Yi Lin Chen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose This paper draws on psychological research findings regarding moral exemplars and the related notions of A. M. Flescher and B. Williams to investigate the adequacy of J. O. Urmson’s “false modesty” comment on moral saints and heroes. Some crucial implications for character and moral education are discovered. Design/methodology/approach Documentary and theoretical analysis are used to distill certain critical perspectives of moral exemplars with the aim of scrutinizing the adequacy of Urmson’s “false modesty” comment. Findings/results Moral exemplars’ psychology is discovered to be characterized by two features. First, these moral exemplars frequently state “I have to do this or I would feel uneasy.” This is well captured by a pair of concepts from Williams: practical necessity and moral incapacity. Second, they often remark “I could do more and I should (have) do(ne) more.” According to W. Damon and A. Colby, this statement relates to their strong identification with their moral ideals, resulting in a strongly felt personal responsibility and subsequent moral commitment and actions. In sum, the author contends that moral saints and heroes sincerely feel obliged to do what they have done. This is in contradistinction to Urmson’s “false modesty” comment—namely, that they “pretend” to have a low opinion of their accomplishments. Moral exemplars’ subjective sense of duty is starkly different from that of ordinary people. Drawing on Flescher’s analysis of “three sorts of ought and three kinds of duty,” the author concludes that as an individual matures morally and becomes more virtuous, his or her subjective sense of duty accordingly expands and strengthens. A judged-to-be supererogatory action is then extremely likely to become an action that he or she now feels obliged to perform. This is termed the “covariance of duty with virtue.” At this point, such people are by no means being falsely modest. Quite the contrary, their true modesty comes from their clear awareness that they still fall (far) short of the moral ideal. Additionally, they genuinely feel “I could and I must do more” to attempt to approximate the ideal. This favorably characterizes “the morality of aspiration” in L. L. Fuller’s term. Originality/value The originality of this paper is its attempt to bridge the conversation among speculative philosophers and empirical psychologists on morality. The contributions may be illustrated in two respects. First, an investigation into moral exemplars’ subjective moral psychology reveals that an individual’s subjective sense of duty covaries with his state of virtue. This idea is employed to refute Urmson’s “false modesty” comment. Second, the morality of aspiration is illustrated in terms of the moral agent’s strong identification with the moral ideal, which in turn motivates him or her to be committed to the continuous pursuit of the ideal and accordingly the feeling of falling short of said ideal. Implications for Policy/Practice Three major educational implications can be drawn from this investigation. First, it is incumbent upon the partnership among the parent, teacher, and student to have good knowledge of the developmental trajectory and status of the student’s moral character. In particular, the student’s faithfulness manifest in constantly facing up to his or her real state of moral character is especially critical. Second, given that the shaping of moral identity is a developmental process, the core values of moral character can be reasonably taken to be common learning topics across the various educational stages. However, it must be stressed that educational tasks are different for differing stages. Whether the task in question achieves the inculcation of local virtues or conversion of local virtues to more global ones must be specified. Third, the storytelling of the lively and rich narratives of moral exemplars helps enhance the student’s moral identification with the manifested moral values.

Translated title of the contributionUrmson 超義務理念評析及其品德教育 蘊義
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)29-60
Number of pages32
JournalContemporary Educational Research Quarterly
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2020 Dec


  • moral and character education
  • moral exemplar
  • obligation
  • supererogation
  • virtue

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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