A think piece on moral grandstanding – a good read ahead of the election!

We’ve done it. You probably have, too. No matter what we believe about morality or politics, we’ve all used moral talk to project an impressive and morally respectable image of ourselves. Suppose, for instance, that one of us, in an effort to impress his friends with his sterling character, says, ‘I have long stood on the side of the disadvantaged and this case is no exception. I will not tolerate this injustice, nor should any other good person.’ We call this moral grandstanding.

Moral grandstanding is worse than being merely annoying. There are strong moral reasons to avoid grandstanding: it leads people to adopt extreme and implausible claims, and it devalues public moral discussion. But what is it and what are moral grandstanders trying to do? 

Grandstanders want others to regard them as being morally respectable, or even morally remarkable, and the contributions they make to public moral discourse are intended to satisfy that desire. To grandstand, then, is to use moral talk for self-promotion. Of course, when grandstanders make their ostentatious claims about justice or human rights, they may be sincere. (In fact, we suspect they usually are.) Less sincere grandstanders may not care one way or another about their stated cause, but still want others to believe that they care. A grandstander’s claim might even be true, or supported by reasons or evidence. But whatever the incidental features of grandstanding, the grandstander’s primary concern is projecting an image of herself as someone who is on the side of the angels. (Some readers may be reminded of the recently coined and politically-charged term ‘virtue signalling,’ but we think that term has problems.)

How common is moral grandstanding? There is ample empirical evidence to show that people really are often motivated to use moral talk to impress others. Social scientists have found that we tend to judge ourselves as superior to others in a host of areas: intelligence, friendliness and ambition, for example. But when it comes to morality, our willingness to rate ourselves as being superior is even more pronounced. Recent research shows that many of us regard ourselves as morally superior: we think we care more about justice, or empathise more deeply with victims of wrongdoing, or have greater moral insight than the average person. In terms of morality, we tend to give ourselves pretty good reviews.

Not only do we think this about ourselves, but recent psychological research suggests that we want others to think this about us, too. It’s not enough to think highly of ourselves; we want others to be impressed with our moral credentials as well. And so we grandstand.

Grandstanding takes many forms. In a quest to impress peers, grandstanders trump up moral charges, pile on in cases of public shaming, announce that anyone who disagrees with them is obviously wrong, or exaggerate emotional displays. However, there is one particularly troubling form of grandstanding, which we call ramping up.

Consider this example:

Ann: ‘The Senator’s behaviour was wrong. She should be publicly censured.’

Biff: ‘If we cared about justice, we should seek her removal from office. We cannot tolerate that sort of behaviour, and I will not stand for it.’

Cal: ‘As someone who has long fought for social justice, I’m sympathetic to these suggestions, but I want to suggest that we should pursue criminal charges – the world is watching!’

Ramping up happens when discussants make increasingly strong claims in order to outdo one another. Each wants to show greater moral insight and care for justice, and one way to do that is to stake out increasingly extreme claims. When ramping up, discussion devolves into a moral arms race.

This is why moral grandstanding can be so harmful. Ramping up contributes to group polarisation, where individuals come to hold more extreme views after deliberating with others, rather than moving toward a moderate consensus. The result of a moral arms race is that people will tend to adopt extreme and implausible views, and refuse to listen to the other side. Polarisation makes compromise more difficult. The winner of the moral arms race is the just and pure one. And why should we compromise with the morally impure? This is an especially bad outcome in democratic societies.

Another consequence of grandstanding is that many people stop taking moral conversations seriously. They become cynical about the moral claims they hear in public discourse because they suspect that the speaker is simply trying to show that his heart is in the right place, rather than trying to help others figure out what we should do or believe. Observers can even come to think that all moral claims are cases of moral grandstanding. In other words, grandstanding devalues the social currency of moral talk. Moral talk comes to be seen as a nasty business – a battlefield for people trying to prove that they are on the right side of history. By debasing moral talk, we render it a less useful tool for accomplishing aims more important than the promotion of reputation.

