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Lesson II: The Moral Agent

Developing Virtue as Habit

Moral character refers to the existence or lack of virtues such as integrity,

. ht t in person has a good moral
courage, fortitude, honesty, and loyalty. To say t a a cer a
. d d citizen with a sound moral
character means that he/she 1s a good person an a goo

1. Moral Character and Virtues

The term "chara.cter" is derived from the Greek word 'charakter,' which was
initially used as a mark impressed upon a coin. The word "character" later came
to mean a distinct mark by which one thing was distinguished from others, and .
then chiefly to mean the assemblage of qualities that distinguish one person from
another. This stress on distinctiveness or individuality tends to merge "character" with
"personality" in modern usage. For instance, when thinking of a person's idiosyncratic
mannerisms, social ges~ures, or habits.of dress, we might say that "he has personalitt
or that "he's quite a character." ·

The use in ethics of the word "character," however, has a differen·t linguistic
history. At the beginning of Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, the Greek philosopher
Aristotle tells us that there are two distinct of human excellences, (1) excellences of
thought and (2) excellences of character~His phrase for excellences of (morta 1) character,
'ethikai aretai,' is often translated as "moral virtue(s)" anq "moral excellence(s)." The
Greek 'ethikos' (ethical) is the adjective tognate with 'ethos' (character). So when we
speak of a 'virtue' or an excellence of moral character, the highlig~ting is not on mere
distinctiveness or individuality, but on the blend of qualities that make a person the
sort of ethically admirable individual he/she is.

"Moral character," therefore, in philosophical sense, refers to having or lacking

moral virtue. If one lacks ·virtue, he/she may have any of the moral vices, or he/
she may be marked by a condition somewhere in between virtue and vice, such as
continence or incontinence.

Moreover, philosophers usually think that moral character traits, unlike other
personality or psychological traits, have an irreducibly evaluative dimension; that is,
they involve a normative judgment. The agent is morally responsible for having the
moral character trait itself or for the outcome of that trait. Hence, a certain moral
character trait is a trait for which the agent is morally responsible.


2. 1he Circular Relation of Acts and Character

In the process of moral development, there is the circular relation between
acts that build character and moral character itself. Not all acts help to build moral

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character, but those acts which emanate from moral characters certainly matter in l

moral development. Hence, there appears the apparent circular relationship between
individual acts and moral character. A person's actions determine his/her moral
character, but moral character itself generates acts that help in developing either
virtue or vice.

This goes to show that moral development should also be understood in the
sense of human flourishing. This flourishing is attained by the habitual practice of
moral and intellectual excellences, or 'virtues.' In the .context of developing morally
which also brings about self-realization and happiness, acting in line with virtues is
acting in accordance with reason . Indeed, · philosophers like Aristotle hold ·that the
function of human being consists in activities which manifest the best states of his
rational aspect, that is,·the virtues.

Virtuous traits of character ought to be stable and enduring and are not mere
products of fortune, but of learning, constant practice, and cultivation. But we have
to add that virtuous traits of character are called excellences of the human being
because they are the best exercis·e of reason, which is the activity characteristic of
human beings. In this sense, the Greek moralists believe, virtuous acts complete or
perfect human life.

Nonetheless, the Greek philosophers think that it takes someone of good

moral character to determine with regularity and reliability what individual acts are
appropriate and reasonable in certain situations and that it takes someone of good
moral character to decide with regularity and reliability how a~d when to secure
goods and resources for himself/herself and others. Aristotle thus states that, it is not
easy to define in rules which acts deserve moral praise and blame, and that, these
. matters require the judgment of the virtuous person, that is, someone with good
moral character.

3. Moral Characters as Dispositions

The moral character traits that constitute a person's moral character are
characteristically understood as behavioral and affective dispositions. Generally
speaking, 'dispositions' are particular kinds of properties or ch,aracteristics that objects



can possess. In the physical world, examples of dispositions include th e elaS ticity of a
rubber band, the solubility of a sugar-cube in water, the fragility of porcelain, and th e
magnetism of a lodestone.

Among human beings, moral character traits-either virtues or vices-are also

considered as dispositions. Moral character traits are those dispositions of character
for which it is suitable to hold agents morally responsible. A moral character trait for
which a person is deserving of a positive reactive attitude, such as praise or gratitude,
is a virtue. On the other hand, a vice is a moral character trait for which the agent is

deserving of a negative reactive attitude, such as resentment or blame.

