By James E. Roper

James E. Roper, Michigan State University

  1. Introduction

According to noted linguist George Lakoff, framing an issue amounts to placing it in a particular context for evaluation. 1In the summer of 2005, the Michigan Legislature took up a bill to allow a gasoline pipeline to be built in south Lansing. Those who objected to building the pipeline in this location talked about possible environmental damage and danger to the people living along part of the route (people whose incomes are relatively low). When presented with these arguments, an aide to the state senator who introduced the bill said, “This legislation is about jobs and economic development for the state of Michigan.” 2In short, she reframed the issue as being “…about jobs and economic development…” The tacit implication is that the legislation is not about the environment or danger to those who live along the route. Are there environmental and physical dangers associated with the proposed placement of the pipeline? The senator’s aide did not deny this. Instead she placed the pipeline issue in a context favorable to the senator’s (and oil company’s) desire to have the pipeline placed in the proposed location. A major goal of this paper is to rise above the false choice encouraged by the presentation of this issue.

Since the 2004 Presidential Election, there has been a lot of talk about “moral values.” We heard such talk again during the 2006 Congressional election; and it has already surfaced in the early phases of the 2008 Presidential Election. It is claimed that Republicans did well in the Presidential Election of 2004 because of “their commitment to moral values.” Lakoff has suggested that Democrats need to “frame” issues in terms of their moral values. 3Lakoff is correct to see “framing” as one key to how people understand politics, and the suggestion that Democrats need to focus attention on their values undoubtedly has merit. Indeed, Lakoff goes through a number of important issues and discusses how they might be reframed in more “progressive” ways. For example, some Republicans have spoken of taxes as a “burden”; but Lakoff suggests Democrats should shift the focus to what taxes do for us. The appropriate frame, he suggests, is to think of taxes as (essentially) the “dues” we pay to live in a country that provides freedom, education, and so on to its citizens. 4 In spite of his profoundly important work on framing, however, I believe Lakoff and others are overlooking something very important.

  1. Two Different “Political Metaframes”

As a preface to my substantive remarks, I recount the following true story. I once attended a discussion group that focused on “moral values.” A close friend, a prominent member of the Psychology Department at Michigan State University, convened this discussion group. This psychologist had designed a questionnaire to determine an individual’s moral values. He had listed twelve moral values that could be ranked from 0 to 9—9 indicating the strongest support. In general, a moral value can be stated without using a sentence. Things like national security (or, more generally, safety), love, benevolence, patriotism, and so on are examples of moral values. One of my psychologist friend’s moral values was “honesty.” I recall asking him, “Honesty what?” I meant that ‘honesty’ is so vague it might stand for just about anything—especially if one can rank it from 0 to 9. I pointed out that serious work in ethics and social philosophy usually deals with “moral principles.” Principles must be stated in sentences; they cannot be embodied in a single word or phrase the way values can. Although moral principles are by no means perfect and have their detractors, they are typically more specific than moral values. 5 Stating positions in terms of moral principles does not constitute an alternative way of framingour views; instead, casting our views in terms of the moral principles we espouse constitutes what I call an alternative “political metaframe”—a framework far more precise and difficult to manipulate than the vague language of “values.” Indeed, there is an important philosophical reason for this.

A political metaframe is an overarching structure encompassing various different ways of framing a political issue. Principles constitute an alternative political metaframe to that of values. The United States Constitution is essentially a set of principles. The Constitution’s First Amendment does not say: “[The value of] freedom of religion.” It says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…” 6 This is a principle. Values and principles constitute two different “political metaframes”—two different ways to think about the ethical ramifications of political issues. Principles are more specific than values. Unquestionably, principles can be vague and ambiguous; but they are typically far less so than moral values. Hence, values are more likely to open the door to manipulation and deception. It is true that the preamble to the Constitution contains reference to values, but these values are instantiated in the body of the document as a list of principles.

It is not just the fact that principles are less vague and ambiguous than values, however, that makes a “principles” political metaframe superior to a “values” metaframe. The key difference between values and principles is that the latter sustain logical inferences, while the former do not, and this is crucial not only to their greater precision but also to their usefulness in political dialogue and discussion. An excellent example of

how this works in practice appeared in an article about the Supreme Court’s decision rejecting Guantanamo Bay tribunals, as the following quotation makes clear:

In a November 2001 decree that Mr. Bush styled a “military order,” he had authorized military commissions to try defendants he selected, according to rules he created, for crimes he defined. But Justice John Paul Stevens, in a 73 page opinion for the court, joined by four other justices, went piece-by-piece through the legal theories the president had asserted, finding in each instance that they ran afoul of law and precedent. 7

In other words, the principles Bush had enunciated in his “decree” ran afoul of principles that constitute our law, including its clarifying precedents. Hence, using principles led to refinement by virtue of logical interaction with other principles; this, in turn, made political dialogue about the issue in question more productive. A values metaframe does not seem amenable to such analysis. 8

  1. A Critical Response: “Values Hierarchies”

Supporters of using a metaframe of values, however, might question this distinction. Referring, for example, to the work of my psychologist friend with his values questionnaire, such values proponents might argue that values can at least be rank ordered into a “values hierarchy.” 9 If this is true, surely values can be compared with one another much as principles can; and my contention that we need to replace a “values metaframe” with a “principles metaframe” could lose some, or all, of its appeal.

To answer this charge, consider the nature of a value such as “national security.” What might it mean to rank it on a scale of ‘0’ to ‘9’? Theories of rational choice often speak of “multidimensional” comparisons of different payoffs, or values. 10  Someone who prefers chocolate ice cream to vanilla ice cream in the “abstract” (whatever that really means) may have a very different preference when asked to compare these flavors under different circumstances. For example, suppose the question is not whether one would prefer chocolate or vanilla ice cream in a bowl in isolation from other food one might be eating; suppose rather that the choice is between chocolate and vanilla as a topping on a slice of apple pie. Again, a man or woman may prefer the company of another man or woman in the context of selecting someone to help with a particular computer project, but have a very different preference if the issue is selecting a companion with whom to have dinner. Abstract comparisons of outcomes are typically useless in helping make decisions. Similarly, abstract comparisons of “values” without any reference to specifying principles are like cars without steering wheels; a rhetorical nudge can send them in virtually any direction. Selecting just one simply begs the question.

