The Political Mind


Neural Metaphor: Where Morality Comes From

Where do you get your morality? If there is no God, if I am simply complicated ooze, then the truth is … there is no morality …

—Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, quoted in Newsweek, April 9, 2007, p. 61

Primary metaphors arise naturally in our brains, just as a result of living in the world. Co-occurring experiences that recur over and over simultaneously activate distinct brain regions and lead to the formation of the neural circuits that constitute primary metaphor. Primary metaphors combine, via neural binding, with each other and with frames to form highly complex metaphors that are part of a vast unconscious conceptual system that we use in thinking. They are just sitting there silently, invisibly, waiting to be activated — though you might never know it since they are mostly used unconsciously. And most of them are activated, day after day, shaping much of our thought — whether accompanied by language or not!


Take the concept of freedom. Freedom in general is about being able to achieve your purposes — without interfering with the freedom of others. The concepts of freedom of movement and restraint on movement are learned early in life. The primary metaphors that Action is Self-propelled Motion and Achieving a Purpose is Reaching a Destination

arise naturally for all of us as part of unconscious, reflexive cognition. They too are learned early in life, and become, in our brains, fixed parts of our system of conceptual metaphors. They map freedom of movement and restraint on movement onto freedom of action and restraint on action. Our most fundamental notion of freedom thus arises from primary metaphor, and with it comes all the ways in which an understanding of restraint on freedom of movement becomes the basis of our understanding of restraint on freedom of action: being enslaved, in chains, in jail, tied up, handcuffed, tied down, tied to a ball and chain, held back, kept down, burdened, kept in the dark, and so on. This is called negative freedom, “freedom from” — kinds of restrictions on freedom to be avoided.

Any of these restrictions on movement can serve metaphorically to indicate some form of restriction on action — and provide ways to visualize and reason about various restraints on freedom.

Similarly, Aids to Freedom of Action are understood metaphorically in terms of Aids to Freedom of Movement. This is positive freedom, “freedom to”. Thus, you can be given a helping hand, given a start, empowered, and so on. Metaphorically, Failing is Falling, and so among the aids to freedom of movement are things that help you if you fall, for example, safety nets, cushions, and so on. In short, we reason, imagine, and talk about freedom of action in terms of the logic and language of freedom of motion. Thus, the general conception of freedom of action is grounded in the physical experience of freedom of movement via primary metaphor — that is, neural metaphor, circuitry that self-organizes on the basis of correlations in everyday experience.

Political freedom builds on this notion of freedom of action. Political freedom concerns the role of government in providing for both positive and negative freedom — both freedom from and freedom to. On the negative freedom side, government has a central role in providing for civil order and civil liberties, so you can go about your business without fear and be protected from military invasion, and from epidemics, the harmful effects of natural disasters, economic catastrophe, harm from unscrupulous or irresponsible businesses, etc. On the positive freedom (freedom to) side, government provides for basic infrastructure that empowers people to achieve their goals: elections, education, roads, communications, energy supply, water supply, public buildings, libraries, banking, markets and the stock market, the court system, etc. Without these, American business and most of modern American life would be impossible.

Those are just the basics of political freedom. As I showed in Whose Freedom? and will discuss below, there are further progressive and conservative extensions of basic political freedom — in different and incompatible directions. But the heart of our understanding of freedom is freedom of movement, and the heart of political freedom is freedom of movement and action, both freedom from and freedom to.


Morality is at the heart of political life in a democracy. Political leaders argue that their policies are not just the ones they happen to want, but that theirs are right and that those of their opponents are wrong. But before we can go deeply into the dependence of politics on views of morality, we have to understand the conception of morality itself.

Morality is fundamentally about well-being — one’s own and others’. When Mark Johnson and I researched the Western moral conceptual system, the first thing that jumped out at us was the profusion of metaphors. Morality is seen metaphorically in terms of purity and light, staying on a path, uprightness, and so on. At first, the metaphors seem extraneous. But as we shall see, they are not, when taken as a whole system.

