Moral versus Moralistic: A vital difference and a role for leaders

Good Morning Oberallgäu by Markus Trienke

Good Morning Oberallgäu by Markus Trienke

Morality and the Moral Life

Anything moral concerns our sense of what is good, right, and proper. Our moral sense is normative, it signals intuitive impressions of oughtness. It may be enlivened when we encounter innocence, kindness, and courage. It may also be offended by meanness in language, tone, and actions. In either case, this is only one half of the moral side of life, namely, our intuitive recognition and emotional response.

The other half of our moral life consists in what we do with our intuitive impressions of oughtness. It is a gift that we are given immediate awareness that something of moral consequence is at stake. And it is also a burden of responsibility to use these "data" wisely, for our actions generate still further moments of moral experience and action that affect others, that shape our character, and that may become a force for good.

A Difference that Makes a Difference

My title, Moral versus Moralistic, concerns in particular this responsibility for using our moral intuitions to good ends. Although our intuitions are effective in awakening us to the moral, they are not in and of themselves a prescription for action. This is where heart requires the support of mind, especially our capacities for practical judgment - practical here means guidance of proper conduct, doing the right thing.

As a descriptor, "moral" differentiates those actions that serve the good. They serve a transcendent good, a good that represents a good for all, for all of us as persons, as a community, as a people, and as a species. There is something selfless in such virtuous action. "Moralistic", on the other hand, characterizes actions (i.e., judgment, words, and overt conduct) that serve egoistic aims born of resentment and self-loathing.

We can distinguish moralistic tendencies by the often angry and aggressive feelings that accompany them. We should recognize this experience, moralistic reactions, as a pre-moral phase of processing feelings that are confused. We need not be harsh in our self-judgment or judgment of others upon noticing moralistic reactions. Underlying them are often feelings of fear and insecurity, which must be answered.

Moralistic reactions judge and condemn too quickly. They are the rushed defensive acts, which, like the fight or flight reactions of our autonomic nervous system, seem to serve a self-protective purpose, but in reality simply reveal a brittleness in our character. It signals a need for pausing, breathing, and reflecting: "What am I feeling, and why is this feeling so intense?" In time, a moral truth and appropriate action may emerge.

Processing our Moral Intuitions

Taking our immediate intuitions of moral meaning and even our defensive, moralistic reactions as data that signal something of consequence is never an error. It's what we do with them that counts. Do we give them the considered thought they deserve? Do we notice the mixture of positive and negative emotions and seek to understand them? These questions are important to address when something important is at stake.

We've been given a wonder gift of reflective self-governance, but in truth it is not fully "self'' governance. Morality is inherently social, it expresses norms of oughtness that apply to all of us. An important implication of the social nature of morality is the benefit we gain from clarifying the data of moral intuition in conversation with others. Leaders frequently distinguish and define themselves by how they seize such opportunities.

A Special Responsibility for Leaders

Why leaders? Because leaders are at their best when they help us clarify not only our strategic direction and tactical goals, but also when they help us reaffirm our sense of purpose and the greater goods that lend nobility to our actions. This happens through conversation, a patient style of conversation in which we help one another articulate what at first we can only feel, but which we can later make explicit, know, and share.

When each of us is able to voice this experience on matters of importance, we usually seem to find common ground before long. The same North Star in the one sky overhead emerges. We come to understand one another more fully. We find even more reason to collaborate and redouble our efforts to achieve a mission whose worth is now more compelling than ever.

Contact Info:

You are invited to contact the author directly with questions or comments. He can be reached at or phone at 401.885.1631.