Jack Coleman, the self-effacing former president of both Haverford College and the Ford Foundation, spent his sabbaticals living as a member of society’s most downtrodden groups: homeless person, sanitation worker, ditch digger, even prisoner. What began as an economist’s interest in labor relations turned into an effort to truly understand the people he worked with—and a personal challenge to prove his resilience and find the dignity in each person. Coleman was a committed advocate of prison reform, and as president of all-male Haverford he fought to allow women’s enrollment. In his lifelong quest for personal integrity, Coleman followed his own path, even leaving leadership positions when he felt he was growing too comfortable or entitled. As psychologists Anne Colby and William Damon write in their remarkable book Some Do Care:
The respect for another person’s dignity and humanity that guides and unites all these efforts is closely tied in Jack Coleman’s mind to his conviction that one must act in each encounter, in every one of life’s contexts, honestly and with the highest possible personal integrity. The inner harmony that represents self-knowledge and self-direction for Jack is closely related to this more ethically charged version of inner harmony that is integrity. Integrity, for Coleman, includes both internal consistency, the absence of compartmentalization, and a consistency between means and ends in action. “There isn’t a part of you that says, ‘I hate this aspect of me over here and what I’ve done there, and yet I go ahead and do it,’ while the rest of you is pursuing the other.” He equates this kind of internal consistency with wisdom.p. 139
As a Stoic, I find Coleman’s example both inspiring and illuminating. He was neither a sage—for example, he once entered rehab for a severe drinking problem—nor a Stoic. But according to Colby and Damon, he had something we Stoics can learn a lot from: a strong moral self.
Colby and Damon interviewed Coleman, along with 22 other moral exemplars, to learn what inspired lifelong moral commitment among charity workers, civil rights activists, religious leaders, and others who devoted their lives to helping others. Through a lengthy consultation and nomination process, Colby and Damon identified the exemplars using the following criteria (p. 315):
- a sustained commitment to moral ideals or principles that include a generalized respect for humanity, or a sustained evidence of moral virtue
- a disposition to act in accord with one’s moral ideals or principles, implying also a consistency between one’s actions and intentions and between the means and ends of one’s actions
- a willingness to risk one’s self-interest for the sake of one’s moral values
- a tendency to be inspiring to others and thereby to move them to moral action
- a sense of realistic humility about one’s own importance relative to the world at large, implying a relative lack of concern for one’s own ego
After spending time with their subjects, Colby and Damon noticed several overarching themes in their life stories. One of the most important was the extremely “close relationship between self and morality that the exemplars establish” (p. 304). Over the course of their lifetime, these exemplars had come to fuse their own sense of self with their moral mission in life. As we see in Jack Coleman’s life, their personal goals were so entwined with their moral goals that they became integrated. Colby and Damon note that
All these men and women have vigorously pursued their individual and moral goals simultaneously, viewing them in fact as one and the same. The exemplars have done so without devaluing their own personal goals. Nor do they disregard their own fulfillment or self development—nor, broadly construed, their own self-interests. They do not seek martyrdom. Rather than denying the self, they define it with a moral center. They seamlessly integrate their commitments with their personal concerns, so that the fulfillment of the one implies the fulfillment of the other.p. 300
This moral center is what we seek as Stoics. We want to define ourselves and our lives primarily in the pursuit of moral excellence, not in externals such as our financial worth, social status, or reputation. Like these exemplars, we want our morality—our Stoic values—to run through each activity we undertake. And like these exemplars, we want to remain active and effective in the world, working wisely toward bettering ourselves, society, and the wider world. Perhaps, as Colby and Damon suggest, cultivating a strong moral self is the key to lifelong moral commitment.
I think these modern ideas about the moral self can sharpen our contemporary understanding and practice of Stoicism. Once we rationally accept the Stoic idea that virtue is the only good, how do we translate this into our actual lives? Based on my past experiences—both successes and failures—I think this development may happen through the integration of self with morality, as Colby and Damon’s exemplars illustrate. Or, as Epictetus puts it in Discourse 2.22:
On whatever side “I” and “mine” are set, to that side the living creature must necessarily be inclined; if they’re in the flesh, it is there that the ruling power will reside; if in choice, the ruling power will be there; if in external things, it will be there.
To me it’s clear that “I” and “mine” mean our self or identity, and our task as Stoics is to locate our sense of self in our moral character rather than in external possessions or characteristics.[i] In the context of Stoicism, this would need to take place via our rational belief that virtue is necessary and sufficient for happiness. So the challenge for Stoics is: how do we integrate our beliefs into who we really are? How do we locate our sense of self in our moral character?
