ACA Blog

Ray McKinnis
Feb 07, 2011

What’s Your Moral Metaphor?

All moral decisions use some metaphor to explain and justify those decisions. That is, all discussions of morality use a particular guiding ‘metaphor’ to make sense of what’s happing and how to respond responsibly to what’s happening. One aspect of human behavior is used to explain moral decisions (a kind of synecdoche). The ‘the Thou shalts’ and ‘Thou shalt nots’ are embedded in a particular context determined by that metaphor. The metaphor you choose determines the course of your discussion. These metaphors both offer opportunities for understanding behavior but also can create a kind of prison—a prison that can be escaped only by choosing a different metaphor.

One of the major problems I find with Lawrence’s Kohlberg’s theory of moral development comes from the confusion caused by that fact that he jumps from one metaphor to another and actually mixes metaphors in identifying some of his stages of moral development.

In his book The Responsible Self, H. Richard Niebuhr offers explanations of the 3 most commonly used metaphors in moral discussions. He named them ‘man-the-citizen’, ‘man-the-maker’, and ‘man-the-answerer.’ To get a full understanding of these images, you would need to read the book itself. Here I can give only a brief summary. I hope these summaries are clear enough for you to identify and understand examples of each when you run across one or another being used—either in your clients or in your own thinking.

As mentioned above, each metaphor takes one aspect of human action as a guide to answer to the question: What should I do? or What must I do to be good? or What is the good?

The oldest and probably the most widespread metaphor is the use of the legal system—man-the-citizen. What does it mean to be a good citizen? This metaphor seems reasonable if, indeed, the function of religion is (as I define it) to create, maintain and restore order by referring to an authority beyond that community of faith.

The answer to the question, ‘What must I do to do good?’ is simple: ‘Follow the laws.’ More specifically, follow those commandments which “that authority beyond the community” has given the community to create and maintain its order--its identity. Obey God’s commandments.

As an example, consider the first of the 10 ‘commandments’ (‘words’) in the Torah (Exodus 20:1-17). They begin with the claim “I am ‘YHWH’, your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Then follows 9 rules for guiding the behavior of those who identify with YHWH, the God who created them as a people by bringing them out of slavery. The model for these 10 commandments seems to have come from covenants made by absolute rules of the ancient, mid-eastern kingdoms. Morality expressed using the legal system as a model requires the following elements: laws or rules; an authority authorizing those laws; a judge who decides when a law has been broken (i.e., when a sin has been committed); punishment for sinning, i.e., what to do to restore order when someone does break a law.

The main question for this metaphor is ‘What is the law?’ And implied in that question is ‘Who has the authority to make those laws?’

“Man-the-citizen’ is the most common metaphor implied when morality is discussed. Usually, when one thinks of being moral, they are thinking of obeying or breaking a set of laws or rules.

However, sometimes another metaphor is used. The human activity of making something is taken as guide for understanding morality. A sculptor will first have an idea, a vision, of what he or she wants to create--the ideal. Then they will go about creating an example of that ideal. As they work, they work on the marble to get it closer and closer to the original vision.

The metaphor of ‘man-the-maker’ is sometimes used to develop a theory of moral behavior. In this case, the ‘good’ is the ideal picture or vision. Using this metaphor, there are degrees of ‘goodness’ depending how close the cabinet is to the ideal. For man-the-citizen, one either breaks the law or does not and he or she is judged a sinner or not—it is a dichotomous all or nothing. For man-the-maker, however, one can get closer and closer to the ideal—less and less sinful. Ask yourself, do you think Jesus is a prophet giving a higher and more loving law or does he offer an ideal which we should try to imitate as suggested by the theme of the ‘imitation of Jesus’? Kohlberg seems to mix together these two metaphors in some of his descriptions of his stages of development of moral consciousness.

Some might argue that man-the-maker is a better metaphor than man-the-citizen since all human life seems to be goal directed and can be understood as a striving for an objective—a goal, an ideal. Certainly that is true for our counseling—we make treatment goals and then figure out how to make those changes needed for our client to reach those goals. Through our work, we help the client come closer and closer to that goal. The main questions for morality are ‘What is the ideal?’ and ‘How do I go about making myself more like it?’ Implied in those questions is the question, ‘What is that authority that is beyond which offers that moral ideal in the first place?’

A third aspect of human life which more recently has been used for guiding morality is ‘man-the-answerer’. Personally, I believe this metaphor is the most useful of all for us as counselors because it uses the pattern of a dialogue (=talking) to guide moral decisions.

The basic elements of this metaphor are: first a situation requiring a response—this is the ‘question’ or initial stimulus; and second a response or ‘answer’ by the individual; the response is made on the basis of what that individual understands is happening in this situation, i.e., how I interpret any particular situation determines what options I have to respond (this is the basis for cognitive-based counseling); in order for my action to be moral, the response I decide to give must be made after considering what I guess might be the reaction to my action. Thus the process of acting morally using man-the-answerer goes:
1. First I ask: What’s happening? I ask what is going on in this situation. And the meaning I give to what is going on depends more on what I believe to be the intentions or goals of the one initiating the situation than on my own goals or ideals (as was the case with man-the-maker metaphor). Do I think this person intends to hurt me or help me? Is this situation offering me an opportunity I haven’t had before or is it threatening?
2. Secondly I ask: How should I respond? If I want to act morally, how do I decide what to do? That is, what is the fitting thing to do? Of all of the possible responses I might make to this situation, I consider what would be an appropriate (responsible) response to it given my best guess as to how my action will be responded to.
3. There is one more critical element of a dialogue: I must assume that the ‘one’ who presented the situation in the first place is the same one who will respond to my action. For an action to be considered moral, that authority would be ‘beyond.’ This authority is comparable to the authority that authorized the laws in the metaphor of man-the-citizen and the authority that created the ideal in the metaphor of man-the-maker.

Simply put, when you or a client is committed to acting responsibly or morally, do you or he or she first ask: “What is the law?” (man-the-citizen) or do you ask “What is the goal?” (man-the-maker) or do you ask “What’s happening? and What is the fitting response to what is happening?” (man-the-answerer). And within the metaphor that is guiding the discussion, we must identify the role of the authority which is ‘beyond’ for that person.

An added suggestion: I think that psychological and counseling theories use metaphors too and they could be clarified if their driving metaphor could be identified.

Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at

Contact Name

Contact Title

Contact Email

Contact Phone

Related Info


  1. RadEditor - HTML WYSIWYG Editor. MS Word-like content editing experience thanks to a rich set of formatting tools, dropdowns, dialogs, system modules and built-in spell-check.
    RadEditor's components - toolbar, content area, modes and modules
    Toolbar's wrapper 
    Content area wrapper
    RadEditor's bottom area: Design, Html and Preview modes, Statistics module and resize handle.
    It contains RadEditor's Modes/views (HTML, Design and Preview), Statistics and Resizer
    Editor Mode buttonsStatistics moduleEditor resizer
    RadEditor's Modules - special tools used to provide extra information such as Tag Inspector, Real Time HTML Viewer, Tag Properties and other.
Join Now

  • Learn more about your specialty—join a division
  • Maximize your Professional Development
  • Stay ahead of the educational learning curve
  • Advocate for the counseling care of tomorrow
  • Expand your networking connections
  • More Member Benefits