The Lion King Moral Narrative

Most ideologies have a moral narrative that is essentially the plot of “The Lion King” movie. It can be summarized as follows:

  • The story revolves around two dichotomies: US | THEM and GOOD | EVIL.
  • There is an initial, natural state of things, which is good and proper. In this initial, natural state, we (the good guys) are in control and all is well.
  • Then they (the bad guys) interfere in this natural order in some way. Typically, they seize power from us. They take what is rightfully ours.
  • There is a period of suffering and struggle, during which we overcome our moral, spiritual and physical weaknesses.
  • We attack them. After an epic struggle, we defeat them. Good triumphs over evil, and the natural order is restored.

That is the basic plot structure of thousands of stories, including a huge percentage of all Hollywood movies. You have probably been exposed to thousands of examples of it. You have subconsciously learned that pattern from experience, and you will subconsciously use it to interpret reality, even though it only occurs in fiction.

The Lion King moral narrative has no utility as a model of reality. Its function is not explanatory, but justificatory. It directs aggression toward another group, and gives it a moral justification.

The Lion King narrative is war propaganda. It is designed to justify war. That’s one reason why it is so common. It is also popular because it has such a nice, clean story arc. It allows us to experience love and hate, sorrow and joy. It takes us on an emotional roller-coaster ride that culminates in a happy ending (for our side). Good triumphs over evil, and we triumph over them.

It is never explained why we are good and they are evil. It is just taken for granted. In a Walt Disney movie, you know who the bad guys are. They are ugly, they are nasty, they have funny voices, and they are not the focus of the story. The good guys are introduced first (so you identify with them), and then the bad guys are introduced as a threat to the good guys. The good guys are associated with the natural order of things, and the bad guys are interlopers who act against the natural order.

The Lion King movie shows this very clearly. For some inexplicable reason, all the animals are happy and singing when they are ruled over and occasionally eaten by lions, but not when they are ruled over and occasionally eaten by hyenas. When the pride-lands are ruled by the hyenas, for some strange reason there is a drought. The grass wilts and all the animals stop singing and dancing. When the pride-lands are regained by the lions, rain falls from the sky, the grass becomes green, and the animals sing and dance again. The lions are identified with the natural order of things. The hyenas somehow destroy the natural order, even though they are predators just like the lions.

The narrative assumes that nature is good, we are good, and they are evil. So, when we fight against them, we are not only fighting for ourselves, we are fighting for what is objectively good and natural, and against evil. In The Lion King movie, the natural order is represented by the beautiful green landscape and the animals singing and dancing.

The Lion King narrative is the underlying narrative of many ideologies. Marxism is a good example. Supposedly, Marxism has a complex and profound theoretical foundation that derives from the big books written by Marx. In practice, however, almost no one reads those books, or cares about the theoretical mumbo-jumbo. Marxism for the masses is a Lion King narrative in which we (the proletariat) are oppressed by the rich through deception and coercion, and so we should rise up and take back what is rightfully ours. In modern versions of Marxism, “poor” is replaced by “marginalized people” or “marginalized identities”.

The fit is even better for the alt-right. Scar represents the Jews, the hyenas represent non-whites moving into Western societies, and the lions represent the whites who are being dispossessed of their homelands. Through the trickery of Scar (Jews), the hyenas (non-white hordes) were allowed to take over the pride-lands, which rightfully belong to the lions (whites).

There are three reasons why people believe these narratives.

One is that political and social thought tends to be justificatory rather than explanatory. It is advocacy, not inquiry. It is about establishing claims to power, and/or arguing for social goals and actions. It is not about understanding reality. In advocacy, arguments are selected to support conclusions, rather than conclusions being selected based on the strength of their supporting arguments. Lion King narratives are popular because they provide justifications for claims to power and for certain kinds of social action, such as redistributing wealth.

The second reason is that US | THEM narratives are psychologically effective in bringing out emotions. They plug into human social instincts. People naturally view themselves as good and their group as good. Morality is a group delusion that our collective interests are objectively/naturally good. People find it very easy to believe that we are good and they are evil, especially if our interests conflict with theirs.

