Chapter 4 – Part 1: Progressive Morality

This article is part of the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by the Rockridge Institute in early 2007. It was written by Joe Brewer (Rockridge Institute staff member) on Monday, April 16, 2007

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Exploring the ideas presented in Chapter 4 reveals the moral foundations of progressive and conservative political philosophy. In this installment, we explain what progressive morality is and how it is related to our lived experiences of family life in American culture. Basic components of these experiences shape our moral perspective and inform our political philosophy at the deepest levels.

Our understanding of political morality is presented in Chapter 4 of Thinking Points, where we explore the metaphor of Nation as Family to reveal the core principles of progressive and conservative morality. The discussion of this chapter will be separated into two parts so that we can explore these important ideas in greater depth. This section presents the metaphor of Nation as Family and introduces the Nurturant Parent family model to explain progressive morality. Part 2 covers the Strict Father family model to explain conservative morality.

What is a Metaphor?

When we talk about metaphors here at Rockridge, we use a technical understanding that comes from the cognitive sciences. In common language metaphor means “a clever or imaginative way to apply knowledge of one thing to another by stating A is B.” Examples of this include “Suzanne is a babe.” and “Bob is a dirty weasel.” This is what most of us learn in grammar school when we are taught about metaphors.

We are talking about something deeper and more significant here. To help reduce the possibility for confusion, I will refer to the cognitive science term for metaphor as conceptual metaphor. Here is what we mean:

Definition of Conceptual Metaphor

A conceptual metaphor is the mapping of knowledge from one domain of experience (sometimes called the source domain) to another (sometimes called the target domain).

I will explain this with a sample metaphor:

Seeing is Knowing

The source domain is the physical process of vision. The experience of seeing something entails light (photons) detected on the retinas of our eyes and transmitting information through the optic nerve into our brains to construct a neural representation of the information carried by the light, say the shape and coloration of a vase on the table in your field of vision.

The target domain is the conceptual process of understanding. The experience of knowing something is conceptualized as detecting information in your “mind’s eye” and constructing a “mental representation” of the information that you understand.

An example is “knowing what is in the room” by “looking around to see what is there.”

Here are some linguistic examples of the Seeing is Knowing metaphor:

  • I see what you mean
  • I didn’t see that one coming! (referring to a thought or idea)
  • What you are saying is as clear as mud.

Don’t worry if this definition of conceptual metaphor is a little confusing. Just realize that when we talk about metaphors, we are referring to something deeper than merely being creative with words. (And if you want to know more about the scientific and philosophical aspects of conceptual metaphor go get the books Metaphors We Live By or Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.)

The Nation as Family

The most important conceptual metaphor we will talk about today is the Nation as Family. This is how it is introduced in Thinking Points (pg. 49):

“It’s no accident that our political beliefs are structured by our idealizations of the family. Our earliest experience with being governed is in our families. Our parents “govern” us: They protect us, tell us what we can and cannot do, make sure we have enough money and supplies, educate us, and have us do our part in running the house.”

This is where we find the domain of primary experience for the Nation as Family conceptual metaphor. The experience of childhood in our homes provides a wealth of information for understanding how to behave in society.

The primary experience of governance in our family lives deeply informs (at an unconscious level) our understanding of broad society – in the case of politics, it is the nation. Here are some linguistic examples of the Nation As Family:

  • Mother Russia and the Fatherland
  • We send our sons and daughters off to war
  • The Constitution was written by our founding fathers
  • Orwell’s voice for the totalitarian state was called Big Brother

The Nation as Family is a deep frame that structures entire moral worldviews. It organizes systems of frames in our brains as precise mappings of conceptual metaphors: the homeland is home, citizens are siblings, the government (or head of government) is parent, etc.

Important Note: We are not suggesting literal meanings here!

Remember that these are conceptual metaphors. Knowledge from one domain of experience (growing up with our families) is applied to another domain of experience (our subjective understanding of politics). We are NOT saying government is (or should be) literally our parent. We are NOT saying citizens are (or should be) literally children. Rather, we are saying that the concepts we use to understand politics at an unconscious level are informed by the experience of life with our families.

(This is a very brief introduction to the Nation as Family and its relationship to politics. You can find a much more thorough discussion by reading Moral Politics by George Lakoff.)

Idealized Families Lead to Different Politics

There are two distinct versions of the ideal family in our society (and across many different cultures). We call them the Strict Father Family and the Nurturant Parent Family. These two versions provide simplified models for understanding what a family is. The simplification arises because we will talk about each of them as an ideal case:

An ideal case is defined as the standard representative of a category against which other members are measured.

An ideal case does not need to exist in reality. According to Moral Politics (pg. 9) it is a “cognitive construction used to perform a certain kind of reasoning: they are not objective features of the world.”

The Strict Father Family will be presented in depth next week in Part 2 of the Chapter 4 discussion. It provides the conceptual basis for understanding the conservative moral worldview. This discussion explores the Nurturant Parent Family to reveal where our understanding of the progressive moral worldview comes from.

Nurturance and Progressive Morality

Before we go any further I want to dispel a myth about nurturance. It is a word that has been distorted – via conservative framing – to mean coddling, spoiling, or pampering. This frames nurturance as a form of weakness. (Feminists reading this will recognize the gender bias too!) I am here to tell you that nurturance is a word that deserves to be reclaimed. Here is what the progressive framing means:

Nurturance is having empathy for another person (or yourself) and feeling a sense of responsibility to act on that person’s behalf.

