I spend much of my time embracing what I once eschewed: the deep and steadfast belief that the most important reason to respond and react to the world is because it’s the right thing to do. This is coming from the daughter of scientists who was employed by MTV News and ended up getting a degree in business: I have worked the science, the trend, and the businesses case. I now return to the place where I started. I do the things I do because my gut and heart tell me they are the right thing to do.
This engagement is part of what sociologists call our “internal identity standard.” Our identity, or identities, are sets of meaning we hold about our position in groups (Indian), in roles we maintain (teacher) or as individuals. These three bases (group, role, person) are most deeply activated through our interactions with others: my identification as an Indian requires the existence of other Indians, my role as a teacher is contingent upon having students. Our individual identities are a bit more fluid, but still require an interchange between inner and outer worlds.
We strive to align our actions and perceptions of ourselves within situations with who we think we are. When they do not align, we attempt to reconcile this by modifying our perception of the situation. (Think of a moment when you yelled at your child or cut someone off in traffic and later thought to yourself, “That’s not who I am.”)
In their research on the moral identity, sociologists Jan Stets and Michael Carter explain, “The lack of congruence between inputs and the standard activates a change in what one is doing, the perceptions of the self in the situation, and/or the identity standards; in other words, something in the system is altered to counteract the incongruence. What the system attempts to control is the perceptual input (to match the identity standard).”
Jan Stets says our moral identity (a personal identity built upon meanings including being just and caring for others) responds in the same way. If people around us have low morality standards and don’t challenge bad behavior, then our internal moral compasses lose their calibration. The act of bringing the perceptions of our selves and our moral identities into alignment are mitigated by the environments in which we find ourselves. As Stets and Carter explain: ”Having a moral identity does not mean that one has meanings of being a good person; rather, one has meanings that fall within a range, for example, of being very uncaring and unjust to very caring and very just. The goal is to live up to one’s self-view, however that view is arranged across the moral continuum. When the meanings of one’s behavior based on feedback from others are inconsistent with the meanings in one’s identity standard, the person will feel bad.”
My morality is not only something borne of me, it is a reflection of the environment in which I engage, made manifest when we come together.