Framing A Unified Field Theory of Values For Progressives

William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.


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Lakoff Lacks Logic

For those who are unfamiliar with George Lakoff's book Don't Think of an Elephant, we will mention its main points in a moment. But first, as the title of this Introduction suggests, we see in that little book a great deficiency. While Lakoff sincerely desires to further the cause of progressivism, he utterly fails to state the basic premise that gives meaning to the progressive project. He takes a "their side vs. our side" stance, but without persuasively showing why his side is preferable.

We will argue here that the progressive view is preferable to the conservative alternative, precisely because of progressivism's basic value premise and the logical and political implications of that premise. We will state that basic premise. We will also set out the four logical axioms that can be derived from it. Our central thesis is that this set of principles has moved progressives in the past, moves them now, and will continue to do so in the future. We will argue that progressives ought to frame future policy debates in the terms of this "progressive logic." If that is done, we predict that a substantial portion of formerly conservative voters will shift their allegiance to the progressive side. We are so confident in the persuasive power of progressive logic as to further claim that it could empower progressives to enact a reform agenda for the 21st Century that will dwarf the New Deal in importance.

Before making our case, however, let us ask a few questions to set the philosophical context in which we write. Our key philosophical concern is with the process of valuing. For example, how does one know the value of oneself, of others, or of anything else? Is money the only standard of value, at least for Americans? Are people equivalent in value to the things of this Earth, whether animal, mineral, or vegetable? Or, are we of lesser, or greater, value than things? Indeed, there are people who value their car, or their pet dog, way above their neighbor. There are corporate CEOs and shareholders who value their profits above the lives of those who are injured or killed driving unsafe cars, taking inadequately tested medication, or smoking cigarettes.

Are there any value contradictions in these cases, or are all valuations equal and every one free to value as he or she pleases in the moment? 

Our view is that human beings have, in varying degrees, an innate value intuition. We will further explain that notion in this essay. Readers with a stronger intuition will have already seen clearly the value contradictions in those instances we have mentioned. These readers will agree that people should be regarded as more important than things. Readers with a weaker intuition may argue that all values are relative to a particular culture, group, or to the whims of the individual. In this relativistic view, the values that persist in a society are those which power and tradition enforce. But if values have no basis other than political power and custom, then what is our defense against the claim that might makes right?
Many people intuitively reject the notion that might makes right. Something seems askew in the claim of kings and tyrants that people are to be valued merely as pawns in the game of politics. In this essay, democracy is our ideal. But is the democratic valuation of individual dignity only "right" because it is in the self-interest of the masses, who fear the domination of the few? Or, do democratic values have deeper roots in a more solid foundation?
We will argue that American progressives have been moved to advocate and advance democratic reforms in the U.S. by their value intuition far more so than by any calculation of self-interest. As we will show, progressive activists have succeeded in politics mostly by stirring up the same value intuitions in the American public.
George Lakoff is a writer with a strong progressive value intuition. In Don't Think of an Elephant, he recognizes that progressives are currently in the political doldrums. He argues that progressive values can be more successfully advanced if greater care is taken in the way progressives frame their agenda. Words are the engine of politics. Words are the most effective instrument progressives have for evoking public support and enthusiasm for their candidates and policies. Conservatives owe their current political success largely to the way they have framed their policies so as to appeal to the majority of voters. They have shrewdly put their policies and candidates in positive frames, and progressive policies and candidates in negative frames.
We find this part of Lakoff's argument indisputable. However, when he presents the intellectual foundation for his progressive values, we think, he falls on his face. His theory that personality types are the source of American values is, for us, both intellectually unsatisfying and politically unhelpful. He argues, in effect, that there are two basic personality types afloat in the United States. One is attracted to the values of the "nurturing parent." The other is attracted to the values of a "strong father. Since everyone has a little bit of both types in them, progressives have an even chance of moving the voters to vote progressive by being more clever than the conservatives at framing.
He seems to be suggesting that progressive candidates should artfully assume the posture of a "nurturing parent." By framing their campaigns in this fashion, he implies, the progressive candidates will trigger the unconscious need in a majority of voters to have a "nurturing parent" in public office. Aside from the lack of empirical evidence for his thesis, imagine Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, Jesse Jackson, or even Dennis Kucinich proclaiming to the crowds "I want to be your nurturing parent!"
That just won't fly. In fact, many grown-ups will feel offended. The candidate would look condescending. Their efforts to by-pass the adult reasoning processes of the voters, so as to manipulate some supposed unconscious need, would make them appear as sneaky, unprincipled, and out of touch with human reality.
We agree with Lakoff's assumption that progressives are sorely in need of an intellectual foundation for their shared sense of humane values. But we see his venture into pop psychology as a non-starter.
While Lakoff's efforts to find a basis for progressive values rely on a pseudo-science, there are some widely read religious alternatives. Some liberal Christian preachers are taking a wealth of quotes from the Bible in an attempt to provide an intellectual foundation for the progressive value intuition. Other men of the cloth attempt to assure progressives that based on their personal conversations with The Lord, He is definitely a "liberal." However, we find the religious effort to justify the humane value intuition of progressives not only intellectually unsatisfying, but dangerous. We will elaborate on this view in the latter half of our essay.
Despite these criticisms, the reader will see that our essay is not about putting down religion or pop psychology. It is about putting forth an explanation as to why progressive values are intellectually far superior to the values of their political rivals on the right. Our aim here is to provide a "frame" for progressive values that will command widespread respect. Indeed, we think we have such a convincing intellectual framework that activists will be moved to go out and tell the people about it, and around which candidates will center their speeches. The truth of these claims is for you to decide.
You be the judge.

