How Liberals and Conservatives
by George Lakoff
University of Chicago Press, 2002,
The Woridview Problem for American Politics
Conservatives are largely against abortion, saying that they want
to save the lives of unborn fetuses. The United States has an
extremely high infant-mortality rate, largely due to the lack
of adequate prenatal care for low-income mothers. Yet conservatives
are not in favor of government programs providing such prenatal
care and have voted to eliminate existing programs that have succeeded
in lowering the infant mortality rate. Liberals find this illogical.
It appears to liberals that "pro-life" conservatives
do want to prevent the death of those fetuses whose mothers do
not want them (through stopping abortion), but do not want to
prevent the deaths of fetuses whose mothers do want them (through
providing adequate prenatal care programs). Conservatives see
no contradiction. Why?
Liberals also find it illogical that right-to-life
advocates are mostly in favor of capital punishment. This seems
natural to conservatives. Why?
Conservatives are opposed to welfare and
to government funds for the needy but are in favor of government
funds going to victims of floods, fires, and earthquakes who are
in F need. Why isn't this contradictory?
A liberal supporter of California's 1994
single-payer initiative was speaking to a conservative audience
and decided to appeal to their financial self-interest. He pointed
out that the savings in administrative costs would get them the
same health benefits for less money while also paying for health
care for the indigent. A woman responded, "It just sounds
wrong to me. I would be paying for somebody else." Why did
his appeal to her economic self-interest fail?
Conservatives are willing to increase
the budgets for the military and for prisons on the grounds that
they provide protection. But they want to eliminate regulatory
agencies whose job is to protect the public, especially workers
and consumers. Conservatives do not conceptualize regulation as
a form of protection, only as a form of interference. Why?
Conservatives claim to favor states' rights
over the power of the federal government. Yet their proposal for
tort reform will invest the federal government with considerable
powers previously held by the states, the power to determine what
lawsuits can be brought for product liability and securities fraud,
and hence the power to control product safety standards and ethical
financial practices. Why is this shift of power from the states
to the federal government not considered a violation of states'
rights by conservatives?
At the center of the conservative woridview is a Strict Father
This model posits a traditional nuclear
family, with the father having primary responsibility for supporting
and protecting the family as well as the authority to set overall
policy, to set strict rules for the behavior of children, and
to enforce the rules. The mother has the day-to-day responsibility
for the care of the house, raising the children, and upholding
the father's authority. Children must respect and obey their parents;
by doing so they build character, that is, self-discipline and
self-reliance. Love and nurturance are, of course, a vital part
of family life but can never outweigh parental authority, which
is itself an expression of love and nurturance-tough love. Self-discipline,
self-reliance, and respect for legitimate authority are the crucial
things that children must learn.
Once children are mature, they are on
their own and must depend on their acquired self-discipline to
survive. Their self-reliance gives them authority over their own
destinies, and parents are not to meddle in their lives.
The liberal woridview centers on a very
different ideal of family life, the Nurturant Parent model:
Love, empathy, and nurturance are primary,
and children become responsible, self-disciplined and self-reliant
through being cared for, respected, and caring for others, both
in their family and in their community. Support and protection
are part of nurturance, and they require strength and courage
on the part of parents. The obedience of children comes out of
their love and respect for their parents and their community,
not out of the fear of punishment. Good communication is crucial.
If their authority is to be legitimate, parents must explain why
their decisions serve the cause of protection and nurturance.
Questioning by children is seen as positive, since children need
to learn why their parents do what they do and since children
often have good ideas that should be taken seriously. Ultimately,
of course, responsible parents have to make the decisions, and
that must be clear.
The principal goal of nurturance is for
children to be fulfilled and happy in their lives. 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,
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. Raising a child to be fulfilled
also requires helping that child develop his or her potential
for achievement and enjoyment. That requires respecting the child's
own values and allowing the child to explore the range of ideas
and options that the world offers.
When children are respected, nurtured,
and communicated with from birth, they gradually enter into a
lifetime relationship of mutual respect, communication, and caring
with their parents.