The third reason is that we have experienced thousands of instances of the Lion King moral narrative in books, movies and TV shows. We have vicariously experienced it many, many times. Our brains have abstracted and stored the pattern, and can easily recognize it, in both fictional and non-fictional situations. We have been conditioned to see it.

Even if you experience something as fiction, your brain will process that experience with the same neurons that it uses to process real experiences, and that fictional experience will shape the way you interpret reality. That’s why advertising works, and that’s why repeated exposure to fiction distorts your understanding of reality. You will tend to interpret the data of reality through patterns that you have learned from artificial experience.

So, if you believe in a political ideology, it probably has a Lion King moral narrative, and you probably believe in it for these reasons:

  • It is useful for justification.
  • It fits your social instincts.
  • You have been conditioned by fiction to see that pattern.


  1. The Alt-right youtuber Walt Bismarck has made a parody video of exactly this:

    If I understand correctly, you view human morality as an evolved emotional framework to ensure cooperation in groups by discouraging or encouraging certain behaviors.
    All this leading in the end to the improved individual survival and reproduction of those with this adaption, thus making it a stable trait in the population.

    Do you think this process has uncovered additional regularities about the environment as a byproduct?

    I give you an example:
    The human visual system is also an adaption to the environment. Evolution's only 'purpose' of evolving it is to increase individual survival and nothing else.
    If i now copy the language of your article, the 3D world that you perceive around you is merely a delusion generated by your visual cortex out of the 2d images that stem from your retinas.

    The thing is, I really do believe that a 3D space is a good approximation for the world around us (strange physics concepts notwithstanding).

    My explanation for this is that evolution discovers true facts about reality as a byproduct because those facts are useful for the purpose of reproduction.

    As it turns out the regularities which are encoded in the visual cortex seem to be relatively simple geometrical concepts related to ray optics. These are simple in the sense that they are mathematical and are routinely used in computer graphics.

    Now in this sense, do you think it is possible that the moral intuitions and repeating story tropes which appear across large timescales and diverse cultures are also not merely a tool to organize groups?

    They might encode certain facts about game-theory for example. They could be provable theorems in some axiom system ( moral-calculus :) ).

    If this where true then morality would be more than whatever action advances the reproductive goal of some individual in a mechanical universe at the time.

    We would also expect morality to generalize to non-human actors, who have to deal with other agents with a comparable amount of power. Non-human actors could be AI's or governments for example. I say comparable amount of power because in the case of a total power monopoly there is no game-theoretic balance that could impose restrictions on the dictator-entity.

    The usual way morality is communicated between humans seems to me to be very far from a mathematical formalism though. This could mean that my idea is simply wrong, or that the mathematical framework required is very unusual compared to what we are used to.

    Just some thoughts of mine

    P.S I like your channel. very insightful.

    1. I think that video was originally by "Uncuck the Right", and it was intended as pro alt-right propaganda. It unconsciously revealed the absurdity of the alt-right's narrative. If your worldview fits a Walt Disney movie so well, that's probably because it is a fantasy.

      I don't think that morality is an evolved emotional framework. I think we have evolved social instincts (not much different from those of other mammals) and we have also evolved language, and then on top of that psychological layer we have culturally evolved morality.

      I have a lot of blog posts and videos on morality. Some are: "Altruism and Selfishness", "Bad Faith", "Evolution and Morality", "Circles of Order and Chaos" (video only), and "How I Became Amoral".

      I don't think moral beliefs provide us with an accurate understanding of reality. They aren't used to do that.

      Moral narratives are mainly used as a way of justifying a double standard. The internal rules of a society cannot be applied to the external world. To exist, a society must compete with other societies and extract resources from nature. It cannot exist by the rules that it imposes on its members.

      Somehow, we have arrived at a cultural solution which involves deceiving ourselves. This self-deception can be useful in way, but it causes problems and prevents us from solving certain problems.

      Thanks for the comment, and I'm glad you find the channel interesting.


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