  1. Framing and Balancing

Let us return to national security—a value many embraced after 9/11. Bush strategists insist national security goes hand in glove with greatly diminished civil liberties, and this attitude drove the original U.S.A. Patriot Act that was rushed through Congress in the wake of the events of 9-11. 11For Bush, national security is joined at the hip with a radical principle that says national security always trumps traditional American civil liberties and the rights these civil liberties entail. This marriage of explicit value and implicit principle drives the Bush administration’s policy agenda of compromising any right that conflicts with national security, even if the conflict is minimal. Examples abound but some of the most grievous involve gutting the Fourth Amendment—for instance, allowing government agents to look at a citizen’s library records and bookstore purchases without a judge’s order, as previously required by law. 12 Then, of course, there is the NSA wiretapping program, which Bush officials claim does not even need any legal justification beyond Presidential edict. 13  It is simply assumed that embracing the value of national security entails radically compromised civil liberties. If you reject this evisceration of rights, Bush people accuse you of rejecting national security—just as they have said Americans who questioned going to war in Iraq were “traitors” and “unpatriotic.” 14

Recall that Bush said, “You are either with us or against us.” 15  This appears to be a fallacy of faulty dilemma. 16 Someone who says “The coffee is either hot or cold” ignores the vast range of possible temperatures between those two extremes. Yet the Bush administration’s embrace of the value of national security does not allow any compromise with civil liberties: You are either for national security or against it; you are not allowed to balance national security with other values.

Such balancing is precisely what a political metaframe of principles promotes. Working directly with principles rather than values forces us to consider the logical relations between different, and usually conflicting, principles. Bush typically uses the language of values to say something that can be interpreted as what he really means. His “base” understands what he says in terms of one set of principles—those consonant with their radical ideology—while people who do not share the radical views of the current administration interpret Bush’s “values talk” in terms of a different set of principles—one more consistent with the recent history of the country and the Constitution as it has been understood for generations. A great deal of psychological research suggests that people hear what they want to hear if they are given the option to do so. 17  This is especially true if the principles

that demarcate what the administration is really saying are quite radical and the status quo suggests a more standard interpretation. 18 For the Bush administration to talk about a value like national security without specifying the principles that circumscribe their understanding of this value is to invite, indeed to encourage, such interpretation in terms of principles that sharply diverge from those that delineate the administration’s view of the matter.

On the other hand, if we insist that the administration lay out its positions in terms of principles, it is much more difficult to invite the unwary to see things through the lens of the–very different—set of principles that is more consistent with recent history. Whatever form the administration’s national security principle takes, it must avoid conflict with a wide array of other principles. This requires balancing principles against one another. Those who work within the political metaframe of values are usually able to identify their ends without specifying the principled means for achieving them. Potential conflicts are still there, but the metaframe of values keeps them below the surface where the conflicts are hidden—until policies are put in place and it is too late. 19

In speaking about balancing, we must not obscure the very important debate between those who would interpret rights as absolute in the sense that only conflicts with other rights can supersede them and those who interpret rights in terms of utility and “the greater good.” At the policy level, it is very tempting to “weigh” things essentially in terms of “utility,” which is often equated with money. On the other hand, the Constitution seems to give rights a different status—a position the contemporary philosopher Ronald Dworkin refers to when he says, “Rights are trumps.” 20 Perhaps the most important reason for working in terms of a metaframe of principles is that it allows a clear statement of Dworkin’s view in terms of the principles used to justify various policy positions. This is a complex matter and we will return to it, but it is important to make clear that balancing does not mean “weighing” in terms of utility; rather, it signals adjustment that recognizes that some principles may have priority over such utility weighing—at least in the eyes of many protagonists.

  1. An Exception and a More Typical Strategy

There is one blatant exception to the Bush administration’s strategy of presenting their positions in terms of values. In stating his position on stem cells, Bush enunciated a specific principle. He said that it is wrong to take lives in the interest of saving lives. 21  This is extremely interesting. It shows precisely why the Bush administration tends to lay out their positions in terms of values rather than principles. Think of the areas of domestic and foreign policy in which the Bush administration has embraced the principle that the end justifies the means—and specifically that “collateral damage” may be necessary in order to achieve their political goals. Iraq is a prime example. How many Americans have died, and are continuing to die, in this “action” that Bush has repeatedly tried to convince the American public is the front line of the “war on terror”? How many Iraqis? And neither figure includes those seriously injured or the actual monetary drain on this country and all of the things that money could do actually to save people’s lives, both in the U.S. and around the world. If Bush is really committed to the principle that it is wrong to take lives in order to protect lives, surely the Iraq war constitutes a serious counterexample. 22  Indeed, there are many other areas in which Bush administration policies seem tied to an “end justifies the means” position. 23

In fact, Iraq provides examples of the more typical administration strategy: casting positions in terms of values that are proxies for very radical principles and policies. The administration justified going to war by claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction he would use against the U.S. His willingness to do this was proved by Hussein’s supposed complicity in the 9/11 attacks. When these “justifications” were refuted by seemingly incontrovertible evidence, the administration found a new war warrant in bringing the Iraqis “freedom” and “democracy.” The administration has repeatedly spoken of dedication to these fundamental values, but the principles that circumscribe this allegiance have never been explicitly affirmed.

