Harnessing the Power of Moral Identity to Improve Morality

Written by Doug McConnell

Over the last 25 years there has been an explosion of psychological research investigating the influence of ‘moral identity’ on agency with a recent meta-analysis of 111 studies concluding that people’s moral identity has as much of an effect on agency is either their moral emotion or powers of moral reasoning (Hertz & Krettenauer, 2016). Although the mainstream view of moral psychology is that moral self-concept plays a significant role in moral agency, the practical ethical implications of this view remain underexplored. Here, I argue that one of those implications is that, in situations where we need to improve morality, such as decision-making in the boardroom, consumer behaviour, and reform of criminal offenders, we should do so (in part) by developing people’s moral identities. Indeed, in many cases, changes to moral identity have the potential to efficiently deliver relatively large moral improvements.

So what is moral identity? The dominant theory in moral psychology holds that we each have multiple self-conceptual identities, e.g. mother, brother, Catholic, police officer. Moral identity is one of the identities in each of our identity collections. Our identities develop in response to particular normative requirements, so people who are brothers develop brother identities, people who are teachers develop teacher identities, and so on. Because nearly everyone tries to follow moral norms (excluding psychopaths and the severely mentally disabled), nearly everyone develops a moral identity. Identities are cognitive constructs which act as self-regulatory mechanisms by guiding attention, interpretation, and behavioural response. So our moral identities direct attention to and interpretation of moral features of experience and guide moral action in response. Identities are thought to generate motivation because of a desire for self-consistency or aversion to the cognitive dissonance of acting contrary to one’s self-concept. Because only some aspects of our overall self-concepts can be active in working cognition at any one time, there is competition between identities for activation. The more centrally that moral identity features in one’s overall self-concept the more likely it is to be activated and so the more likely one is to act morally (at least by one’s own lights). The activation of identities is also sensitive to cues in the environment so that cues for morality tend to activate moral identities while cues for self-interest can displace moral identity (Aquino, Freeman, Reed, Lim, & Felps, 2009).

Research is now trying to discover the relationship between moral identity, moral emotions, moral reasoning, and the ability to shape a morally supportive environment. From the armchair we can already say that moral judgment (be that based on reason and/or moral intuition) must be required to develop a properly moral identity; without it, there would be no way to create a moral identity distinct from all the other non-moral identities. Furthermore, self-consistency or aversion to cognitive dissonance are not themselves moral motivations, so the moral authority of moral self-concepts must be grounded in the moral judgments involved in creating them. Of course, the mere capacity for moral judgment doesn’t guarantee good moral judgments, so consistently inaccurate moral judgments will lead to a warped moral self-concept (this seems to be what has happened in the case of mass murderer Anders Breivik, for example).

It also seems likely that moral reasoning, moral emotion, moral self-concept, and the moral cues provided by the environment probably reinforce each other through feedback loops. As an agent develops her moral self-concept, she can increasingly rely on it to elicit moral emotions, judgments, and action which frees up valuable cognitive resources. Having a more central moral identity is associated with feeling stronger moral emotions (Krettenauer & Casey, 2015). Moral identity will tend to be self-reinforcing because it increases the consistency of moral acts which the agent can attribute to himself, further building the moral identity. Finally, the developing moral identity should increase the agent’s sensitivity to the environmental factors that elicit one’s moral self-concept and those self-interested temptations that clash with it. This information enables one to shape the environment so that it maximises moral cues and minimises self-interested ones.

This moral psychology suggests, among other things, that improvements to criminal offenders’ moral identities will tend to decrease recidivism, improvements to board members’ moral identities will tend to result in decisions that better consider employees and the environment, and improvements to consumers’ moral identities will tend to increase the purchase of sustainable and fair products.

An initial objection to this approach to moral improvement, however, is that it will be inefficient. It will take too much time and effort to change moral self-concepts in order to get the moral payoff we seek. I admit that when people are suffering from severe psychological problems or living in chaotic environments, changes to their moral identities will probably be insufficient. That said, difficult cases are likely to benefit from multi-pronged solutions and so change to moral self-concept might yet form part of the solution. In any case, much of the immoral behaviour in the world is conducted by people with typical psychologies in typical environments.

