Everything right is wrong again
Every movement false, every four is waltz again
Every five and dime’s been gained and spent
Tell me that you like my float upstream
Draw the line dividing laugh and scream
You know everything that I know so I know
You’ve heard the voice that makes the silent noise
That says that
Everything that’s right is wrong again
You’re a weasel overcome with dinge
Weasel overcome but not before the damage done
The healing doesn’t stop the feeling
Everything right is wrong again
Just like in the long long trailer
All the dishes got broken and the car kept driving
And nobody would stop to save her
They Might be Giants, Everything Right is Wrong Again
I’m a big fan of George Lakoff. George is professor of cognitive sciences at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of Moral Politics and Don’t Think of an Elephant among others. He has shown how many of our beliefs, assumptions and ways of understanding the world are built upon metaphorical world views. For example, American Politics is predominated by the metaphor: government as family. Conservatives tend to have a “Strict Father” understanding of family relationships, while Liberals tend to have a “Nurturing Parent” understanding of family relationships and we apply these metaphors to our governments and the world stage.(Check out the books or The Rockridge Institute for further info.)
Today, what I am interested in is morality. One of the great observations Lakoff has made concerns our understanding of morality in terms of financial transactions:
We all conceptualize well-being as wealth. We understand an increase in well-being as a “gain” and a decrease of well-being as a “loss” or a “cost.” This is combined with a very general metaphor for causal action in which causation is seen as giving an effect to an affected party (as in “The noise gave me a headache”). When two people interact causally with each other, they are commonly conceptualized as engaging in a transaction, each transferring an effect to the other. An effect that helps is conceptualized as a gain; one that harms, as a loss. Thus moral action is conceptualized in terms of financial transaction.
Just as literal bookkeeping is vital to economic functioning, so moral bookkeeping is vital to social functioning. And just as it is important that the financial books be balanced, so it is important that the moral books be balanced.
Of course, the “source domain” of the metaphor, the domain of financial transaction, itself has a morality: It is moral to pay your debts and immoral not to. When moral action is understood metaphorically in terms of financial transaction, financial morality is carried over to morality in general: There is a moral imperative not only to pay one’s financial debts, but also one’s moral debts.
Sounds fine, on the surface, but for all the non-accountants out there I would like to point out that bookkeeping is based upon a ‘double entry’ system: for the ‘books’ to ‘balance’ the final total should always be zero. To draw on game theory once more, this makes our metaphorical understanding of morality zero-sum. If I am to ‘gain’ from an action, then someone else must ‘lose.’
To make matters worse, even as we feel obliged to ‘pay our moral debts’, these debts are equally to be found on both sides of zero. We are as much driven to ‘pay back’ losses as we are gains: this leads us to the morality of retribution. Is it a higher moral value for us to ‘get someone back’ and balance the books (‘pay our debt’) or to turn the other check, thereby allowing the books to be out of balance, but also not engaging in a negative action?
This could be fodder for all sorts of interesting ethical debates, but I have a different intention. I would like to consider the possibility that the entire metaphor and the actions resultant from it is simply invalid.
I do not believe that social interactions between people, morality included, can be validly described as zero sum. There is no valid argument, in my mind, to justify the idea that if someone does something nice for me, it must be the case that they will suffer for it. Quite the contrary, as trite as it may be, I honestly believe that love, support, good deeds, aid and comfort (etc) grow with each iteration.
I can love my honey with all my heart, and yet still have all of my heart to give.
(Originally Posted September 6, 2006)