  1. Values versus Principles: Facilitating Productive Debate

There are two characteristics any serious political debate must have: argument development and clash. 24 By “argument development,” I mean that the positions of the disputants must change and “develop” in response to the objections brought up by the other side. 25For this to happen, of course, the arguments of the opposing sides must “clash,”—that is, these arguments must specifically reply to each other, not miss each other like “trains passing in the night.” A political metaframe of values is simply not specific enough to guarantee clash and argument development. Consider the pipeline case with which I began this paper. The homeowners support the value of safety—a more general variant of national security. (“The pipeline is near our houses and it might explode.”) On the other hand, the Michigan Legislature is promoting the value of “jobs.” (“Putting the pipeline in the particular location the oil company has chosen will mean jobs building the pipeline and jobs operating it after it is built.”) Consider what happens when we cast the debate in terms of a political metaframe of principles. Homeowners will emphasize principles such as “Poorer members of society should not be treated unfairly by the State’s decisions about where to build things” and “The rights of citizens to have their property protected by the State should not be outweighed by economic considerations except in the most extreme circumstances (such as urban ‘blight’).” The Legislature will also focus on principles; for example, “Michigan should do everything it can to work with industry to create jobs in the State” and “The State has the right to determine the best place to put things like pipelines in order to promote job growth in Michigan.” It would then become possible for the homeowners, who were probably most concerned about the impact of the pipeline on the value of their property, and the Legislature, which was concerned to please the oil company and attract jobs to Michigan, to move from the initial clash of their arguments to studying the principles that ground these arguments. Perhaps the pipeline could be built in such a way that it would be safer for the surrounding community—burying it deeper, using different kinds of valves, and so on. In addition, those living along the route might have been offered appropriate compensation for the risks and inconveniences associated with the pipeline project. Once the matter was cast in terms of principles, it would be more likely that a solution could be found that would satisfy both parties. For example, the Legislature might approve the project with the understanding that being fair to those living along the route and protecting them from possible hazards might be more expensive but would avoid creating the perception that the State did not care about less well off individuals and their property rights. In short, cooperation becomes possible based on the fact that the clashing principles stand in logical relations to one another. This argumentative development allows various compromise solutions to be considered that would be beyond the reach of a values metaframe. Debating the matter in a metaframe of values holds the wrong things “constant” in the argument and turns the dispute into a media frenzy about “safety vs. jobs.” The principles of clash and argument development typify the best academic (high school and college) debate and arguably other political disputes. A principles metaframe is consistent with these guidelines; on the other hand, clash and argument development are not likely to emerge in a dispute framed in terms of values alone.

This discussion of the pipeline issue in the context of academic and political debate demonstrates another benefit of using a metaframe of principles: using such a metaframe may provide a counter to the press’ mantra that there are always two sides to every story—even if the great majority of real experts support one of the sides. Because principles, unlike values, stand in logical relations to one another, it is much more difficult to argue that someone who objects to the NSA wiretapping program Bush claims he has the authority to keep in place is simply a “traitor.” This dispute clearly turns on a number of complex principles that are interconnected with one another. The President claims, for example, that Congress gave him authority to run such a program; but the laws of the nation, which are principles, contain provisions that appear to contradict this claim. Someone who disputes the President’s word is not obviously a traitor. He or she may, in standing up to an unjustifiably expanded claim of executive authority, be taking a very courageous stand against unwarranted claims to authority. Even if this turns out not to be the case, such an individual should not, as a matter of course, be labeled a “traitor.” The willingness of the press to say, in effect, “Well, that’s the Bush administration’s position; it deserves to be taken as seriously as any other view” makes some sense if we are working within a realm of values. (“You are for national security or against it.”) In a sphere of principles, however, such simple dichotomies immediately and obviously break down.

  1. Principles and Policies That Hide Behind Values

When asked why we are in Iraq, some Americans have cited the value of freedom and the Bush administration has capitalized on this by framing its appeals for support around this notion. 26We can explore what principles and policies define “freedom” for the administration by looking at their policies in venues where this “value” is invoked. If my thesis in this paper is correct, we should find the administration cynically citing its values but making no mention of the principles or corresponding policies that it takes to be implicit in these values. I label this behavior “cynical” because I believe the administration knows full well that many Americans have a very different view of freedom than the one that drives the Bush policy agenda. 27

Earlier we spoke of the administration’s emphasis on the value of “national security,” especially in the lead-up to the 2004 presidential election. The administration’s value of “freedom” is especially interesting because it represents the other side of the “national security” coin. In promoting national security, the principle that national security always trumps civil liberties, and policies derived from such liberties, appears to be the order of the day. Such policies are enshrined in the U.S.A. Patriot Act, as we have seen above. Since its hasty passage by Congress in the wake of 9/11, civil libertarians from all sides of the political spectrum have repeatedly attacked the U.S.A. Patriot Act. 28 The weakening of rights such as due process, freedom from arbitrary arrest, search, and seizure, and habeas corpus imply that the principle this administration followed here is similar to that tacitly invoked under the banner of “national security”: whenever there is a conflict between fundamental rights and the government’s interest in “combating terrorism” (or promoting “national security”), the government must prefer the latter—no matter how small the probability of some sort of attack on the country is or the probable harm from such an attack.29(The recent “revision” of the U.S.A. Patriot Act did little to alter this commitment. 30 ) Again, it does not seem to be a matter of balancing fundamental rights against the government’s interest in battling terrorism; rather, when there is a conflict, fundamental rights must always yield. When the Bush administration talks about how terrorists use our freedoms against us, the actual policies put in place suggest that the appropriate way to fight terrorism is to emasculate the Constitution’s guarantees of basic human rights—though Bush has never stated any such explicit principle. Since the terrorists use our freedoms against us, we must eliminate or severely limit those freedoms—not recast them in ways that make misuse more difficult in the context of the rule of law.

Perhaps we have misunderstood the Bush administration’s interpretation of “freedom.” In China, in the Middle East, and increasingly in other parts of the world, freedom is being interpreted as “economic liberty,” not as political liberty. 31 I do not have irrefutable proof that the Bush administration is going this route, but I do believe it is. 32The problem is that we will not have such proof until that group is forced to lay its principles out, and show how these principles support its policies—both actual and proposed. As long as the administration can use the “value” of “freedom” to mask its true principles and policies, it will be able to put its own “spin” on what it is doing. People, including the media, will look at the announced “value” and miss the principle(s) for which it stands as proxy. The policies that are attendant are usually so complex that the press is unable or incompetent to show the mismatch between value and policy. Principles are not so easy to manipulate. Their logical relationships with other principles are easier to ascertain. If the Bush administration announced that it stood for the dominance of economic freedom over individual political liberties—in a climate in which many already believe the administration is too friendly with large corporations—it would be very difficult for administration apologists to deflect the criticisms that would come—especially from those who understand our traditional political freedoms, as they are represented in the Constitution.

