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Why Use the Four Component Model to Examine Moral Character Development in College? Critical Conversations #29

Faculty Graduate Mid-Level New Professional Senior Level Undergraduate VP for Student Affairs
May 16, 2022 Patricia M. King Tim Sparks

JCC Connexions, Vol. 8, No. 2, May 2022

In "An Examination of Students’ Moral Character Experiences Using the Four Component Model and Self-Evolution Theory" (Journal of College & Character, vol. 23, no. 2, May 2022), Patricia M. King and Tim Sparks introduce the four component model (FCM), which describes both the internal processes that play distinct roles in the production of moral behavior and their associated sets of relevant, teachable skills.

Pat and Tim respond to questions posed by Co-editor Jon Dalton relating to their research:

1. What are some of the advantages of utilizing the Four Component Model to examine moral character development in college? What makes this model such a useful analytical framework for understanding students’ moral behavior?

Pat: Rest’s Four Component Model was created as a way to reimagine morality by focusing on psychological processes involved in producing moral behavior. As it evolved, it led to reimaging the moral person as one who exemplifies specific moral capacities. This framework has many advantages:

  • It defines morality according to sets of teachable skills that reflect both cognitive and affective domains.
  • It provides a way to categorize moral experiences according to which skills are employed (as we were able to do for 90% of the experiences in our sample).
  • It acknowledges that individuals may be more skilled in one component than another, which can reveal areas for an educational focus.
  • It offers a way for researchers to direct studies based on selected components or other variables.
  • It can serve as a touchstone for educators to examine the focus of institutional efforts to foster moral and character development.

2. In your study you examine “moral character experiences.” Can you give some examples of these types of experiences and how they are used in assessing moral development learning outcomes?

Tim: When I joined the study team, I expected that when discussing moral character (one of the learning outcomes), students would talk about great debates they had in the classroom or in the residence halls about the fundamental questions of moral judgment. Of course, some students did talk about these things, but they more often discussed experiences and classes that opened their eyes to practical moral problems (ethical sensitivity). When they did talk about moral decisions, it was often in the context of real-life situations in which they found themselves. In other words, they discussed dilemmas like deciding whether or not to report their friends’ misconduct. These kinds of experiences were much more commonly reported than debates about fundamental questions of morality (as important as those debates are).

3. In your study you do not question subjects specifically about moral issues. Can you comment on your reasons for not including some direct questions about moral issues?

Tim: The present inquiry emerged out of the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education (WNS), and moral character was one of several outcomes investigated in the WNS. A key feature of the interviews was to allow students to discuss whatever experiences they identified as important. Many students did not discuss any experiences related to moral character, which is itself noteworthy. One important implication of this protocol was that the moral character experiences students described can reasonably be said to be some of the most important things that they remembered from each year. In this way, we were able to learn about a group of experiences that were truly impactful.

4.  Students typically confront a wide range of complex moral situations during the college years. What are some examples of moral situations that challenge students’ moral character development?

Pat: Although students often do confront a wide range of complex moral situations during college and these serve to promote moral development for some students, several factors mitigate against this for other students. Here are two of these factors.

  • First, many students who face a dilemma aren’t aware that their behavior may affect others (the ethical sensitivity component). Others choose to believe their actions won’t affect others (e.g., since they won’t get caught). And without this awareness, they don’t think of the dilemma as a moral dilemma.
  • Second, many students act to please their peers or feel pressured to act in ways they wouldn’t have initiated themselves. Being motivated to please others is characteristic of early (External) positions on the journey toward self-authorship.

Taken together, these two factors affect potential teachable moments. They speak to other educational roles:

  • to help students learn to intentionally consider the potential consequences of their actions for others and;
  • to develop skills associated with listening to their own voice (developing self-authorship), including cultivating their own moral compass.

5.  Much research has been done on the moral reasoning component of morality. Why has this dimension of morality been so dominant in the research and how has it influenced our understanding of character development?

Tim: One primary reason for the prevalence of research on moral reasoning is the availability of the Defining Issues Test, which allows for quantitative analysis in a relatively easy to use format and has been used in thousands of studies of moral judgment development. Moreover, those of us who have taught introductory philosophy or ethics courses tend to be more interested in moral judgment as we debate big questions related to the foundations of our judgments. As a result, philosophy classes sometimes focus less on those elements of moral character related to ethical sensitivity, focus, and action. Yet, the present inquiry found that ethical sensitivity was the most prevalent component of the model, especially early in the college years. Because students described their most important experiences, we think that early undergraduate experiences in the domain of ethical sensitivity are especially salient as they are key to developing awareness and aspiring to act in ways that are fair to others, especially those who are different from ourselves.