The key to understanding what is systematic about the moral metaphor system is the neural theory of primary metaphor, which is based on correlations between two areas of experience that occur together and so result in brain activations in distinct regions. Morality is about well-being, your well-being and the well-being of others. What correlations are there between well-being and other experiences? Whatever they are, they are candidates for correlations that could give rise to metaphors for morality. Consider generally true sentences of the form: You are better off if X than if not X, which states a correlation between well-being and some regularly occurring experience X. Since most primary metaphors are learned in childhood, you might consider these correlations in the light of childhood experiences. Each of them gives rise to a primary metaphor for morality. These metaphors, taken together, are widespread around the world, because the experiential correlations on which they are based are also common around the world.

In each case below, I list first a correlation (“You are better off if …” ), then the name of conceptual metaphor, and below that a commentary including linguistic examples, forms of reasoning, and other notes.

  1. You are better off if you can stand upright than if you cannot.

Morality is Uprightness: Immorality is being Low.

If someone is standing upright, you can see what he or she is doing, especially with their hands. Here three other primary metaphors have an effect: Knowing is Seeing, Acting is Moving, and Controlling is Manipulating with the Hands (as in I can handle that, It’s in your hands now, and He’s got the whole world in his hands.) Being able to see how one is moving one’s hands maps into being able to know what one is controlling through one’s actions. Uprightness thus conveys not just moral action, but also honesty and trustworthiness. Such a person has high moral standards and is above reproach. Correspondingly, being low conveys not just immorality, but also deceit.

Someone who is a snake cannot be trusted and hides his immorality, as does someone who is underhanded or who would stoop to immoral behavior.

Morality is Honesty; Immorality is Deceit

  1. You are better off if you are functioning in the light than in the dark.

Morality is Light; Immorality is Darkness.

In the light, you can see and others can see you. Thus, you are less exposed to danger and others can see you, and thus know what you are up to. On the other hand, dangers lurk in the dark and someone functioning in the dark can act deceptively since his actions can’t be seen. It is no accident that an innocent heroine is called Snow White, while the devil is called The Prince of Darkness, or that we speak of white hats and dark hats. We speak of someone evil as being black-hearted. In Japanese, it is some with a black belly. In Hmong, it is a black liver, and in Swahili, a black stomach. And someone hit by a public scandal is said to have been given a black eye.

  1. You are better off if you eat pure food than if you eat rotten food.

Morality is Purity; Immorality is Rottenness.

Rotten food harms you; pure food doesn’t. Someone who is pure as the driven snow is highly moral. In cultures around the world, those who do something immoral must go through a purification ritual to re-enter the world of moral beings. An immoral person can be tainted by a scandal that stinks to high heaven. And, as Hamlet said, something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

  1. You are better off if you are clean than if you are not.

Morality if Cleanliness; Immorality is Filth.

In class westerns, the marshal is called in to clean up the town. Money from illegal activity that is made to appear legal is said to have been laundered. Legislation to prevent the immoral or illegal use of campaign funds is called clean election legislation. Self-righteous censors try to get filth off of tv. Money from immoral activities is called dirty money.

  1. You are better off if you have the things you need than if you don’t.

Well-Being is Wealth and Moral Accounting

Suppose you do something to help me. Metaphorically, this is like giving me money. I can say things like I’m in your debt or How can I ever repay you? Principles of accounting and the concept of paying debts come along with the Well-Being is Wealth metaphor to provide a rich and widespread way of understanding what moral action is.

Suppose you do something to harm me. Metaphorically, that is like incurring a debt. There are a number of alternatives. If I decide on retribution, I can say, I’ll make you pay for that! As I exact retribution, I can say triumphantly, Payback time! If convicted of a crime and sent to prison, you can pay your debt to society. I can decide on restitution, as say, “You owe me!” Or I can balance the moral books by taking revenge — taking something of value from you. Another possibility is forgiveness: canceling the debt.

  1. You are better off if you are strong than if you’re weak.

Morality is Strength

The reasoning invoked by this metaphor is all too familiar: You have to be strong to stand up to evil. You have to have backbone and resolve. If you are morally weak, evil will triumph. A flip-flopper is someone who has no backbone — who is morally weak.

  1. You are better off if youare healthy than if you’re sick.

Morality is Health; and Immorality is Disease.

