Moral Identity and the Acquisition of Virtue: A Self-regulation View

Review of General Psychology 27 (4) (2023)
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The acquisition of virtue can be conceptualized as a self-regulatory process in which deliberate practice results in increasingly higher levels of skillfulness in leading a virtuous life. This conceptualization resonates with philosophical virtue theories as much as it converges with psychological models about skill development, expertise, goal motivation, and self-regulation. Yet, the conceptualization of virtue as skill acquisition poses the crucial question of motivation: What motivates individuals to self-improvement over time so that they can learn from past experience, correct mistakes, and expand their ethical knowledge to new and unfamiliar circumstances? In this paper, it is argued that the motivation to increase one’s level of skillfulness in leading a virtuous life is supported by a specific identity goal, namely the goal to be a moral person. However, this moral identity goal needs to carry specific goal characteristics in order to effectively provide this motivation. It needs to be sufficiently abstract, internally motivated and promotion- rather than prevention-oriented. Research in developmental psychology suggests that the moral identity of children is rather concrete, externally motivated, and prevention-oriented. With development, higher levels of abstraction, internal motivation, and promotion-orientation gain importance providing an important motivational basis for a self-regulated process of virtue acquisition.

Author's Profile

Matt Stichter
Washington State University


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