  1. Patriotism, Fear, and “Covenanted Patriotism”

The importance of the administration’s emphasis on the value of national security cannot be overemphasized. They tie national security to the value of patriotism; and the administration’s underlying principle governing such “patriotism is this: if you are patriotic, you must be for whatever the Bush administration says will keep the nation safe. On the other hand, if you are not walking in lockstep with the demands the administration makes on behalf of national security, you are not patriotic. To charge someone with being unpatriotic is very serious since it is tantamount to a charge of treason.

Abraham Lincoln characterized patriotism in a way that is at odds with the view of the Bush administration. Lincoln argued for what he called “covenanted patriotism.” 33  He said this nation is unique in that it based on an idea embodied in the principles of political freedom found in the Constitution—principles that philosophers like Rawls and Dworkin think are not subject to being “weighed” against utilitarian concerns. 34 According to Lincoln, a true patriot thinks of him or herself as bound by a covenant with the other citizens of this nation. That covenant is based on the promise he or she shares with other citizens to defend the nation—and its defining principles—from its enemies. 35 That promise, according to Lincoln, guides each citizen’s life.

On this view, then, patriotism is based, ultimately, on the principles of political liberty embodied in the Constitution—not on the “value” of national security. The citizen patriot is bound to defend the nation, but the important thing to notice is that the concept of “the nation” is circumscribed by the principles of individual political liberty embodied in our founding document. In short, to give up these principles in order to defend the nation is a contradiction. If we give up these principles, we are no longer defending the United States of America. We are defending something, but it is not the country we are covenanted to defend. This idea is captured nicely in the film “Good Night, and Good Luck” about the battle between Edward R. Morrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Toward the end of the film, two members of Morrow’s team, a married couple, are talking. Joe says to Shirley, “What if we’re wrong…An argument could be made for the greater good.” Shirley replies, “Not if you give it all away; it’s no good then.” I take Shirley to be saying that giving away the basic political liberties of this country is too high a price to pay for “national security” because, in that case, you are no longer defending this country. 36

  1. “Family Values” as a “Megavalue”

The problems that arise from operating within a political metaframe of values are especially apparent when single values are replaced by what I will call “megavalues.” 37 There are several of these megavalues that have been very important in our political discourse, but the most important in our current political environment is embodied in the term “family values.” The full treatment of megavalues must await a follow-up paper; but the importance of this notion requires we at least sketch out how these “clusters of values” are both similar to and different from individual values.

I have argued that the principles associated with a particular value, such as national security, are often very different for people with different political orientations. We saw that this disparity makes usually productive political debate and dialogue difficult or impossible. Megavalues greatly magnify the difficulties associated with single values. To many Americans, “family values” entails things like support for public education, high quality and relatively inexpensive child care, affordable health care insurance for all, access to college and university education for people who are not wealthy, child care services to protect abused children, and so on. The principles associated with

these things are what this first group naturally associates with the term “family values.” Those who are privy to the ideology of the present administration understand that, when Bush and those associated with him use the term “family values,” they mean things like opposition to abortion, resistance to government support of embryonic stem cell research, defining marriage in a way that precludes gay individuals from being married, and (for many, though not all) making sure that illegal aliens who have been in this country for many years must go back to their country of origin rather than have a chance to achieve citizenship.

Some of the things the Bush administration understands to be part of “family values” are treated by the administration as “trumps”—or, perhaps “secondary trumps.” For example, opposition to abortion is clearly the most important “family value” for the current administration. I recently heard a story of a woman who was accused of being against family values. She replied that she had been in a monogamous relationship for over thirty years, had reared two excellent children, was active in her house of worship, and so on. None of this mattered to her accuser, who simply played the abortion card like a bridge player laying down a trump. It was true that the accused woman was “pro-choice,” but she based her political stance on a well conceived ethical justification. None of that mattered to the woman accusing her of being against “family values.” The abortion issue was trump in her view—and, I suspect, in the view of most people who support the present administration.

Today, being against gay marriage is a sort of “secondary trump.” It does not carry the same weight as being opposed to abortion in the minds of people like the one who accused my woman friend of being against “family values”; but it is a close second. The bottom line, then, is that all “family values” are not regarded equally. This allows the administration to be cavalier about many, or even most, of their “family values” as long as they stress the ones that are trumps or secondary trumps. The effect is that the cluster of values that the term “family values” typically signifies (in the minds of most Americans) plays a distant second fiddle, in the view of the Bush administration, to the one or two things that the administration regards as the really important ones—in this case, abortion and gay marriage.

It follows that principles and policies relating to many really important issues pertaining to families are never articulated. Instead, the administration uses the mantra of “family values” to suggest it is concerned about families, but ideologues within the Republican Party understand that important policy initiatives will only be associated with abortion, gay marriage, and (perhaps) embryonic stem cell research. The other “family values” will get some lip service, but will never make it to the stage where policy changes are considered. Thus, megavalues like “family values” facilitate a “bait and switch” approach that would not be possible in a metaframe of principles. If a

politician or party is forced to lay out the principles associated with its stress on something like families, it will not be easily possible to waive a semantical wand over the area and then focus on one or two “trump” or “secondary trump” issues; yet that is exactly what a metaframe of values encourages.

  1. “Spin” and Political Cynicism

Earlier in this paper (in Section 7), I used the term ‘spin’, which has become very popular in the media. Both the general public and many of my students believe that “all political discourse is just spin.” It follows that there are no political truths, so politics is essentially “just a game.” All that matters is who “wins.” This leads to political cynicism. People come to believe that all politicians are liars. 38

While I am uncomfortable claiming that accepting a values metaframe is the primary cause of this phenomenon, embracing such a framework is clearly both consistent with such a view and arguably linked to it. Values are concepts. As I have argued, they do not participate in a web of logical interconnections, as principles do, and we have seen that they are not amenable to being placed in a “values hierarchy” without reference to circumscribing principles. This makes values much more ambiguous than principles. It also contributes to lack of argumentative clash, as we saw above; and this makes it much easier for unscrupulous individuals to utilize the ambiguity inherent in a values metaframe to “suggest” that they mean what their listeners want them to mean. The ideological base of these manipulative individuals and groups understands, but many who might vote against them if they really knew these politicians’ intentions will take the path of least resistance and assume these ambiguous values will be fleshed out in terms of the principles they support. When this does not happen, these voters will become political cynics who distrust all politicians.

