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What Are Characteristics of Moral Exemplars? Critical Conversations #31

Student Success Faculty Graduate Undergraduate VP for Student Affairs
November 6, 2022 Sam Cox Luke Waldbillig Perry L. Glanzer

JCC Connexions, Vol. 8, No. 4, November 2022

In "College Students’ Developing Understanding of Moral Expertise: A Longitudinal Case Study of the Importance of Models, Mentors, and Practice" (Journal of College & Character, vol. 23, no. 4, November 2022), Samuel J. E. Cox,Luke T. Waldbillig, and Perry L. Glanzer interviewed fourteen students in their first and third years of enrollment regarding their understanding of moral expertise. Findings suggest students sought out moral experts with religious organizations and peer mentors providing the primary sources of moral expertise.

Sam and Luke respond to questions posed by Co-Editor Jon Dalton relating to their research:

1. What are some of the most important characteristics of moral exemplars? (Sam Cox)

The term moral exemplar is used by the philosopher Linda Zagzebski (2017) to describe “persons whom we see, on close observation and with reflection, to be admirable in all or most of their acquired traits” (p. 65). In our review of the literature on moral experts, of which the moral exemplar is a sub-set, we found a couple key characteristics that we think adequately describes the kind of person who can have a profound moral influence on college students. Moral Exemplars

  • Possesses moral knowledge: From Aristotle to Kohlberg, moral knowledge and reasoning has often been considered the most common characteristic of a moral exemplar. From a narrow standpoint, moral knowledge refers to the ability to judge moral issues correctly and effectively communicate that judgement to others (Driver, 2006).
  • Possess specific moral intuitions and behaviors: One way to think of cognitive knowledge is through the elephant-and-rider metaphor utilized in moral psychology (Haidt, 2012). The elephant refers to the instinctive, dispositional behavior of a person and is the driving force behind most of our behavior, whereas the rider represents our reasoning side and is more prone to rationalize than dictate behavior. A moral exemplar has what we can call a very well-behaved elephant.
  • Offer a vision of the good life: Zagzebski (2017) focuses on this aspect of the moral exemplar and considers an exemplar’s most important quality to be the presentation of a life worthy of admiration and emulation. We decide what it means to be good, Zagzebski argues, from seeing other people live out their values and choosing to emulate them. 

2. In your study you focus on students enrolled in a Christian research university.  How does this particular institutional context offer support for development of moral expertise? (Luke Waldbillig)

A Uniquely Transformational Context

Dougherty et al. (2021) propose that Christian colleges and universities provide a uniquely transformative landscape for students’ development of faith and character due to their intent to create immersive faith experiences across multiple institutional contexts. These varied contexts could include curricular and co-curricular experiences such as participating in a residence hall community, student organization, college athletics, or a research laboratory. This shared faith provides a distinctive and coherent framework to guide and understand the purposes or ends of moral expertise development. 

From our perspective, a unique challenge within a secular research university context is the intentionality required to resist a fragmented understanding of moral expertise and the necessary supports needed for its development in students across multiple institutional curricular and co-curricular contexts. While secular colleges and universities certainly provide students access to a vast array of curricular and co-curricular experiences that develop students’ moral expertise, the secular institutional context provides an alternative and often fragmented framework for the purposes of students’ moral expertise development (Glanzer et al., 2020; Glanzer, 2022).

3. Who are some moral exemplars in higher education and what roles do they play in promoting moral expertise in students? (Luke Waldbillig)

With Zagzebski’s (2017) definition of moral exemplars in mind, moral exemplars are found across higher education through faculty, staff, coaches, and students.  Students in our study consistently identified and emphasized the role faculty and peers served as moral exemplars, especially by their third year of undergraduate experience. However, it seems even faculty committee work can provide a context in which peers (faculty) find moral exemplars in one another across disciplines.

A Tangible Vision

For students, moral exemplars often provide a tangible vision of moral expertise.  The tangible vision moral exemplars provide has a persuasive effect on students as evidence by their decision to emulate the characteristics and values seen through a moral exemplar’s behavior. This emulation of behavior can be further refined, critiqued, challenged, and supported by moral mentors, who are not necessarily moral exemplars (Zagzebski, 2017). 