After reading about grandstanding and why it’s bad, it may be tempting to figure out how to positively identify cases of grandstanding and call out grandstanders in public. However, this is the wrong response. For one thing, issuing public condemnations of grandstanding reflects bad priorities, just like grandstanding itself. The point of public moral discourse isn’t to separate out the morally pure from the pretenders. It’s to help us understand and address serious moral problems. Calling out individual offenders might make the accuser feel powerful, but it’s unlikely to actually do much good. More likely, the charge of grandstanding will be returned, or a pointless public discussion about what’s in someone’s heart will unfold.

The problem is that it’s hard to tell if someone really is grandstanding. To see why, think about a similar case: lying. It’s difficult to know whether someone is lying to you, rather than simply saying something that’s false, because lying involves intentional deception. It’s hard to know what is in someone else’s head, even if there are occasional indicators. The same is true of grandstanding. Grandstanders want to be seen as morally respectable. But it’s often hard to tell if this desire is truly in someone’s head simply from behavioural cues. This is a good reason not to go around accusing people of grandstanding. You probably don’t know enough to justify the accusation.

So thinking about grandstanding is a cause for self-reflection, not a call to arms. An argument against grandstanding shouldn’t be used as a cudgel to attack people who say things we dislike. Rather, it’s an encouragement to reassess why and how we speak to one another about moral and political issues. Are we doing good with our moral talk? Or are we trying to convince others that we are good?Aeon counter – do not remove

Justin Tosi & Brandon Warmke

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


A wake up call?

Was directed by colleague Nigel Rayment towards an interesting article by George Monbiot called ‘The man in the mirror’ (http://www.monbiot.com/2016/10/28/the-man-in-the-mirror/) which offers a challenging perspective on the US election and the rise of Donald Trump as arguably the most feared person on the planet.

There are hundreds of such articles out there and a recent trip to London with my eldest two children readily turned into who could spot the best ridiculing or dismissing of Trump – not a difficult task, from the burger restaurant offer the Rump Burger as its thickest burger ever (just about avoiding the libel there I guess) to the Big Issue with its Halloween-style cover of the prospective President.

What makes the Monbiot article so interesting to me is the focus on values and the straight up challenge he lays down for us all in suggesting that Trump is actually the manifestation of all that is (and we know it is) wrong with society, politics, consumerism and our general way of being.  It is not an easy read, but neither it is an easy challenge.

I have for many years felt we have been sleepwalking into a future that very few of us actually want, but that a state of apathy and learned helplessness (often masterfully directed by those who benefit most from this unwanted future) prevents us from doing much about it.  Perhaps we need a few more Trumps to wake us from our slumber and shock us into taking action and doing something about it.  We certainly need more people to at least discuss the issues and so thank you George Monbiot.  I don’t agree with all that you say in this piece, but I most certainly agree that it needed to be said.

A useful set of articles

I have been enjoying reading a recent set of articles of public morality in Australia.


They offer some very useful insights and provide a good provocative workout for the brain cells. They are also a stark reminder that there is so much more in the world of learning and values than the current British govt offering of Fundamental British Values which is distracting many a school from a more authentic engagement with this vital area of learning.

I plan to write again about these articles once I have finished with them as they offer a good opportunity to review and refine my own thinking and practice ahead of a new publication we are producing to consolidate our past ten years of work in values related learning and a new Masters level accredited module that is set for launch in 2017.

I’d love to discuss these articles with fellow bloggers and readers so do pick this up through the comments and let’s see where we can take each other in our learning.

The fountain of character

A very useful contribution to the debate around character and values.  Many of the points resonate strongly with evidence emerging from our own work, and in particular around providing the space and opportunity for young people to critically engage with a wide range of values, to process these through experiential and meaningful learning and to filter, refine these to inform and shape their own character.  With regards the key question as to whether character can be taught, I find myself reminded of the phrase ‘character can not be taught, only caught’

If this is so then as is pointed out in this piece, the role of the educator is vital.  Whether they are consciously trying to impart character or not – they are.  This is why we have focus so much on ensuring educators are given the time and space to explore values  – their own, how they work, how they play out in schools and learning etc – for their own professional benefit ahead of pursuing poorly through through government mandates on values and character.  This is important stuff, but is in danger of going the way of other important stuff and being overly regimented into ill-conceived and poorly understood tick boxes.

It is great to know others are asking important critical questions about this.

The fountain of character.

via The fountain of character.

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Implications for priorities within values education – process over content.

