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Framing: "metamorality"  
Posted by Brian D on January 14 2008, 14:14 » Uploaded 14/01/08 14:16  

A few notes of mine (unpolished, sketchy, for a forthcoming magazine article) which might be of interest, or not...

"Moral" metaphors are based upon experience of well-being (according to George Lakoff). Since money has become our main survival ticket (replacing tribal membership), morality has increasingly been framed in terms of financial transactions. When we talk about tragedies we use terms such as "cost" and "loss"; we speak of "profiting" from good experience; we ask if a given course of action is "worth it". A person is "discredited" (their moral "credit" is withdrawn) when shown to be morally untrustworthy. The qualitative realm of morality is thus transformed into a quantitative one by conceptualising it in terms of accounting. If someone does you harm, you "pay them back"; if you treat me well, I am "in your debt", etc.

When someone does "wrong", we say: "don't let them get away with it" - which frames immorality as theft of an object. The government has exploited this framing with its talk of "rights and responsibilities". The public is supposed to react by sensing the "truth" that for every "right" granted, there's a corresponding "responsibility", and that "rights without responsibility" is equivalent to theft. But it's a conceptual "truth" that resides in our framing of issues, not in the "objective structure of the universe".

The government confuses the issue of whose responsibility it is. We pay them tax to protect our "rights", so it's their responsibility to protect our rights (in this particular piece of moral bookkeeping). Libertarian (both left and right) accounting is different(?): For every right we enjoy, we have a responsibility to protect it from government(?)

The morality of retribution seems based on this scheme. Lakoff points out a dilemma of this framing: if someone does you harm, do you harm that person in return ("pay him back")? As a "balancing of the books" this can be seen as a moral good - a legitimate punishment. Or do two wrongs not make a right?

The morality of retribution ("an eye for an eye") is associated with rightwing conservatism, but it's very common in leftwing discourse, too. This isn't to be confused with "justice" (eg prosecuting someone for war crimes) - it takes the form, for example, of attacks on those whose "complicity" in such crimes is so attenuated as to be virtually indistinguishable from those doing the attacking.

"Strength" is another metamoral metaphor, since well-being requires strength and is threatened by weakness. ("Metamoral", since, like the accounting metaphor, it doesn't in itself tell you which actions are moral or immoral). But the oppressed, by definition, have their well-being taken away by the strong, leading to what Nietzsche termed the morality of ressentiment, in which weakness becomes associated with moral good (and strength/power with evil).

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Comment 01 – Karl Watzlawick January 15 2007, 10:22

Good, thought provoking stuff. I've never pondered over that 'rights and responsibilties' slogan before - a Blairism if I remember rightly. Yes, it's our moral duty to be so grateful to the govm't for the "rights" they give us. And we owe them something in return, like looking the other way when tens of thousands of Iraqis are slaughtered. And if we show signs of not being grateful, they've got us recorded. That's one of the data fields in the National Identity Register:

Grateful to authority: Y/N/T

(T= terror suspect or awkward type)


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