Strict Father morality assigns highest priorities to such things
as moral strength (the self-control and self-discipline to stand
up to external and internal evils), respect for and obedience
to authority, the setting and following of strict guidelines and
behavioral norms, and so on. Moral self-interest says that if
everyone is free to pursue their self-interest, the overall self-interests
of all will be maximized. In conservatism, the pursuit of self-interest
is seen as a way of using self-discipline to achieve self-reliance.
Nurturant Parent morality has a different
set of priorities. Moral nurturance requires empathy for others
and the helping of those who need help. To help others, one must
take care of oneself and nurture social ties. And one must be
happy and fulfilled in oneself, or one will have little empathy
for others. The moral pursuit of self-interest only makes sense
within these priorities.
The moral principles that have priority
in each model appear in the other model, but with lesser priorities.
Those lesser priorities drastically change the effect of those
principles. For example, moral strength appears in the nurturance
model, but it functions not for its own sake, but rather in the
service of nurturance. Moral authority, in the nurturance model,
functions as a consequence of nurturance. Moral guidelines are
defined by empathy and nurturance. Similarly, in the Strict Father
model, empathy and nurturance are present and important, but they
never override authority and moral strength. Indeed, authority
and strength are seen as expressions of nurturance.
What we have here are two different forms
of family-based morality. What links them to politics is a common
understanding of the nation as a family, with the government as
parent. Thus, it is natural for liberals to see it as the function
of the government to help people in need and hence to support
social programs, while it is equally natural for conservatives
to see the function of the government as requiring citizens to
be self-disciplined and self-reliant and, therefore, to help themselves.
Strict Father Morality
The Strict Father Family
The Strict Father model takes as background
the view that life is difficult and that the world is fundamentally
dangerous. As Oliver North said repeatedly in his testimony to
Congress, "The world is a dangerous place." Survival
is a major concern and there are dangers and evils lurking everywhere,
especially in the human soul. Here is the model:
A traditional nuclear family, with the
father having primary responsibility for supporting and protecting
the family as well as the authority to set overall family policy.
He teaches children right from wrong by setting strict rules for
their behavior and enforcing them through punishment. The punishment
is typically mild to moderate, but sufficiently painful. It is
commonly corporal punishment-say, with a belt or a stick. He also
gains their cooperation by showing love and appreciation when
they do follow the rules. But children must never be coddled,
lest they become spoiled; a spoiled child will be dependent for
life and will not learn proper morals.
The mother has day-to-day responsibility
for the care of the house, raising the children, and upholding
the father's authority. Children must respect and obey their parents,
partly for their own safety and partly because by doing so they
build character, that is, self-discipline and self-reliance. 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. Self-discipline, self-reliance,
and respect for legitimate authority are the crucial things that
a child must learn. A mature adult becomes self-reliant through
applying self-discipline in pursuing his self-interest. Only if
a child learns self-discipline can he become self-reliant later
in life. Survival is a matter of competition and only through
self-discipline can a child learn to compete successfully.
The mature children of the Strict Father
have to sink or swim by themselves. They are on their own and
have to prove their responsibility and self-reliance. They have
attained, through discipline, authority over themselves. They
have to, and are competent to, make their own decisions. They
have to protect themselves and their families. They know what
is good for them better than their parents, who are distant from
them. Good parents do not meddle or interfere in their lives.
Any parental meddling or interference is strongly resented.
I should say at the outset that, though
I have used the term "Strict Father" to name the model
given, there are variants of the model that can be used by a strict
mother as well. There are many mothers, especially tough single
mothers, who function as strict fathers. But the model is an idealization,
and is intended here only as that. I believe it is a cognitively
real idealized model, that is, a model that Americans grow up
knowing implicitly. There are variations on it and I will discuss
some of them below.
The Strict Father model presupposes a
folk theory of human nature that I will call "folk behaviorism":
People, left to their own devices, tend
simply to satisfy their desires. But, people will make themselves
do things they don't want to do in order to get rewards; they
will refrain from doing things they do want to do in order to
This is used in the Strict Father model
on the assumption that punishment for violating strict moral rules
and praise for following them will result in the child's learning
to obey those rules. The entire Strict Father model is based on
the further assumption that the exercise of authority is itself
moral; that is, it is moral to reward obedience and punish disobedience.
I will refer to this most basic assumption as the Morality of
Reward and Punishment.
