Models of morality: the ‘strict father’ and the ‘nurturant parent’

The week before last, I reviewed George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know your values and frame the debate” but did not have enough time to explore in detail the moral frameworks that he explains in his book.

According to Lakoff, people have two basic frames of morality that they use to understand the world around them: the ‘strict father’ model and the ‘nurturant parent’ model. Both are based upon understandings of family, but can also be applied to other institutions, such as the state.Everyone has both frames in their mind; while one frame may dominate over the other for some people, either frame can be activated through the use of language.

The ‘strict father’ model views the world as a dangerous place, and believes that there is both absolute good and evil in it. Therefore, the ‘strict father’ – the moral authority – must teach his children the difference between right and wrong through the use of strong discipline in order to ensure they will grow up and be successful.

According to the ‘strict father’ model, behaving morally and acting in one’s own self-interest leads to prosperity. This is consistent with free-market thinking that understands the pursuit of self-interest as leading to everyone’s interests being maximized. Therefore, acting in your own self-interest makes you a good, moral person.

The ‘nurturant parent’ model, on the other hand, is rooted in the values of empathy and mutual responsibility. This model is gender neutral, and understands the role of parents as nurturing the inherent ‘goodness’ within their children through providing protection, showing them how to lead a fulfilled life, and teaching them how to empathize and care for others.

These frames result in very different perspectives when applied to relationships between the state and its citizens, and the public policies created by the state to serve people.

As Lakoff writes, according to the ‘strict father’ model, social programs are considered “immoral” because they “give people things they have not earned,” and therefore make them dependent and discourage them from using their own internal discipline to become successful. The ‘nurturant parent’ model, in contrast, understands social programs as being positive and morally good, as they provide care for those who are in need of support and foster fairness and equality in society.

I’m usually a bit wary of analogies that place people in firm categories; I find there are always exceptions to the rule, and categories rarely capture the depth or complexity of human behavior and emotion.

However, I found Lakoff’s analogies to be exceptionally useful in understanding how people think about politics and public policy. I’ve found his models are easily applicable to situations I’ve read about in the media and come across in my own life. It has made me think more strategically about the kind of language I use when I am communicating my values with others, and the extent to which framing comes into effect in how people understand public policy.

Mariel Angus is CPJ’s former policy intern.

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