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Agency in moral action : mapping the moral self Frimer, Jeremy A.

Abstract

By telling us who we are as well as how to think and act, our self-definitions regulate interpersonal relationships and moral functioning. Aspects of the self-understanding of individuals were examined so as to give a fuller account of moral functioning than those posited by extant rationality-based models. Self-content refers to the seven different domains of life posited by William James (1890): physical, active, social, psychological, agency, continuity, and distinctness. Previous attempts to map self-understanding to moral action have generally produced weak and inconsistent findings. A new model was developed, which attempted to correct some lingering conceptual and methodological issues. Participants were 99 university students, who were recruited through 30 student clubs--a heterogeneous sample with a variety of life orientations. Moral behavior was operationalized as an aggregate of three measures: (a) self-reported altruism, (b) self-reported ecological behaviors, and (c) a behavioral measure of honesty. Participants also responded to an individual self-understanding interview. These interviews were coded for individuals’ construal of and emphasis on the seven different aspects of their existence. Associations between these aspects of self-understanding and moral behavior were explored. Results indicate that the new model is predictive of moral action; the present study is the first to demonstrate a significant association between a self-content scheme (namely, agency) and moral action. Individuals that tended to implicate deliberate and volitional efforts of the self in causing some kind of change tended to engage in moral behavior more so than those that took a more deterministic stance. This finding is supportive of Blasi’s (1984) theory of the moral self. Discussion focuses on the nature of moral identity and its central role in a comprehensive understanding of moral functioning.

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