Reward and punishment are moral not just
for their own sake. They have a further purpose. The model assumes
that life is struggle for survival. Survival in the world is a
matter of competing successfully. To do so, children t learn discipline
and build character. People are disciplined (punished) in order
to become self-disciplined. The way self-discipline is learned
and character is built is through obedience. Being an adult means
that you have become sufficiently self-disciplined so that you
can be your own authority. Obedience to authority thus does not
disappear. Being self-disciplined is being obedient to your own
authority, that is, being able to carry out the plans you make
and the commitments you undertake. That is the kind of person
you are supposed to be, and the Strict Father model of the family
exists to ensure that a child becomes such a person.
There is also a pragmatic rationale for
creating such people. It is that the world is difficult and people
have to be self-disciplined to be able to survive in a difficult
world. Rewards and punishments by the parent are thus moral because
they help to ensure that the child will be able to survive on
its own. Rewards and punishments thus benefit the child, which
is why punishment for disobedience is understood as a form of
According to this model, if you are obedient
you will become self-disciplined and only if you are self-disciplined
can you succeed. Success is therefore a sign of having been obedient
and having become self-disciplined Success is a just reward f
acting within this moral system. This makes success moral.
Competition is a crucial ingredient in
such a moral system. It is through competition that we discover
who is moral, that is, who has been properly self-disciplined
and therefore deserves success, and who is fit enough to survive
and even thrive in a difficult world.
Rewards given to those who have not earned
them through competition are thus immoral. They violate the entire
system. They remove the incentive to become self-disciplined and
they remove the need for obedience to authority.
But this model, as we observed above,
is only partly a prescription for enabling children to survive
and thrive in a difficult world. It is a model about what a person
should be--self-disciplined enough to make his own plans, undertake
his own commitments, and carry them out.
But if a person is to be this way, the
world must be a certain way too. The world must be and must remain
a competitive place. Without competition, there is no source of
reward for self-discipline, no motivation to become the right
kind of person. If competition were removed, self-discipline would
cease and people would cease to develop and use their talents.
The individual's authority over himself would decay. People would
no longer be able to make plans, undertake commitments, and carry
Competition therefore is moral; it is
a condition for the development and sustenance of the right kind
of person. Correspondingly, constraints on competition are immoral;
they inhibit the development and sustenance of the right kind
Even if survival were not an issue, even
if the world could be made easier, even if there were a world
of plenty with more than enough for everybody, it would still
not be true that parceling out a comfortable amount for everyone
would make the world better and people better. Doing that would
remove the incentive to become and remain self-disciplined. Without
the incentive of reward and punishment, if discipline would disappear,
and people would no longer be able to make plans, undertake commitments,
and carry them out. All social life would come to a grinding halt.
To prevent this, competition and authority must be maintained
no matter how much material largesse we produce.
If competition is a necessary state in
a moral world necessary for producing the right kind of people-then
what kind of a world is a moral world? It is necessarily one in
which some people are better off than others and they serve to
be. It is a meritocracy. It is hierarchical, and the hierarchy
is moral. In this hierarchy, some people have authority over others
and their authority is legitimate.
Moreover, legitimate authority imposes
responsibility. Just as the strict father has a duty to support
and protect his family, so those who have risen to the top have
a responsibility to exercise their legitimate authority for the
benefit of all under their authority. This means:
1. Maintaining order; that is, sustaining
and defending the system of authority itself.
2. Using that authority for the protection
of those under one's authority.
3. Working for the benefit of those under
one's authority, especially helping them through proper discipline
to become the right kind of people.
4. Exercising one's authority to help
create more self-disciplined people, that is, the right kind of
people, for their own benefit, for the benefit of others, and
because it is the right thing to do.
The metaphor that is central to Strict
Father morality is the metaphor of Moral Strength.
... A major part of the Moral Strength
metaphor has to with the conception of immorality, or evil. Evil
is reified as a force, either internal or external, that can make
you fall, that is, commit immoral acts.
... But people are not simply born strong.
Moral strength must be built. Just as in building physical strength,
where self-discipline and self-denial ("no pain, no gain")
are crucial, so moral strength is also built through self-discipline
and self-denial, in two ways:
1. Through sufficient self-discipline
to meet one's responsibilities and face existing hardships;
2. Actively through self-denial and further
... The metaphor of Moral Strength sees the world in terms of
a war of good against the forces of evil, which must be fought
ruthlessly. Ruthless behavior in the name of the good fight is
thus seen as justified. Moreover, the metaphor entails that one
cannot respect the views of one's adversary: evil does not deserve
respect, it deserves to be attacked!
