Moral Positionality in Social Justice Advocacy and Leadership

When President Obama established the Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault in January 2014, campus-based sexual violence was squarely in the national spotlight.  Although important, this attention came decades after countless students, faculty, and administrators began the fight on their campuses. We may be at a tipping point where pursuing justice for survivors of sexual violence is taken seriously; however, it is naïve to assume this momentum will continue without advocacy by individuals working with others to sustain the change begun on college campuses.

My focus here is on character in the context of social justice advocacy. I believe character is at the core of ethical professional practice, yet it is difficult to understand because it stems from personal desires that motivate our values into action. This deeply felt commitment to a cause could lead to intense conflict with others. We each have had colleagues who are gripped by their passion for a cause that seems marginally relevant to us. Even our most like-minded colleagues will view social justice from their respective positions with varying levels of intensity.

Drawing on findings from an on-going study of professional dispositions I show how working together as advocates for social change demands that we be explicit about our moral positions in dialogue with our colleagues. I conclude my comments with some questions for reflection.

Character in Ethical Professional Practice

Student affairs practitioners demonstrate character on a daily basis through conduct reflecting their best intentions (Humphrey, Janosik, & Creamer, 2004). Peterson and Seligman (2004) contend that an individual’s character is fluid rather than fixed, and that one’s traits are “stable and general but also shaped by the individual’s setting and thus capable of change” (p. 10). To place character in the context of ethical professional practice, I will briefly revisit the framework introduced in my last column.

The ethical leadership framework (Table 1) is intended to guide reflection and dialogue on issues with moral implications, like responding to sexual violence. It has three domains: (a) consciousness, the awareness of self and context; (b) capacity, the knowledge and skills to act; and, (c) character, the will and courage to act. These domains cut across three levels of practice: (a) practitioner, the intrapersonal realm of thoughts, emotions, desires; (b) profession, the interpersonal dimension of collaboration and practice; and (c) institution, collective social entities like universities, governments, and other organizations.  For each level of practice I offer a fundamental question to prompt reflection and dialogue on ethical practice: Who am I? Who are we? and, What is our influence?

My focus here is the character domain. Character permeates our profession, manifest in the practitioner who joins with colleagues to advocate for students in the institutions that regulate our work. The complete framework also reminds us that ethical practice requires more from practitioners than truth-telling and collaboration. We must also be aware of ethical issues and competent enough to respond authentically as individuals in a profession that has teaching, leading, and advocacy as its mission and contribution to higher education.

Level of Practice Critical Questions Consciousness Capacity Character
Practitioner Who am I? Aware Competent Authentic
Profession Who are we? Learners Servants Colleagues
Institution What is our influence? Teaching Leading Advocating

Advocacy: Benefits and Costs of Ethical Practice

Surprisingly, advocacy is not among the ten professional competencies in student affairs; social justice receives passing mention as one of several themes for professional development activities (ACPA & NASPA, 2010). These gaps are puzzling, for as Harrison (2010) argued, “if there is a core function within the student affairs field, it is advocating for students, securing their place at the table where decisions that affect them are made” (p. 167). Social justice advocacy is infused in our work; however, it cannot be fully realized without our colleagues.

Advocacy has benefits and costs. At its best, acting on behalf of others is reflected in this statement from the ACPA Presidential Task Force on Sexual Violence in Higher Education (2015):

The development of the capacity and competency to lead in thought and action about the crisis of sexual violence will ensure we, as a profession, move beyond compliance and toward the creation of a holistic and coordinated approach to address sexual violence issues on campus. In this way all educators, from graduate students in student affairs preparation programs and new professionals, to faculty and Senior Student Affairs Officers, will become the champions of culture change regarding the problem of sexual violence on campus (p. 19)

This description of individuals working with colleagues to advocate for institutional change exemplifies the character domain outlined in the framework.  It is also very difficult to achieve. More often, we find ourselves in conflict with colleagues who may agree on the outcome (justice), but not the means to achieve it (advocacy, activism, or hedging).

Conflict weighs heavily on advocates. Some become martyrs, who end up socially and politically isolated, while sellouts eventually submit to the status quo (Harrison, 2010). More unfortunate are advocates who turn on their colleagues. The madvocate “tries to change minds through anger, righteous indignation, guilting, gossiping, and moral outrage” (Viray & Nash, 2014, p. 21). Ostensibly madvocates justify their tactics as truth-telling; ultimately, they “stumble on their own regrets when their actions are not in alignment with their moral values” (Viray & Nash, 2014, p. 26).

Beyond aligning values and behavior, I contend authentic advocates (and leaders of all kinds) must develop the character strength to respect what their colleagues, in good faith, bring to the table, especially if these positions run counter to their deeply held beliefs. Dialogue around touchy ethical issues can be more productive when we can articulate our moral positions.

Moral Positionality

In the search for principles or philosophies to justify our ethical actions, we would do well to acknowledge the fluidity of our moral positions. Research shows how our subconscious desires (Green, 2014), responses to perceived competition (Weeden & Kurzban, 2014), and implicit prejudices (Banaji & Greenwald, 2013) motivate our ethical choices.