Stumbled across a brief references in the TES to some research from US that suggests children gain (learn) more from the behaviour of the adults around them than they do from what those same adults might ask them to do.  See https://www.tes.co.uk/news/school-news/breaking-news/pupils-do-teachers-do-not-they-say-research-finds

Although only the briefest of articles and in full admission that I have not followed it further to the original research as yet, this seems to echo one of the findings from our own work and research around learning through values which is that the process is as important, if not more so than the content.

This has implications for those approaches to values education (or character education) that seek to impose values through pre-determined and often highly contrived content that is delivered through specific values/character sessions or interventions. Whilst we know such sessions can be documented and evaluated in then moment to have produced a perhaps desired outcome, there is still far less evidence available about the lasting legacy of such approaches. More to the point if the pedagogy chosen and the relationships employed in the process of learning do not match the content of such sessions then young people are among the first to recognise the hypocrisy and thereby reject the premise of the learning.

A process rich approach whereby educators model approaches to values through carefully selected pedagogies and through opportunities from across the curricula is, I would suggest, far more effective and though tangential and limited, this recent research would appear to suggest that there is something further to explore here.  The implications for CPD and for the shape of current and future values/character initiatives is significant, but the most striking thing for me is the reminder that those with the most work to do in this field are not the learners but the educators and the culture of the systems that they occupy and work within.

I am also reminded of the popular notion that values can not be taught, only caught – a simple way to capture this much more complex reality.

What is your experience? What are the implications for the quick fix responses now emerging for the teaching of “British Values”?

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A caricature of character education? Morgan needs a broader vision

Another contribution to the wider narrative – including some very useful comments. Let’s keep the discussion alive.


John White

The Department for Education has just invited schools and other bodies to bid for money to support projects in character education. Since her appointment last July, Nicky Morgan has shown an especial interest in this area. In a recent talk at Birmingham University, she spoke of “ensuring that young people not only grow academically, but also build character, resilience and grit”.

She went on: “We want to ensure that young people leave school with the perseverance to strive to win…. We want pupils to revel in the achievement of victory, but honour the principles of fair play, to win with grace and to learn the lessons of defeat with acceptance and humility.” These values are reflected in the bidding invitation. Pride of place is given to perseverance, resilience, grit, confidence,

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Character Education is a Waste of Time

Some very useful contributions here to help those concerned about the growing move for the explicit teaching of character. The focus on humanity, experiential learning and the opportunities (time and space) that may exist with the current lifeworlds of the individuals and the school to explore, question, build and reflect on values underpinning character is most welcome and very much in tune with the approach we take through the http://www.learningthroughvalues.org project. All of our experience suggests that the imposition of values (or character) is a non-starter. This is about deep personal identity and being. There is a level of neglect in the way this is being approached by those with power in education at the moment and this is where I feel we get to the elephant in the room – power and the need and desire to control.
Society needs to be challenged and remodeled to reflect the changing realities of our liquid modernity – holding onto a past that has caused so many issues is misguided and short sighted and the imposition of those character traits that underpinned this is simply nonsense – unless of course you are one of the (increasingly) few who benefit from this.
We need an honest debate around these issues and not a short term election response from a dept that does not even know what values are and seemingly from the current funding process, even know what the school year is. Where is the sense in a grant to work with schools running April 2015 – April 2016 – which school year does that fit with? Nonsense.

Speak up, share other voices, create a broader narrative, join in.

Trivium 21c

One Man In His Time Plays Many Parts

Today I had the honour to debate the following at the Policy Exchange Think Tank in London: ‘Is Character Education a Waste of Time?’ This was further explained by the Chair, Jonathan Simons in this way: “The issue is… can we teach it [character] in the formal way, in the same way as we teach other subjects…?” (You can hear the debate on the audio link below)

This was my contribution:

I never thought I’d be sharing a platform with Toby Young let alone debating a motion where I am on the same side as him. Toby is an extraordinary character as is Anthony Seldon and James O’Shaughnessy, extraordinary characters all. I feel a bit of fraud, a walk on part, sharing the stage with these lead players in our national narrative.

I must admit to something, paradoxically, my day job is…

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New Minister, Same Misunderstanding

I’m not sure what I expected when the new Education Minister, Nicky Morgan, took on the role from Michael Gove. Her arrival came shortly after Gove had responded to the Trojan Horse affair, by among other things, proclaiming that schools should actively promote “British Values”.

