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.