In other words, a good moral character is practically a disposition to do virtuous

acts. Oppositely, a bad moral character is, in effect; a disposition to do vicious deeds.
' '

4. Six Stages of Moral Development

The American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927- 1987) is best known for
his theory of stages of moral development. In principle, he agreed with the Swiss
clinical psychologist Jean Piaget's (1896-1980) theory ' of moral development but
wanted to develop his ideas further.

Kohl berg employed Piaget's storytelling technique to tell stories involving moral
dilemmas. In each case, Kohlberg offered an option to be considered, for example,
between the rights of some authority and the needs of some deserving person who
is being unfairly treated. One of his best known stories concerns a man called Heinz:

"In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was
one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a
druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make,
but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $200
for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's
husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only
get together about $ 1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his
wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let himyay later. But the druggist
said: "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it." So Heinz got
desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug-for his wife." (Kohlberg, as
quoted in "Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development," n.d.)


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Kohlberg asked a series of questions such a'S: Should Heinz have stolen the
drug? Would it change anything if Heinz did not love his wife? What if the person
dying was a stranger, would it make any difference? Should the police arrest the
chemist for murder if th'e woman died?

By analyzing the answers from children of various ages to these questions,

Kohlberg hoped to discern the ways in which moral reasoning developed as
individuals grew older. What Kohlberg was mostly interested in was·not whether the
children judged the action right or wrong, but the reasons provided for the decision.
He discovered that the reasons tended to change as the children got older.

Kohlberg pinpointed three distinct levels of moral reasoning each with two
sub stages composing his so-called six stages of moral development.. He believed
that people can only pass through these levels in the order listed. Each new stage
replaces the kind of reasoning typical of the previous stage. Some do not achieve all
the stages.

Level 1 - Pre-conventional morality

• Stage l Opedience and Punishment Orientation ·

. Stage 2. Individualism and Exchange

Level 2 - Conventional morality

Stage 3. Good Interpersonal Relationships

. Stage 4. Maintaining the Social Order

Level 3 - Post-conventional morality

• Stage 5. Social Contract and Individual Rights

• Stage 6. Universal Principles

Kohlberg's proposed levels and stages are interpreted and summarized in

this manner by Education.com ("Kohlberg's Three Levels and Six Stages of Moral
Reasoning/' n.d.)


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Level Age Range Stage Nature of Moral Reasoning I
Seen in preschool
-t children, most People make decisions based on what is best for themselves,
n Stage 1:
Level I: elementary school without regard for others' needs or feelings. They obey rules
Punishment- .,
Preconventional students, some junior only if established by more powerful individuals; they may
avoidance and
Morality high school students, disobey if they aren 't likely to get caught. "Wrong" behaviors are
"ti obedience
and a few high school those that will be punished.
0 students
,..; People recognize that others also have needs. They may try
i Stage 2:
("' to satisfy others' needs if their own needs are also met ("you
Exchange of
scratch my back, /'II scratch yours"). They continue to define right
X and wrong primarily in terms of consequences to themselves.

< Seen in a few older
;:rs elementary school
students, some junior People make decisions based on what actions will please others,
0 Level II:

high school students, especially authority figures and other individuals with high
Conventional Stage 3: Good status (e.g., teachers, popular peers). They are concerned about
and many high school
Morality boy/girl maintaining relationships through sharing, trust, and loyalty,
students (Stage 4
typically does not and they take other people's perspectives and intentions into
-1 account when making decisions.
-< appear until the high
school years)


Level Age Range Stage Nature of Moral Reasoning

People look to society as a whole for guidelines about right
or wrong. They know rules are necessary for keeping society
Stage 4: Law running smoothly and believe it is their "duty" to obey them .
-4 and order However, they perceive rules to be inflexible; they don 't
n necessarily recognize that as society's needs change, rules
should change as well. -
2 People recognize that rules represent agreements among
f"" many individuals about appropriate behavior. Rules are seen as
m Rarely seen before
Level II : potentially useful mechanisms that can maintain the general'
0 colleg~ (Stage 6 is Stage 5: Social
m Postconventional social order and protect individual rights, rather than as absolute
-! extremely rare even in contract
;;t Morality dictates that must be obeyed simply because they are "the law."
f'\ adults)
t- People also recognize the flexibility of rules; rules that no longer
m serve society's best interests can and should be changed.
~- Stage 6 is a hypotheticali "ideal" stage that few people ever
0 Stage 6 : reach. People in this stage adhere to a few abstract, universal
2 Universal principles (e.g., equality of all people, respect for human dignity,
0 ethical commitment to justice) that transcend specific norms and rules.
m principle They answer to a strong inner conscience and willingly disobey
M laws that violate their own ethical principles.