For these people, I think one of the largest and most accessible improvements they can make to their moral agency is to develop their moral self-concepts. One reason for thinking this is that moral reasoning and moral emotion are difficult to change. The typical adult is already about as good at moral reasoning as he or she is going to get, although formal education can improve moral reasoning to some extent (Bebeau & Thoma, 2003). In any case, it’s common for people to morally reason correctly yet fail to act on those reasons – this motivational gap was one of the main reasons moral psychologists began to move away from the Kohlberg’s model based in moral reason. Stronger moral emotions might help but it is also difficult to will oneself to feel stronger moral emotions (as mentioned above though, evidence suggests that we can generate stronger moral emotions by developing a more central moral identity). Tellingly, studies of moral exemplars indicate that they don’t rely on exceptionally strong moral reasoning or moral emotion but appear to be guided by dominant moral identities (Colby & Damon, 1992). They simply act in accordance with their moral identity and don’t report feeling the internal conflict familiar to most of us where we weigh up enacting our moral identities versus enacting a more self-interested identity.

In contrast to the challenges of cultivating moral emotions and improving moral reasoning, it is relatively easy to build self-conceptual content. We do it all the time as we interpret our lives, anticipate our futures, and pursue our goals. I can adopt moral self-governing policies to resist ceding to self-interested temptations. I can make plans that tend to ensure I avoid environments replete with immoral temptations. The plans and policies I commit to depend on who I interpret myself to be, and I can (to some extent) change my set of self-interpretations so that they improve the plausibility of the plans and policies I morally value. This is one reason why it might be effective to tell children that they are ‘good’ because, if that self-interpretation is adopted, it supports morally good plans and policies (Grusec & Redler, 1980). Arguably, commitment to morally directed plans, policies, and supporting self-interpretations is how we construct our moral identities. These plans, policies, and self-interpretations can be tailored specifically to the kinds of morally charged situations we face which means they have the potential to be more powerful than the more domain-general powers of moral reasoning and moral emotion. If we support each other in the development of our moral identities, we should be able to get closer to the moral agency of moral exemplars.

Of course, not all self-conceptual development is easy. It is notoriously difficult to make self-transformational changes where one aims to replace well-established aspects of a self-concept with new beliefs or to recognise and give up on deeply self-deceptive beliefs (McConnell, 2016). The agential efforts required in self-conceptual change means that if a person doesn’t want to develop their moral self-concept it probably won’t be possible to force them to (even if it were morally permissible to do so). However, I am optimistic that, in general, people will want to strengthen their moral self-concept. This optimism stems from research by Strohminger et al. (2017) which indicates that we consider our moral selves to be the most central part of who we are; we take our moral selves to be our ‘true selves’. Initially this might seem to be a problem, since trying to change someone’s ‘true self’ would appear to pose an existential risk. But developing someone’s moral identity doesn’t necessary entail changing its core principles. The same research indicates we believe that our ‘true selves’ are moral even when we consistently fail to act in accordance with them. That is, those who act immorally tend to maintain a moral identity that operates as a (perhaps wishful) ideal despite it not having much sway in decision-making. As long as that moral ideal remains, however, people could be expected to willingly participate in a process to facilitate the realisation of their ‘true selves’. Of course, where the person’s moral self-concept itself is actually immoral (such as a Breivik-type character) we would need to change the content of the ideal and, in these cases, it will be much more difficult to convince the subject to participate.

If I am right about the scope to improve morality through developing moral self-concepts, then we should look to develop forms of moral education and (professional) training that actively target self-conceptual change rather than merely providing morally relevant information and principles. We should also aim to design environments that support activation of moral self-concepts by providing moral cues and reducing cues for self-interest. Obviously, much work would have to be done to work out the practical details of such projects if they are to be effective.

