Moral Politics

How Liberals and Conservatives Think

by George Lakoff

University of Chicago Press, 2002, paper


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 model.

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 avoid punishment.

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 love.

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 them out.

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 of person.

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 self-discipline.

... 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 immoral!

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.


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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