Varieties of Moral Personality: Beyond the Banality of Heroism


  • This research project was supported by a grant to the first author and a fellowship to the second author, both from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Portions of the data presented here were previously reported in an article by Walker and Frimer (2007), which addressed other issues and analyzed the data in a different way.

concerning this article should be addressed to Lawrence J. Walker, Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z4, Canada. E-mail:


ABSTRACT Four perspectives dominate thinking about moral heroism: One contends that moral action is primarily instigated by situational pressures, another holds that moral excellence entails the full complement of virtues, the third asserts a single superintending principle, and the fourth posits different varieties of moral personality. This research addresses these competing perspectives by examining the personalities of moral heroes. Participants were 50 national awardees for moral action and 50 comparison individuals. They responded to personality inventories and a life-review interview that provided a broadband assessment of personality. Cluster analysis of the moral exemplars yielded three types: a “communal” cluster was strongly relational and generative, a “deliberative” cluster had sophisticated epistemic and moral reasoning as well as heightened self-development motivation, and an “ordinary” cluster had a more commonplace personality. These contrasting profiles imply that exemplary moral functioning can take multifarious forms and arises from different sources, reflecting divergent person × situation interactions.