmed Alice, recognizes that he is in debt to her, and does her a good deed equivalent in value to the harm, thus canceling the moral debt.


If Jason does something good for Alice, then Alice receives something of positive value and is in Jason's debt. But suppose Jason cancels the debt. Alice is no longer in Jason's debt. Still, we think that Jason has accumulated moral credit (as if there is a kind of cosmic scorekeeper operating in the background).


"What goes around comes around." This is the folk theory that there is a balance, over the long term, between what you do (good or bad) and what you receive (good or bad), and there is a connection between your past good or bad deeds and the goods or evils you later receive.


By the accounting metaphor, fairness or justice is the "settling of accounts," "balancing the moral books." People get what they deserve, their just deserts.

Fairness is about the proper distribution of things of value (positive or negative value) according to some accepted standard.

(Many such standards are proposed, and they don't all yield the same results. About this more will be said later in the course.)


In moral accounting terms, rights are moral I O U's. If Anne has done Jason a good deed, then (other things equal) Anne has a right to a good deed in return.

4. Several key moral metaphors

a. Wealth -> Well-Being (previously discussed)

b. Moral Strength

SD: physical
TD: moral (psychological)

Physical strength lets us do what we desire to do, to overcome external obstacles; moral strength lets us act on our moral knowledge or realize our moral values, to overcome internal obstacles.

Moral Strength has two chief forms: Courage and Willpower

Moral Strength relates to metaphors of Height. The morally strong person, for instance, is upstanding, stands tall. If a person who is supposed to be morally strong gives into temptation, he is said to fall. The opposite of MS, moral weakness, characterizes people who are lowdown.

We talk about evil as if it were something outside ourselves or our true selves destabilizing us, preventing us from standing tall.

c. Authority (dominance in the moral sphere)

SD: family relations (power of parent over child)
TD: moral-psychological sphere

Two common versions of parental authority:

1. Legitimate authority . . . authority of parent must be earned by her wisdom
2. Absolute authority . . . parents must be obeyed just because they are parents

Authority figure is (metaphorically) a parent (parent -> authority)
A moral agent is (metaphorically) a child
Morality (right conduct) is obedience

d. Moral Order

This concept is important in one group of moral systems (the kind based on Strict Father Morality). It rank orders individuals in terms of moral authority. It is based on the Folk Theory of the Natural Order.

The natural order is the ladder of dominance or power: e.g.,

people/animals, plants, rocks,
Now, the metaphor of Moral Order equates the Natural Order to the Moral Order. Thus

natural order = moral order

God has authority over people,
people over animals,
adults over children,
men over women.
Authority over . . . and responsibility for the care of . . . normally go hand in hand in this view. (This makes the Morality of the Moral Order seem somewhat less like exploitation than it would otherwise. But note that there are racist and nationalist versions of this view.)

e. Bounds/Boundaries/Limits

boundaries -> moral prohibitions

We tend to think of moral conduct as occurring within bounds, that is, it's all right if it does not get out of bounds, does not cross the line, etc.

The bounds or limits determine whether the activity is wrong or not. They "set constraints" on freedom of action. (Here we have a metaphor based on physical force.)

rights of way -> rights

Rights are rights of way, i.e., where we are permitted to go. ("We shouldn't go there" = We are not permitted to speak about that.)

f. Essence

According to the Folk Theory of Essences, things have essences or nature, a set of attributes that determine how they act under various conditions. Thus, water has an essence that enables it to quench thirst or help plants grow. Natural gas has an essence that enables it to burn, in the presence of air. An acorn has an essence that enables it, if planted in a certain type of soil, to grow into an oak tree.

Using this idea outside the physical domain, with respect to psychology and morality we say that people have moral essences, what we call their character or second nature, that determine how they act under various conditions. In racist moralities, character may be determined from birth; in other versions, character is built up over time and is more or less determined by adulthood.