There was a wave of comment and a flurry of activity in response to this, but then Gove departed and all went very quiet again.  Elements of that earlier commentary can be found elsewhere on this blog, with links out to various pieces at the time. Then came Nicky Morgan’s appearance in front of the Commons Education Committee this week and we got our first signs of the likely direction that values would take under the new minister.

The short version of the response is in the title to this blog entry. Nothing has changed. I was not in the hearing and so only have the filtered news reports to reflect on what was said, but in those there is enough to go with. It was a mixed bag for sure. One aspect that I liked was the idea of values being ‘woven’ into the curriculum. This is something we have been working with in our http://www.learningthroughvalues.org project. It is an approach that is mindful of the pressures already on schools and more particularly on busy teachers and school leaders. They have welcomed it, talking not of additional pressures, but of new and exciting ways of doing what they have always done, but with greater purpose and higher motivation and engagement from the pupils. The support for weaving values then seems positive.

Where it becomes more concerning is in what Nicky Morgan might have us weave and why. What is particularly interesting is the introduction of the word ‘fundamental’ such that ‘schools must not be shy about talking about fundamental British values’. This as a response to a concern that fundamentalist views were making their way into our schools. Is there not a contradiction here, or is one version of fundamentalism allowed or more respected and tolerated than another?

There was a further confusing aspect to her comments when she apparently said that individuals who try to promote a particular view in schools needed to be removed from the system. This is of course meant in a context, but it also shows a glaring ignorance as to how values work and even what they are. Everyone has a particular view and that view is informed and regulated by our values. There is not a teacher in the land who does not in some way promote a particular view – to what extent they are aware of this or not is another matter.  So then, we come to the issue of what the view is and this I suppose is where Nicky Morgan places the values that she believes to be fundamentally British into the frame.

Those stated in her comments were mutual respect, equality between boys and girls, democracy and tolerance.  Are these values (if indeed they are in fact values) uniquely British? I have read other lists by those within Morgan’s own party and coalition govt and I have no doubt this is not the final offering hat will comprise the non-statuatory guidance to come, but what is really distressing is the treatment of values as content and the failure to see role of values as process within learning and education.

The hypocrisy of promoting equality at the same time as endorsing policies and measures that increase inequality (there are numerous measures of this in the press in the past week even), is also of concern and I’d like to see the mutual respect that Morgan talks of offered by her own department and staff to those working in education and learning who actually know a thing or two about schools, learning and education.

It seems nothing has changed then. Morgan will preside over what I imagine will prove to be a set of poorly conceived and even more poorly understood, values and announce through non-statutory guidance how, already pressured schools are expected to implement them. I would so love to be wrong on this but my suspicion is that this will be the case and my fear is that under such circumstances there will be very little weaving at all.

In the meantime I look forward to forthcoming discussions with colleagues in London and Scotland who unlike Gove and Morgan have taken the time to fully understand values and the complicated (and yet also simple) ways in which they interplay with teaching and learning.

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A still burning question: what is the purpose of education?

I was today sent a link to a blog (http://jkfairclough.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/what-is-the-point-of-education/) by a former colleague at Tide in Birmingham relating to the question ‘what is the purpose of education?’  It was asked as part of a new international project Tide are partners in and funded by the EU and it is a great question to ask.

It jogged my mind back to our last international study visit to Kerala in South India where a group of educators from the UK asked a related question ‘What is learning for?’ and worked on this for around a year, including a visit to India to learn from others.  The debates, ideas, moments of joy, fear and enlightenment that made that experience all came flooding back as I reflected on the question posed in the blog.

This is a vital question, however framed, and one that is pertinent to the work around values that Values Soup and the projects it is linked to are trying to engage with.  I was minded that we are far from alone in asking this question however and indeed there was a great challenge a year or so ago from Purpose Ed to respond to that very question ‘what is the purpose of education?’ in a maximum of 500 words.  I took up the challenge and had my day to express my own views and share them with the wider audience.  It was great to engage with different perspectives from so many different fields and from around the world and across cultures.  It makes me think there is still much to do here though and I may even need to disagree with myself now as my thinking, as it should has moved on.  To see the entries in the 500 words visit http://web.archive.org/web/20130501070429/http://purposed.org.uk/page/2/ and in case you’re wondering what I said at the time (May 2012) I have posted it below for ease, all 498 words of it.  What would you say?