The metaphor of Moral Strength thus imposes
a strict us-them moral dichotomy. It reifies evil as the force
that moral strength is needed to counter. Evil must be fought.
You do not empathize with evil, nor do you accord evil some truth
of its own. You just fight it.
Moral strength, importantly, imposes a
form of asceticism. To be morally strong you must be self-disciplined
and self-denying. Otherwise you are self-indulgent, and such moral
flabbiness ultimately helps the forces of evil.
In Strict Father morality, the metaphor
of Moral Strength has the highest priority. Moral Strength is
what the strict father must have if he is to support, protect,
and guide his family. And it is a virtue that he must impart to
his children if they are to become self-disciplined and self-reliant.
The metaphor of Moral Strength provides
a mode of reasoning. Anything that promotes moral weakness is
immoral. If welfare is seen as taking away the incentive to work
and thus promoting sloth, then according to the metaphor of Moral
Strength, welfare is immoral. What about providing condoms to
high school students and clean needles to intravenous drug users
to lower teenage pregnancy and stop the spread of AIDS? The metaphor
of Moral Strength tells us that teenage sex and illegal drug use
result from moral weakness-a lack of self-control-and therefore
they are immoral. Providing condoms and clean needles accepts
that immorality, and that, according to Moral Strength, is also
a form of evil. A morally strong person should be able to "Just
say no" to sex and drugs. Anyone who can't is morally weak,
which is a form of immorality, and immoral people deserve punishment
If you unconsciously reason according to the metaphor of Moral
Strength, then all this is just common sense.
An important consequence of giving highest
priority to the metaphor of Moral Strength is that it rules out
any explanations in terms of social forces or social class. If
moral people always have the discipline to just say no to drugs
or sex and to support themselves in this land of opportunity,
then failure to do so is moral weakness, and hence immorality.
If the metaphor of Moral Strength has priority over other forms
of explanation, then your poverty or your drug habit or your illegitimate
children can be explained only as moral weakness, and any discussion
of social causes cannot be relevant.
In the Strict Father model of the family,
people become self-reliant by using their self-discipline to pursue
their self-interest. The pursuit of self-interest is thus moral,
providing, of course, that other, "higher" principles
like moral authority and moral strength are not violated. Indeed,
without the morality of pursuit of self-interest, there would
be no moral link between self-discipline and self-reliance.
Moral Self-Interest, as used in the Strict
Father model, is a metaphorical version of an economic idea. It
is based on a folk version of Adam Smith's economics: If each
person seeks to maximize his own wealth, then by an invisible
hand, the wealth of all will be maximized. Applying the common
metaphor that Well-Being Is Wealth to this folk version of free-market
economics, we get: If each person tries to maximize his own well-being
(or self-interest), the well-being of all will be maximized. Thus,
seeking one's own self-interest is actually a positive, moral
act, one that contributes to the well-being of all.
Correspondingly, interfering with the
pursuit of self-interest is seen in this metaphor as immoral,
since it does not permit the maximization of the well-being of
all. In addition, it interferes with the functioning of the Strict
Family model, which depends on the assumption that self-discipline
will lead to self-reliance. Without this assumption, the discipline
imparted by the father to the child will ultimately not help the
child to make a living or to satisfy his long-range goals. But
if the child is not helped by the discipline imparted by the father,
the very legitimacy of the father's authority is called into question.
The very legitimacy of the father's authority thus depends on
an external condition, the unimpeded path from self-discipline
and hard work to self-reliance.
Since the Strict Father model is what
holds Strict Father morality together, interference with the pursuit
of self-interest threatens the foundations of the whole Strict
Father moral framework-from the efficacy of moral strength to
the validity of the moral order.
The link between Moral Self-Interest and
free-market economics has, of course, not been lost on advocates
of Strict Father morality. Controlled-market economies, whether
socialist or communist, impede the pursuit of financial self-interest.