Essence -> Character

g. Purity

purity -> goodness

A physical substance is pure when it has no different substance mixed up with it. Because a common impurity is dirt, we tend to equate purity with cleanliness. When morality is understood as purity, it is also understood as cleanliness, and its opposite is understood as impurity or dirtiness.

This association of cleanliness with goodness probably comes from the association of cleanliness with the nobility who did not have to work with their hands and get dirty hands! (JG: Lakoff does not make this connection, at least in anything I have read by him.)

But cleanliness is also linked with health.

L&J 1999 calls attention to the Folk Theory of Mental Faculties. This FT assumes that the mind contains several parts, which are sometimes personified, such as reason, will, passions, desires). According to this FT, the will [or heart] must remain pure, i.e., rational, untainted by anything associated with the body, the desires, passions, etc. (308)

She's pure as the driven snow.
He's a dirty old man.
O Lord, create a pure heart within me.
If elected, I will clean up this town.
h. Health

Health -> moral well-being.

Moral well-being is (metaphorically) health. (The experience of health, in the basic physical sense, is used to help us understand moral well-being.)

Starting from this metaphor, we understand immorality in terms of disease or illness. People say immorality is a plague that, if left unchecked, can spread throughout the community. We talk of quarantining bad behavior. We think of immorality as spreading by contact, as diseases often do. We tell our kids to stay away from bad people, so they aren't infected.

Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England has people confess: "We are by nature sinful and unclean, and there is no health in us."

The metaphors discussed above play a large role in Strict Father Morality (to be discussed shortly). The next two metaphors--three if you count self-nurturance--play only a small role in SFM but a prominent role in Nurturant Parent Morality.

i. Empathy

Empathy is the ability to perceive what others perceive, to see things as others see them, to feel what another person feels. It is understood metaphorically as a shift of place, from my shoes to yours.

(1999, 309) This is metaphorical b/c we cannot literally inhabit another person's consciousness.

There is a logic to moral empathy: "if you feel what another person feels, and if you want to feel a sense of well-being, then you will want that person to experience a sense of well-being."

Moral empathy is more demanding than the Golden Rule. That Rule says, "Do to others as you would want them to do to you." Moral Empathy, however, demands that we do unto others as they would want us to do unto them.

Lakoff and Johnson 1999 (p. 309) distinguishes absolute empathy from egocentric or conditional empathy. Absolute Empathy = feeling as others feel, no strings attached. Egocentric Empathy includes trying to reach out to others while preserving your own values. (Note how parents must, to some extent, be empathetic in an egocentric way if they are to help the child acquire adult values.)

j. Nurturance

Morality as nurturance is a complex metaphor, explained in the following way:

family - > community

nurturing parents -> moral agents

children -> people needing help

nurturing acts -> moral (correct) acts

Other metaphors at work here:
care for
keep clean,
keep healthy
The view of morality as nurturance is closely linked to the metaphor of moral empathy. Empathy is required if we are to know what others need. It is the basis for concern and a sense of responsibility for the other.

Moral nurturance is associated with self-nurturance. If we are obliged to take care of persons who are needy, and each of us is a person, we are obliged to take care of ourselves. Moreover, we may be better at taking care of others if we take also care of ourselves adequately. (Physician, heal thyself!)

There are two types of moral nurturance, nurturance of individuals and nurturance of social ties. (To understand the second type, of course, we have to use the metaphorical notion of social ties.)

(physical) tie, link, bond -> social ties

Social ties include relationships between individuals who have known each other first hand in the past, and maintaining them might involve keeping up an email correspondence and an occasional visit. But maintaining social ties may also include actions that preserve the complex "fabric" (yet another metaphor) of a community of fellow citizens or the world community, though we may never have direct contact with all members of such "families." Actions of this sort might include supporting universal medical care (within the nation-state) or opposing governmental actions that violate international human rights principles.

Putting the metaphors together

Not only do we use the metaphors we have discussed, but we also put them together into coherent systems. Lakoff (1996) observes that liberals and conservatives use these metaphors somewhat differently. They put these metaphors together in different systematic ways. But moral ideas are not entirely distinct from political ideas. It seems, then, that different moral views put the metaphors together in different ways.