Fortunately, there are some really interesting ideas from contemporary moral psychology that can help point us in the right direction. I’d like to explore some of these ideas below, keeping in mind that our moral endgoal is internal (developing a virtuous disposition) rather than external. And by the way, I’m not saying the ancient Stoics actually held these ideas, just that these ideas can help us moderns, with our modern understanding of the self. (For a detailed discussion of ancient Stoic views on the self, see Gill .) This overview is necessarily brief and therefore incomplete, but I hope it will get you thinking about your moral self and help you reach your own moral goals.
Self and Prohairesis
The moral self was proposed by Augusto Blasi in the 1980s as a concept to bridge the judgment-action gap in mid-century moral psychology. At the time, moral psychology was dominated by the ideas of Lawrence Kohlberg, who divided up abstract moral reasoning into six stages, then labeled people according to which type of reasoning they used. Research subjects who were capable of more sophisticated reasoning about hypothetical moral problems were considered more morally advanced. The problem was, as Blasi pointed out, that sitting someone down and asking them to resolve abstract moral dilemmas turned out to explain very little about real-life behavior. You couldn’t tell whether someone was actually brave or trustworthy based on their “stage” of moral reasoning.
Blasi suggested that the way to bridge the gap between moral judgment and moral action was to consider the moral personality as a whole. The Self Model of moral functioning he developed includes both agency and identity, along with important motivational roles for responsibility and self-consistency. Blasi’s work on moral functioning embraces the self, which he defines as:
that aspect of personality that underlies consciously subjective and agentic processes, in particular, processes of mastery and self-control, of ownership and appropriation, of conscious self-definition, and of internal organization and coherence2004, p. 342
As a Stoic, I can’t help appreciating the areas of overlap between Blasi’s conception of the self and Epictetus’ notion of prohairesis, which is often translated as moral character, moral choice, or will. Prohairesis is a protean concept that acts as something of a Rorschach test for Stoics: everyone sees something different in it and describes it in different ways. But it seems to be some combination of volition and character; it is both your choice-making capacity and the disposition that leads to you make your choices. In any given moment, you may confront a choice about whether or not to take a nap, or whether or not to criticize a friend behind their back. In that moment, you make your choice. But your choice is not merely the result of a moment. It results from the character you have created in yourself over your lifetime. It is based on all your previous choices and the person you have become.
Compare Blasi’s above definition of the self—and also Colby and Damon’s description of the moral self—to a point made about prohairesis by A.A. Long:
Rather than treating the moral point of view as a disposition that is distinct from self-concern, [Epictetus] presents it as all of a piece with the natural or proper understanding of one’s human identity. That identity is one’s volition or prohairesis, the only inalienable thing that we have and that we are. It is in virtue of prohairesis that we are capable of conscience and self-consciousness—knowing ourselves, reflecting on who we are, and reasoning about how we should organize our lives.p. 227
For Stoics, our sense of who we are is grounded in our sense of a “human identity.” Our desire for virtue derives from our understanding of human nature and our relative position in the wider world. And although we can and do speak of virtue in the abstract, when it comes to applying the concept in our lives, we primarily think of virtue in terms of what it means for us. Virtue is only virtuous because of the particular type of creature we humans happen to be. As Epictetus frequently reminds us, virtue looks different in every species. The distinctive excellence of a horse lies in its swiftness, and that of a bull in its strength. The distinctive excellence of humans is in our rationality, intelligent sociability, and our desire to understand the world. If we were a different sort of animal, our excellence might not consist in wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control.
But given our nature, excellence does consist in those internal characteristics. We define what is good for ourselves in relation to what it is appropriate for a human to be. Stoics believe that by acting in the way that is most appropriate for humans (becoming virtuous), we find deep contentment and meaning in life (eudaimonia). So our beliefs about what is good and appropriate for humans in general are translated into beliefs about what is good and appropriate for our own lives. Let’s look at how this process might take place.
Integrating Beliefs and Self
Blasi strongly emphasizes our personal agency in the process of making sense of our lives. We are not passive recipients of a moral self but active participants in its creation. This process entails “appropriating the moral norms, principles, and values that one cares about to the developing sense of oneself and integrating them in the sense of who one is” (2004, p. 342). This is very similar to what Stoics do as we work toward a virtuous disposition. We integrate our beliefs about the world—beliefs we have arrived at via our experience and rationality—into our sense of who we are. Blasi outlines how this process might unfold:
Initially, being and wanting to be a good moral person is one self-concept among many others, and perhaps it is not more important for the sense of self than many other self-concepts. At some point and in some people, a selection takes place: certain aspects of oneself are considered to be more “true and real” than many others from the perspective of the sense of self. Eventually, at least for many adults, the various characteristics that are recognized as elements of one’s definition are hierarchically organized, and the sense of self acquires unity and depth; the person thus acknowledges that a few aspects of himself or herself are the center or the essence of his or her being…
For these people new and important motives appear: the desire, indeed the need, to maintain one’s identity, to exist as the person one feels to be at the core; and also the desire or the need to maintain its unity, to be internally consistent. Intentionally acting against one’s core values and commitments is then experienced as self-betrayal and as a loss of one’s self.2004, p. 342-343
Notice that Blasi says “a selection takes place.” I think it’s a continuous process of selections—in other words, of choices, or to put it in more Stoic terms, of assents. As we go about our lives, we are constantly confronted with choices about how to respond and what actions to take. Each time we assent to an impression, we are integrating our beliefs about what is appropriate for us into our selves. We are deciding which of our beliefs (out of many) are the ones we actually act on, and which others fade into the background. In this way we hierarchically organize, as Blasi says, which beliefs are most essential to our selves, thereby defining our selves by these beliefs.
