The Importance of Moral Identity in Business and in Life

The Importance of Moral Identity in Business and in Life

People in business differ enormously in how central their moral concerns are to their senses of who they are and who they want to be. For some, moral convictions largely define who they are. For others, material concerns (how much money they have, how powerful they happen to be, and so on) are far more central. It is the former who are most likely to live a life of moral integrity.

Our studies have found that a person’s moral identity is the best predictor of the person’s commitment to moral action, because it determines not merely what the person considers to be the right course of action but also why a person would decide that “I myself must take this course.” For example, most persons will express the belief that allowing others to starve is morally wrong, but only some of these people will conclude that they themselves must do something to prevent this in a particular circumstance, such as a famine in Africa. Moral identity engenders a sense of personal responsibility for taking action: it provides a powerful incentive for conduct, because it triggers a motive to act in accordance with one’s conception of one’s ideal self. Moral judgment alone cannot provide this motive: it is only when people conceive of themselves, and their life goals, in moral terms that they acquire a strong propensity to act according to their moral judgments. As one psychologist writes, “If a person sees a value or a way of life as essential to their identity, then they feel that they ought to act accordingly.”[4]

In the book Some Do Care, Anne Colby and I found that the moral exemplars whom we studied were convinced that the work that they were doing fulfilled both their personal and moral goals.[5] Because their work was driven by personal and moral motives, these exemplars were able to sustain the hard, year-after-year commitments that enabled them to tackle tough, seemingly impossible problems and to accomplish marked results. In other words, they demonstrated high degrees of moral identity, signaled by a strong integration between the self and moral concerns.[6] At the same time, these subjects did not demonstrate elevated moral reasoning on our standard moral judgment measures. We concluded that sustained moral commitment requires a strong moral identity rather than sophisticated reasoning abilities. That is, “people who define themselves in terms of their moral goals are likely to see moral problems in everyday events, and they are also likely to see themselves as necessarily implicated in these problems. From there it is a small step to taking responsibility for the solution.”[7]

Moral identity in business means defining the self in a way that includes not only one’s work-related skills and interests but also one’s sense of moral purpose for one’s work, one’s sense of ethical restrictions, and one’s responsibility to one’s community. In our study of two hundred successful professionals working in science and the news media, Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and I found that those who consistently upheld the loftiest traditions of their professions had strong senses of moral identity.[8] Some were motivated to conduct their work in a moral manner by always wanting to pass “the mirror test” when they returned home from work each day.

Moral identity provides a sense of personal responsibility for making moral choices. Over the course of human development, when a person makes moral choices regularly, they become habitual: a child who has learned to be honest does not need to decide whether to lie, cheat, or steal every time the chance arises. In normal circumstances, the honest behavior comes naturally—or, to use a more accurate idiom, by second nature. That is, through a system of acquired action the behavior becomes habitual. Well-established moral habits are commonly known as virtues, which in turn form the behavioral basis of moral character.[9]

“If you do the right thing,” said Mike Hackworth, the founder and CEO of Cirrus Logic and Aspirian, two enormously profitable Silicon Valley technology companies, “you’re not going to be embarrassed, it’s not going to come back on you. I always keep in mind that I don’t want to do anything that I wouldn’t want my mother to read about in the newspaper. Actually, what she said to me, and it imparted on me an ethic, ‘You don’t want to do anything that, if you decide to run for president, they would publish it in a newspaper later on.’” Many others whom we interviewed expressed the same sentiments in different words: “I care about the kind of person I am.” “I need to be able to look in the mirror and like what I see.” And, “At the end of the day, what counts is your integrity, your reputation for good work, your word, your honor”—signs of one’s moral identity.

People who function at the highest levels, maximizing all their potentials, strive for a unity in the self among personal and moral concerns. Although absolute unity is rarely achieved (other than by moral exemplars with extraordinary degrees of moral commitment), anyone can approach this ideal over time. Cultivating a moral identity—the sense that moral concerns play a key role in determining who I am and who I want to be—is the psychological means to this end. People who have gained enduring success in their business and community lives reflect this sense. They pay attention to the “inner voice” that provides them with a moral compass, and they learn to guide their conduct according to the virtues and principles that flow from their moral identities. It is a lifelong quest.