The Nurturant Parent Family is:

  • A family of preferably two parents, but perhaps only one
  • The parents share household responsibilities (Egalitarian)
  • Open, two-way, mutually respectful communication is crucial
  • Protection is a form of caring, and protection from external dangers takes a significant part of the parents attention
  • The principle goal of nurturance is for children to be fulfilled and happy in their lives
  • When children are respected, nurtured, and communicated with from birth, they gradually enter into a lifetime relationship of mutual respect, communication, and caring for their parents

The primary experience growing up in a nurturant home presumes that children are inherently good and that parental respect is earned through caring responsibly for the child. There is emphasis on building strong, open relationships. Children develop best through their positive relationships with others. Parents can be authoritative but are never authoritarian.

Nurturance requires the parent to set boundaries for children, but to do so in a respectful way – including telling the child the reasons for setting boundaries and listening to the child’s concerns.

Progressive Family Values

The experience of living in a nurturant home provides an intuitive model for morality. By exploring the concepts involved in thinking about the Nurturant Parent Family, we discover the following values:

Core Progressive Values:

Empathy: the capacity to connect with other people, to feel what others feel, to imagine oneself as another and hence to feel kinship with others.
Responsibility: acting on your empathy to protect others from harm and empower them to seek fulfillment

Additional Values that Emerge When We Engage in Acts of Nurturance:

Protection (for people threatened or under duress)
Fulfillment in life (so others can lead meaningful lives as you would want to)
Freedom (because to seek fulfillment you must be free)
Opportunity (because leading a fulfilling life requires opportunities to explore what is meaningful and fruitful)
Fairness (because unfairness can stifle freedom and opportunity)
Equality (because empathy extends to everyone)
Prosperity (because a minumum base amount of material wealth is necessary to lead a fulfilling life)
Community (because nobody makes it alone, and communities are necessary for anyone to lead a fulfilling life)

These values, when organized via the Nurturant Parent Family, constitute a moral worldview that is the foundation of progressive morality. They are all entailed in the body of knowledge that arises through the experience of living in a nurturant home.

Extending From Family to Politics

When we apply the Nurturant Parent Family to the conceptual metaphor of the Nation as Family, we get the progressive moral worldview for politics. Here’s how it works:

  • Fill in the domain of primary experience with the experience of living in a nurturant home
  • This results in the the domain of subjective experience for politics being understood as a nurturant government
  • A number of new conceptual metaphors are created in the process:
    • Government is understood to be a nurturant parent
    • Citizens are understood to be children in a nurturant home
    • The community is understood to be a family
    • People needing help are understood to be children needing nurturance
    • Etc.

The core values applied to politics become empathy and responsibility. All of the additional values “make sense” through this deep framing of politics.

Progressive Morality Establishes Key Principles

The power of combining nurturant life experience with the Nation as Family conceptual metaphor is immediately evident. This deep frame shapes our understanding of all political issues. It also entails several key principles that arise from progressive values.

The Common Good Principle
The common good is necessary for individual well-being. Citizens bring together their common wealth in order to build infrastructure that benefits all and that contributes crucially to the pursuit of individual goals. You can learn more about the ways common wealth protects and empowers citizens in this article [link to tax fairness article].

The Expansion of Freedom Principle
Progressives demand the expansion of fundamental forms of freedom. In American history this includes voting rights, worker’s rights, public education, public health, consumer protection, civil rights, and civil liberties.

The Human Dignity Principle
Empathy requires the recognition of basic human dignity, and responsibility requires us to act to uphold it. This is an extension of the assumption that children are inherently good. When this assumption enters the Nation as Family conceptual metaphor, we get the expression of universal worth for all human beings as articulated in the Declaration of Independence as “inalienable rights”.

The Diversity Principle
Empathy involves identifying with and connecting socially and emotionally with all people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. This leads to an ethic of diversity in our communities, schools, and workplaces. Diversity fosters communities and creates a range of opportunities for citizens to lead fulfilling lives.

These principles (and others) inform our moral sensibilities about how to treat people and what the objectives of government should be.

Sparking Discussion

Hopefully you now have a better understanding of the relationship between family-based experiences and morality in politics. The implications of this understanding (revealed by George Lakoff in his ground-breaking analysis of metaphors in Moral Politics) are profound. Let’s talk about this:

Does the perspective presented here suggest a relationship between child-raising practices and the political climate of our country?

How has your life experience – especially your childhood family life – shaped your understanding of politics?

Is there anything about this perspective that makes you uncomfortable? If so, let’s talk about it.

What obstacles or limitations exist that make these ideas more difficult to share with other liberals and progressives?

Are you confused about what values are? Do you understand the difference between core values and additional values in the Nurturant Family worldview?

I would love to hear your thoughts about these questions and any other thoughts that have come up while reading this article. Your feelings are also important. Please share with all of us your reactions to these ideas and how they influence your understanding of framing in politics.

(Next week we will explore the Strict Father Family that structures the conservative moral worldview.)

Go to the next discussion in this series.


Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.

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