The red pill of moral psychology

Reading moral psychology, in particular Jonathan Haidt’s works The Righteous Mind, The Happiness Hypothesis and Heterodox Academy, is mind-opening.


In The Matrix, Neo has a choice: take a red pill, disconnect from the Matrix and dissolve the illusion, or take the blue pill, and return to his comforting delusions. Moral psychology is a red pill. It teaches us that many worldviews exist, and helps us see other moral matrices from our own.


The matrix differs in the west and the east

Haidt proposes that all cultures construct their moral matrices on shared cognitive foundations. He suggests that six shared moral ‘receptors’ are care, fairness, liberty, authority, loyalty and sanctity. Haidt suggests that progressives tend to value care, fairness and liberty over authority, loyalty and tradition, and that this is the progressive narrative:

Once, humans suffered from oppression, inequality and exploitation. But people struggled for autonomy, equality and liberty, and created democratic welfare societies. Much remains to be done to dismantle powerful inequality.

Haidt suggests that conservatives tend to value tradition, loyalty and authority as well as care, fairness and liberty, and that this is the conservative narrative:

Once, traditional values of responsibility and respect organised education and society, and our civilisation thrived. Then, progressives came along and damaged discipline and traditional teaching in schools, and entrenched inequality. Now, traditional schooling and values are needed to stop the damage to our civilisation.

The narratives are opposed, and Haidt suggests that it is harder for progressives to understand the conservative worldview: whereas conservatives do value care, fairness and liberty too, progressives do not value authority or loyalty, often seeing them as oppressive.

Haidt proposes that whereas in the west, the moral order is the individualistic autonomy paradigm, in Asia, the moral order is the community responsibility paradigm. In one study, Americans finished the sentence ‘I am…’ with their own characteristics: ‘…outgoing, curious’ etc, and Asians finished it with their roles and relationships ‘…a teacher, a son’ etc. Western and non-Western people think differently, see the world differently, and have different moral concerns. Non-western societies tend to value duty, responsibility, respect, loyalty, authority, hierarchy, humility, obedience, community, family, deference, and self-discipline. The books The Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother and The Path explore these enduring Asian values that Westerners sometimes struggle with.


Our morality binds and blinds

Morality evolved to bind us into tribes and groups, to enable cooperation. It also blinds us to the motives and morals of others. It is human nature to be ‘groupish’, and righteous: once we bind ourselves to a tribe, we tend to be blindly convinced of our own righteousness and our opponents’ nastiness. Here is Haidt on his own mind opening:

‘I grew up liberal in New York. Progressivism seemed so obviously ethical. I could not understand how any thinking person could embrace the evil of conservatism. We supported progressive policies because we cared about people, but they supported conservative policies out of pure self-interest (‘lower my taxes!’). We never considered the possibility that there were alternative moral worlds in which pursuing care, fairness and equality were not the main goals. We could not believe that conservatives were as sincere in their moral beliefs as we were in ours.

‘After studying moral psychology, conservatives so longer seemed so evil. I could see why they wanted to strengthen the moral climate of schools. I had escaped from my prior partisan mindset (reject first, ask rhetorical questions later) and began to think about progressive and conservative policies as deeply conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of the good society. It felt good to be released from partisan anger. And once I was no longer angry, I was no longer committed to reaching the conclusion that righteous anger demands: “we are right, they are wrong”. I was able to explore new moral matrices, each one supported by its own intellectual traditions. It felt like a kind of awakening.’

The more I study moral psychology and the traditions of Chinese, Buddhist or Asian philosophy, the more I see blind spots in the liberal West that have implications for education.

A blind spot in Western education: moral capital

Morality is defined by Haidt as beliefs and practices that suppress selfishness and enable cooperation. If morality evolved over millennia to enable cooperation, then perhaps the shared moral foundations of care, fairness, liberty, authority, loyalty and sanctity (or tradition) all have a part to play in creating great schools for our children. If we in the West neglect the Asian values of duty, responsibility, respect, loyalty, authority, hierarchy, humility, obedience, community, family, deference, and self-discipline, partly because our liberal moral matrix blinds us to seeing these as virtues, and instead we see some of them as cruel, harsh or oppressive vices, then perhaps our schools in the West will not run as well as Asian schools.