The consequences of that quest begin with the self but go far beyond it. The character of any organization is determined by the character of the men and women who work in it. If the organization is to avoid ethical pitfalls, acquire an admirable reputation, and serve its customers in an innovative and valuable manner, the “inner voices” of those men and women must steer them in the right direction.

Moral identity is as important on the organizational level as on the personal level. When the two levels are in synch, with a focused sense of moral purpose and a clear ethical compass to guide them, the incentives of the organization become well aligned with the workers’ highest aspirations. When they are out of synch, however, workers are discouraged from making the right choices and rewarded for the wrong behavior. Every business leader’s charge is to make sure that his or her organization does not just profess an ethical code, but that it reflects a genuine sense of moral identity in its approach to clients, customers, employees, and all the other stakeholders.

This should also be the charge of ethics training in business schools and other educational settings (such as midcareer workshops). Unfortunately, too often it is not. Most ethical training in business fails to engage students in the profound questions of how workers and organizations can build strong moral identities. Most ethics courses tend to dwell on philosophical dilemmas and hypothetical scenarios, which students may experience more as problems in logic than in personal character development. At times, notorious cases of scandals are used to illustrate the real-life dangers of fraud, but even then, the world is cast in stark terms of good and evil, and the solution offered is a set of rules, mostly legal, by which students are implored to abide.

Predictably, this odd combination of philosophical game-playing and scary sermonizing leaves students cold. Anyone who hangs around a business school knows that few students take their mandated ethics courses seriously: they attend to fulfill the requirement and then blow it off without much further thought. In fact, one recent study of almost two thousand graduates from thirteen top business schools found that “B-School education not only fails to improve the moral character of its students, it actually weakens it.”[10] Noting that study and his own observations of programs at Harvard and elsewhere, sociologist Amitai Etzioni concludes: “Business schools—the training grounds for corporate tycoons—have been forced to face the fact that they have failed to produce honest brokers.”[11]

The heart of the matter, still unexplored in almost all business schools, is how people in business can develop the kind of allconsuming sense of purpose that fires their imaginations and guides their every choice. B-school ethics courses have narrowly confined themselves to what I call “restrictive morality” and have lacked the vision to engage with the larger issues of moral identity and character development. As I have discussed earlier in this chapter, restrictive morality is essential but incomplete. It does not in itself provide a sufficient foundation for purpose, empathy, or success. Alone, it is wholly negative and uninspiring: no wonder students let it pass through one ear and out the other.

There is a recent movement in the social sciences called “positive psychology.”[12] It is an approach that tries to capture the positive inner forces that move people, rather than the fears and baser drives that Freud and other past luminaries of the field emphasized. Although it is still young, the positive psychology movement is attracting notable attention from those who believe that people, when given the chance, will dedicate themselves to things that inspire them, and only in doing so will they find real satisfaction and happiness.[13]

In the framework presented in this chapter, the key is the whole pyramid. No single dimension suffices to forge a moral identity in business: they all must be pursued together, as a piece. It is not always possible for anyone—even the highest-minded person—to accomplish this: as I stressed in the Introduction, mixed motives and imperfections are part of every life story. People who succeed do the best they can, making as few compromises as possible. Over the long haul, by sustaining their quests, their moral identities strengthen and they grow in integrity. Such people build lives of satisfaction for themselves and service for the many who benefit from their achievements. I now turn to some of these people.

[4]M. Nisan, “Personal Identity and Education for the Desirable,” Journal of Moral Education (1996): 25, no. 1, pp. 75–83.

[5]A. Colby and W. Damon, Some Do Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Commitment, New York: Free Press, 1992.


[7]Ibid., p. 278.

[8]H. Gardner, M. Csikszentmihalyi, and W. Damon, Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, New York: Basic Books, 2001.

[9]W. Damon, The Moral Child: Nurturing Children’s Natural Growth, New York: Free Press, 1990.

[10]A. Etzioni, “When It Comes to Ethics, B-Schools Get an F,” Washington Post, August 4, 2000, referring to a recent Aspen Institute study.


[12]M. E. P. Seligman and M. Csikszentmihalyi, “Positive Psychology: An Introduction,” American Psychologist (2000): 55, no. 1, pp. 5–14.