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Personal Moral Wisdom

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Part of the SpringerBriefs in Philosophy book series (BRIEFSPHILOSOPH)


Personal Moral Wisdom. We often hear that we should follow our moral compass – or our judgment, our values, our conscience, or our image of our best self – when we face difficult decisions. The basic idea is that we have some inner, almost automatic guide to right and wrong. This idea is profoundly true and yet profoundly misleading. It is sound advice for simple situations, but it fails us when we confront the complex problems of work and life.

Interviews with executives and extensive research – in psychology, moral philosophy, decision theory, and introductory neuroscience – point to a better perspective on our moral compasses. This perspective can be summarized in three statements.

First, it is a mistake to compare our moral compasses to the simple pocket devices that hikers carry. Second, our true moral compass is a deep, complex, fragile aspect of our humanity, best described as our personal moral wisdom. Third, this perspective has a challenging central implication: it says, in essence, that when we make the hard decisions of work and life, what is right is what we ultimately decide is right, relying on our personal moral wisdom. The central focus of this book is the question of how to do this well.

Our personal moral wisdom is crucial in our leadership moments. These are the little studied, elusive points in time when we pivot from discussion, analysis, and reflection to action and commitment. In these moments, we decide – we make a “final, final decision” – and then we own the consequences.


  • Moral compass
  • Leadership
  • Decision making
  • Personal values
  • Conscience
  • Wisdom

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  1. The autobiography is Graham, Catharine. 1998. Personal History. New York: Vintage. The film is The Post.

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  2. This statement is based on searches for the phrases “moral compass” and “moral clarity” in the ABI/PROQUEST database

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  3. Shakespeare, William. 1911. The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. London: Adam and Charles Black

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  4. This approach to moral clarity loosely parallels a distinction made by the British philosopher Bernard Williams between “thin” and “thick” conceptions of morality. A “thin” approach to moral clarity would be based on a strong sense that one approach, compared to others, is simply right. The approach developed in this book says, in effect, that a better approach is a “thick” one that determines what is right, not on the basis of an initial instinctive response, but by examining the specifics of a situation, the contours of relevant morality, and a pragmatic view of ways of dealing with the problem or situation. Another parallel is that this approach focuses on action, and Williams describes “thick” conceptions of morality as “action-guiding” and “guided by the world.” See Williams, Bernard. 1985. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

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  5. Peierls, Rudolf. 1960. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 5. February

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  6. Know Thyself. Wikipedia.,and%20trouble%20is%20at%20hand%22

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Badaracco, J.L. (2023). Personal Moral Wisdom. In: Your True Moral Compass. SpringerBriefs in Philosophy. Springer, Cham.

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