While reading the fervent exchanges on EdTwitter surrounding the advert in the TES for a ‘Director of Detention’, I am reminded of the argument made by Jonathon Haidt in his book, ‘The Righteous Mind’.
Haidt proposes good people are divided by politics and religion. We all have moral ‘taste buds’ which go a long way to guiding our responses to any particular issue, particularly ones that violently clash with or closely align with our own internal morality.
He describes the moral mind as being “like a tongue with six taste receptors” – care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression.
These receptors largely control how we respond to any given situation that challenges our moral standpoint. For example, “should it be illegal for parents to smack their own children?” Your answer to this question is likely to be instantaneous, you will either think yes or no straight away. It will then take a little while to construct a reasonable argument to justify your point of view.
Your response will be largely guided by your morality. If you strongly believe in parental authority, the sanctity of the family, and freedom for parents to bring up their children as they think best, then you will probably believe a law banning parents from smacking their own children is wrong. If, on the other hand, you believe in protecting children from harm, the government has a duty to stop adults hurting children, and smacking children can never be morally justified whatever the circumstances, then you probably believe a law banning parents from smacking their own children is justified.
Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant and a rider to illustrate how this works. The elephant is the mind’s moral framework (the alignment of moral positions our mind takes across the six ‘receptors’), while the rider is the mind’s powers of reasoning (the arguments our mind constructs to justify our moral position).
We can see how this works if we look at the opening three questions in the TES advert:
Do you like order and discipline?
Do you believe in children being obedient every time?
Do you believe that allowing children to make excuses is unkind?
Each one is asking you to place yourself on one of Haidt’s receptors. The first is about authority/subversion, the second liberty/oppression, the third care/harm.
Your ‘elephant’ will largely dictate how you respond:
If you see order and discipline as draconian you are likely to answer ‘no’ to the first question. If you believe in the sanctity of adult authority you are likely to answer ‘yes’.
If you see unquestioning obedience as a form of oppression that makes children more vulnerable to adult manipulation you are likely to answer ‘no’ to the second question. If you believe children have to be taught self-control you are likely to answer ‘yes’.
If you see denying children the right to explain their actions as harmful to their personal and psychological development, you are likely to answer ‘no’ to the third question. If you believe it is the duty of adults to guide students in their social and moral development, you are likely to answer ‘yes’.
In each circumstance it is our moral compass that guides us, not reasoning. Reasoning comes later as we start to piece together an argument that justifies our point of view. This is what we see on EdTwitter. If you look at people’s first responses to the ad they are largely moral in tone. There is quite of lot of indignation, some sarcasm (including my own), and a bit of anger – on both sides. After a while this settles down into discussion as people start to justify their point of view and try to convince the other side that they are in the right. This is dialogue; I believe dialogue is important, essential even, to the health and productivity of our community and the development of ideas. But, let’s not forget we are all sitting on elephants.