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U.I.O.G.D.

San Beda College


College of Law
Manila

Seminar 3

First Handout

Are You a Good Person? The Notion of Moral Identity1

To what degree is each of us a good person? Most of us probably see ourselves as


a generally good person while recognizing that we occasionally behave in
morally or ethically questionable ways. None of us is perfect, and there is always
room for improvement. Right? Well, researchers of moral psychology want to
know not only the degree to which each of us is a good person but also how we
generally become good people.

Consider for a moment two extreme historical examples: Martin Luther King Jr.
and Adolph Hitler. The degree to which each was a good person is a rather stark
contrast. One worked to alleviate gross societal injustices and oppression while
the other worked to instigate it. How did each get to be such a person?

We can look to historical biographical sources, of course, to help answer this


question. Yet we also want a more general answer that applies not only to these
two individuals but also to you and me, and our young generation in particular.
How do infants become morally upright adults? Ultimately, psychologists
studying morality, such as myself, want to understand moral development so
that we can inform teachers how to facilitate, strengthen and support future
generations moral character. Some psychologists (e.g., the late Lawrence
Kohlberg) dedicate their entire career to advance our knowledge of moral
development so that we can educate our young to be more like (Luther) King
and less like Hitler.

One of the first generations of psychologists studying moral development (e.g.,


Kohlberg) focused on understanding how our reasoning about right and wrong
changes from childhood to adulthood. The psychologists believed that adults who

1 From an article by Tonia Bock, Psychology Department, University of St. Thomas, May 2,
2013 cf. http://www.stthomas.edu/news/are-you-a-good-person-the-notion-of-moral-
identity/ Emphases and items in parentheses mine.
grow to reason in morally principled ways will behave morally. Plato once said, To
know the good is to do the good. If we know the morally principled thing to do,
then we will do just this. Right? Certainly this early generation of psychologists
believed as much. Many studies since have shown that the psychologists werent
necessarily wrong there is a positive correlation between moral reasoning
development and moral behavior; however, the correlation, even though it is
statistically significant, is pretty small, meaning that knowing the right thing to do does
not always lead to the person doing the right thing. We have countless examples of
this from history as well as from our everyday lives. We regularly see news
stories about politicians and Hollywood stars who do things they know are wrong. If
we look closely at ourselves, we see that we also sometimes do things we know are wrong,
except that unlike the politicians and stars, our wrongdoings are not usually news
headlines.

So if people know the right thing to do, why dont they just do it? This question
has inspired some psychologists studying morality to turn their attention away
from moral knowledge and reasoning to a concept called moral identity. What is
moral identity? It is generally defined as the degree to which moral concerns (e.g.,
justice, caring, generosity) are a central part of ones identity (i.e., your sense of who you
are). It is a somewhat new concept, with psychologists starting to develop
slightly different conceptualizations. Regardless of how psychologists are
conceptualizing moral identity, they all assume and are interested in individual
differences, meaning that some individuals have a strong moral identity while others
have a weak one. Individuals with a very strong moral identity prioritize moral
commitments over all other nonmoral commitments, obligating themselves to
live consistently with their respective moral concerns; thus, one who has a strong
moral identity would feel compelled to be a good person, at least respective to his or her
prioritized moral commitments. Theoretically, then, these people would not only
know the good but also prioritize and consistently do the good. A person with
a weak moral identity, on the other hand, would highly prioritize nonmoral
commitments (e.g., having wealth, being attractive, being popular) over moral
commitments; thus, he or she would be more likely to know the right thing to do but
not act accordingly with their knowledge, presumably because they are more driven by
their highly prioritized nonmoral commitments.

Being a psychologist who studies morality, I of course find this notion of moral
identity to be quite fascinating. My particular interest in this area surrounds two
specific questions: How do we think moral identity is developed over time? How
do we best assess peoples moral identity? Given that psychologists are still
working on their theoretical conceptualizations of moral identity, there is a lot of
work to be done on answering both of these questions. Ill briefly sketch out some
of the ideas and challenges that lie ahead for us.

If psychologists presume that individuals vary in how strong their moral identity
is, then they should have some idea about how these differences emerge over time;
currently, it seems we have some very general ideas.

1. Some psychologists mention the importance of parenting in early childhood,


describing how parents who frequently, consistently and jointly attend to the
moral dimensions of situations with their young child will help them to not only
build mental images of what it means to be a moral person but also construct
memories of morally relevant events and interactions. (Instances when they chose to
do the good and not the bad)

2. Other psychologists have focused on the importance of moral identity


formation in adolescence. According to them, adolescence is a time of unique
growth in cognitive, social and personal understandings. Individuals in their teens
(and early 20s) become better able to construct more complex notions of who they are,
now being able to incorporate abstract ideals and traits, possibly moral, into their sense of
identity. To date, the most specific theory of moral identity formation argues that
individuals must simultaneously develop and increasingly prioritize the values
of (a) benevolence and (b) achievement. As the theory goes, these two values are
initially independent from one another. As they become increasingly prioritized,
the person cannot allocate his or her attention and resources to both the person
either needs to choose one over the other or integrate them. According to this theory,
those who integrate the values of benevolence and achievement in their goals
and commitments are those who have the strongest moral identity. Initial
research has supported such a developmental model, but there is a long road
ahead to more fully verifying it. It is hoped that additional explanations and
models of moral identity development will also be advanced in the near future to
paint a more complete picture of moral identity development from birth through
old age.

My other interest in moral identity is how we should best assess it. The currently
existing assessments have faced some rather serious criticisms. A few paper-
pencil surveys of moral identity exist. The advantages of this type of assessment
are that they are very easy for researchers to use and participants to complete.
For example, one assessment has several virtues listed at the top of the survey
(e.g., caring, fair, generous). Participants are then asked to indicate whether they
agree or disagree with several statements about the importance of these virtues.
Not surprisingly, all participants rate these virtues as being important to who
they are. Individual differences exist, but they are very small. (This implies that
people have a general notion and are able to distinguish the good from the
bad.)

The main criticism is that surveys such as these underestimate the individual
differences in moral identity because, well, who would want to acknowledge that
these virtues are not important to them? Psychologists call this social desirability
bias, and it is a frequent issue in any research that deals with morality. (This
implies that people, when asked whether or not they value apparently good
values, answer to the affirmative for fear of negative perception. We can think
of sometimes lining up for communion even if we know we are unworthy to do
so for fear of rejection, i.e., people might look at us with prying and suspicious
eyes: What sins has this person done this time?)

The other type of moral identity assessments are lengthy, intensive individual
interviews. Social desirability is less of an issue because researchers ask rather
general open-ended questions about how the interviewees describe themselves.
The main disadvantage, though, is the time and energy it takes psychologists to not only
conduct the interviews but also reliably code and analyze the data. Few researchers use
this method, and when they do, it takes a rather long time to complete the entire
research process.

These are just a few examples of the issues and challenges that researchers
currently face in studying moral identity. I am quite confident that exciting
theories and research are yet to come. I am most curious about how important
researchers will find moral identity to be in doing the good. Maybe one day we
can modify Platos saying to read, To prioritize the good is to do the good.

Guide Questions for Discussion in Class


1. Who is a morally upright person? (Emphasis on the fundamental
characteristic/quality of such a person)
2. What is moral development? What factors affect such development? (Pay
attention to: reasoning about right and wrong changes from childhood
to adulthood.)
3. What is moral identity? What is the difference between knowing and
and consistently prioritizing the good?
4. Describe the effects of the ff. on a persons moral development: parenting;
moral identity formation in adolescence.
5. How we should we best assess moral identity?