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S. Getting to the Highest Level, Conscience-Based Moral Decisions

Another way to view Kohlberg's stages, e~pecially when combined with Piaget's
theory, is as follows ("Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development," n.d.):

st age l : Respect for power and punishment

A young child (age 1-5) chooses what to do-what is right-acco·raing to what

he/she wants to do and can do without getting into trouble. In this levet to be right,
one ought to be obedient to the people in power and, thus, avoid punishment. The
motto in this stage seems to be: "Might makes right."

Stage 2: Looking out for #1

Children (age 5-10) are disposed to be egotistic or self-serving. They lack respect
for others' rights but may give to others on the assumption that they will get as much
or even more in return . Instead of loyalty, gratitude, or justice, the case is more a
matter of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." The motto here seems to be:
"What's in it for me?"

Stage 3: Being a "Good Boy" or "Nice Girl."

In this stage, people (age 8-16) have shifted from pleasing themselves to pleasing
important others, usually parents, teachers, or friends. They seek approval and thus
conform to someone else's expectations. When charged of doing something wrong,
their behavior is likely to be justified by stating "everyone else is doing it" or "I didn't
intend to hurt anyone." The motto here: "I want to be nice."

Stage 4: Law and order thinking

Here, the majority of people (16 years.old and older) have internalized society's
rules about how to behave. They feel indebted to conform, no longer to just family
and friends, but also to society's laws and cus.toms. They realize that it is important
to do one's duty to maintain social order. Social leaders are assumed to be right
and social rules are adopted without considering the core moral principles involved.
Thus, social control in this stage is exercised through guilt associated with breaking a
rule; though the guilt in this case is an automatic emotional response, not a rational
reaction of conscience based on moral principles. In this stage, individuals believe
that anyone breaking the rules deserves to be punished and "pay his/her debt to
society." The motto here is: "I'll do my duty."


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... " " " " " " - - - -
Stage 5: Justice through democracy ·

In this stage, people understand the underlying mora~ purposes that are
supposed to be served by laws and social customs. When a law in democracy ceases
to serve a good purpose, they thus feel the people ought to get active and change
the law. Understood in this manner, democracy is seen as a social contract whereby
everybody tries constantly to construct a set of laws that best serves most people,
while protecting the basic rights of everybody. Respect for the law and a sense of
obligation to live by the rules are present, as long as rules were established in a fair .
manner and fulfill a moral purpose. It is said that only about 20-25% of today's adults
ever reach this stage and most of those that do supposedly only get there after their
mid-twenties. The motto here: "I 'll live by the rules or try to change them."

Stage 6: Deciding on basic moral principles by which you will live your life and
relate to everyone fairly

In this stage, rare people have evaluated many values and have rationally
chosen a philosophy of life that truly guides their life. Morally developed, they do not
automatically conform to tradition or others' beliefs, and even to their own emotions,
intuition, or impulsive notions about right and wrong. In stage 6, individuals judiciously
elect fundamental principles to follow, such as caring for and respecting every living
thing, feeling that people are all equal and thus deserve equal opportunities, or,
subscribing to the Golden Rule. They are tough enough to act on their values even if
others may think they are odd or if their beliefs are against man's law, such as refusing
to fight in a war.

Social control in this stage is exercised through guilt associated with the rational
reaction of conscience based on · moral principles. Reaching this stage is thus seen,
at least in Kohlberg and Piaget's theories, as getting to the highest level, conscience-
based moral decisions.

6. Problems with Kohlberg's Theory

It must be noted, nonetheless, that not all ethicists accept Kohlberg's theory on
moral development. Some argue that his mentioned dilemmas are artificial, that is,
they lack ecological validity. In the Heinz dilemma, for instance, Kohlberg's subjects
were aged between 10 and 16, have never been married, and so not credible to answer
whether or not Heinz should steal the drug.


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