Home All Honor, Moral Intuition and The Rider on the Elephant – Teens Doing Right

Honor, Moral Intuition and The Rider on the Elephant – Teens Doing Right

written by John Yeager 10 February 2008

John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at www.FlourishingSchools.com, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

John's articles are here.

Morality is an essential part of human nature. Morality is also a central element of all classical conceptions of “the good life.” You can’t think intelligently about how you ought to live without thinking also about virtue, obligations to others, and why people so badly want to make a positive mark on the world before they leave it. Jon Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis.

The rider on the elephant

  The rider on the elephant

At the beginning of each academic year, Culver students are provided with the opportunity to vote on maintaining the student-run honor code. Culver’s mission to educate its students for leadership and responsible citizenship in society is rooted in the deep tradition of honor and the learning laboratory at Culver exposes our current students to real-time ethical challenges. Culver has a responsibility to teach and/or reinforce in our students how to cognitively reason – how to appropriately respond to what really matters. We want to be able to provide our students with skills of social perception, imagination, and reasoning as they navigate their journeys to the adulthood.

For any society to function there has to be a sense of honor – not lying, cheating and stealing. This includes laws, customs, and rules in order to have and to maintain order, and is generally articulated in some sort of social contract among people.

The concept of honor is deeply engrained in the study of evolutionary and cultural psychology. Human beings are genetically predisposed to human association. It is one of three things which differentiates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. First, we have opposable thumbs to build tools. Second, we have the capacity to think into the future and reason on what needs to be done – we are able think beyond the short term. A third piece necessary for survival is that human beings have to work in groups. We are genetically bound to this construct. Therefore loyalty to the group is a powerful driver. Competing motivations and a student’s membership in a “herd” or a “hive” are dominant variables when weighing the “pros and cons” of “doing the honorable thing.”

Social norms are potent, especially when a student is faced with a moral decision that may influence his/her relationship with others. Students are generally operating on a paradigm that loyalty takes precedence over honor. This has a lot to do with the development of an adolescent’s brain. This is the way that they see the world at this time, and it is very real to them. Although they are compelled by raw, brute emotion to be loyal, they need some sense of honor to maintain order to grow as a community.

The Rider on the Elephant

As the neo-cortex of the average high school student’s brain nears its full development, young people still can be impulsive and let their emotions drive their behavior. To understand this better, it may be instructive to understand more about the evolution of the human brain. Our reptilian brain is the foundation of our basic urges and is encircled by the limbic system – a part of the brain that controls our emotions. The neo-cortex, a more recent adaptation in the species, assists with the reasoning process and understanding the consequences of behavior. A fitting metaphor for the challenging realities of ethical decision-making is the “rider on the elephant.” The rider (logical reasoning mind) can help steer the direction of the elephant (the emotional mind). The elephant, however, is very strong and despite all the pulling of the reins by the rider, may win out.

Humans have various desires, motives and appetites that can be released by a host of emotions. If you allow the rider to control the elephant, you can adapt to making appropriate decisions by guiding and controlling the positive emotions of joy, contentment, awe and elevation, gratitude and love; as well as the negative
emotions of fear, anger, disgust, shame and guilt. One strategy to help to accomplish this is the development of an adolescent’s moral intuition.

Moral Intuition

Moral development education at Culver is not “just-add-water” or “virtue of the week” curricula. It is much more than placing an honor code placard on a dormitory/barrack hallway wall, or on a wallet-sized card. Good moral education is about assisting young people in not only knowing and valuing the good, but also doing the good. Therefore, we want our students to develop a sense of moral agency, to aspire to practical wisdom as they harness appropriate emotional and cognitive resources. One angle of instruction comes from integrating the social intuition model. Students tend to communicate moral decisions intuitively, and are influenced by social persuasion.

Jon Haidt, defines moral intuition as “the sudden appearance in consciousness of
an evaluative feeling (like-dislike, good-bad) about the character or actions of a person, without any conscious awareness of having gone through steps of search, weighing evidence, or inferring a conclusion.”

The social persuasion link can be altered when students are provided with an opportunity to question what “norms” really are, and allow for the “rider” to adequately serve the elephant. By educating our students on the social intuitionist model, we hope to convey the anatomy of making quick moral intuitions, followed up by post hoc (after the fact) moral reasoning – to get our students to understand that moral decisions typically are made in, and as a result of, dyadic and other group communication. It is common, albeit a bit stereotypical, for high school seniors to say that they make their own moral decisions, and are not influenced by others. Educating them on the relationship of the “rider and the elephant” may help them be more prepared to make wise decisions through developing a more intuitive, reasoning self.

It is also instructive to note that males and females generally approach issues of morality from different perspectives. Carol Gilligan, a Harvard University psychologist and pioneering research on male and female moral development, claims that men tend to operate within an ethic of justice with an emphasis on rights in a hierarchical structure; while females see moral decisions in the context of helping others, service, and lateral relationships.

