Problems of moral order

“Authority in the moral sphere is modeled on dominance in the physical sphere. The moral authority of the parent over the child is metaphorically modeled on the physical dominance of the parent over the young child…it is a metaphorical model in which the logic of moral authority makes use of the logic of physical dominance.”   –from Philosophy in the Flesh, George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (p. 301, my italics)

Here is a problem: “folk philosophy” assumes that the moral order is the natural order, a logic much used in the dogma of many Western religions; but Lakoff and Johnson point out how such suppositions lead to “a hierarchy of moral superiority and authority.” Because we are corporeal, physical phenomena in a physical world and our initial human relationships get established through the parent-child model, human beings have a hard time escaping the physical dependence-physical dominance-physical responsibility metaphors, which we incorporate into our languages and philosophies.

There is no reason to refute or escape such metaphors, fundamentally embodied as they are, as long as we are aware of them. For people who accept physical dominance as the natural order without recognizing it as evolutionary and metaphorical, however, the logic that [this metaphor]=Natural Law=Moral Order can be harmful.

And not just to them but to their families, their neighbors, and their societies.

Lakoff & Johnson write, “The consequences of the metaphor of Moral Order are sweeping, momentous, and, we believe, morally repugnant…the Moral Order metaphor gives us a better understanding of what fascism is: Fascism legitimatizes such a moral order and seeks to enforce it through the power of the state” (p. 304).

The authors later note that “the view of moral concepts as metaphoric profoundly calls into question the idea of ‘pure’ moral reason” (p. 330). In other words, pretty much all of Western philosophy since Aristotle. Which makes me contemplate whether that question also suggests there is no “pure” abstract consciousness–whether there is any me (I do not mean Ego here) without the body I inhabit.


Then again,  Dürr’s speculation that memories exist as data–a kind of cloud network, as an analogy–and somehow persist, merits some consideration. I find Lakoff persuasive, however. I know he has since added to, altered, and labored on the concepts laid out in this 1999 book.

The foundations and evolutionary development of our families, tribes, and languages create our philosophies; this much seems as certain to me as anything–and thus arrive in our collective consciousness as metaphors, stories, poems.


Nagel, on stepping back

From Thomas Nagel’s 1979 Mortal Questions, and still relevant today (as philosophy tends to be), on doubts, questions, and the value of being reflective and skeptical. My italics to emphasize the sentence in paragraph 3:

“Leading a human life is a full-time occupation, to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern.

This fact is so obvious that it is hard to find it extraordinary and important…Yet humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed, with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand…they can view it sub specie aeternitatis–and the view is at once sobering and comical.

…this is precisely what provides universal doubt with its object. We step back to find that the whole system of justification and criticism, which controls our choices and supports our claims to rationality, rests on responses and habits that we never question, that we should not know how to defend without circularity, and to which we shall continue to adhere even when they are called into question.


source: Instagram stock photo from sochicat

The things we do or want without reasons, and without requiring reasons–the things that define what is a reason for us and what is not–are the starting points of our skepticism.”

We judge and choose based solely upon our own perceptions and experiences–it seems unnatural to do otherwise; yet stepping back makes it somewhat possible, through listening and observation, to make connections and find relationships with what is Other than ourselves. First, we must agree to feel skeptical about our own view of the world and to pose inquiries and then to shut up and pay attention to someone else’s experience of the human occupation. (See my post here.)

I do, however, admit–as Nagel does–to the limits of philosophy as relates to public policy. Whether reflection can change the methods of oligarchy, capitalism, dictatorships, the Leviathan, revolution, social attitudes, the masses, democracy, or the Republic has already been answered:

“Moral judgment and moral theory certainly apply to public questions, but they are notably ineffective. When powerful interests are involved it is very difficult to change anything by arguments, however cogent, which appeal to decency, humanity, compassion, or fairness. These considerations also have to compete with the more primitive moral sentiments of honor and retribution and respect for strength. The importance of these in our time makes it unwise  in a political argument to condemn aggression and urge altruism…the preservation of honor usually demands a capacity for aggression and resistance to humanity.”

We continue to adhere to unfounded but deeply ingrained notions we cannot rationally justify, and that remains a truly interesting aspect of human life. It is a set of notions I do not criticize nor defend, but which I do think we should question.

Even as we vote–if we bother to vote–with our guts and our resistance to what is Other, even as we defend those powerful interests from which many of us benefit, we should keep up our inquiry and work on becoming more aware of other human beings’ situations and sufferings, joys and social experiences. One thing about the human being and the whole human endeavor: as long as we possess our consciousness, we also retain the startling and magnificent ability to learn new things.

Here’s to life on the anthill.


Steve Tobin, “Termite Hill,” 1999–






  1. Cognition; perception.
    2. The exercise of reason.

Interesting that definition number two is dependent upon definition number one. Lately I have been thinking about the difference between consciousness and conscience; the latter seems to me to be specifically human, I guess, because isn’t conscience a sort of cultural or judgmental entity based upon rules? Yes, I am talking about morality, a term I tend not to use much when I consider cognition, consciousness, narrative, being.

I recently perused Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust and found myself intrigued about where and in what ways morality and consciousness or sentience mesh. Churchland is a moral philosopher, but this book relies largely on arguments premised on neurology, biology, evolution, and animal studies. Her critics pose interesting rebuttals, too. I found her book readable and often convincing–and it’s the kind of book that leads me to other writers and scientists; I love that in a book!


The phenomenology of consciousness–the carbon body brain-based “real world” idea of the word–involves intentionality, sentience, qualia, and first-person perspective. We can identify qualities based upon our first-person consciousness and respond to them. This process has led Western thinkers toward the concept of reason or rational thinking. The exercise of reason derives from perception.

This does not mean that phenomenology is the sole form of consciousness or even that it is necessarily human-only, but it seems to me to be the easiest one for human beings to wrap their minds around. Yet the earlier philosophers were not phenomenologists. Their speculations about what consciousness originated in and what morality inhered in were quite abstract.

For a good sum-up of how contemporary scholars define and discuss consciousness, go to Stanford’s site here.


Being cognizant or conscious does not necessarily lead to moral behavior or reason…or does it? Here we have an idea that has been debated for centuries. In her book, Churchland often returns to Hume, who wrote about morality from what, eventually, became known as the utilitarian stance (though I would argue Hume is not really utilitarian). Stanford offers an overview of morality as defined by philosophers over the years; The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says this of Hume:

In epistemology, he questioned common notions of personal identity, and argued that there is no permanent “self” that continues over time. He dismissed standard accounts of causality and argued that our conceptions of cause-effect relations are grounded in habits of thinking, rather than in the perception of causal forces in the external world itself. He defended the skeptical position that human reason is inherently contradictory, and it is only through naturally-instilled beliefs that we can navigate our way through common life.

These concepts should feel modern to most of us thanks to cultural anthropology, sociology, and psychology, among other disciplines. Hume’s position conflicts with much religious dogma, but his ideas were not out of line with many of his fellow Enlightenment-Era thinkers. During the Enlightenment, intellectuals were enamored of the exercise of reason (noesis).


So: consciousness and conscience. First we have the one–however it arises within us*–and the other develops (or evolves?) thanks to the need for social beings to navigate common life. And thanks, perhaps, to brain evolution adapting to social common life (see Churchland for more on this).

Much to mull over during my brief summer break.


Jiminy Cricket copyright Walt Disney Co.

Jiminy Cricket copyright Walt Disney Co.

*See my numerous previous posts on consciousness!

⇐ “And always let your conscience be your guide!”