Defining and measuring phronesis: developing understanding of moral decision making

Activity: Talk or presentationAcademic conference


18 Oct 2018


Colleges, School and Institutes


Catherine Darnell - Speaker

Stephen Earl - Speaker

The period of adolescence marks the developmental transition from childhood to adulthood, with adolescents moving from a stage of parental dependence to relative autonomy (Spear, 2010). This increased autonomy requires adolescents to develop their decision making skills in a context of multiple and often competing demands, including the expectations of their social groups (e.g., peers, parents/guardians) as well as wider cultural and societal norms (e.g., academic achievement, gender roles). This ability to make effective decisions is central to the concept of character education which aims to equip individuals with the intellectual tools to make wise choices (Walker et al., 2015). From an Aristotelian perspective, this reflects the concept of ‘Phronesis’ or ‘practical wisdom’, knowing and enacting the right course of action through the process of identifying and deliberating between competing values, emotions and alternatives (Kristjánsson, 2015). In this sense, Phronesis forms a central component of character development and provides individuals with the ability to enact the right course of action in a moral situation.
However, within the moral psychology literature, little attention has been given to the concept of Phronesis and its role in motivating moral behaviour. Similarly, to the debates on ‘character’ (Berkowtitz, 2012), there is a lack of clarity over what Phronesis reflects and how it is defined. More specifically, from a Neo-Aristotelian perspective, Phronesis is considered a meta-virtue, an overarching virtue which is necessary for good character (Kristjánsson, 2015). From a psychological perspective this creates an inherent challenge in relation to measurement as it involves a multi-faceted concept. Yet, given the crucial role Aristotelian theory places on the motivational strength of Phronesis, the ability to ‘test’ Phronesis and the development of it could help to alleviate the ‘gappiness problem’ that still exists in the moral psychology literature (Walker, 2004).
This paper therefore identifies the challenges faced in defining Phronesis and suggests a new integrative approach in relation to the concept of Phronesis. Based on existing theories of moral action, we suggest a four component model of Phronesis which incorporates three well established motivators of moral behaviour; moral identity (e.g., Blasi, 1980), moral emotion (e.g., Hoffman, 2000) and moral reasoning (e.g., Kohlberg, 1981). We report the design and development of a ‘Four Component Phronesis (FCP)’ measure, which includes existing measures of moral identity (e.g., Good Self-Assessment) and moral emotion (e.g., Interpersonal Reactivity Index) but extends the definition of moral reasoning by distinguishing between two aspects of moral reasoning; the ability to identity morally salient aspects of a situation and the ability to adjudicate between competing virtues. Here we discuss the strengths of using a ‘situated’ method and draw on new approaches in the measurement of wisdom (Brienza et al., 2017). This new measure will be discussed within the context of character development and how to assess what motivates moral behaviour in adolescents.
18 Oct 2018

Event (Conference)

TitleSRCD Promoting Character Development
CountryUnited States
Degree of recognitionInternational event