Notice also the importance of self-consistency and integrity in this account of moral functioning. Once we develop a moral identity, we are strongly motivated to act in accordance with that identity or we risk internal conflict. Many people, unfortunately, often use self-deceptive rationalizations to maintain their sense of themselves as good and moral, “even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary” (Walker, 2004, p. 3). Obviously, that is something Stoics wish to avoid. It’s essential to be completely honest with ourselves about our own inner life, including our areas of improvement. Epictetus says that when we have truly learned to hold correct judgments (i.e., locating our own good in virtuous choice), we will “be free from self-reproach, and inner conflict, and instability of mind, and self-torment” (Discourses, 2.22, 35).
For Blasi and also for Stoics, self-consistency is not merely an afterthought but potentially a driving force in inspiring us toward moral excellence. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, identified self-consistency as a key motivational component in living a good life; our aim should be “living according to a rationale which is single and in agreement, on the grounds that those who live in conflict are unhappy” (Arius Didymus, 75.11-76.16, cited in Annas, 1993). And for Colby and Damon, self-consistency means an integration of belief at every level of the self:
A true integration of reflection and action rests on a unifying belief that must be represented in all the cognitive and behavior systems that direct a person’s life choices. It must be represented at the level of habit, at the level of judgment, and at the level of reflective self-understanding.p. 310
It’s quite possible that a desire for a coherent sense of self—being able to see ourselves as good and coherent people—could motivate our development toward moral excellence. Through a long process of integrating our beliefs with our identity, we might develop a moral self that we are motivated to maintain throughout all our thoughts and actions. In this way, our rational understanding of virtue turns into our choices toward virtue which slowly turns into a virtuous self. (Blasi, like the Stoics, thinks this doesn’t take place until adolescence or later, and in most people it may not take place at all.) Blasi suggests that:
Psychologically the motivational force of an ideal is far from being abstract, because it is progressively built on the accumulated effects of many concrete instances in which we actually experienced the importance, the value, and the beauty of the ideal. The ideal of justice, for instance, as psychologically felt, is neither constructed by learning the concept of justice and the various norms of fairness nor by being exposed to speeches about justice, even though all this may help; rather, it is formed by concretely experiencing in oneself and others the positive consequences of small and concrete actions of fairness and the damaging results of concrete injustices.2004, p. 343
As we go about our lives, making our choices which accumulate into our character, we have a continuous feedback loop of information and impressions. Each assent to an impression reinforces that belief as part of who we are and what we stand for. We can build toward our virtuous ideal by incorporating each positive experience with (for example) justice into our developing sense of self. Every time we manage to act in a just way, we reinforce our perception of ourselves as just, thereby making our moral identity more important and salient to us. With each success, we come more and more to consider ourselves as just, which motivates us to continue acting justly. Eventually, perhaps, our sense of ourselves as just will be so complete that we’re actually unable to act unjustly.
In fact, this is exactly where Colby and Damon’s exemplars ended up. When probed by interviewers about why they had continued to devote their lives to others, sometimes at great personal cost to themselves, almost all of them insisted that they had no choice. They saw what needed to be done and did it—it was unthinkable for them to do otherwise. They had become the kind of people who simply couldn’t act unjustly.
As Stoics, we definitely want to act justly toward others. But we have the additional goal of inner excellence at every moment of our lives. When we wake up in the morning, when we eat dinner, when we bathe or comb our hair, we should do so as a principled and self-respecting person (Discourses, 1.4, 20). This level of commitment could quickly become exhausting, overwhelming, and discouraging if we see morality as an external set of rules or precepts to follow. Instead, we should inwardly cultivate our moral self—our prohairesis, if you like—with the long-term goal of becoming people who simply can’t act against our rational beliefs.