As a final thought it is interesting to consider how the development of moral bioenhancements might change the picture. Novel bioenhancements might improve moral reasoning or heighten moral emotions so effectively that the adjustment of moral self-concepts is rendered superfluous. But we might also develop bioenhancements that improve the efficiency of moral self-conceptual change, such as a drug that renders self-conceptual beliefs more labile. Such a drug could help a person abandon a belief blocking the proper development of a moral self-concept, e.g. that he is irredeemably bad because of a terrible act committed when he was young, and adopt beliefs that better support redemption and moral development. Indeed, we already have drugs that do something along these lines. Certain psychedelic drugs have effected long-term changes in participants’ personalities, increasing their ‘openness’ which “encompasses aesthetic appreciation and sensitivity, imagination and fantasy, and broad-minded tolerance of others’ viewpoints and values.” (MacLean, Johnson, & Griffiths, 2011). This is only speculation, but it seems likely that greater openness would aid self-conceptual change by promoting consideration of different viewpoints and imagining oneself in different ways. So here is a further reason to pursue research into psychedelics as moral bioenhancers in addition to those outlined recently by Brian Earp (2018).



Aquino, K., Freeman, D., Reed, A., Lim, V. K. G., & Felps, W. (2009). Testing a Social-Cognitive Model of Moral Behavior: The Interactive Influence of Situations and Moral Identity Centrality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(1), 123–141.

Bebeau, M., & Thoma, S. (2003). Guide for DIT-2. In Minnesota: Center for the Study of Ethical Development (3rd ed.).

Colby, A., & Damon, W. (1992). Some Do Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Commitment. New York: Free Press.

Earp, B. D. (2018). Psychedelic Moral Enhancement. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements, 83, 415-439.

Grusec, J., & Redler, E. (1980). Attribution, reinforcement, and altruism: A developmental analysis. Developmental Psychology, 16, 525–534.

Hertz, S. G., & Krettenauer, T. (2016). Does moral identity effectively predict moral behavior?: A meta-analysis. Review of General Psychology, 20(2), 129–140.

Krettenauer, T., & Casey, V. (2015). Moral Identity Development and Positive Moral Emotions: Differences Involving Authentic and Hubristic Pride. Identity, 15(3), 173–187.

MacLean, K. A., Johnson, M. W., & Griffiths, R. R. (2011). Mystical experiences occasioned by the hallucinogen psilocybin lead to increases in the personality domain of openness. Journal of Psychopharmacology (Oxford, England), 25(11), 1453–61.

McConnell, D. (2016). Narrative self-constitution and recovery from addiction. American Philosophical Quarterly, 53(3), 307–322.

Strohminger, N., Knobe, J., & Newman, G. (2017). The True Self: A Psychological Concept Distinct From the Self. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(4), 551–560.

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3 Responses to Harnessing the Power of Moral Identity to Improve Morality

  • Sarah says:

    Interesting. I wonder whether there is also occurring through greater online connectivity of different groups of people by interests (rather than random factors like location), this kind of opposite phenomena but in a negative way – a development or reinforcement of moral identities that are abhorrent eg terrorist groups and paedophiles and so on and that could in part explain the apparent increase in far-right mass-shootings etc. Because they are able to connect with a group and develop an identity that they see as a positive group identity rather than as a lone criminal/ someone who has something wrong with them, where they might otherwise seek to suppress or seek help for their behaviours or desires, they come to form a group identity, including a moral identity. And if so, if there is a responsibility to try to prevent this or prevent them ever meeting this way?

  • Doug McConnell says:

    That’s a very interesting hypothesis. Certainly it would seem that these online communities provide a way of legitimizing aspects of self-concept that are otherwise strongly discouraged. As aspects of self-concept are strengthened they will tend to guide thought, attention, and behaviour more powerfully and consistently. There has always been a chance of ‘falling in with the wrong crowd’ but the internet appears to amplify that risk and provides ‘the wrong crowd’ new avenues to recruit members.

    Still, its difficult to justify preventing free association among citizens and, in any case, the internet makes it very difficult to do so. Perhaps the best solution is continue to try and foster more moral aspects of identity in the other social domains people at risk occupy….

  • Adam Brevers says:

    It’s amazing how often “moral”, when used on this blog, is indistinguishable from “the opinions of an urbanite Western liberal”.

    As long as people agree with your set of watered down cosmopolitan opinions, they are moral. If they deviate, immoral.

    Convenient, that. But it’s a product of expensive and exclusive education, so who are we plebes to argue?

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