An ever moving feast (purpose of education)

My immediate response to ‘what is the purpose of education?’ is that it is ‘to enable people to engage with, learn from, and form a considered opinion’ to exactly that type of question.

The circularity of my response comes from a deeply rooted belief in the power of reflective action-learning.  I have time and again witnessed the transformational impact of this type of learning on young people, adults, and organisations alike.  My recent involvement in a number of inspiring opportunities provides the ingredients for my current engagement and learning around the purpose of education, but as with all action-learning the final picture remains an ever moving feast.  Each of the following provides a nuance of what I believe education to be about, but none provides an answer.

What is Learning For? was a year’s exploration with eight inspiring educators into why we learn, how we learn, and what is learning for?  We looked at this from the UK, but more significantly from Kerala in South India – a state with phenomenal educational attainment and insight.  A lasting imprint for me is the dissonance between a UK-based debate over what makes an ‘outstanding lesson’ and the words of a Keralan state official informing us that ‘teachers are the real dreamers in society, because politicians can only dream in 5 year periods’
Education is about: risk, ambition, people, dreaming, creativity, self-belief

Time 2 Think emerges from work around critical literacy and in particular heightened awareness of self, others and the wider world, in shaping our lifeworlds.  This work has reminded me of the significance of dialogic learning and of the incredibly restrictive limits of time that dominate our education system.
Education is about: listening, conversing, contesting, thinking, perspectives, diversity

Learning through Values has provided me with an opportunity to dig deep into my own lifeworld and to support others to do the same.  Building on the work of Common Cause, a number of educators are now combining to consider the centrality of values to our own sense of being and belonging.  How are values aired, shared and prepared by our education system and how aware of this are we?
Education is about: values, understanding, responsibility, connections, living together, change

Learning co-operatively brings a group of disparate organisations and individuals together to explore the power of co-operative learning.  I feel at home in this world of education as co-constructed, inclusive and fair and so too, it would seem, do the young people who benefit. There is something in this…
Education is about: participation, respect, collaboration, equity, ownership, trust, choice

As befits my own moveable feast I do not wish to impose a closing statement as to the purpose of education, but rather invite you to assimilate these vignettes of my recent experience with your own experiences and insight.  However in true circular fashion, I will risk to posit that perhaps a purpose of education is to give us the confidence and ability to do so?

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It’s been a while: for the world we want

Not much blogging over the long warm summer – not due to hours in the sun, but due to a major relocation of home and professional life – the lines of which are now even more blurred, but in a positive way.

Watching the children explore the very modest and frankly ramshackle grounds of the farmhouse from which I know write was a heartwarming experience as I trundled with yet more nondescript boxes to add to the Tetris forming along the bedroom/office/hall and kitchen walls. They marveled at tiny bugs, sat for hours watching ants under stones and slabs, and used their imaginations to turn anything and everything into instant amusement.  Then there was the passion for adventure, the excitement of the possible as we took on the challenge of a property stood empty for 5 years. The bonding around an evening bonfire and the eating out almost every meal has only added to the experience. And the chickens. Yes at long last, they can have the chickens and they are loving getting to know them, care for them, and enjoy their produce.

This then is why I have been absent from the blog, but the soup has still been simmering and many new ingredients have been added with new contacts, exciting new projects and some great new ideas for the future.  But the biggest contribution has been the taking a step back, to make the transition, to observe my family do the same and to grow together, making choices from our own back yard that contribute to the world we want.

I was minded of this when, on returning to work, someone shared with me the short animation that trails One World Week 2014 from the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI).  Three elements in particular struck me as I wound back into professional mode for the new school year and the challenges ahead:

‘We ask ourselves and the people we care about, these two questions:

What do you want your world to look like?

What are you going to do about it?’

I can’t think of many more pertinent questions and these will stay long in my mind as I continue the transition into a new way of being that is slowly emerging out of the summer exertions.  I look forward to asking many of you these questions and to engaging, through values and learning, with these key questions.  Keep stirring….

And the link to the animation should you want to use it is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQNYEKr-QX4

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