Personal responsibility does not a moral system make.

We’re all indebted to the influential linguist George Lakoff for applying his work to politics in recent years. Among his invaluable contributions has been his perspective on framing. For example:

It’s a general principle: Unless you frame yourself, others will frame you — the media, your enemies, your competitors, your well-meaning friends.

Another one of this themes can be seen in a recent op-ed.

Ultra-conservatives believe that the sequester is moral, that it is the right thing to do.

Progressives, on the other hand

… tend to believe that democracy is based on citizens caring for their fellow citizens through what the government provides for all citizens – public infrastructure, public safety, public education, public health, publicly-sponsored research, public forms of recreation and culture, publicly-guaranteed safety nets for those who need them, and so on.

More from a 2011 piece titled What Conservatives Really Want.

In the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama accurately described the basis of American democracy: Empathy — citizens caring for each other, both social and personal responsibility—acting on that care, and an ethic of excellence. From these, our freedoms and our way of life follow, as does the role of government: to protect and empower everyone equally.

On the other hand, writes Dr. Lakoff, returning to the 2013 piece (emphasis added)…

Ultra-conservatives don’t believe this. They believe that Democracy gives them the liberty to seek their own self-interests by exercising personal responsibility, without having responsibility for anyone else or anyone else having responsibility for them. They take this as a matter of morality. They see the social responsibility to provide for the common good as an immoral imposition on their liberty.

“The way to understand the conservative moral system,” Dr. Lakoff writes in the 2011 piece

… is to consider a strict father family. …  The use of force is necessary and required. Only then will children develop the internal discipline to become moral beings. And only with such discipline will they be able to prosper.

If you’re beginning to wonder what’s so moral about this system, read on (emphasis again added).

And what of people who are not prosperous? They don’t have discipline, and without discipline they cannot be moral, so they deserve their poverty. The good people are hence the prosperous people. Helping others takes away their discipline … makes them both unable to prosper on their own and function morally.

If this is a “moral system,” it’s only in the most technical sense of the term. One can’t help but wonder if Dr. Lakoff is bending over backwards to give conservatives the benefit of the doubt. Or, to give him the benefit of the doubt in light of all the constructive work he’s done, his characterization of the ultra-conservative upbringing as a moral system is principally intended to convince progressives to characterize their positions as manifestations of a moral system as well.

One can concede that conservatives – not just ultra-, but of all stripes – oppose abortion and gay marriage out of a sense of morality, however narrow and exclusive of other moral principles. But practicing don’t spare the strap – whether literal or virtual – on your children in order to scour the mercy from their souls is not moral.

In fact, it barely qualifies as a simply a system of beliefs. At best, it can be called a behavioral technique. Dressing up individual responsibility as a moral system comes across as, if not pandering to conservatives, showing way too much respect for viewpoints symptomatic of a lack of self-knowledge. Its usefulness as a device for convincing progressives that conservatives respond to moral framing is thus compromised.

Nevertheless, even though his example isn’t the best, it bears repeating that we’re in  Dr. Lakoff’s debt for continuing to point out that conservatives view the world through the lens of morality: whether it’s moral in the most narrow sense of the word – such as their opposition to abortion and gay marriage – or actually immoral – such as their hardhearted views toward the needy.

Cross-posted from Scholars & Rogues.

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