Moral capital is the extent to which an organisation (like a school) has shared beliefs and practices that suppress self-interest and improve cooperation. Think about a school that wants to improve behaviour, teaching and achievement. Many schools in England prioritise autonomy over discipline, self-expression over self-control. They’d tend to have low moral capital, says Haidt. Some schools prioritise discipline over autonomy and self-control over self-expression. They’d tend to have high moral capital: stricter, tougher schools would tend to suppress selfishness and be more likely to avoid distrust, disorder, unsustainability or entropy, Haidt suggests.

Moral capital is the blind spot of the progressive worldview. If you don’t value moral capital (tradition, authority, discipline, loyalty, community), but instead value only social capital (autonomy, relationships, trust), then you won’t foster beliefs and practices that increase it. Haidt again:

‘If you are trying to change an organisation or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble. This is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why progressive reforms so often backfire. They tend to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently. We humans need healthy hives in order to flourish. You can’t help the bees by harming the hive. In their zeal to help victims, progressives often push for changes that weaken traditions, institutions and moral capital. The urge protect students from oppressive authorities in the 1970s has eroded moral capital in schools, creating disorderly, unsafe environments that harm the poorest above all. Reforms sometimes harm the very victims progressives are trying to help.’

‘You don’t help the bees by harming the hive’, as Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius recognised some 1,800 years before Haidt. Just as you most help bees by keeping healthy hives, you most help pupils by keeping healthy classrooms free from disruption, rudeness, selfishness, indulgence and entitlement. Healthy ‘hives’ – the institutions of orderly classroom discipline and traditional, academic subject knowledge – are vital for happy children. If well-intentioned progressive schools neglect strict discipline and knowledge transmission because they see them as oppressive, they harm the children they intend to help, hurting the poorest children most.

Once we join a team, we get ensnared in its moral matrix. We see confirmation of its narrative everywhere. Progressives often have difficulty seeing moral capital: beliefs and practices that sustain communities like schools, such as authority and deference. Morality binds and blinds – and it blinds many of us from seeing that you don’t help bees by harming the hive.

The red pill of moral psychology can open up new vistas so that we can learn from others’ moral matrices. For those of us who have grown up liberal and progressive, those from Asia, from South America and Africa may have much to offer.



About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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11 Responses to The red pill of moral psychology

  1. Danny Murphy says:

    Great post … I spent most of my career trying build the moral capital of the schools I led, but in the Western social and political environment, especially where social mistrust arising from individualistic inequality is rampant, this is a struggle and only possible by developing bottom-up agreement/consensus rather than in the ‘old way’ through top-down discipline and authority. One of the key values Haidt misses is ‘fraternity’ Ithough its gendered character makes it hard to use in the 21st century without an apology) – it has elements of care and loyalty, but it is a different thing, I think…. and its essential character is ‘face to faceness’, something needed now more than ever. I explore this further in my book ‘Schooling Scotland’ and in the Values chapter of ‘Everyone’s Future: Lessons from Fifty Years of Scottish Comprehensive Schooling’.

    • Sister ofmurphy says:

      For the value of fraternity we use the Italian word insieme,togetherness, a key feature in the albeit brief writings of st Angela Merici 1530s suits the more feminist vision of the inspiration for our value set.

  2. “Some schools prioritise discipline over autonomy and self-control over self-expression. They’d tend to have high moral capital: stricter, tougher schools would tend to suppress selfishness and be more likely to avoid distrust, disorder, unsustainability or entropy, Haidt suggests.”

    I recognise that this is an introduction, but the foundational assumption appears to be that education is a process that doesn’t work well when individualism is present (“suppress selfishness”). I agree that schools work better when there is an effective mutual respect (adult-adult, student-student and student-adult), and think that there are several different ways of getting there (and need more than authority and deference). I also think that education is inherently an individual-focussed endeavour; each student is likely to take a different journey through life (and starts with a distinct set of genes-environmental factors). I think that we need a system that allows individuality (respectful individuality) to flourish.

    I look forward to the rest of the series.

