Posted by: terrapraeta | February 1, 2010

From the Archives: Wealth = Well Being


Create upon my flesh
Create approach upon my breath
Bring me salvation if I fear
Take my freedom
A sacred love
Create upon my breath
Create reflection on my flesh
The wealth of love
Bear me a witness to the years
Take my freedom
Let my freedom up
Take my freedom for giving me a sacred love
Create upon my flesh
Create a home within my head
Take my freedom
Let my freedom up
Take my freedom for giving me a sacred love

Talk Talk, Wealth

For years I have been trying to understand politics – what it is, what it means to me, why I should even care. For most of those years, I have regularly thrown up my metaphorical hands and decided that the answers to those questions were (respectively) “bullshit,” “more bullshit” and “Maybe I should, but I CAN’T.”

In 2000, things changed a little. Biggest reason? Bush Scared the hell out of me. Most significant reason? I’ve started to approach the whole political mess from a slightly different perspective. George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive studies at UC Berkeley, has given me a new tool to aid in that endeavor. And a fine tool it is.

Lakoff’s Essay addresses human thought patterns as metaphorical in nature. He posits that we unconsciously relate ideas in metaphorical ways and then supports that with metaphorical concepts and the common language used to reinforce the metaphors. This particular essay specifically addresses ‘Conservative’ vs ‘Liberal’ metaphors and models. I found it convincing.

I also find that most of the more absurd policy standards of our political parties make a whole lot more sense now. Lakoff manages to provide a systemic description of Liberal and Conservative policies that explains how such widely contradictory stances (like ‘Pro-Life’ and ‘Capital Punishment’) actually do fit together into a consistent world view.

Of course, being a difficult person, I found both metaphors distasteful. So I needed to look a little deeper. Luckily, he did provide me with an explanation that works for my beliefs as well. No, not the obvious middle of the road, personal combination of different aspects of both. Rather, my problem is that there are a couple of metaphors that both liberal and conservative tend to subscribe too.

Yes, of course I am going to tell you about it.

The first relates Accounting practices to Morality. Lakoff states:

“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.”

Now, to fully understand this, we first must recognize that, in accounting, the goal is a ‘zero-sum.’ In order to balance your books, all transactions must equal zero. Zero sum goes further than that, though – a term coined by game theorists, a zero sum game is a game with a finite amount of pluses and minuses. In order for a player to increase, his opponent must decrease. Chess is a good example of a zero sum game. If one player wins, the other MUST lose.

When applied to morality, we find an assortment of unintended – or at least unnecessary – results. Not only does the metaphor imply that one should expect a ‘good’ action to be reciprocated, but also a ‘bad’ action really aught to be returned as well. In either case, the failure of reciprocation leaves an unpaid ‘debt.’ As Lakoff explains, this also can create a conflict between the morality of ‘good behavior’ and the morality of ‘repaying a debt’, particularly if the debt is the result of a negative action.

So why do I have such a problem with this? Well, let’s start with the zero sum. I don’t see morality as a zero sum. When I do something for another person, I see that as two credits, not a credit and a debit. No, I am actually NOT referring to the ‘helping someone is its own reward’ sweetness and light bullshit that we so often hear. I just understand that anytime I help myself, it is equally possible that someone else gains as a side-effect. Likewise, helping another my help me in the long run. It is even possible to select your actions based on an awareness of those side effects. I call this my principal of “Enlightened Self Interest.” Anytime that you do something with the awareness of or intent to create a domino effect of positive results, you are engaging in enlightened self interest.

That makes it a non-zero sum game. Imagine that. A game where everyone can win.

What else? Well, there are a bunch of bits that just don’t taste so good to me. Things like: Absolutist Morality (even within the liberal context of cultural relativity); ‘the world is a dangerous place’; ‘Man vs the Environment’ or ‘Man as Guardian of the environment’ (both sides of that argument set my teeth on edge.)

Note: After I first wrote this article it was pointed out to me that in English, the root words of both “wealth” and “well being” are the same. Interesting or obvious?

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