For this reason, advocates of Strict Father morality have seen
socialism and communism as immoral. Not just impractical, but
Therefore, proposals for the public good
that interfere with the pursuit of financial self-interest are
commonly seen as immoral by advocates of Strict Father morality.
The "do-gooders" are seen as restricting freedom and
posing a threat to the moral order. And indeed they are, according
to the logic of Strict Father morality.
CONSERVATIVE MODEL CITIZENS
In the conservative moral worldview, the
model citizens are those who t fit all the conservative categories
for moral action. They are those (1) who have conservative values
and act to support them; (2) who are self-disciplined and self-reliant;
(3) who uphold the morality of reward and punishment; (4) who
work to protect moral citizens; and (5) who act in support of
the moral order. Those who best fit all these categories are successful,
wealthy, law-abiding conservative businessmen who support a strong
military and a strict criminal justice system, who are against
government regulation, and who are against affirmative action.
They are the model citizens. They are the people whom all Americans
should emulate and from whom we have nothing to fear. They deserve
to be rewarded and respected.
These model citizens fit an elaborate
mythology. They have succeeded through hard work, have earned
whatever they have through their own self-discipline, and deserve
to keep what they have earned. Through their success and wealth
they create jobs, which they "give" to other citizens.
Simply by investing their money to maximize their earnings, they
become philanthropists who "give" jobs to others and
thereby "create wealth" for others. Part of the myth
is that these model citizens have been given nothing by the government
and have made it on their own. The American Dream is that any
honest, self-disciplined, hard-working person can do the same.
These model citizens are seen by conservatives as the Ideal Americans
in the American Dream.
Correspondingly, conservatives have a
demonology. Conservative moral categories produce a categorization
of citizens-from-hell: anti-ideal prototypes. These nightmare
citizens are those who, by their very nature, violate one or more
of the conservative moral categories; and the more categories
they violate, the more demonic they are.
CATEGORY 1 DEMONS: Those who are against
conservative values (e.g., Strict Father morality). Feminists,
gays, and other "deviants" are at the top of the list,
since they condemn the very nature of the Strict Father family.
Others are the advocates of multiculturalism, who reject the primacy
of the Strict Father; postmodern humanists, who deny the existence
of any absolute values; egalitarians, who are against moral authority,
the moral order, and any other kind of hierarchy.
CATEGORY 2 DEMONS: Those whose lack of
self-discipline has led to a lack of self-reliance. Unwed mothers
on welfare are high on the list, since their lack of sexual self-control
has led to their dependence on the state. Others are unemployed
drug users, whose drug habit has led to their being unable to
support themselves; able-bodied people on welfare-they can work
and they aren't working, so (in this land of opportunity) they
are assumed to be lazy and dependent on others.
CATEGORY 3 DEMONS: Protectors of the "public
good." Included here are environmentalists, consumer advocates,
advocates of affirmative action, and advocates of government-supported
universal health care who want the government to interfere with
the pursuit of self-interest and thus constrain the business activities
of the conservatives' model citizens.
CATEGORY 4 DEMONS: Those who oppose the
ways that the military and criminal justice systems have operated.
They include antiwar protesters, advocates of prisoners' rights,
opponents of police brutality, and so on. Gun control advocates
are high on this list, since they would take guns away from those
who need them to protect themselves and their families both from
criminals and from possible government tyranny. Abortion doctors
may be the worst, since they directly kill the most innocent people
of all, the unborn.
CATEGORY 5 DEMONS: Advocates of equal
rights for women, gays, nonwhites, and ethnic Americans. They
work to upset the moral order.
The demon-of-all-demons for conservatives
is, not surprisingly, Hillary Clinton! She's an uppity woman (Category
5, opposing the moral order), a former antiwar activist who is
pro-choice (Category 4), a protector of the "public good"
(Category 3), someone who gained her influence not on her own
but through her husband (Category 2), and a supporter of multiculturalism
(Category 1). It would be hard for the Conservatives to invent
a better demon-of-all-demons.
... The status of successful corporations
and the ultrarich as model citizens has become conventionalized-fixed
in the conservative mind. They are icons, standard examples to
conservatives of what model citizens are. Moreover, they do not
fit the stereotype of welfare recipients. They are seen as self-disciplined,
energetic, competent, and resourceful rather than self-indulgent,
lazy, unskilled, and hapless.
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