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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’ ( 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.

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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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

From Plantation Thinking to Rainforest Thinking

This is precisely the sort of systems thinking that drives our work at and through our projects such as

I love the use of metaphor and especially so when drawn from the natural world that I think we have so often overlooked as a source of inspiration and learning. We have had rivers, rice paddies, coral reefs and our own learning through values tree (within the rainforest) and much of this pulls on eco-literacy thinking.
Wonderful to find this and makes useful reading in my current work on resilience and learning for which I had already begun turning to nature and rainforests in particular for some valuable insights.


An analogy I draw upon increasingly to help with my thinking about teaching, learning and school leadership, is the contrast between a plantation and a rainforest.  In general terms I feel that our entire education system is deeply inhibited, shackled and spoiled by Plantation Thinking. This affects government policy, school leadership and the day-to-day of classroom practice. The solution to a lot of our difficulties lies, I believe, in embracing another paradigm: Rainforest Thinking. 

First of all, let’s consider the characteristics of the plantation:

The mono-cultural world of a plantation. The mono-cultural world of a plantation.

The natural environment is heavily managed with interventions of all kinds to protect againsts pests and disease. There is a narrow view of what the desired outcomes are. Anything that grows outside clearly defined parameters is weeded out. It is important for all specimens to reach certain minimum standards but there is little or no room for diversity. This tendency…

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