The logic of this metaphor is that immorality is a contagion; it can spread through contact. You can avoid contact by either keeping your distance or quarantine. One example is white flight, when whites move out of the inner city so their children will not be morally contaminated by contact with minorities. An example of quarantine is imprisonment, which keeps immoral people in jail and away from contact with the rest of us. The logic of mandatory minimum prison terms comes through this metaphor.

Incidentally, the portion of my local airport that security guards have declared free of terrorists is called sterile.

  1. You are better off if you are happy than if you are not.

Morality is Happiness

The Dalai Lama said it best: If you are an unhappy person, you are less likely to want others to be happier than you. Hence you are less likely to be empathetic toward others. The central purpose of Buddhism is to develop empathy and compassion. Therefore, happiness is a moral requirement.

  1. You are better off if you are with your community than if you are not.

Morality is Following a Path; Immorality is Straying from the Path

Morality is Staying within Boundaries; Immorality is Transgressing

We have seen the primary metaphor that Action is Self-Propelled Movement. This metaphor maps Paths, which are created by the Movements of others, onto Social Norms created by the Actions of others. It also maps Boundaries of Normal Movements by members of you community onto Boundaries of Normal Actions in your community. Thus, Morality is seen as following, or staying within the bounds of, social norms.

  1. You are better off if you have power over others than if you don’t.

The Moral Order

The idea here is that those who are moral should be in power in a well-ordered world. That sounds pretty good, but the commonplace folk theories characterizing the details are anything but that. Throughout the world there are, and have long been, traditional hierarchies of power, simply because nature allows the strong to exercise power over the weak. Such hierarchies are thus seen as natural. Since we owe everything we are —our very existence — to the workings of nature, nature is seen as moral. In short, over history, natural hierarchies of power emerge in which the powerful are the moral. Thus, to find out who is most moral, look at who has been most powerful in the hierarchy: God above Man, Man above Nature, Adults above Children, Western Culture above Nonwestern culture, America above other nations, Men above Women, Whites above Nonwhites, Straights above Gays, Christians above NonChristians. Not a pretty metaphor, but an all too common one.

  1. You are better off if you act in accordance with your nature than if you don’t.

Moral Essence

It is commonly assumed that everyone has an inherent nature — an essence —that makes you what you are. Such essences determine how one acts naturally. Again nature is seen as moral, so that acting according to one’s nature is seen as the right thing to do.

By now you should have gotten the general idea, and we can simply list the rest.

  1. You are better off if you can care for yourself than if you can’t.

Morality is Self-Reliance; Immorality is Dependence

  1. You are better off if you are physically attractive than if you are not.
Morality is Beauty; Immorality is Ugliness
  1. Children are better off if they obey their parents than if they don’t.

Morality is Obedience; Immorality is Disobedience

  1. You are better off if you have self-discipline than if you don’t.

Morality is Discipline; Immorality is Lack of Discipline

In some cases metaphors for morality arise not from the well-being of an individual, but from the well-being of the group. The idea here is that if everyone acts morally, most people in the group will be better off.

  1. Your group is better off if people care about and for others.

Morality is Nurturance; Immorality is Not Caring

Caring about is empathy. Caring for is acting responsibly on that empathy. The moral principle here is empathizing and acting on that empathy. This is a form the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

  1. Your group is better off if people give things to others than if they don’t.

Morality is Generosity; Immorality is Stinginess

  1. Your group is better off if people sacrifice for others than if they don’t.

Morality is Sacrifice; Immorality is Selfishness

  1. Your group is better off if people carry out their obligations than if they don’t.
Morality is Doing One’s Duty; Immorality is Shirking one’s Duty
  1. Your group is better off if members act in the best interests of other group members.
Morality is Loyalty; Immorality is Betrayal

As the Marines say, Semper Fidelis.

These are our most common ways of conceptualizing morality. They arise, as we have seen, from correlations with well-being and the way that metaphorical thought arises from correlations that occur regularly in experience.

The answer to Rick Warren is simple: Our conceptions of morality come from correlations in our experience and from the neural mechanism behind metaphor acquisition.

But this is only half the answer. As we shall see in the next chapter, our principal moral and political worldviews in America also arise via the neural mechanism behind metaphor acquisition.