Social Indebtedness: Strict Father Morality & Hierarchical Authority

I had a thought about Lakoff’s idea of conservative Strict Father morality and how it’s related to hierarchical social organization.

A parent or a church has the responsibility to raise a child well according to the values of the model. That makes perfect sense.

However, once raised, that child is considered wholly responsible to himself. And, so, the parents or church are no longer responsible to the child who has become an adult. But the grown child is forever responsible to the parent or church that raised him. It’s a debt the adult can never pay.

It’s the latter part that confuses me. Why doesn’t in particular the parent forever owe the child that the parent forced into the world? Why are all the failings of the raised individual considered entirely to be blamed on the child? And why do conservatives have a tendency to say people they deem as good as having been raised well and hence giving the credit to the parents or church?

It seems that in the hierarchical worldview there is a permanent inequality among social roles. The child’s only hope in gaining the upperhand is to one day take on a position further up in the hierarchy (such as becoming a parent or minister). But the child, even once a parent himself, will never have ultimate hierarchical position until his own parents die. Power is automatically deferred to those high up in social status and those lower in social status have little to no right to challenge that power.

The whole hierarchy is built on an inherent indebtedness. Just by being low on the totem pole, you owe everything to those above. In terms of fundamentalism: God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of man, (and, in Catholicism, the Pope is the head of the Church), man is head of the woman, and parents are the head of the child. Those above owe nothing to those below, but everyone ultimately owes everything to God who is at the very top.

What is strange about this is that those on top don’t have to earn the indebtedness that those below owe to them. They inherit the indebtedness simply by taking on a particular social role. Those in positions of authority (parent, husband, minister, etc) deserve unquestioning respect.

Of course, there are less extreme conservatives who moderate this slightly. They might see authority as being more complex in that it includes other social systems such as government and capitalism. They might justify this hierarchy through a rationalization of meritocracy. Those in positions of authority are assumed to have earned their position… and therefore those with less socio-economic status are by definition less deserving. Those with power and wealth have no obligation to help those without power and wealth. In fact, it would be perceived as morally wrong and so would be perceived as undermining the moral order for any exception to be made to this hierarchy of indebtedness.

To someone that lives in this worldview, it boggles their mind that someone of inferior status (child, wife, etc) wouldn’t automatically defer to the authority of their superior status. It just seems wrong that the inferior status person wouldn’t act obligingly. As such, it is automatically assumed the child will take care of his parents when they grow old. The parents morally deserve being taken care of simply by right of having superior status. The parent doesn’t have to earn being taken care of. It doesn’t even matter if the parent didn’t take as good of care of the child as they could have. In the extreme forms of this worldview, the parent is always right.

I find this perplexing. As an individual (whether in my role as child, citizen or whatever else), I’m only willing to do anything for someone who I believe is willing to do anything for me. I don’t feel I automatically owe anyone anything. Those in positions of authority or who otherwise have higher status have to earn my respect. Why shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t respect be either mutally given or mutally earned?

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 * As a side note, there does seem something inherent (genetically or culturally) to this different attitude towards power and authority. I remember a study that showed liberals state more willingness to hit their fathers. I would assume this would be even true if the father hit the child first. Bob Altemeyer has done research that shows those with high Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) have more fear about the world. So, would the conservative (especially the extreme conservative that most strongly correlates with RWA) not challenge authority simply out of fear? As a liberal, I’d say respect isn’t worthy if it’s based on fear.

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