Project Overview

The Psychological Development of Character: Emotion, Identity and Phronesis project aimed to investigate the factors that motivate moral action in adolescents. Specifically, the project focussed on the ‘gappiness problem’; addressing what bridges the gap between virtue literacy (knowledge of virtues) and virtuous moral action (acting in a virtuous way). Existing theories of moral action suggest three main factors that may mediate this link: moral identity, moral emotions and moral reasoning. Typically, moral identity refers to how important moral traits are to one’s sense of self, moral emotions reflect emotional capacities such as empathy and the ability to comprehend another’s emotional state, and moral reasoning refers to the discernment and application of moral principles.

While there is a general consensus that these factors play a role in motivating moral behaviour (with the empirical evidence strongly supporting the first two), it remains unclear how these factors relate to each other and how important they are in predicting moral behaviour, particularly in relation to moral development. In addition, moral reasoning tends to be equated and measured using Neo-Kohlbergian methods, which, from an Aristotelian perspective, do not necessarily reflect the reasoning suggested by phronesis  (practical wisdom), which emphasises the ability to integrate and adjudicate moral conflicts.

The project therefore sought to address the following questions:

  • What motivates virtuous behaviour in adolescents? Is it moral emotion, moral identity or moral reasoning? Or is it a combination of all three factors?
  • How do these factors develop between early and late adolescence?
  • Does the moral reasoning associated with phronesis better predict virtuous moral behaviour, and does it help to integrate the existing factors?
  • Can these factors be cultivated to enhance moral development, e.g. through school-based interventions?

The research involved a mixed-methods approach using questionnaires, dilemma-based tasks, Experience Sampling Methods (ESM), as well as the development of a new phronesis measure.

Key findings from the first report, Phronesis: Developing a Conceptualisation and Instrument conveyed that two pilot studies fit the hypothesised phronesis model well; that latent components were found to be structurally related to a predicted latent phronesis variable and promisingly that this variable was found to predict the latent prosocial behaviour variable; and that the proposed phronesis model may have validity in both adolescent and adult samples which has important implications for solving the ‘gappiness’ problem.

Key findings from the second report, Phronesis: Using an Aristotelian Model as a Research Tool, included: female participants outperformed male participants on all components of phronesis; adults outperformed adolescents on moral reasoning qua moral adjudication and on moral emotion; higher action–justification correspondence predicted two kinds of self-reported prosocial behaviour; and adolescents outperformed adults on moral perception.

Phronesis: Using an Aristotelian Model as a Research Tool

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