Ethics and Values are Learned

Sociologists provide a theory of moral behavior to explain ethical lapses

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(RxWiki News) It is an age-old human question: why do some people behave morally, while others do not? Sociologists have long worked to answer this question.  

A new theory of the moral self may help explain the ethical failures in the financial industry that led to the current recession.

Although much of sociology has theorized that most people behave the way they are culturally expected to, research shows that how individuals see themselves in moral terms is also an important motivator to their behavior.

"Morality is not the same for everyone."

Jan E. Stets of the University of California, Riverside led the study along with Michael J. Carter of California State University. They surveyed a diverse group of more than 350 university students in the two-phase research conducted three months apart, to assess moral identity and emotions such as guilt or shame.

First, the students were asked how they responded in specific situations where they had a choice to do the right or wrong thing; examples were copying another student's answers, driving drunk, giving to charity or returning money and lost items.

In the second phase, the participants were asked to rate each scenario in moral terms, rating themselves on a continuum between two opposite characteristics such as honest/dishonest, caring/uncaring, fair/unfair, principled/unprincipled, etc.

The higher the students placed themselves on the positive side of the scale, the higher their moral identity was rated. And these individuals also tended to actually behave consistently with their moral self-ratings.

“We found that individuals with a high moral identity score were more likely to behave morally, while those with a low moral identity score were less likely to behave morally," said Stets and Carter.

And when the participants received feedback from others that did not confirm their own moral identity standard, they felt more guilt and shame than those whose moral identities were verified.

“One’s identity standard guides a person’s behavior," Stets explained. "Then the person sees the reactions of others to one’s own behavior. If others have a low moral identity and others do not challenge the illicit behavior that follows from it, then the person will continue to do what s/he is doing. This is how immoral practices can emerge.”

More research is needed to identify the source of moral identity meanings, Stets and Carter said. The study, “A Theory of the Self for the Sociology of Morality,” was published in the February 2012 issue of the journal American Sociological Review.

Last Updated:
February 18, 2012