Since the Independent has this issue splashed all over
its front page this morning (26/3/08), it seems like a good time
to comment. It's an issue which illustrates the "depth"
and usefulness of George Lakoff's approach, imo.
It illustrates how language tends to program our thinking. To
quote Lakoff: "The issue of the morality of abortion
is settled once the words are chosen".
can be regarded as "murder" only if a "baby"
(ie a human being) is aborted. "Embryo" and "foetus"
are medical terms which don't denote a human person, and which
keep discussion in the medical domain. It's only when the term
"baby" (or equivalent) is used that discussion moves
into the moral domain.
But it's not just about the semantic underpinning of morality.
Why is there a correlation between conservative political stances
and "pro-life" (anti-abortion) stances? Why would conservatives
use a semantic grid which necessarily frames abortion as murder?
The idea (common among non-conservatives) that conservatives are
just selfish or apologists for the rich doesn't explain their
opposition to abortion.
Why does opposition to abortion correlate with support for capital
punishment or opposition to social programmes for reducing child
mortality - ie publicly-funded prenatal and postnatal care programmes
for impoverished mothers? (America apparently has the highest
rate of infant mortality in the industrialised world).
And what about support for wars (in which infants inevitably
die or suffer horribly)?
It doesn't appear to be just "coincidence" that conservative
politics correlates with "pro-life" stances. But it's
not explained in any of the typical ways in which politics is
dichotomised (eg "self-serving bastards" of the right
versus "bleeding hearts" of the left).
Essentially, Lakoff argues that the moral categories which are
primary in conservative political worldviews (eg self-discipline,
self-reliance, "natural order as moral order", etc)
lead to a view of the role of women (eg as mothers) in which abortion-as-immorality
is the best fit. And once the semantic frame is "chosen",
it necessarily reinforces the abortion-as-murder moral perspective.
Lakoff quotes Marvin Olasky, a prominent US conservative and
advisor to Bush:
“unmarried lust and abortion go together like a horse
and carriage…men and women who shack up are nine times more
likely to engender abortion than their married counterparts…anything
that increases promiscuity and discourages marriage…increases
In this way of framing the issue, abortion is seen as sanctioning
immoral behaviour (where "unmarried lust", etc, is regarded
as "immoral" according to the morality-as-self-discipline
category). This is just one of the ways in which primary conservative
moral categories apply to the issue - there are others. The point
Lakoff makes is that different moral categories are applied to
different issues in different ways, but that the hierarchy
of moral categories is totally different for conservatives and
liberals, leading to predictable outcomes. And it's not the case
that rightwingers or conservatives are simply "immoral"
or "amoral" (which is how they're often viewed by leftists
(*I've written elsewhere about Marvin Olasky's bible-based
"free-market" economics - BD).