graphic: MetaSelf Logo

The human body is the best
picture of the human soul

— Ludwig Wittgenstein



Balance and Ethics

Each of the three axes of the body has important metaphorical meanings having to do with personal strengths and virtues that are part of well-being. These meanings are touched on in the section devoted to each axis, and when we put them all together, the result is a very powerful picture of a human ideal. It is natural, of course, to put them together, since their standard position — either upright or level — puts each of them at right angles to the other two.

The Vertical Axis

Lakoff and Johnson point out that, speaking purely physically and other things being equal, it is better to be upright and balanced. That is the optimum and normative position, and that of course is why the figures in the basic MetaSelf are upright, whether they are standing or sitting. As synonyms for upright, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives:

all right, decent, ethical, honest, honorable, just, moral, nice, right, righteous, right-minded, straight, true, good and virtuous.

An impressive list for one metaphorical spatial word!

Someone with moral strength is often pictured as maintaining upright balance in the face of outside forces. Remaining upright is a great achievement of human development, whether in a toddler standing and keeping its balance, or an adult faced with an ethical challenge.

Falling is metaphorical for failing or sinning. (Falling and failing, incidentally, don’t seem to have the same etymology. Fall is an interesting word. ( See the Webster Dictionary entry. )

Even slight deviations from the vertical can have moral meaning. And also note the angles of the typographical symbols of the forward slash and the backslash. Leaning forward (/) toward something can represent attraction, temptation and being about to follow an impulse to move toward something desired. Leaning back (\) can represent self-restraint or moral disgust. We may be "inclined" or "disinclined" to do something.

Wavering back and forth can represent moral struggle or indecision between action and inaction. The forward slash and backslash have their respective directional names because in English we write from left to right; the motion is regarded as going across our field of vision towards the right. It’s as if the bottom of the symbol stands on (rests its feet on) the imaginary line of the text, and the upper body of the slash inclines to the right or the left.

The Left/Right Axis

The left/right axis (or center/side, middle/end) has its own balance metaphors. The virtue of good judgement is described as the ability to strike a proper balance between the right and left hand on the x-axis, as in the scales of justice. The word balance itself comes from bi (two) + lanx (plates) as found in the balance scale held by the figure of Lady Justice. Our impulse to be sure that a frame on the wall is level (horizontal) seems to come from our strong bodily orientation in gravity. This standard position represents the virtue of making good decisions after weighing things evenhandedly and without a bias. Even and bias are of course spatial terms themselves.

The Front/Back Axis

Social equality, fairness and justice are often spoken of as a level playing field, which is shown by the angle of the front/back axis between people. In the basic MetaSelf illustrations, this level field is represented by the floor as well as the line of sight. Just as considerable effort is required to level an actual playing field, so it is not easy to change a whole social system to make it more fair. But, on a smaller scale, if we see two people in a relationship as being on a seesaw and if things are too tilted toward one side or the other, then one or both parties can adjust their positions on this axis — negotiate — until there is a better balance.

The idea of balance, as Lakoff points out in Moral Politics (p. 55), is central to accounting (balancing the books), and accounting is a major metaphor for morality. The two columns have to add up to the same amount. More generally, balance means the proper relationship between multiple factors, such as the balance of powers in government. Again, it is important to remember that each of the three axes of the body has its own balance metaphors with different meanings.

Empathy and Compassion

The complex spatial way we conceptualize empathy is very interesting. Partly, one keeps a certain distance or even steps back along the front/back axis to a position outside the situation or system. But one also steps forward to put oneself in the other person's shoes, imagining the perspective from that place on the front/back axis. Both of these steps are necessary; if one only steps back, one remains too remote, too detached and even judgmental. And if one only puts oneself in the other's place, one is excessively sympathetic, identifying with them too much. Our spatial language -- stepping back and putting oneself in the other's shoes -- prompts us to make these imaginative leaps of empathy.

Facing a problem squarely and confronting it directly are ways to speak of the virtue of courage in terms of right angles, while turning away to various degrees can suggest fear, deviousness or a discreet indirectness. The box-frame that I used as my model in previous years embodies courage by facing directly and squarely into the room, with its z-axis (front/back axis) at right angles to the x-axis and the plane of the wall. (Read more about the Box-Frame Model.)


Integrity is a consistency or unity among the inner spaces of the self. It's a match, or in geometric terms, an isomorphism or congruence between what is in front and what is inside or at the back. Integrity maintains this congruence in the face of temptations or strains exerted from outside.

Sincerity, a related virtue, has especially to do with saying what one genuinely believes, which one cannot do with assurance unless one has considerable self-knowledge. Two synonyms for sincerity are straightforwardness and openness, which are both spatial terms.

Self-knowledge means being able to see into yourself, to have in-sight into the depths, whether one is looking from the point of view of the ordinary conscious mind (represented by the contained space at the front of the box-frame, an earlier way of presenting this model. Read more about the Box Frame Model), or from the outside viewpoint. Two related visual metaphors are Carl Jung's Shadow, his term for the hidden, hard-to-see aspects of the self, and what the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers called transparency, the ability to disclose oneself to others in a way that increases the possibility of growth. ( Also see the concept of the Johari Window. )

Because, according to Lakoff and Johnson and the cognitive revolution, the mind is largely made up of metaphorical extensions of bodily experience that operate unconsciously, part of the task, then, of philosophy, psychology and spiritual thought is to make these extensions explicit so that one uses them as consistently as possible and with awareness of the logic they imply. That is part of what self-knowledge, sincerity, and integrity mean.

Important Note

Much of the time, I believe, we think of ethical values as abstractions quite divorced from the specifics of the body, as if they have some well established meaning we understand quite well. Part of this mindset is the view that we only incidentally have to use metaphors like balancing opposing interests and balancing accounts to flesh out the ethical abstraction we are all clearly understand or are trying to grasp.

Lakoff and Johnson, on the contrary, as I understand them, believe that we use metaphors to construct our ethical views as concepts, and that different metaphors can yield different moral conclusions. This does not mean, however, that they are worthless and incidental to some true morality that we can grasp independently. It simply means that we need to be aware of the conceptual metaphors we are using and look at other ones, and then assess the whole picture in making our ethical choices.

As you read through this discussion, however, you might notice whether the body-based metaphors come to feel less miscellaneous, less abstract and less arbitrary, and instead feel more literal, more viscerally true.