Chapter 4 – Part 2: Conservative 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 23, 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 conservative morality is and how it is related to our lived experiences of family life in American culture. Key differences between conservative and progressive morality arise that shape how we differ in our responses to political issues.

Last week we talked about the experience of family life that informs progressive morality in Chapter 4 Part 1 of our discussion of Chapter 4. The chapter also explores how a very different set of experiences shape the moral worldview of conservatives. This article describes the family experience that shapes conceptual metaphors that inform conservative politics. As you might expect, important differences exist between these two moralities. We will look at some of these differences here as well.

Disclaimer About Metaphors

We do not use the word metaphor in the way it is typically used. Studies in cognitive semantics – which explore how meaning arises in language through neural processes in the brain – reveal a need to modify our definition of metaphor. I will use the phrase conceptual metaphor to reinforce this new definition. A definition was introduced last week to help clarify the difference. Here it is again in abbreviated form:

A conceptual metaphor is the mapping of knowledge from one domain of experience (source domain) to the another (target domain). This tells us that our concepts carry meaning from the experience of living in the world.

Authority and Conservative Morality

Building on the previous discussion of the conceptual metaphor for Nation as Family, we now explore the family experience common in many American homes that informs conservative politics. The idealized representation we use is the Strict Father Family.

The Strict Father Family is:

  • A traditional family with two heterosexual parents – a father and a mother
  • The father is the head of the household
  • The mother supports and upholds the authority of the father
  • A hierarchy exists that is never to be questioned – children do not question their father’s authority
  • Children are naturally weak and lack self-control
  • Parents know what is best for their children and must teach them right from wrong
  • Children learn right from wrong when punished for wrong-doing
  • When children become self-disciplined, respect valid authority, and learn right from wrong they are strong enough to succeed in the competitive world

The primary experience growing up in a strict home presumes that children are inherently weak and that parental respect is maintained by consistently disciplining the child. There is emphasis on the maintenance of authority and self-control. Children who grow up in a disciplined manner will know right from wrong and will be hard-working and successful in life.

Strict Family Values

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

Core Conservative Values:

Authority: assumed to be morally good and used to exert legitimate control (therefore it is imperative that authority is never questioned)
Discipline: self-control learned through punishment when one does wrong (it is understood that failure of authority to punish for wrong doing is a moral failure)

Additional Values that Arise When Engaging in Acts of Strictness:

Strength (necessary to be self-disciplined)
Order (arises when people know their place and obey authority)
Ownership (by working hard to earn something you should be able to use it as you see fit)
Hierarchy (those above you have worked harder and proven their worth while those below you are not as disciplined as you)
Duty (each person is obligated to submit to valid authority)
Purity (absolute right and wrong must exist in order to have knowledge of them)
Physical Security (authority figures must provide physical protection from bodily or material harm)
Equity (higher positions are earned through merit)

These values, when organized via the Strict Father Family, constitute a moral worldview that is the foundation of conservative morality. They are all entailed in the body of knowledge that arises through the experience of living in a strict home.

The Legitimacy of Authority

The standards for determining when authority is valid differ considerably between conservatives and progressives. Conservatives do not obey all forms of authority equally. Otherwise they would acknowledge the authority of the Constitution as having equal legitimacy to that of a conservative leader. Conservatives generally do not acknowledge presidential authority when the person in the oval office is a liberal (or not a conservative). This happens because conservatives do not believe the liberal leader knows what is best for people in the community. Here are the standards conservatives use to determine when moral authority is legitimate (Moral Politics, pp. 76-78):

  1. The person subject to moral authority does not know what is in his or her best interests or what is in the best interests of the community
  2. The authority figure has the best interests of the person subject to authority or the community’s best interests at heart. The authority figure acts on those interests
  3. The authority figure is able to know what is best for the community and person subject to authority
  4. There is social recognition that the authority figure has responsibility for the well-being of the community and person subject to authority

Progressives acknowledge the existence of valid authority expressed through nurturance. A fully nurturant person deserves to be listened to. The standards for legitimacy are quite different. Here are a few examples of valid progressive authority figures (Moral Politics, pg. 134):

  1. People who are empathetic
  2. People who successfully help others
  3. People who solve problems effectively
  4. People who are fair
  5. People who listen to others and communicate effectively
  6. People who nurture social ties successfully

Conservative authority sets standards of behavior and enforces them. Progressive authority arises out of trust that people have in leaders who communicate effectively, arrange for participation, are honest, and have the wisdom, experience, and strength to succeed in helping others.

Conservative Morality Expresses Key Principles

When the Strict Father Family is applied to the Nation as Family conceptual metaphor, we get conservative political morality. This deep frame shapes conservative understanding of politics and entails several principles that arise from conservative values.

The Moral Authority Principle
Morality comes from obeying legitimate moral authorities. This includes God (for people of faith), the law (when it supports the strict father worldview – abortion is a noteworthy exception), the president (if you work in government or if you are a conservative citizen), your parents (if you are a child), your teacher (if you are a student), your coach (if you are an athlete), your commanding officer (if you are in the military), and so on.

The Individual Responsibility Principle
You are on your own in this worldview. You are personally responsible for your destiny. If you succeed you deserve it. If you fail you have only yourself to blame. Not only are you on your own, but you should be on your own.

The Free Market Principle
The free market promotes efficiency, creates wealth, is natural and moral, and rewards individual discipline. Since wealth promotes many kinds of freedom, the market is believed to be a pathway for freedom to be expressed. Government interference of the market is considered to be immoral because it opposes this freedom. (We will explore this in greater depth when we discuss Chapter 5.)