Cultivating Your Moral Self
If you want to be happy and you believe, as Stoics do, that virtue is necessary and sufficient for happiness, then cultivating a moral self may be the best way to get there. At least, I’ve found this idea extremely helpful in my own life as a Stoic practitioner. So even though I’m not a sage, I do want to offer a few thoughts here on how we might go about developing a moral self.
Define your moral identity. Spend some time thinking about what kind of moral identity you want to have. What does it mean to be an excellent person? What would excellence look like in your own life? Excellence may be embodied differently in different lives because it is specific to the circumstances in which each person lives. It’s helpful to have a clear idea of what a virtuous disposition would look like specifically for you. Learn as much as you can about Stoic wisdom, and find role models wherever you can. Then think about the specific moral identity you would like for yourself. Working toward this identity will be your overarching moral goal.
Think about the big picture. Each of us is rooted in the larger context of a family, a community, a society, and the wider world. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to become a coherent and happy person by focusing only on yourself. Instead, we want to spend time reflecting on and appreciating the beauty and complexity of our world, thinking about how we fit into this picture as a small but significant part. It is only in this way that we can live in agreement with nature, accepting whatever life throws at us and recognizing that virtue is necessary and sufficient for happiness.
And think about the little picture. We also need to focus on properly managing our impressions as we go about our daily lives. Each time you assent to an impression that something is good or bad for you, you are contributing to your character. Our choices matter. Just don’t be too hard on yourself if you make the wrong choice sometimes—obviously no one is perfect! Forgive yourself, learn from your mistakes, and reset your intention for the next time.
Continue to grow throughout your life. Colby and Damon observed that their exemplars were remarkably open to change and growth throughout their lives, even as they steadfastly maintained their overarching moral mission. They continued to learn from the people around them and adapt to new situations that complemented their moral commitments. They were not rigid, isolated, or grim in their pursuit of moral goals, but rather active, responsive, and creative. We as Stoics should follow their example and continue to learn, adapt, and develop throughout our lives.
I’ve only been able to offer a brief overview here, a mere hint of what it would mean to have a Stoic self in the modern sense of the word. I think it’s an idea that should be explored far more by Stoics because it is essential to our efforts to better ourselves. Maybe you agree with the picture I’ve presented here, and maybe you don’t. But I hope, whether you agree or not, that thinking about it will help you on your journey toward wisdom and happiness.
Annas, J. (1993). The Morality of Happiness. New York: Oxford University Press.
Blasi, A. (1983). Moral cognition and moral action: A theoretical perspective. Developmental Review (3), 178-210.
Blasi, A. (1984). Moral identity: Its role in moral functioning. In W.M. Kurtines & J.L. Gewirtz (Eds.), Morality, Moral Behavior, and Moral Development (pp. 128-139). New York: Wiley.
Blasi, A. (2004). Moral functioning: Moral understanding and personality. In D. Lapsley & D. Narvaez (Eds.), Moral Development, Self, and Identity (pp. 335-347). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Colby, A., & Damon, W. (1992). Some Do Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Commitment. New York: The Free Press (Macmillan).
Gill, C. (2006). The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought. New York: Oxford University Press.
Long, A.A. (2002). Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Walker, L. (2004). Gus in the gap: Bridging the judgment-action gap in moral functioning. In D. Lapsley & D. Narvaez (Eds.), Moral Development, Self, and Identity (pp. 1-20). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
[i] To be clear, I follow Gill (and Long) in believing this is a practical ethical point, based on an astute understanding of human psychology, and not a “metaphysical claim about the mind-body relationship” (p. 98). The ancient Stoics’ psychological holism, to use Gill’s term, is one of the crowning achievements of Stoic philosophy and should be maintained in modern Stoicism. While I am certainly not any kind of moral theorist, I believe the picture I’m presenting here is compatible with this psychological holism, as will become clear below.
Brittany Polat writes about Stoic psychology, development, and motivation at Living in Agreement. She is co-organizer and co-host of the upcoming Stoicon-x Women conference. You can also find and follow her on Twitter.
Thank you, Ms. Polat, for this inspiring essay and its welcome contribution to my reading list. It’s clear that the non-Stoic world is rich with remarkable examples of Stoical virtue, and we Stoics can only do well by taking full advantage of that fact.
Thank you, I’m glad you found it inspiring! Like you, I am very inspired by these exemplars, and I agree that it’s essential to appreciate moral excellence wherever we find it. Sometimes it seems like negative examples are everywhere, but if we look carefully we can find positive examples too!
Thanks for this inspiring and thoughtful piece! I like your essays a lot.
You may be interested in the book Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar. It is mostly a collection of profiles for do-gooders who go to extreme length to help strangers. But it also surveys attacks on do-gooders in psychology, philosophy and literature. I wrote a short summary here — https://newptcai.gitlab.io/blog/strangers-drowning/
Thank you for the recommendation! I’ll add it to my reading list.