An example may make this clearer. Academic Stanley Fish has argued that a supposed example of “spin” is really not such an example at all. Presidential advisor Karl Rove had said, according to Fish, that real disposable income has risen 14% since Bush took over the White House. 39 Two critics (Jackson and Jamieson), Fish points out, regard this as spin. Since Rove’s statistic was referring to the whole economy and since the great majority of the economic gains went only to those at the top of the economic pyramid, Rove’s statement was clearly spin. These critics argue that Rove was implying that the gains were more evenly distributed among wage earners in the United States. Fish challenges this by pointing out that Rove and the critics simply have different foci: Rove on growth of the economy as a whole, even if most of it has gone to those at the top, and his critics on a more widespread growth in disposable income. On the basis of my analysis in this paper, I would argue that Rove is using a metaframe of values to mask the truth. The value in this case is “the health of the U.S. economy.” His critics, on the other hand, are appealing to a principle of just distribution. Rove would probably counter with some sort of “trickle down” principle, but most Americans would understand that they had not participated in the economic gains. This would lead many, if not most, to question the viability of Rove’s “trickle down” principle. In short, Rove’s spin, like a top slowing down, starts wobbling when the principle he is appealing to is made clear. Fish may be right that there is no certainty, but philosophers have known that for a very long time. He is clearly wrong, however, in his argument about this example. Most people would (and did) interpret Rove’s claim as meaning that Bush had benefited people across the economic spectrum—not just those at the top. On the other hand, the Republican base knew what he was saying. This is completely consistent with my argument in this article.

Forcing politicians to utilize a metaframe of principles means forcing them to make their true intentions clear. There will still be some ambiguity, but people will be much less likely to misinterpret what they are being told. This will hopefully reduce the prevalence of political cynicism and make civic discourse more civil. For example, running “attack” political advertisements regarding principles is much more difficult than running them in a framework of values.

In a metaframe of principles, then, the notion of “spin” has much less impact. Describing an issue in terms of a different set of principles leads to an examination of the implications of these principles and their logical relations with others to which one is committed. Such a scenario leaves little room for the deception and manipulation associated with spin. 40 Someone attempting to recast an issue in the framework of a different set of principles than the one that has been proposed will be forced to confront the logical interrelations of these two sets of principles. In a metaframe of values, on the other hand, as the example with which I began this article shows, it is very easy for political partisans to recast an issue by situating it in a framework of different values. 41 The standard line for doing this was suggested at the beginning of this paper: “This issue is about jobs and economic development for the state of Michigan [not about preventing environmental damage or protecting the lower income families that live along the proposed pipeline route].” 42 It will be much easier for “spin doctors” to avoid dealing with another set of values that has been used to frame the issue precisely because the relationships between the two sets of values are difficult or impossible to specify. “Spin” is unmasked as what it really is: deception for the purpose of manipulating the electorate. 43 In a metaframe of principles, such deception is difficult or impossible. Therefore, political cynicism ceases to be a major issue.

  1. Conclusion: The Appeal of the Values Metaframe

Though my arguments to this point are strong, they may not be strong enough to carry the day. The metaframe of values has gotten a lot of “traction” in the wake of the 2004 presidential election. People on all sides of the political spectrum have embraced it and will be reluctant to abandon it for a metaframe of principles unless they can understand why they gravitated to a values metaframe in the first place.

Referring to “our values” is a very traditional way of representing our ethical positions, but it is fatally flawed. During the 2004 presidential and congressional campaigns, Democrats should not have accepted the “values” political metaframe suggested by Bush strategists. On that turf, the Bush administration was able to mask their principles—and related policies—under a smokescreen of “values.” Such a political metaframe of values will typically favor the party in power, especially if they have a measure of media control. The reason for this is that, in a values metaframe, it is usually a matter of which party “gets there first”—that is, which party is able to define their “values” in a favorable way before the other party can. For example, when Republicans were able to make national security “their” value, Democrats were reduced to either saying, “Me too,” or to being perceived as being for danger. By stressing the importance of preserving civil liberties in the face of a perceived terrorist threat, Democrats appeared to be placing too little emphasis on national security—and being, by implication, too willing to place the nation in peril.

In short, in a values metaframe, the issue of who “wins” and who “loses” becomes a matter of timing. Under such a political metaframe the “challenger” is always at a disadvantage. People tend to think in binary terms; therefore, the challenger will always be viewed as “against” whatever value is under discussion and “for” whatever ill or vice is the opposite of that value. Even if such a challenger can avoid being so portrayed, the contest will devolve into “I’m for national security” and “Me, too” which doesn’t appear to create a choice for voters. People will gravitate to the status quo under these conditions. If the status quo is not available, people will tend to take a conservative approach because it minimizes change. Of course, both approaches at this point in history will favor Republicans.

If, on the other hand, Democrats had defined their positions in terms of their principles, in 2004, they might have forced the Bush people to be much more specific about what they believed—and about their true agenda. The Bush administration would not have been able to mask their true intentions with talk of “red” and “blue” states. That absurdly simplistic dichotomy—which I regard as a bogus political metaframe—would have disappeared once politicians began talking about their principles and how they intended to balance them. 44

Making this change will, I hope, lead to a politics that does not produce a president whose principles and policies are rejected by a majority of Americans, according to polls taken after the 2004 election. 45

  1. Postscript: Unfinished Philosophical Business

This paper includes elements of a rather involved monograph. Because of the current political importance of its leading ideas, however, I have avoided many complications that a more thorough treatment will demand. In this “Postscript” I want to call attention to three of these issues. Some other matters are mentioned in endnotes; and some issues I regard as important to a comprehensive treatment are ignored for the sake of simplicity. 46