Moral mentors can also be found in faculty, staff, or fellow students.  Students in our study more frequently emphasized faculty and peers as moral mentors compared to staff, but student affairs staff at colleges and universities like the one in our study often perceive their own professional identity as that of a mentor (Glanzer, 2020). As exemplars provide examples, mentors provide the tools and encouragement for students’ moral expertise development.

4. You argue that morality is more than moral reasoning and moral judgment.  In what ways is morality more than these important dimensions of morality? (Sam Cox) 

First, morality often requires a set of values, norms, and/or narratives, such as religious or cultural frameworks, that shape how we reason and judge morally (Haidt & Joseph, 2007). In our research, these sets are often formed and challenged by specific identities and relationships; we saw students’ understanding of morality change when certain relationships changed or when moral exemplars inspired or encouraged them to reevaluate certain beliefs.

Additionally, morality encompasses our habits and dispositions. Our research did find certain correlations with scholarship in philosophy on virtue ethics, even if students did not necessarily use the language of “virtue.” Having a disposition toward love or kindness, what one of the students referred to in our study as an “intuition,” can be extremely important when it comes to a student’s view of morality.

5. Who do the college students in your study report they look to for moral support and learning and what are some ways in which these individuals shape students’ understanding of moral expertise? (Sam Cox)

The people who supported students and shaped their understanding of moral expertise depended on what stage students were in their college journey, and students’ understanding of moral expertise was as diverse as the students themselves. Looking longitudinally, we do have a few key takeaways.

In their first year, students were shaped by

Parents and family members: As they entered college, students often talked about how parents were the primary source of moral expertise. Parents often encouraged students to view moral expertise as religious practice, including prayer and devotion, as well as in specific manners, such as speaking respectfully to adults

Religious mentors: These included church youth pastors and accountability partners (e.g. Bible study leaders), who often played dual roles among our religiously affiliated students. Much of student’s understanding of moral expertise depended upon what these mentors and their shared faith tradition understood as moral expertise.

In their third year, students were shaped by

  • Peers: By both coming to peers for advice and by interacting with them, students discerned new views on moral expertise, including a moral expertise as including a stronger emphasis on love and acceptance of others.
  • Professors: Students also mentioned professors being those to whom they could go for guidance on moral expertise. Students focused more on how professors modeled kindness, attentiveness, and support than on the content of their guidance when describing how faculty influenced them.
  • New and old religious mentors: Religious mentors whom students relied on modeled similar visions of moral expertise as in their first year, but students who lacked or who had distanced themselves from religious mentors had views of moral expertise that more emphasized broader views of morality separate from their previous value sets.


Carlson, C. D. (2022). In Defense of Committee meetings. Christian Scholar's Review.  https://christianscholars.com/in-defense-of-committee-meetings/

Driver, J. (2006). Autonomy and the asymmetry problem for moral expertise. Philosophical Studies:

An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, 128(3), 619–644. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-004-7825-y

Dougherty, K., Glanzer, P. L., Schnitker, S., Ratchford, J., & Robinson, J. (2021). Baylor faith and character study: Methods and preliminary findings. Christian Higher Education, 21(3), 168–190.

Glanzer, P. L., Cockle, T., Jeong, E., & Graber, B. (2020). Christ enlivened student affairs: A guide to Christian thinking and practices in the field. Abilene Christian University Press.

Glanzer, P.L. (2022). The dismantling of moral education: How higher education reduced the human identity. Rowman & Littlefield.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Vintage

Haidt, J., & Joseph, C. (2007). “The moral mind: How 5 sets of innate intuitions guide thedevelopment of many culture-specific virtues, and perhaps even modules.” In The innate mind (P. Carruthres, S. Laurence, & S. Stich, Eds.). Oxord University Press.

Zagzebski, L. (2017). Exemplarist moral theory. Oxford University Press.