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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Metaphors for Morality

You may have wondered earlier when I said we think in metaphors or analogies (words I am using synonymously). In my early student years I learned that there were two main theories of cognition and speech: univocal and analogical. Univocal presumes fixed concepts in some Heaven of Ideas or the Mind of God to which the human mind corresponds through some sort of illumination from within (idealists) or without (realists). It's called the "look theory" of knowledge. Plato, Augustine and their realistic or idealistic followers took this way.

Analogical thinking, the second theory, doesn't have fixed ideas out there somewhere, but gathers observations into categories or collective, higher images which become abstractions standing for many images, and then those abstractions link to others through higher abstractions and so on towards a ever wider complex of abstractions that allow us to talk in a sort of code with lots of shortcuts--like "tree," "animal," "planet,""number," "angel," and so on. Aristotle, his followers in the high Islamic period, and then Aquinas and the neo-scholastic tradition pushed the analogical way of knowing. Truth in this theory is not the correspondence of the idea in the human mind with some Platonic or divine idea, but with the reality on the ground, that is, through testing by observational evidence. And so the scientific revolution was a vindication of the analogical over the univocal.

In the mid 20th century, philosophy played a "new key," in the words of Suzanne Langer. And that new key was "symbol" no longer as the sign of something else more real out there, but as the very embodiment of reality. Symbolic behavior is what defines human cognition whether in science, art, architecture, religion, ordinary language, politics, philosophy and all other avenues by which humans deal in and with the world and each other. Symbolic interaction theory is but a further development of the theory of analogical thinking.

Maybe you can find more; but I find five main metaphors that have been used and still are when describing our moral behavior and devising an ethical theory.  1) Foundation, 2) Balance, 3) Tool, 4) Contract, 5) Icon.

Foundation with connecting images "ground," "spring," "principle," envisages a base on which the structure of human behavior is built. It is the metaphor for natural law and divine law ethics, an ethics that is universal and not subject to change or relative to changing conditions. It is sometimes called "deontological" or "virtue" ethics and certainly represents the main ethical tradition with its search for and enumeration of principles grounded in reality or springing from tradition that can guide all human behavior.

Balance was a favorite of the ancient Greeks with their consideration of beauty as proportionality and harmony. But it can also be found in the Yin and Yang of Eastern thinking, the code of Solomon, and carried down in the dialectical tradition from Socrates to Hegel and Marx. "Nothing to excess"; "Find the center between the extremes" are canons of this ethical theory portrayed by the blind goddess of justice and her scales weighing the right from the wrong.

Tool or "instrument" or "utility" is the image of practical reason. What is the usefulness of a behavior? How will it lead to greater happiness for the most people (often interpreted as increasing pleasure and avoiding pain). This is the criteria of an ethic, perhaps going back to the notion of happiness in ancient times, including the pleasure principle of hedonism, but forged above all in the mercantile age when money becomes the gauge of utility and followed up in the industrial age with its rational economy of utility.

Contract (or in Biblical times "covenant") is the foundation for the liberated society--free from Pharoah, free from the King free from the Oligarch. This ethic takes note of humanity as not just natural or rational, but as social in its essence, only able to live and act in the world in relationship with others all of whom are participants in the same venture. There is a implied or formal agreement or constitution that binds us all together and governs our behavior. Besides ancient Athens and Israel, this notion is carried into the Liberalism of Locke and the Progressivism of Rawls.

Icon or "image" or "ideal" can be the metaphor for a Univocal Mind seeking the "absolute" or "real" idea that is not obscured by matter or other people with limited viewpoints. But for the Analogical Mind  it is the notion of metaphor, analogy, symbol itself. In the search for an ethical theory that is universal as foundational thought, proportional as balanced thought, useful as utilitarian thought, and communal as contract thought, we can unite all these metaphors, analogies, symbols in the theory of metaphorical, analogical, symbolic behavior itself.

And what I mean by this, I will explain later.







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