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Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God: Part 9

The Death of Objective Morality?

In another chapter of Philosophy in the Flesh, Lakoff and Johnson discuss conclusions after their critique of western philosophy. In one instance they make a point which I must disagree with:

[There is no] “Higher” Morality: Our concepts of what is moral, like all our other concepts, originate from the specific nature of human embodied experience. Our conceptions of morality cannot be objective or derive from a “higher source.” [1, p. 556]

In one sense, this statement is correct. That is, our concepts of what is moral are based on human embodied experience. Therefore, whenever we think about morality, we are using metaphorical reasoning. Hence, we cannot claim that our moral reasoning directly reflects some objective, external source. But the implication of this statement is that, therefore, God is completely excluded from moral understanding. To put it another way: because I can explain that moral concepts come from embodied experiences, they cannot reflect an objective moral reality.

Perhaps this is not what Lakoff & Johnson intend, but it is certainly easy to read the statement that way. And the argument is flawed. Showing that we understand something metaphorically is not the same as showing that what we understand does not exist. By the same reasoning I can say that our understanding of atoms is based on metaphorical conceptions of balls and clouds (Figure 3.1). These are entirely based on embodied experiences—how atomic structure has been taught to us, and our experiences of balls and clouds. Our conceptions of atoms therefore cannot be objective or derive from ‘reality’.

Model of a helium atom showing a nucleus made of coloured circles with orbiting electrons Model of a helium atom showing a probability cloud

Figure 3.1: Two models of a helium atom.*

Of course, the physicist will argue that there is more to atoms than the metaphors we use to conceptualise them. We have other evidence which gives us cause to believe that atoms exist and behave in certain ways. Similarly, Christians argue that understanding conceptual metaphors for morality does not necessarily mean that they have no higher source. We look to other evidence (primarily Jesus, and the documents about him in the bible) to examine our moral conceptions.

If God does exist, and he defines an objective moral reality, then understanding conceptual metaphor does imply that it is possible to have conceptions of morality that are wrong, or inaccurate. In fact, the bible argues that unless God intervenes, all our conceptions of morality are definitely warped from the reality he defines. As Christians, we believe that Christ came to do something about that very problem.


[1] Lakoff, G.  Johnson, M. 1999 , Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, Basic Books, New York.

* Images from: ‘Atom’. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 29 March 2007.
URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Atom&oldid=118346019
Images are public domain.

cf. Romans 1:21–22, 28, 3:10–18

Tags: christianity, morality, philosophy, theology
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