What Lakoff seems to have discovered is that the folk moralities that steer people toward conservative or liberal worldviews are metaphorically based on different models of the family. There are two chief models.

5. Strict Father Morality

Here is the Strict Father family model (1999, 313-314):

The family is a traditional nuclear one, with the father having primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family. The father has authority to determine the policy that will govern the family. Because of his moral authority, his commands are to be obeyed. He teaches his children right from wrong by setting strict rules for their behavior and by setting a moral example in his own life. He enforces these moral rules by reward and punishment. The father also gains his children's cooperation by showing love and by appreciating them when they obey the rules. But children must not be coddled, lest they become spoiled. A spoiled child lacks the appropriate moral values and lacks the moral strength and discipline necessary for living independently and meeting life's challenges.

The mother has day-to-day responsibility for the care of the household, raising the children, and upholding the father's authority. Children must respect and obey their parents, because of the parents' moral authority.

[314] Through their obedience they learn the discipline and self-reliance that is necessary to meet life's challenges. This self-discipline develops in them strong moral character. Love and nurturance are a vital part of family life, but they should never outweigh parental authority, which is itself an expression of love and nurturance-tough love. As children mature, the virtues of respect for moral authority, self-reliance, and self-discipline allow them to incorporate their father's moral values. In this way they incorporate their father's moral authority-they become self-governing and self-legislating. In certain versions, the children are then off on their own and it is inappropriate for the father to meddle in their lives.

Basic Points about the Strict Father Model made in the above passage:
1. Father has primary responsibility for supporting and protecting family.
2. Father has primary authority to set overall family policy.
3. Father teaches children right/wrong by setting strict rules and enforcing via punishment and showing love and appreciation when they follow rules; he never coddles
4. Mother has day-to-day responsibility for house, raising kids, upholding father's authority
5. Children must obey and respect parents so that . . .
6. they learn self-discipline, self-reliance, respect for authority
7. and grow into self-disciplined, self-reliant adults able to pursue self-interest
8. World is competitive place, but a self-disciplined, self-reliant person can make it
9. Mature children run their own families and their parents don't interfere
10. Reward & punishment is a form of love . . .
11. Success is a reward for becoming SD and SR
12. Competition reveals who is moral (admirable, virtuous) and who is not
13. Folk theory of the natural order + metaphor of moral order based upon it
14. Retribution is chief form of response to rule-breaking
15. Character develops by adulthood and once formed, does not change
16. Ideal person is morally strong and avoids self-indulgence
17. Good persons are "whole," immorality is "corruption"
18. Good persons are "pure," "clean," "healthy"
19. Strict fathers nurture by tough love, protecting family and helping "good people" afflicted by natural disasters
20. Highest priority metaphors are the strength group (SG), lowest the nurturance group (NG), with moral self-interest in between.
Strength Group of Metaphors = {strength, authority, order, boundaries, essence, wholeness, purity, health}
Nurturance Group of Metaphors = {nurturance [care], empathy, self-nurturance}

6. Nurturant Parent Morality

Here is the Nurturant Parent Model of the Family (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 315)

The primal experience behind this model is that of being cared for and cared about, having one's desires for loving interactions met, living as happily as possible, and deriving meaning from mutual interaction and care.

Children develop best in and through their positive relationships to others, through their contribution to their community, and through the ways in which they realize their potential and find joy in life. Children become responsible, self-disciplined, and self-reliant through being cared for and respected and through caring for others. Support and protection are part of nurturance, and they require strength and courage on the part of parents. Ideally, as children mature, they learn obedience out of their love and respect for their parents, not out of the fear of punishment.

Open, two-way, mutually respectful communication is crucial. If parents' authority is to be legitimate, they must tell children why their decisions serve the cause of protection and nurturance. They must allow their children to ask questions about why their parents do what they do, and all family members should participate in important decisions. Responsible parents, of course, have to make the ultimate decisions, and that must be clear.

