To answer this question, a new concept is introduced : “moral identity”. In a study of moral identity[Aquino & Reed, 2002] it is described as : “the degree to which a person’s moral character is experienced as a central part of his or her overall self-concept”.[Aquino & Reed, 2002] defends and aims to verify the fact that actions undertaken by a person will strongly depend on his or her moral identity and other factors such as moral reasoning and social moral standards and self-stated principles. In order to measure moral identity, it has been supposed that moral identity is structured into a network of traits such as compassion, honesty, forgiveness, generosity, etc.
Basically, a person who identifies him or herself more or less with each of these traits will behave accordingly. According to what many studies have shown, moral identity is insufficient to characterise the overall moral behaviour of an individual. The latter is actually too complex to be merely correlated to moral identity. There is supposedly a whole panoply of other factors intervening in the process of behaving. The bridge between theory and application is far more twisted than it appears to be. Very broad-sighted results have only been successful in showing that psychopathic traits [L. Glenn et al., 2010] were globally related to a poorer moral identity.
Yet, although simple at first glance, moral identity is too vague of a concept for two main reasons which come from the fact that, though rationally defendable, the approach to ethics is subjective to each individual.
First : ethics are often thought to be measurable on the basis of comparison.
Comparison can be used for quantitative arguments. For instance, some would consider as acceptable to sacrifice the life of one person for the sake of saving five other lives. This would be the perspective of a consequentialist [IEP]. Such quantitative reasoning could lead to worse situations. A person who considers morality as a central part in his identity can still consider morality as being cumulative. “I am being kind and patient even with the silliest and most annoying clients at work all day long, thus I am neither ashamed nor afraid to be utterly impatient or impulsive with my partner or my children at home”.
Sometimes, fundamentally incomparable virtues have to be compared through qualitative reasoning. Is it more important to be loyal or to be honest? “My employer takes special care over his company but he is selling noxious products on the black market.” No matter how strong the commitment to moral identity is, moral reasoning will set priorities between moral actions.
In fact, moral behaviour is pretty much dependent on “moral personality” which is a second component introduced [Aquino, McFerran& Duffy, 2010] for the sake of predicting moral behaviour in studies. It includes three main aspects : conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness to experience. As a result, moral personality interprets moral identity and sets levels of comparison among its content. A conscientious person would maybe not think of morality as being scaled on a cumulative basis. An agreeable person will favour loyalty. A lack of openness can result in a purely consequentialist reasoning, etc.
So this solves the first problem : moral identity is like a painting which is projected through a diaphragm (namely, moral personality) in order to expose a moral behaviour. Just as when a person starts to draw a picture of a rabbit; in the immediacy of the stroke, the picture is somehow different from the one originally projected in the mind. So it is the same for the relationship between moral identity and moral personality.
But there is a second aspect of ethics that still remains unresolved. The very broad and mostly accepted definition of ethics is stated as : “The branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles” [OD]. This definition would rather correspond to “moral ethics”. More broadly, ethics deal with determining and distinguishing the right from the wrong. The problem is that these notions do not seem to have an evident and absolute scale of definition. There is no fundamental agreement on the very nature of moral judgements. These can be arguably divided into three categories described in [IEP] and partly in [SEP], going under the name of :
Objectivism : moral principles can be argued and determined universally on the basis of objective reasoning.
Relativism : moral principles can be defended objectively or subjectively but vary according to institutional, cultural or ethnical context.
Non-cognitivism : what is moral cannot be defined in terms of truth; it is only an individual opinion.
For instance, a doctor and a poet both have a lame old dying (maybe suffering) dog. The doctor’s moral identity is such that he thinks there is a maximal health affliction threshold above which the level of physical suffering makes life ghastly and worthless and so he wishes to euthanize his pet. The poet’s moral identity is that life is a present that only nature has the right to give and to claim back. This time, the choice of euthanizing the dog or not is independent of moral personality. It is a disagreement on the very basis of what a moral choice would be. Both could be very conscientious about the dog’s situation, but in the end, their choices would differ. There is no meaning for assessing moral identity if what counts for being moral, good or wrong, is freely and individually defined as such. If moral personality already interprets subjectively moral identity, then if moral identity is in itself a subjective interpretation of the sphere of morality; how can moral behaviour be characterised ? Sometimes both concepts (moral personality and moral identity) are so indefinite that their definitions overlap (it is the case in this article!)
Moral psychology has proven to be an increasingly successful science that statistically characterises the way people expose moral behaviour according to their relationship with culturally and socially established moral rules and their personality attributes. However, for trying to unify and generalise the moral behaviour of a person, it systematically fails to encompass the holistic nature of the human mind.