The Power of Ideals

The Real Story of Moral Choice
by William Damon and Anne Colby | 240 pages

William Damon and Anne Colby are two of the world’s leading researchers in the field of moral psychology. They’re both Professors at Stanford and have been married for 30+ years. This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book that challenges the “new science of morality”’s view that morality is essentially biologically and socially determined. Damon and Colby argue that we all have the power to cultivate our more noble, moral possibilities. Big Ideas we explore include a quick look at our moral exemplars, moral agency, and the three virtues we want to cultivate: Truth + Humility + Faith.


“This is a book about moral commitment—how it develops, why some people are able to sustain it in the face of pressure, and what it looks like when played out in large public arenas by world leaders. What is moral commitment? Although we don’t wish to begin this book with an effort as difficult and distracting as an attempt to define ‘moral,’ neither do we want to cloud our subject matter by ignoring the question entirely. We consider morality to be the vast realm of social actions, intentions, emotions, and judgments aimed at providing benefits (and preventing damage) to people, society, and the world beyond the self. It’s a multilayered system of prosocial acts, with ‘acts’ understood to mean mental and physiological as well as behavioral acts. Morality covers both the means and theends of human activity—that is, not only what people aim to do but also how they go about doing it—and the finer the moral sense, the more likely that both means and ends will be morally driven.

As for the focus on moral commitment, this signifies our interest in sustained dedication to a moral cause (or causes) rather than single and isolated acts. Moral commitment can be as ordinary as a parent making sacrifices for the well-being of a child or a worker determined to conduct a job with integrity, responsibility, and a sense of public mission. It can be as heroic as a civic leader taking risky stands in favor of human rights or a charity worker undergoing years of personal privation in the service of the needy. Moral commitment can be inspired by a desire to serve God or other transcendent truths, or it can be directed toward strictly humanistic concerns. Whether ordinary or extraordinary, spiritual or mundane, moral commitment enables civilized societies to become havens of common decency for most of its members.”

~ William Damon & Anne Colby from The Power of Ideals

William Damon and Anne Colby are two of the world’s leading researchers in the field of moral psychology. They’re both Professors at Stanford and have been married for 30+ years. <— All of which is awesome.

This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book that challenges the “new science of morality”’s view that morality is essentially biologically and socially determined. Damon and Colby argue that we all have the power to cultivate our more noble, moral possibilities.

The book features “exemplar research”—six 20th century moral exemplars who show us what moral commitment looks like: Jane Addams, Nelson Mandela, Dag Hammarskjöld, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eleanor Roosevelt. (Get a copy here.)

I found the book *deeply* moving and inspiring. My copy is nearly entirely marked up. I’m excited to share a few of my favorite Big Ideas we can apply to our lives today so let’s jump in!

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About the authors

Authors

William Damon

One of the world’s leading scholars of human development.
Authors

Anne Colby

Consulting Professor at Stanford and Co-author of The Power of Ideals.