Needed “Assembling the Parts Into a Whole”: The Turn of Moral Identity and Its Implications for Character Education

Yi Lin Chen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background Since character education re-emerged in the United States in the 1990s, it has been a crucial educational policy in many countries worldwide. Character education is generally described as an educational enterprise aimed at the inculcation of virtues, and Aristotelian ethics is generally acknowledged as the major philosophical foundation of character education. The burgeoning domain of positive psychology emphasizes broadening the types of virtues, and the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues in the United Kingdom proposed four “building blocks of character,” namely, intellectual virtues, moral virtues, civic virtues, and performance virtues. However, I argue that this description follows the same line of thought, that is, that character is divided into various traits. Besides, it helps to explain why character education is usually characterized as aiming at the inculcation of virtues. Research Questions and Purpose This paper discusses two major questions: (1) Why does character education focus its attention on the inculcation of “virtues” rather than on the straightforward formation of “character”? (2) Furthermore, why is this common line of thought problematic? What is wrong with the commonplace description of character as the aggregate of character traits? In responding to these two questions, I attempt to show that, although the common practice of dividing character into traits, and thus good character into virtues, is theoretically and practically feasible, it presents the risk of not seeing the forest for the trees. Findings The aforementioned common practice of conceiving of character education as an educational enterprise aimed at the inculcation of virtues is explainable on two main grounds. First, the major theoretical foundation of character education, that is, Aristotelian ethics, focuses on the cultivation of various virtues. The shifting of the focus of discourse from character to virtue is understandable. Second, as noted by Cunningham, character is difficult, or even nearly impossible, to operationalize. A feasible alternative is to focus on the specific traits of character. An application of such an approach is trait theory within personality study. Furthermore, although positive psychology aims to establish a “new science of character” and thus investigate the formation of good character, its proponents state that character is manifold in that it is composed of various strengths and virtues. Therefore, dividing character into traits and conceptualizing the intent of character education as the inculcation of virtues are expected. However, a severe shortcoming of the common practice of dividing character into traits or virtues is that it neglects the integrity of character as a whole and the individual nature of each person’s character. By referring to the literature on moral exemplar education, I highlight the idea of moral identity. The moral identities of moral exemplars explain their subjectively experienced personal responsibility and subsequent moral commitment and moral action. Moreover, exemplars’ distinct moral personalities and character are clearly reflected in their moral identities. Therefore, moral identity must be further investigated. According to Blasi, moral (self) identity is one of the various dimensions of one’s self-identity and is paramount because it relates to one’s real self. More specifically, moral identity is related to the degree to which specific moral ideals and concerns are incorporated into the sense of self. First, moral identity symbolizes the extent to which morality is incorporated into one’s identity and therefore it is a matter of degrees and characteristic of individual differences. It symbolizes the degree to which moral concerns are appropriated and internalized. Moral identity is also related to what Kupperman calls the “strength of character.” When confronted by temptations or dangers, a person with strong strength of character is resolute in behaving consistently with their moral concerns. By contrast, a person with weak character is more likely to succumb to temptations or dangers. Second, moral identity is related not only to moral cognition but also moral motivation and moral action. The stronger an individual identifies with certain morals, the more eager they are to put those morals into practice because their moral agency compels them to assume personal responsibility for that with which they identify and accordingly imbues them with a strict obligation to act. The self is the main source of moral compulsion. Moral obligation and compulsion are internal feelings and thus not imposed externally. Finally, a person’s moral identity is distinct from those of others. Thus, although Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. are both moral exemplars, their character is distinct, as depicted by their differing moral identities. The individualization of character is therefore manifest. Moreover, moral identity encourages individuals to step back and consider which moral concerns are integral to their self-identity and thus inseparable from their real self. The aforementioned notion of moral identity provides an opportunity to examine the various traits composing character from a holistic viewpoint. Implications for Educational Practice The proposed idea of “assembling parts into a whole” is not meant to replace the notion of inculcating virtues, which is characteristic of character education. These two notions of character education are complementary. This study has several implications. First, the cultivation of individual virtues should be considered the starting point and primary mission of character education, and the secondary goals should be the integration of character and development of moral identity. Thus, the missing piece of the moral identity puzzle ─ namely, how the inculcation of virtues paves the way for moral identity development ─ should be considered in the study of character education. Second, moral identity is the key to explaining the research gap related to moral cognition and moral action. To convert the “should” (the head) into the “must” (the heart), one’s identification with moral concerns must be strengthened. In this regard, moral exemplars may inspire and touch the hearts of individuals. However, because of the induvial nature of moral personality and character, presenting as many moral models as possible and encouraging educated individuals to select their own moral exemplars may help them to successfully identify with various moral ideals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)255-283
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Research in Education Sciences
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2022 Dec


  • A. Blasi
  • character education
  • moral exemplar
  • moral identity
  • virtue

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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