Dirty Hands, Or: On Not Questioning Moral Intuitions

The cognitive linguist George Lakoff believes that moralities come in two contradictory sets of values cognitively rooted in deep, metaphoric structures of the brain. The basic metaphors which I suppose you can say generate the superstructure of morality are nurturing parent (moral authority means helping guide you to become a better and more moral authority yourself, giving you moral resources and helping you overcome your faults) versus the strict father (transgressions are punished, the power figure is in the right and teaches the truant and oppositional how to behave by landing on the line-crosser like a ton of bricks).

Because of some debates that have been running in my home country in recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the strict father metaphor and how it has come to drag the moral judgments of the right wing of my country down.

I’m not going to get into it in detail, but suffice it to say that moral lines have been crossed, things have been allowed that until recently were not even to be contemplated. Certain parts of the right wing have found themselves in a death spiral of increasingly immoral decisions.

There are some interesting things at work, though, in the cognitive morality department, which I suppose can be of more general interest than just the narrow interests of those who follow our local politics. Two things, in particular.

First of all is something about the strict father morality which I don’t think I’ve noticed before, but which just sprang to my attention. This is that since the moral authority is external to you, being placed in an elevated figure of supreme morality (the strict God/father/state) rather than coming from or coming into being inside you, there is a tendency to not question your own moral intuitions.

This is because the external authority in most cases is actually a projection of your own moral intuitions. You don’t question the basis for your moral judgments, because the arbiter of moral decisions is an external force who either disapproves or approves. The onus is not on you to be morally decent and discerning, but rather to be attentive to the needs of the authority figure. You are not questioning your own desires, but the desires of the authority.

Since the authority figure doesn’t necessarily monitor you constantly, but instead leaves you (as all authority does) to yourself most of the day, a tendency develops to seeing whatever your current moral intuitions are as valid and true. You don’t have to interrogate your own desires, actions or moral intuitions. Whatever you are doing is right, received wisdom and parochial disgusts are quite simply right, and not to be questioned. Questioning morality is unnatural, dangerous or counter-productive. This is why you get situations where homosexuality is deemed unnatural without a question, where females need to “stay in their place”, because that’s just how things are done.

So that’s the first thing I’ve noticed. The second thing is that a tendency of moral regression seems to inevitably develop. The authoritarian right wing ends up getting their hands dirty at some point because they want to achieve some other goal. Inevitably, this leads to a justification for that type of action and moving it into the category of “allowed”. This starts to eventually happen to more and more things, as morality erodes, changes, slips.

This is the slippery slope of the war on terror, say, or torture, or tyrannical repression. Eventually the hands get more and more dirty, the allies more and more unpleasant. One hopes that the process is checked by some other force at some point (whether human nature, political checks and balances or just some tendency to not change too rapidly), but some damage is surely done. Dirty hands, all around.

This is one kind of moral erosion that tends to happen around the distorting forces of realpolitik which surround being in government. Another kind, the reverse, is that of not listening to your moral intuitions when your moral intuitions are what is being undermined or adversely affected by those kinds of forces.

So you’re screwed either way.

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