First, there is the matter of what I take principles to be. I said earlier in the paper that values are concepts, like honesty or piety. I alluded to the fact that principles are expressed in sentences and stand in logical relations with one another in ways values cannot. Other than that, I have said little about what principles are. Principles are usually considered to be rules. But the principles I refer to here will be rather deep and general rules—and this is also consistent with much current philosophical usage. In addition, I assume something like Rawls’ Wide Reflective Equilibrium (WRE) as the basis for normative ethical justification. WRE encompasses three areas: background assumptions, specific considered moral judgments, and moral principles. All three of these areas must be brought into “equilibrium” in order for justification to be possible. Rawls does not privilege any one of these areas. If there is a conflict between, say, a specific considered moral judgment and a moral principle, one must be abandoned, or modified so that the conflict is no longer manifest; but Rawls does not provide a formula for making such a choice. Instead, he tells us that such determinations must be made on a case-by-case basis. 47

It follows that there are rules which probably would not qualify as principles simply because they would be too vague and unspecified. In another paper, I distinguish between what I call “Ten Commandment” type principles and those mediated by a Wide Reflective Equilibrium. I argue that the former are usually too vague to be helpful. 48 This distinction is essential to a more complete treatment of these issues. The reason for this is that philosophers are well aware of various “tricks” that can be used to blur the distinction between values and principles I draw here. For example, someone may suggest a template for converting values to principles along the following lines. The value of “honesty” could be rendered as the rule: “Be honest” or “One should always be honest.”

This, of course does little more than state that one should adopt the value of honesty. If, on the other hand, something like the WRE model were adopted, such simplistic conversions would run afoul of the requirements of that model. For example, particular moral judgments would have to be brought to bear to clarify the “principle,” as would various background assumptions, which would make the context in which such a principle is deployed more apparent. A “principle” as vague as “Be honest” would be virtually impossible to bring into equilibrium with other principles, specific considered moral judgments, and background assumptions. 49

The second issue that a more complete treatment of this matter would address is the relation between justification and explanation with regard both to values and to principles. Economists are widely regarded as the most “scientific” of the social scientists, primarily because of their use of very detailed mathematical models. Some political scientists and sociologists also utilize such models. Economists’ detailed models regularly invoke such “principles” as that of “maximizing expected value,” where the term “value” is taken to be a measure of wanting. As a philosopher of science, I have problems with some of the things economists, and other mathematical social scientists, do. I have written about some of these. 50  Nevertheless, the fact that principles are logically related, the proclivity of principles to more precise formulations, and their ability to justify decisions make them much better candidates for theory building in economics and the other social sciences than vague references to values. 51

Philosophers of social science called “interpretavists” also invoke principles in their explanations, but for a very different reason. These theorists note that principles often make actions possible by locating them in a defining framework. 52 They note, for example, that it would not be possible to “slide into third base” without the game of baseball and its comprehensive set of rules and principles. Similarly, Rawls notes that visiting judicial punishment on someone for committing a crime is impossible without the criminal justice system and its circumscribing legal principles. These observations suggest that principles may well be essential to the very performance of certain actions. If that is so, such principles will certainly play a role in explaining these actions.

I propose that:

Normative decisions are often best justified by using principles that are also capable, in theory, of contributing to the explanations of such decisions.

I call this proposed standard “The Justification/Explanation Rule.” The attempt to use “values” as the basis for such judgments does not meet the test implicit in the justification/explanation rule. 53 Because of their inherent vagueness, values can be used to explain a variety of different, and often conflicting, decisions. Their greater precision and logical interconnections make principles better candidates for theory building—especially when our concern is with actions that have a normative dimension. Their accuracy also makes them more likely to satisfy the justification/explanation rule. This is, however, a very complex issue; I suggest it here in part because it relates directly to my final point.

This third issue is “virtue ethics.” The most widely held versions of virtue ethics appear to assume that people have some very broad-based dispositions and that these can be used both to justify their decisions and to explain them—thus satisfying the justification/explanation condition I alluded to earlier. Recently, Gilbert Harmon has argued that standard versions of virtue ethics (not including Hume’s version) run afoul of recent work in social psychology. 54 Harmon claims the notion that people have these broad-based dispositions is found in the area of psychology called personality theory, which Harmon claims is a discipline in disarray. The late Robert Solomon, in a companion piece, challenges Harmon’s claims. I cannot resolve this complex matter here, but we should be aware of it. Obviously, if there really are broad-based dispositions and if these enter into explanations of people’s actions, then there may be somewhat more to a “values metaframe” than this paper suggests—though I believe most of my conclusions would survive. In an extended version of this work, I will defend Harmon’s position regarding “virtue ethics.” This is critical since virtue ethics is currently very important in areas of “applied ethics” such as business ethics. Considerations that suggest a metaframe of principles is superior to one of values also mitigate strongly against a “virtue ethics”—either for use in justifying normative claims or for theory building in psychology or the social sciences.