Character Strengths and Moral Intuition

Assisting the rider in controlling the evolutionary urges of the elephant can be correlated with Aristotle’s conception of a human’s six states of character. Aristotle considered brutishness (almost pre-human, wanton irresponsibility); defective character (self-indulgence); and weakness of will (incontinence) as lower level states that resemble the control of the elephant; strength of will and character excellence as correlates to the matured rider. The greatest tension in adolescents tends to be between acting with weakness of will and strength of will. A person acting out of weakness of will wants to act virtuous and honorable, but is unsuccessful in the effort. A person acting on strength of will succeeds in the making the honorable decision through great effort. The elephant is attempting to pull the reins from the rider, who is eventually successful in the effort. When the person is able to make the honorable decision without the great effort, then they have arrived at Aristotle’s level of “character excellence.”

Students who aspire to Strength of Will and Character Excellence can call upon their character strengths to support them in the moral intuition and social reasoning process. They can clearly identify how their strengths may assist or hinder them in the decision process. An awareness and understanding of character strengths and their relationship to well-being is a valuable tool for Culver students as they navigate their journeys to adulthood. As they move toward adulthood, Culver students are provided with a variety of structured forums to thoughtfully reflect on and apply their character strengths to their daily lives. By knowing what particular traits look like when they come alive may be instructive and informative for Culver students. Nansoon Park and Chris Peterson, leading researchers in character strengths in youth, claim that “being able to put a name to what one does well is intriguing and even empowering.” The cultivation of character strengths typically doesn’t happen in isolation, and the empirical research advocates addressing character from a multidimensional (family) perspective. Each student has a unique set of combinations of signature (higher) strengths that, in concert, are uniquely valuable to his or her thoughts, feelings, and behavior. This may include strengths such as creativity, persistence, integrity, vitality, fairness, humility, and gratitude.

Strengths Assessments at Culver

The Values in Action Institute has done extensive research on character strengths in business, health and education. The Values in Action inventory is the product of significant philosophical and psychological research on character and virtues and has been used substantially with adult and adolescent populations. VIA-Child is a “self-report questionnaire” that uses a face valid 5-point Likert scale that measures the degree to which respondents endorse each of the 24 strengths of character (within six categories) in the VIA Classification. In August, 2007, the Values in Action inventory was administered to the entire student body at the Culver Academies. Many students now refer to their strengths in activities that are being explicitly applied in various academic, leadership, fine arts, wellness, and athletic programs.

Marcus Buckingham and the late Don Clifton, authors of Now, Discover Your Strengths, have framed the development of good habits or strengths in what they call the “anatomy of a strength.” Culver asks its students to declare themselves with the following “strengths” questions:
1. What are your strengths?
2. How can you capitalize on them?
3. What are your most powerful combinations?
4. Where do they take you?
5. What one, two, or three things can you do better than 10,000 other people?

By learning about character strengths and ways to build and apply them, high school students can be guided to acknowledge, own, and apply their own strengths, to value their authentic selves, and to increase both their collective and self-efficacy.

The journey to adulthood is a challenging one. By providing teens with “real life” opportunities to explore their “moral reasoning” in meaningful and purposeful activities, we allow them the greatest opportunity to flourish.



Buckingham, M. & Clifton, D.O. (2001). Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: The Free Press.

Gilligan (1982). In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral
judgment. Psychological Review, 108, 4 (814-834).

Haidt, J. & Bjorklund, F. (2007). “Social Intuitionists Answers Six Questions About Moral Psychology.” In Moral Psychology: The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness. edited by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. Bradford Press.

Kidder, R. (2003). How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living. New York: Harper Collins.

Peterson, C., Park, N. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2005). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The full life versus the http://PositivePsychologyNews.com/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=629empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6:25-41.

Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2006). Methodological Issues in Positive Psychology and the Assessment of Character Strengths. In A.D. Ong & M. van Dulmen (Eds.). Oxford Handbook of Methods in Positive Psychology (Series in Positive Psychology). New York: Oxford University.

Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2005). Moral competence and character strengths among adolescents: The development and validation of the Values In Action Inventory of Strengths for Youth. Journal of Adolescence.

Steve Tigner’s version of “Aristotle’s Six Moral States” is presented in the course, Cultural
Foundations for Educators 1, at Boston University. The figure can be found in his course packet, Outlines and Reading Aids for Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (1994).

Elephant and rider courtesy of Angus MacRae

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Kathryn Britton 15 February 2008 - 11:55 am


I like the proactive nature of your moral education.

It isn’t restricted to discussing moral dilemmas — which someone (Jon Haidt?) pointed out was a particularly inefficient and ineffective way of teaching morals. If I get a windfall of time, I’ll go looking for that reference.

It includes helping teenagers learn the habits that go into moral behavior and take inventory of the strengths they can draw on when challenged.


Dave Shearon 16 February 2008 - 9:57 am

John, this is completely characteristic of your thoughtful leadership in the deep integration of positive psychology in an educational setting. Thanks!


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