Reflections on moral leadership | Part 5: Moral self-control: doing the right thing for the right reason

The quest for intrinsic morality

This is the fifth column in a series of moral leadership. My first column focused on Moral leaders in Society, my second on Professionally Moral Behaviour , my third on Integrity at the Top  and my fourth on Interpersonal Morality.


Moral self-control: doing the right thing for the right reason

“No one willingly reverts to the past unless all his actions have passed their own censorship, which is never deceived.”  Seneca


Thinking about my life until the point where I am at the moment, most of it – but not everything – is a consequence of the choices I have made. The effect of the choices I am referring to, it is not so much related to what I have achieved socially (my success) but more where am now I as a person, the development that made me who I am today.

With the choices we make we also force our circumstances. We start or we terminate a relationship. We choose a job or we reject it. We choose to act against an injustice and undertake a fight or we decide to let it happen. In response to our actions, also our circumstances change. Partially.


Because there is also such a thing as Fortuna, the fate that may or may not be temporarily on our favour. We can enforce happy circumstances – to some extent – through strategic actions, perseverance and intelligence. But not entirely. We are dealing also with social circumstances such as the economic climate, with possible war situations and with the role of genetics regarding our health and intelligence. All these factors influence our well-being. We have to accept a large part of these factors.

Within the field of influence in which we live, we can choose a certain behaviour in a given situation. Do I opt for my own interests or for social justice? For money or for artistic freedom? Do I stay true to the values ​​that I have inherited from the past or do I go along with the times? Am I true to myself and my professional principles or do I adapt to the unethical climate within my company?

Staying close to your core

Choosing behaviour that we do have influence on, within given circumstances, corresponds to the familiar circle of influence and concern that Stephen Covey (1932-2012) described in his bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989). He probably builds on the work of Stoics such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, who put a lot of value in keeping your behaviour close to yourself and to your own value system, regardless of the circumstances in which you find yourself. By making choices in this way, you also build your own character.

Or we can think of the work of the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl (1905-1997), who, based on his experiences in the Second World War, described how human dignity ultimately lies within being able to make the choices regarding how we relate to the surrounding circumstances.


The question then arises whether every deep personal choice of this nature, which at a certain point makes us turn ‘left or right’, is ultimately not a moral choice. Is not it true that all our deeply personal decisions are moral decisions in the end?

We choose with a personal decision – regarding our life that deeply affect us – either for something ‘right’ but difficult or we choose for something easy but ‘wrong’. Those personal choices are essential for who we are and who we will become as a person. Everything that will happen in our life ultimately will lead back to just these choices. For right or wrong we ourselves only know what right or wrong means to us.

Are not they ethical decisions? And are those questions and answers not just in ourselves?

The Roman philosopher Seneca (5 BC -AD 65) already described that for the right moral personal development it is necessary not only to focus on the outside world, but that you must also look within yourself. That is where the answers lie. These choices build you as a person. At the same time your choice shows where you are currently standing.

If we assume that you make the choice of free will (which almost all ethicists do), then you are responsible for your choice.

It also shows a moral sense to take responsibility for the choices you make, also of choices that later turned out that they were not right for yourself or for others.

Our moral considerations

The moral character of our choices therefore seems not only to lie in the outcome of our choice but also in the considerations that make us actually choose. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) wrote: “doing the right thing for the right reason“.

But do we really know our own considerations in this area?

Maybe it’s good to look at the definition of integrity, just on Wikipedia: “The word integrity evolved from the Latin adjective integer, meaning whole or complete. In this context, integrity is the inner sense of ‘wholeness’ deriving from qualities such as honesty and consistency of character. As such, one may judge that others ‘have integrity’ to the extent that they act according to the values, beliefs and principles they claim to hold.

It is striking that the concept of integrity refers to unity, ‘wholeness’, consistency. The point is that your behaviour corresponds to what you say you believe in. And that your behaviour has a certain consistency even in case of difficulties and you do not do this one time and the other time. In short that you are not an opportunist.


The emphasis on unity is striking because psychotherapists also assume that it makes you happy if you feel yourself as a unity. Psychotherapists work with clients, among other things, so they feel less fragmented and more of a unity. Thereby they try to achieve, for example, integration of conflictual desires in a client or conflicting tendencies in his or her personality and the integration of different deeply emotional experiences. Much of the therapist’s work consists of raising awareness of contradictions that were first hidden from the client.

Moral self-examination also seems to be about bringing up contradictions in ourselves that we want to look deeper into. On a more behavioural level, this involves moral dilemmas that we have to deal with in our work, for example. We often test ethical issues against various moral codes, after which we ultimately make a choice that may or may not be considered.


Regarding moral decisions it is usually more complicated thinking about and analysing our personal dilemmas comparing to professional dilemmas. It is often less clear what the moral content is exactly of our decision. Are we talking about love or our emotional safety? Is it about interest or sensationalism? Is it about prudence and a sense of reality or cowardice? Many of our personal considerations are also surrounded by strong emotions and also unconscious psychic contents play a role. Those unconscious contents seem to play a game with our consciousness.

The conscience

The psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote about this aspect in more than one essay just before and after the Second World War (Von Gut und Böse, 1984), in which he describes among other things the role of our conscience. He sees the conscience as an independent and autonomous psychic entity. Jung derives this impression from his work as a psychotherapist, in which he has had many examples of clients who were plagued by their consciences in their dreams in a way that was not clear to them at first. According to him, conscience is therefore something other than a moral code developed from your upbringing and from society that we could compare with Freud’s superego. The conscience is much more personal, goes its own way and also seems to do its work from the unconscious.

Jung also assumed, before someone like Antonio Damasio confirmed it through research in neuroscience (see my previous article), that conscience (or a moral sense) is deeply rooted in the human psyche and it is associated with very strong feelings. If you are plagued by your conscience you cannot get around it emotionally. Jung claims that the bulk of our conscience is unconscious, it is very powerful and that it can surprise us. According to Jung, the power of the unconscious is much greater than the power of our consciousness or our awareness, which he sees as vulnerable.

The virtuous life

To what extent do we actually know ourselves and to what extent are our considerations pure? Are we not much less a unity than we would like to believe? Should we be more careful in our moral choices?

Is the good old philosopher Seneca right perhaps when he claims that leading a virtuous life is a lifelong struggle between what he called our ‘passions’?

Or maybe Aristotle is right as he claims with his virtue ethics that happiness, or rather the fulfillment of our goals in life, is ultimately achieved by the one:

• Who knows what is right

• Who does what is right

• And who has always done it for the right reason.