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 ward them off.

The principal goal of nurturance is for children to be fulfilled and happy in their lives and to become nurturant themselves. This involves learning self-nurturance as a necessary condition for caring for others. A fulfilling life is assumed to be, in significant part, a nurturant life-one committed to family and community responsibility. What children need to learn most is empathy for others, the capacity for nurturance, cooperation, and the maintenance of social ties, which cannot be done without the strength, respect, self-discipline, and self-reliance that comes through being cared for and caring.

Basic Points

1. Basic experience is being cared for in a single parent or two-parent household in which both parents share responsibilities
2. Children learn through attachment to parents (follow model of parents and become attuned to parents' expectations)
3. Protection is a form of caring
4. Caring requires empathy for others
5. Children may question and parents should provide explanations, though ultimate decisions rest with parents.
6. Obedience arises from love and respect, not fear of punishment
7. Goal is for children to become fulfilled, nurturant adults, with a sense of social responsibility, fairness, and empathy for others
8. Cooperation is stressed over competition
9. Mastery is developed through nurturance and encouragement
10. Restitution is favored over retribution when someone acts wrongly
11. Fairness overrides commitment to a natural moral order (Lakoff 2002, 138)
12. Nurturance involves rights and duties (child has r. to nurturance, parent has d. to provide it, as one may be required to make sacrifices to care for one's children)
13. It's moral (appropriate) to cultivate one's own happiness
14. Highest priority is Nurturant Group of metaphors, followed by Moral Self-interest, followed by Strength Group.

7. From Family to Community

What's important here is the "family of humanity" metaphor (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 317).

Family -> Humankind
Each Child -> Each Human being
Other Children -> Every Other Human Being
Family Moral relations -> Universal Moral Relations
Family Moral Authority -> University Moral Authority
Family Morality -> Universal Morality
Family Nurturance -> Universal Moral Nurturance

By using a similar metaphor "nation as family" (instead of humanity as family), general approaches to national politics are created.

Family moral relations -> how we should relate to others through public policy

Those who adhere to the SF Model generally have the following views about morality in relation to the wider world:

1. The world is a battleground between good and evil: evil deserves not respect but attack.
2. World must remain competitive so SD and SR may develop.
3. A moral world is a meritocracy.
4. Primary duty is to defend Strict Father moral system as such.
5. Those with authority should exercise it to defend the system.
6. Any attempt to discuss social causes of individual misdeeds is a distraction from acceptance of personal responsibility.
7. Those who raise questions about SF morality are likely to be corrupters-- criticism is not welcomed, maybe not even to be listened to!
Those who adhere to the NP Model generally have the following views:
1. A moral world is nonhierarchical, cooperative, interdependent.
2. Mastery is knowledge of how to work together, not how to dominate.
3. One must constantly tend to social ties ("social ties are children"--Lakoff 2002, 120).
4. Much behavior can be explained in large part by social causes.

8. Categories of Moral Action

Conservative Categories (as they play out in national and global politics)

1. Promoting SF morality in general.
2. Promoting self-discipline, [personal] responsibility, and self-reliance.
3. Upholding the morality of reward and punishment
      a. Preventing interference with pursuit of self-interest by SD, SR people
      b. Promoting punishment as a means of upholding authority
      c. Insuring punishment for lack of self-discipline
4. Protecting moral (i.e., good) people from external evils ("acts of God").
5. Upholding the moral order.

Source: Lakoff 2002, 163

Liberal Categories (as they play out in national and global politics)

1. Empathetic behavior and promoting fairness
2. Helping those who cannot help themselves
3. Protecting those who cannot protect themselves
4. Promoting fulfillment in life
5. Nurturing and strengthening oneself in order to do the above.

Source: Lakoff 2002, 165

Go to Key Contrasts . . . for the conclusion of this set of notes. The information in those tables are primarily based on Lakoff 2002.