Creating a Moral Identity
We are not likely to seek to discover our vocations, identify our values, or develop our character unless motivated to do so. The term moral identity describes one powerful motivating force behind ethical behavior. Psychologists treat moral identity as either a generalized personality trait or as a cognitive framework. Antonio Blasi and others argue that those with high moral identity define themselves in terms of their ethical commitments and act consistently regardless of the situation. Moral principles and character traits are at the core of their being.35 They feel compelled to act in ways that are consistent with their self-definitions, demonstrating highly developed willpower and integrity activated by a strong desire to do the right thing. For those with strong moral identity, to betray their ethical commitments is to betray themselves. They follow in the footsteps of Protestant reformer Martin Luther. When called upon to defend his radical religious beliefs in front of the Catholic hierarchy at the Diet of Worms, Luther declared, “Here I stand; I can do no other.” (See Case Study 2.3 at the end of the chapter for a closer look at a modern Catholic leader who demonstrates a strong moral identity.)
Moral exemplars like those described earlier have extremely high moral identities. Anne Colby and William Damon studied 23 contemporary moral exemplars and found no separation between these individuals’ morality and their core identity.36
Over the course of their lives, there is a progressive uniting of self and morality. Exemplars come to see morality and self as inextricably intertwined, so that concerns of the self become defined by their moral sensibilities. The exemplars’ moral identities become tightly integrated, almost fused, with their self-identities.37
Participants in the Colby and Damon study were very clear about what they believed and then acted (often spontaneously) on their convictions. Most drew their moral beliefs from religious faith or faith in a higher power. They had a positive approach to life and defined success as pursuing their life mission. Their moral commitments extended well beyond those of ordinary citizens. They were devoted to significant, far-reaching causes like feeding the world’s poor children and campaigning for human rights.
Colby and Damon offer some clues about how we might develop a high moral identity like the exemplars in their study. They note that some in their sample didn’t take on their life’s work until their forties and beyond. This suggests that our moral identities can continue to develop well beyond childhood. The researchers also found that working with others on important ethical tasks or projects fosters moral growth by exposing participants to different points of view and new moral issues. We, too, can benefit by collaborating with others on significant causes, such as eliminating sexual slavery, building affordable housing for seniors, or fighting malaria. The key is to view these tasks not as a burden but as an opportunity to act on what we believe. Adopting a joyful attitude will help us remain optimistic in the face of discouragement.
Other psychologists view moral identity as only one of many identity frameworks. Instead of having one unitary “self,” we have a variety of selves or identities that we activate depending on the context. At home, our child or parent self-identity is most important, for example, while our professional identity is more salient while at work. Unlike the trait researchers who focus on moral exemplars, these scholars are more interested in improving the moral motivation of average individuals. They suggest that elements of the situation can prime or activate our sense of moral identity.38 When our moral identities are activated, we place more importance on behaving ethically, are more aware of demonstrating character traits like compassion and fairness, make better moral choices, and are less likely to excuse or justify our unethical behavior. Organizations can enhance the moral motivation of their members by (1) creating climates where close, cooperative relationships can flourish, (2) providing opportunities for moral discussion and reflection, (3) continuously emphasizing values and mission, and (4) encouraging ongoing involvement in the local community.