The Bootstrap Principle
With enough self-discipline everyone can pull himself or herself up by the bootstraps. This is a version of the Myth of the American Dream and is sometimes referred to as climbing the corporate ladder in the context of the corporate business world. The government has no responsibility to help those who fall behind.

These principles inform the moral sensibilities of conservatives. Progressives often experience considerable dissonance when they hear them because they run contrary to our understanding of the world.

Different Ways the World Works

The Strict Father perspective does more than express different values and principles. It is based on a fundamentally different notion of how the world works. Conservatives believe individuals are fully responsible for their actions and will only learn right from wrong by being punished for wrongful behavior. Progressives understand the teaching of right and wrong in a very different manner. We acknowledge factors that shape moral behavior in addition to individual discipline, including the environment a person is raised in, the breadth of experiences that inform a person’s perspective, and other indirect influences. How can we understand this difference? It has to do with how cause and effect are conceptualized.

Conservatives Only Recognize Direct Causation

A person who understands the world through the experience of living in a strict environment will see direct relationships between cause and effect. When they see another person causing harm – such as a burglar shooting a cashier – they will interpret the situation in terms of simple cause-effect relationships: The burglar stole money because s/he hasn’t learned the self-discipline necessary to work hard and earn money. The burglar made purely conscious decisions to steal and to shoot the other person. It was a deliberate action shaped solely by the persons lack of respect for authority and inherent moral weakness.

A different example is the conservative explanation for terrorism. Why do terrorists want to harm Americans? The answer conservatives give is that they “hate our freedom.” They don’t need anything further to understand the situation.

Progressives Recognize Greater Complexity

The experience of living in a nurturant home emphasizes indirect forms of causation. In order to empathize with others in a social environment, it is necessary to recognize subtle contributions to the perspective of others in order to both understand where they are coming from and to communicate effectively with them.

This requires us to recognize how a broad range of factors can indirectly influence outcomes of events in a complex or systemic manner. Thus a progressive who sees a burglar shooting a cashier will likely wonder what the life of the burglar was like. Did s/he live in poverty? This might contribute to the burglar feeling like no legal opportunities exist – perhaps the person was unable to find work. Is the burglar mentally ill? Many progressives realize that a significant portion of the homeless population is clinically depressed, schizophrenic, or suffering from post-traumatic stress. Was the burglar abused or neglected as a child? We understand the importance of building and maintaining (nurturing) emotional bonds between parents and children. These bonds allow for the development of empathy and promotion of emotional stability in adults. Was the burglar chemically addicted to alcohol or narcotics? This would influence the burglar’s capacity to make reasonable decisions.

We can also see indirect causation with the example of terrorism. When a progressive is asked why terrorists want to harm Americans, we are likely to consider factors like the influence of fanatical religious teachings and the reactions of people in third world countries to harmful U.S. foreign policy. We are not satisfied with simple answers because we recognize the complex nature of cause and effect in our intricate social world.

These different understandings of cause and effect are critical for issues related to the environment. Nature is filled with complex systems that require an understanding of systemic causation to understand what is happening. Just think of how complex the relationship is between our petroleum-based economy and the impacts of global climate change.

Strict Father Morality and Conservatism

The Strict Father Family is a simplified cognitive model that is activated in the brains of people who have had experiences consistent with the idealized scenario described above. We can see how this model is active in the minds of people who vote conservative, but how well does the Strict Father conceptual metaphor overlap with conservative philosophy? For the sake of stimulating discussion, I would like to suggest that conservatism does not overlap perfectly with this cognitive model.

The historian Jerry Muller has a lot to say about conservatism as a philosophical disposition. He shares in his book, Conservatism, the idea that conservatives often seek to maintain traditional social institutions because they are deemed to be good if they have stood the test of time. Reformists, including Progressives, are understood to be tampering with “tried and true” structures. Conservatives then take the cautious position that tampering may lead to unintended negative consequences. Is this an example of Strict Father morality? It is not a clear case to me. Here’s why:

Progressives recognize the U.S. Constitution as a traditional social institution that has stood the test of time. When steps are taken to reform the Constitution – such as when the Bush Administration sought to redesign the presidential office as a unitary executive that is free to bypass the courts and disregard legislation passed by Congress – we are in an uproar. According to Muller’s description, progressives are expressing a form of “conservative” philosophy. Is this a flaw in the approach we take here at Rockridge? Does this suggest the Nurturant Parent worldview is conservative? I think the answer to the first question is “no” and the answer to the second is “yes, sometimes.”

Progresses do indeed seek to conserve – or perhaps it is more accurate to say preserve – the nurturant traditional values that have made the United States a source of inspiration for millions. We resonate with the progressive values of responsibility, protection, equality, and freedom expressed in the Constitution. Conversely, many conservatives actively seek to dissolve traditional social institutions to preserve what they consider to be valid authority. When conservatives do this they do not match their label – they are not expressing conservatism! Instead, they are expressing strict father values.

This is a framing issue we need to consider as a community. What do we mean when we say the words “progressive” and “conservative”? How do the meanings of these words relate to our understanding of morality expressed in the worldviews that give coherent meaning to our lives? Is it possible to be a conservative progressive? Can such a label have coherent meaning when we are aware of the Strict Father and Nurturant Parent cognitive models?

What do you think? How does your understanding of nurturance and strictness empower you to see problems and solutions in the contemporary political landscape? Can we change politics by changing our understanding of it? How will this understanding lead to tangible progress in our communities?

I would love to know how your personal struggles with questions like these are shaping your life path and how you see yourself making a difference in the world.

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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