Imagination and metaphor are central to ethics

Metaphor is central to reality

From Aristotle's stories about human virtue, to the Utilitarian's cry for the greatest good for the greatest number, as well as Eastern philosophies' influence that detachment from things is a form of virtue; the history of moral thought is as rich as it is complex. Some thinkers say ethical laws are a useful fiction and others that they can be located in the fabric of the universe. But this story misses something profound about the nature of morality, argues cognitive linguist Ning Yu. Ethics is impossible without metaphor and our theories ought to take this into account.


Morality is central to the human condition. Several millennia ago we discovered that our ability to act against and reflect on our impulses separated us from other animals and provided the space for ethical reasoning to take place. From then on, thinkers from across the ages have attempted to rationalize and explain this integral capacity of ours.

In the 4th century, Aristotle in Nichomachean Ethics argued that morality was a matter of practicing the virtues and good character – temperance, justice and humility. Thousands of years later, Immanuel Kant gave ethics a decidedly different flavor. Injunctions like ‘do not murder’ and ‘do not lie’ were universal, self-evident laws found in the fabric of the universe.


What is missing in this widely held conception of morality is something crucial, namely the recognition of the fundamental role of imagination via metaphor


The Utilitarians disagreed. We should look at the social, legal, or political consequence of any action and judge its rightness accordingly. And from divine command theory – the idea that God’s commands are final – to Hobbes’s notion that ethics is a contract created through our desire for self-preservation, with influences from Eastern philosophy, Stoicism and now modern ethicists like Peter Singer and Martha Nussbaum, the history of morals is as rich as it is complex.

Mark Johnson in Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics, started applying studies from the human mind and brain to the nature of morality. Many believe, as Johnson argues, that there is a set of ultimate moral principles or laws that come from God or are found through universal human reason. Living morally means rational application of the moral rules so that one will do the right thing that is required by these rules. There is something however seriously lacking in this story.


Our moral understanding and reasoning are mostly imaginative activities.



What is missing in this widely held conception of morality is something crucial, namely the recognition of the fundamental role of imagination via metaphor, among others, in our moral reasoning. According to his theory, ‘the conceptual metaphor theory of cognitive linguistics’, metaphor is a cognitive tool that helps us understand abstract concepts.

According to Johnson, human beings are imaginative creatures, from our sensorimotor system all the way up to our conceptual system. Our moral understanding and reasoning are mostly imaginative activities, depending in part on cognitive structures like metaphors.

In the past decades, cognitive linguistics has argued that moral cognition is partly metaphorical, emerging from a complex system of images and analogies that help us understand moral principle and value. This system contains clusters of metaphorical mappings for conceptualizing, reasoning about, and communicating our moral ideas.

The Moral Metaphor System: A Conceptual Metaphor Approach (2022, Oxford University Press) investigates moral metaphors in both English and Chinese. It applies conceptual metaphor theory to a comparative study of the moral metaphor system rooted in the domains of bodily and physical experience. 

The study examines moral cognition at the cultural level as reflected in language, based on linguistic evidence and, to a limited extent, multimodal (varying evidencefrom linguistic, visual and aural sources) the corresponding cultures. In so doing, it sheds light on the metaphorical nature of moral cognition and how it manifests deeply in language and multimodality.

The moral metaphor system is taken to consist of three major subsystems, referred to as “physical,” “visual,” and “spatial,” There exists clusters of conceptual metaphors whose sources are from domains of embodied experiences in the physical world, and which are shared by English and Chinese. While differentiated in a three-way distinction, the three subsystems are obviously not separate. They overlap with and merge into one another, embracing a common core, as a unified whole of moral metaphor system.