    • ashleywills says:

      Strikes me though that the quality of each differing journey through life, in their infinite variations can at least be enhanced by an effective education steeped in moral capital. I always view the claim to respect differences in children as mistakenly putting the future ahead of the present – it is a deterministic argument, placing a cap on potential achievement, closing off routes ahead of time.

      They are children in the now, not yet adults, and they must be treated and taught as children first and foremost – not as a potential tradesman or care worker or insert vocational role. It is only by incubating the child that the adult grows and will flourish in due course and have a much greater array of options and abilities, not to forget confidence that comes from marinating in a world of high moral capital.

      • I agree. Not suggesting that education should be at the whim of the child. But, the framework within which moral capital is built can vary – I’d like to see one where individuality is also intrinsically valued.

  3. Interesting and well argued, but I think you are taking too one-sided a view of what Haidt is saying – you seem to be falling into the trap of what he calls ‘moral monism’. The view that one side has the right answer is precisely what Haidt refers to as ‘The Righteous Mind’. Too often the relationship between individual and collective morality or autonomy and community is set as oppositional rather than dispositional. It is better understood as vis-a-vis rather than’v’. Schools are not as black and white as you set them out to be. I would say that I, and many others, seek to transcend your apparent contradictions and live more by tensions. I think there is a place for both self-discipline and self expression. Nonetheless, I think you have raised important issues for school staff to consider as we strive to make schools excellent places of learning.

  4. Monika says:

    Hi Joe!
    I have always been reading your blogs and have been quite an admirer……

    So read this one as well and has made me reflect much deeper !! I myself have done this transition from East to West and agree to everything written here. I think it is important for every leader to understand these difference and try and bridge this gap in our ever changing schools!
    Well done for bringing this to light.

  5. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Musings about morality typically involve the assumption of a particular social/individual story. This narrative cuts out pieces of a broader reality to provide support for itself and perpetuate its assumed truth. This is where labels come in, a form of cognitive short-hand that hides a great deal of questions and the answers to them which are only at times fully explored by someone.

    Are we primarily individualistic or social? Does morality require relationships to function properly? Which Values are the most important and who gets to decide?

    Whether conservative or liberal, alt-right or progressive, the answers to these and other questions rarely reach the level of dialogue and reflective inquiry. Actively engaging in differing perspectives helps flesh out our own ideas even as doing so will showcase where we have room to grow and change.

  6. Kelly L says:

    A great post Joe. As always beautifully written. However, it just goes to show how two people can read the same book (or indeed experience the same situation) and walk away with a completely different interpretation of it. Although it’s a few years ago now, I didn’t see Haidt as proposing an argument for conservatism or eastern approaches to education etc. I found him trying to offer balance to our largely liberal, Western views. He acknowledged that to think differently that the norm of society brought difficulty and prejudice along with it as groups of people tend to isolate those who do not share their ideals/values etc. He also acknowledged the need to respect a culture even though you may not agreed or necessarily understand it (I think it was a trip to India he used to explain this but I could be mistaken). What I took from reading The Righteous Mind was the idea of respect and acknowledgement of other societies and other viewpoints. I think this is maybe a key point that might have been taken for granted especially when you’re applying Haidt’s cultural commentary to Michaela. There are a lot of detractors out there who are prejudice against the Michaela way who haven’t ever taken the time to understand what you do in the context you’re doing it. You have built a community of fiercely loyal students and staff, that in itself needs to be applauded. In the same way, I sometimes think the acknowledgement of the great stuff that other schools are doing is missed along the way which creates a barrier to mutual understanding and appreciation. I think it’s important to consider our perspective at certain points in our lives. On our leadership team were regularly check that we are not in danger of too much “group think” as you know it can exclude great ideas. Equally, I think that my opinions and perspectives now are unrecognisable from five years ago and I’ve no doubt they’ve been hugely influenced by the team I’m in. I love the quote from Heraclitus as it always makes me stop to consider my own perspective:
    “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
    I wonder what this post would have looked like if you’d have written it five years ago? I’m more excited to see what it would look like in a few years when you’re perhaps running a school of your own?

  7. Pingback: Teachers lead the scientific revolution in education: 44+ seminal articles | Joe Kirby

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