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  1. George Lakoff, don’t think of an elephant (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004). See especially the preface and the first chapter. Lakoff’s concept of a frame is very rich, but his position regarding values is consistent with what I speak of here, as the first chapter makes clear. Note that I have also used the concept of a frame independently. See my article, “Winning in the Court of Public Opinion,” The Romeo Observer 12 June 2002: 6-A.
  2. Thomas P. Morgan, “Is it Environmental Discrimination,” City Pulse 8 June 2005: 3. My italics.
  3. Lakoff, especially the preface and first chapter.
  4. Lakoff, seriatim, especially pp. 117-118.
  5. In section 12, “Postscript: Unfinished Philosophical Business,” I take up the issue of how principles can be filtered through what Rawls calls a “wide reflective equilibrium.” Undoubtedly, such an analysis adds important nuances to this study. It is not, however, essential to the central ideas of the paper.
  6. The New York Public Library Desk Reference, Third Edition (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1998) 849.
  7. Jess Brown, “Justices Bar Guantanamo Tribunals.” The Wall Street Journal 30 June 2006: A9.
  8. Some might object to my strong focus on the Bush administration in this paper—suggesting that similar things could be said about any previous administration. There are two reasons for my focus on the current administration. First, the Bush administration has refined the “art” of “values framing” far beyond anything seen in the past and used such framing to threaten the form of government embodied in the U.S. Constitution. Second, this is happening now and it is vitally important that individuals (including scholars) understand how these threats to the Constitution are being framed. Such understanding is essential if these threats are to be confronted both now and in the future. This is not a history paper. It points out what I regard as a very serious problem and suggests how to deal with it.
  9. A. H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality, 2nd Edition (New York: Harper & Row, 1970). Maslow’s work focuses on a hierarchy of needs, but this suggests that the corresponding values might also form a hierarchy.
  10. See, for example, Amartya Sen, Rationality and Freedom (Boston: The Harvard UP, 2003) for material on multidimensional comparisons.
  11. Margaret Talbot, “The Way We Live Now” New York Times 28 September 2003, mag. desk.
  12. Talbot.
  13. Eric Lichtblau and Scott Shane, “Bush Is Pressed over New Report on Surveillance,” New York Times 12 May 2006, national desk, late edition – final: A1.
  14. In 2005, the House of Representatives rejected some of the most “Constitutionally challenged” parts of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which had to be reexamined by Congress because of sunset provisions in the original act. Bush threatened to veto any version of the Act which did not contain the strongest invasions of U.S. civil liberties—for example, those allowing examining library records and bookstore purchase data without a judge’s approval. See Carl Hulce, “House Blocks Provision for Patriot Act Inquiries,” New York Times 16 June 2005: National Desk: 4482.
  15. R. W. Apple Jr., “After the Attacks News Analysis; No Middle Ground,” New York Times 14 September 2001, late ed. – final: A1.
  16. The “fallacy of faulty dilemma” is essentially a fallacy of false premise. In the context of a dilemma (viewed as a type of argument), there is a premise that states that either A or B is the case. The fallacy occurs because there is some viable third alternative not identical with either A or B. For example, if someone says a cup of coffee is either very hot or very cold, this fallacy is arguably present. The coffee may, in fact, be warm but not very hot. Similarly, someone may support many aspects of the U.S. foreign policy but fail to support going to war in Iraq. Such a person is not properly characterized as being “against us” in any appropriate sense.
  17. Sharon Begley, “Our Brains Strive to See Only the Good, Leading Some to God,” The Wall Street Journal Online 28 October 2005: The Science Journal.
  18. See especially the first chapter of Paul Krugman, The Great Unraveling (New York: WW Norton and Co., 2002).
  19. The sort of balancing I am suggesting might reveal different ways to achieve a given level of national security, and these ways might be ascertained by examining the relevant principles. Different principles might produce the same level of national security but have negative/positive impacts on other values. As my friend David Zin, an economist, points out, this is analogous to applying the positive/negative economic externality concepts to principles. I am grateful to Mr. Zin for many helpful comments about this work.
  20. Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge, MA and London, England: The Harvard UP, 1977). Also see John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Pr, 1971) and Justine Burley, ed., Dworkin and His Critics (Malden, MA and Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2004).
  21. George W. Bush, “Bush’s Veto Message,” New York Times 19 July 2006: In this speech, Bush tacitly affirms the original principle stated in the text, but he also states a more general principle: that we should embrace technology without becoming slaves to it. What is interesting about this new principle is that it is much more vague and ambiguous than his first principle (that we should not take life to preserve life). In effect, this new “principle” says technology is a value but it has limits. In short, Bush has morphed his initial principle into something that has the characteristics we have argued make values dangerous.