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In the physical aspect, morality is seen metaphorically in terms of physical beauty, strength, soundness, wholeness, and health. This subsystem, consisting of moral-physical metaphors, can be summarized as MORALITY IS PHYSICALITY. The conceptual contrast between morality and immorality is understood in the form of five pairs of metaphors, with their linguistic instantiations provided below:


moral beauty vs. ugliness; morally aesthetic, angelic vs. hideous, monstrous


moral strength, power vs. weakness, fatigue, residue; morally sturdy, solid, firm vs. impotent, impaired


moral soundness vs. rot, decay, deterioration; morally sound vs. defected, flawed


moral integrity, wholeness vs. moral disintegration, fallout, collapse, breakdown, meltdowns, mudslides; morally whole vs. morally corrosive


moral health, immunity, vaccine, treatment, rehabilitation, regeneration vs. illness, disease, cancer, death; morally healthy vs. sick, shortsighted, deformed, dead


In the visual aspect, morality is contemplated in terms of color, brightness, clarity, cleanness, and purity. This can be summarized as MORALITY IS VISUALITY. The five pairs of metaphors and their linguistic instances are such:


white angel, soul, horse, lie vs. black devil, sin, box, deed


moral light and dark sides of musical experience; between the forces of light and dark; the binary opposition of light and shade that signal the drinker’s moral failure; a light in a dark world; bright vs. dark character; light vs. dark path


Morally clear vs. murky; clear heart, conscience, reputation vs. murky underworld, deal, relationship


clean vs. dirty money; money laundered clean; untainted vs. tainted wealth; clean vs. dirty deeds, raps, jokes; clean vs. dirty business deals


pure moral behavior vs. impure moral conduct


Finally, in the spatial subsystem, morality is seen in terms of height, uprightness, levelness, straightness, and size. This can be summed up as MORALITY IS SPATIALITY. The five pairs of conceptual metaphors and their linguistic instances are provided below:

(11)                       MORAL IS HIGH and IMMORAL IS LOW

moral high vs. low ground; high vs. low road; lofty moral claims; low down business; moral elevation, uplift vs. sink, decline

(12)                       MORAL IS UPRIGHT and IMMORAL IS SLANTED

morally upright, upstanding, straight up vs. slanted, tilted, askew

(13)                       MORAL IS LEVEL and IMMORAL IS UNLEVEL

  • on the level; level vs. unlevel playing field

(14)                       MORAL IS STRAIGHT and IMMORAL IS CROOKED

morally straight vs. crooked; straight vs. crooked path; stoop low vs. straighten up

(15)            MORAL IS BIG and IMMORAL IS SMALL

big vs. small heart; big vs. small mind; great vs. small human being


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In the above, the metaphors of morality are instantiated by linguistic expressions, but they can manifest themselves in other ways too. For instance, a political cartoon (see below) shows a politician speaking behind a podium with a row of reporters standing in front of him holding pens and notebooks or recorders. Instead of standing “upright” in balance, the reporters all stand “tilted” or “slanted” toward their right. The caption of the cartoon says, “SLANTED MEDIA COVERAGE.” The loss of physical or bodily balance is a visual metaphor for bias, partiality, and unfairness. As a result of the loss of “moral balance.” The cartoon appears to be a visual expression of MORAL IS UPRIGHT and IMMORAL IS SLANTED.

"Slanted Media Coverage" - Licensed for use by CartoonStock Ltd.

"Slanted Media Coverage" - Licensed for use by CartoonStock Ltd.


This only reinforces the claim that morality is conceptualized and expressed metaphorically. Such moral metaphors are manifested not only linguistically, but visually as well.


Yet so few frameworks in the history of ethical thought have even considered their role let alone their centrality in one of the most important aspects of the human condition.



Such insights about imagination and morality are crucial. Not only is imagination and metaphor a part of ethics, but central to how we synthesize what’s around us. Arguably, morality is impossible without these capacities. And yet so few frameworks in the history of ethical thought have even considered their role let alone their centrality in one of the most important aspects of the human condition. By understanding these metaphors and integrating them into philosophy, we may be able to understand, and modify ethics in profound and meaningful ways.

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