CHAPTER ONE: What Is Progressive Logic?

Confusion Abounds
In our view, the American progressive movement has suffered from a severe lack of unity and consistency. This has been due above all to the failure of its leaders, elected officials, intellectuals, and activists to clearly articulate the basic principles that have moved them. Ironically, they have acted without understanding fully the deepest reasons for their own activity. In the absence of this depth self-understanding they have failed to see the ultimate principles that they have shared. While the issues and activists have changed over time, these principles have remained the underlying motivating force; albeit unbeknownst to the actors. Hence, unless an immediate project has held them together, like abolition, the Civil War, the need to ameliorate the unconscionable exploitation of workers, including women and children, or to engage in anti-war protests, or to fight for civil rights, progressive activists have been unable to agree upon their unifying values.
Lacking an articulated logic of values, progressives have had to operate with only an intuitive sense of values. Small wonder, then that they have been so disorganized and sporadic in their political successes. How could they have based a lasting organization upon an intuition, which is only now being articulated and clarified? Organizing around an intuitive understanding of values has proven all but impossible. Like the four blind men standing around that elephant we are not supposed to think of, each one has a different understanding. "An elephant is like a rope," says the man holding its tail. "No, an elephant is like a great snake," asserts the man who is stroking the trunk. "Not at all," counters the man running his hands up and down a leg, "an elephant is like a tree." "How could you be so foolish," declares the man who slides his hands over the side of the creature, "an elephant is most surely like a great wall."
So progressivism has been scattered into factions such as Abolitionists, Populists, Socialists, Republican "Bull Moose," Democratic "liberals," Greens, and other groups that could not see the unified field of values in which they all operated. Like the Supreme Court Justices who declare that they will know "obscenity" when they see it, progressives have been trying to pressure government to shape America into a form that they will know is "just" when they see it. Unfortunately, the value intuition upon which they have been relying fragments into separate notions as they try to translate it into policy. Once competitive egos organize around rival ideas and personalities, all contact with the unifying field is lost. In Zen this is called "The Philosopher's Disease."
As the 21st Century begins unfolding into the future, progressives seem more fragmented and mired in bickering than at any time in their past. At the same time, our conservative opponents have rarely been so well organized. They have a huge share of the judgeships on the federal bench, a majority on the Supreme Court, and majorities in both houses of Congress. Their share of state and local offices has never been so large. Finally, from the progressive perspective, one of the worst presidents in American history is now serving his second term.
Fortunately, this sorry situation can be turned around. With a unified field theory of values, progressive activists will be able to see for themselves, and articulate to others, what has been impelling their movement from its inception. Hence, the possibility for a stronger and better organized left now exists as it has never before existed. With an understanding of progressive logic, our side will no longer be limited to the chance confluence of events to give momentary vitality and direction to the movement. Progressive logic will give progressives the tools they need to become a permanent power in American politics.
Progressive logic, then, has no history as such, but only a pre-history. That pre-history is one of an intuitive understanding seeking expression through political reform, but without full success, for over 200 years. This essay is the realization of what progressive logic has been, for so long, wanting; that is, its own articulation. For, now that it has been stated (in effect, born), the history of progressive logic can begin.

Our Basic Premise:
All persons always deserve positive regard.
The basic premise of progressive logic is deceptively simple. Yet, as we will see, in practice it contains enormous power for clarifying thought, framing policy debates, and persuading people to agree with its conclusions. Four value axioms can be deduced from the premise that all persons always deserve positive regard. After stating these axioms, we will further discuss their meanings. We will also anticipate some of the objections that readers may raise as they read the premise; especially the objection "I don't feel that 'all persons always deserve positive regard.' Sometimes I feel that some people deserve my negative regard." Let this essay be a test of just how persuasive progressive logic can be...