  22. This is true even if we accept Ted Koppel’s analysis that the U.S. now needs to stay in Iraq to block Iran. This follows from the fact that Saddam Hussein was doing that. Bad as he was, he was blocking Iran.
  23. There are many examples of the Bush administration adopting policies that seem based on the principle that the end justifies the means, but the most prominent is clearly Iraq. Absent weapons of mass destruction, the justification for the carnage in Iraq must be based explicitly on the idea that the end justifies the means. Many, of course, do not believe that the end, whatever it is, does justify the mess that Iraq has become.
  24. James E. Roper and Timothy W. Sommers, “Debate as a Tool for Teaching Business Ethics,” In the Socratic Tradition: Essays on Teaching Philosophy, Tziporah Kasachkoff, ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998): 91-103.
  25. Roper and Sommers, 91-103.
  26. Why We Fight, Dir. Eugene Jarecki, Sony Pictures Classics, 2006.
  27. See Nolan McCarty, et al. Polarized America (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Pr, 2006).
  28. Neil A. Lewis and Robert Pear, New York Times 5 October 2001, national desk. The following quotation from this article is adequate warrant for the claim I make in the text: “The Senate is often thought to be firmer than the House in preserving civil liberties protections. But the House Judiciary Committee’s greater efforts on this issue appear to have been a result of complaints about the administration’s approach not only from liberal Democrats but also conservative Republicans.”
  29. See James E. Roper, “Government is Hypocrisy on Stilts,”The State News, December 7, 2006: 4A. In this article, I point out that Ron Suskind, in The One Percent Doctrine, tells us that the “Cheney Doctrine” specifies that “if there was even a one percent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction…the United States must now act as if it were a certainty. This was a mandate of extraordinary breadth.” I go on to make clear that Cheney is not necessarily talking about a situation in which everyone is killed; “WMD” can mean many things—including the anthrax attack on the U.S. mail. This article is a useful addition to this paper because, in it, I contrast the administration’s approach to terrorism via this “Cheney Doctrine” with its approach to global warming, which carries incredible risks. The Bush administration, nevertheless, has been willing to ignore those risks on the grounds that global warming has not been completely proven.
  30. Carl Hulce, “House Blocks Provision for Patriot Act Inquiries,” New York Times 16 June 2005: National Desk: 4482
  31. Manual G. Velasquez, Business Ethics Concepts and Cases, 6th ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006). Velasquez discusses the different meanings that are often attached to the terms “justice” and “freedom” in the context of business—meanings that associate these concepts with economic liberty.
  32. Robert Wright, “An American Foreign Policy That Both Realists and Idealists Should Fall in
    Love With,” New York Times 16 June 2006. This article says, “Free markets are spreading across the world on the strength of their productivity, and economic liberty tends to foster political liberty.”
  33. John H. Schaar, Legitimacy in the Modern State (New Brunswick (U.S.A.) and London (U.K.): Transaction Books, 1981): 285-312.
  34. See note 20 above.
  35. James E. Roper, “Market Failure, Symbolic Meaning, and the Covenant of Democracy,” International Journal of Ethics 3.3 (October 2004): 321-335.
  36. Good Night, and Good Luck, Dir. George Clooney, Warner Brothers, 2005. It is important to note that Bush has repeatedly said his “War on Terror” will probably last for a very long time. That means that we will not be “giving it all away” for a short period. We will be “giving it all away” indefinitely, and that suggests we will not be getting it all back—ever.
  37. The term “megavalues” was suggested by David Zin referred to in earlier notes.
  38. Stephen Nathanson, Should We Consent to be Governed? (Toronto, Canada: Wadsworth, 2001) 27-45.
  39. See Stanley Fish, “The All-Spin Zone,” New York Times 13 May 2007: Opinion (on-line). The remainder of this paragraph is based on Fish’s article.
  40. Note that context can also be an issue when working with principles, but it is typically much more important when working in a metaframe of values. Rawls’ “equal liberty” principle might be interpreted as applying only to economic rights. That was not Rawls intent, and this can be ascertained by a careful reading of Rawls’ text; but it may be tempting to some to interpret Rawls in this way—placing this principle in a context much different from the one intended by Rawls. As I said, this can be checked by studying Rawls’ text. It is often much more difficult to determine that a value has been placed in a context that dramatically alters its meaning because values are much more vague than principles—and, of course, they lack the logical interconnectedness of principles.
  41. I recently saw a bumper sticker that said “Choose Life.” If the “values” are “choice” and “life,” then “choose life” represents a way of “spinning” the issue toward the value of life. In a sense, this bumper sticker “captures” the idea of choice by recasting it into a context where life is the dominant value. “You want ‘choice’, O.K. then choose life—not death.” In a political metaframe of principles, though, this “bumper sticker politics” just seems incomplete. What is the context of the “choice”? Whose “life” are we invited to choose—the mother’s, the fetus’, some third party’s? The most important considerations in such a framework are the principles associated with the various “abortion” positions—and the logical connections among these and other accepted principles. For example, what does the term ‘life’ mean in the context of the various principles this web of issues evokes?
  42. See note 2 above. Additional italics are mine.
  43. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt has written an illuminating little book called On Bullshit (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, 2005). The key point Frankfurt makes about his subject is that bullshit is not truth seeking. Even a liar has to acknowledge that there is a truth. The point of a lie is to try to get someone to believe to be true what the individual telling the lie knows to be false. Bullshit has no such allegiance to the truth. Its goal is to manipulate the listener by using words. The speaker may intimate that what he or she is saying is true, but the speaker really doesn’t care whether it is or not—only that it has the intended effect on the listener. A case can be made that spin is bullshit. A metaframe of values turns out to be a superb tool for someone who is “bullshiting.”
  44. In the Special Features section of the film Why We Fight, director Eugene Jarecki answers questions in a section called Q & A. The first question he answers is “What do you hope to achieve [with this film]?” His answer refers to the work of Princeton University cartographers who have shown that the United States is not really composed of “red” and “blue” states, but is really a mixture, which he shows on the screen. Jarecki argues (correctly, I believe) that this simplistic dichotomy is very damaging to the political discourse of the United States.
  45. Robin Toner and Majorie Connelly, “Bush’s Support on Major Issues Tumbles in Poll,” New York Times 17 June 2005: National Desk: 4482
  46. My standards for a “thorough” treatment are very high, and include many deep philosophical issues that would not normally be discussed in an introductory essay.
  47. Nelson Goodman first introduced this idea in connection with justifying principles of inductive reasoning in Fact, Fiction, and Forecast, Fourth Edition (Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard UP, 1983) 60, 63-64.  
  48. See James E. Roper, “A Philosophical Perspective on Corporate Codes of Ethics,” Research in Ethical Issues in Organizations, Volume 6, ed. Moses L. Pava and Patrick Primeau (London: Reed Elsevier, 2005) 195-206.
  49. My economist friend David Zin, referred to earlier, makes a very interesting point about WRE in relation to this paper. Zin points out that the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution are both based on similar values; but these documents have very different meanings in light of the very different principlesembodied in the two documents. People do like to summarize their views in terms of their values. Zin’s point is that such summaries are hopelessly vague and ambiguous without a set of clarifying principles.
  50. James E. Roper and David Zin, “Review of Amartya Sen, Rationality and Freedom,Essays in Philosophy, June 2004.
  51. Note that the principle of maximizing expected value refers to “value.” In fact, the “values” in question are really preferences among alternatives some of which are basically lotteries among different possible payoffs. So such references to “value(s),” in the context of the principle of maximizing expected value, are really probabilistically weighted versions of someone’s preferences among different alternatives. The principle of maximizing expected value utilizes these weighted preferences to determine a “rational” choice in a specified decision situation.  
  52. Merrilee H. Salmon, “Philosophy of the Social Sciences,” Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, edited by Merrilee Salmon et al. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1992). Ch. 11.
  53. James E. Roper, “How is Rational Decision Theory Possible?” Delivered to a Philosophy Colloquium, at Michigan State University, 1974.
  54. Lisa Newton, ed., Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Business Ethics and Society, 9th Edition, Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 2005. Issue 2 (Virtue Ethics).

James E. Roper

James E. Roper joined the Michigan State University Philosophy Department after graduate work at Princeton. His teaching areas include social and political philosophy, philosophy of science, logic, business ethics, government ethics, medical ethics, and the philosophy of sport. He founded MSU's National Champion Debate Team and Debate Institutes. His articles have appeared in Philosophy of Science, Synthese: An International Journal for Epistemology, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science, The Journal of Business Ethics, The International Journal of Ethics, American Philosophical Association Teaching Philosophy Newsletter, Florida Philosophical Review, Essays in Philosophy (for which he edited the June 2005 issue on business ethics), In the Socratic Tradition, Cross-Examination Debate Association 1991: 20th Anniversary Conference Proceedings, Research in Ethical Issues in Organizations, Midwest Philosophy of Education Society Proceedings, and two articles in Research in Ethical Issues in Organizations. He has also published many newspaper and magazine articles. Several articles are forthcoming, including entries in The Encyclopedia of Business Ethics and Society and two papers in Midwest Philosophy of Education Society Proceedings. [email protected]