If we truly seek collaboration with our colleagues, then we should contextualize our views by disclosing what I refer to as our moral positionality: the location from which we are advocating our opinion on a given issue within a dynamic field of conflicting possibilities for ethical action. The progressive tense for the verb to advocate is intentional, signifying that we never occupy the exact same moral position on every issue. As professionals, we’re engaged in an endless moral performance, motivated by desires (for justice) and restrained by an institutional pressure to keep things as they are (i.e., “let’s wait to see if this goes away”).

Locating your moral position isn’t easy to do. Even in hindsight, we have a hard time describing our positions in a dilemma, much less doing it in the heat of the moment. My hope is that with repeated practice in a constructive setting, we can open the door of self-awareness a little wider and take a step toward understanding our colleagues’ positions as well. This can establish a foundation for collaborating on areas of mutual concern.

The Study: Conflict, Character, and Context in Ethical Practice

These ideas about ethical positionality originated from a study of ethical practice. Character was defined as a synthesis of a practitioner’s values and motives, as described by theories of moral maturity (Rest, 1994) and educator dispositions (Burant, Chubbuck, & Whipp, 2007; Sockett, 2009). Participants (n=50) recalled an ethical conflict from their professional practice, which they felt was resolved appropriately. I gathered narrative data on the content of their conflicts and the abilities, motivations, and values each used to respond ethically.

Analyzing each participant’s response, I looked for examples of motivation and values in response to the ethical conflict. Next, I looked for instances where these intersected. I presumed that these intersections captured a description of their character. I categorizing exemplars of character into four moral positions. Before I introduce the positions, I present some of the findings below.

The Stuff of Character: Motivation and Values

A participant’s motivation was situated along a continuum. At one end was the self (intrinsic), while situation (extrinsic) was on the other. An orientation to self is not self-interest or egoism; rather, it is the motivation to act in a way that demonstrates personal dignity and ethical integrity (Mennuti & Creamer, 1991). The participants spoke of intrinsic drives, such as honor and satisfaction:

•I had to tell someone. I don’t believe there was a law mandating me to do it, but there’s an unwritten ethical law that says you have to do it.

•I’m not really motivated by a check. I’m glad that I have a good-paying job, but what really drives me is helping others and seeing students and colleagues succeed.

At the other end of the continuum, motivation was influenced by the context of the situation. Those who exhibited orientation to situation, spoke of accountability or conflict avoidance:

•I was doing the job I was chosen to do in that particular situation. I’m held accountable to create an organizational culture and communicate expectations on institutional policies, regulations, codes, federal and state laws.

•I’m a people pleaser. I avoid conflict. I’m definitely a non-confrontational person. I think 90% of the time my flight response is the first to react.

Character is also comprised of values, which reveal how participants prioritize the issues at stake in the ethical conflict. As with the motivation data, values was arrayed on a continuum from means-based to ends-based (Kidder, 1995).

Means-based values prioritize laws or duties over relationships or the context of the conflict. Participants judged the “rightness” of their actions by how they lived up to principles they considered to be self-evident:

•I wasn’t going to be able to live with myself if I knew that I had willfully violated the law to satisfy the whims of my boss. I couldn’t live with the consequences of that.

•I believe people have to live up to their actions. If it means they lose benefits, then that’s the consequences. They have to deal with it.

Ends-based values are best expressed by the saying, “the ends justify the means.” Participants’ placed greater weight on the impact of their actions on people and situations than on fulfilling laws, principles or rules. Flexibility and outcomes were important considerations:

•I don’t like to call it policy. Policy is for HR issues or accounting problems. I prefer to say “office guidelines.” With guidelines you can be a little more flexible.

•I always ask, what is it that I want people to do? I want to know how I can deliver the message in a helpful, rather than confrontational way.

Moral Positions in Ethical Professional Practice

I now describe four moral positions, based on instances where the participants’ values and motives aligned in practice. All participants occupied one of these positions as they resolved their conflicts. Two caveats: I cannot generalize these beyond the participants in the study; also, it’s possible there are more positions than just these four.

Pragmatic idealist. These individuals believe that rules are important to know and to follow, but those in authority are not always in touch with what other people need. When making an ethical decision, the impact on people should be the most important consideration. One participant declared: “It is up to those of us who have some power to navigate the system and make it work for people.”

Principled realist. Consistency is the most important for these “by-the-book” people. Rules provide a common source of authority and they must be followed. Actions have consequences that apply regardless of the situation. People who break rules have a right to explain their behavior, but ultimately the rules will determine who is responsible and what will happen if the rules are broken.

Principled idealist. Conventional values and respect for institutional structure are very important to these people, who rely on enduring principles as a foundation for their actions. They are wary of radical views or those who would overturn the order of things in an arbitrary way. They respect others’ right to question authority, yet they tend to support the structure of the institution in most instances.

Pragmatic realist. These people choose their battles wisely. Ethical actions are strategic and can be paused for a time if it means living to fight another day. If they sense that those in authority are not ready to support their position they will reassess their plans rather than challenge authority directly. One participant said, “I’m not so quick to act if it will prove to be a wedge between me and my boss.”

To be clear, these are not fixed identities or stable personality types. Rather, they are sites, any of which individuals may occupy, more than once, as they discern the best approach to resolve a specific conflict or concern. As transitory sites, it should also be noted that there is no developmental progression or a “better way to be ethical” implied in these positions.

Based on peer debriefing in classes and presentations, these positions seem to resonate with practitioners. Most tend to gravitate toward the pragmatic idealist position. This makes sense: Our profession has pragmatic roots (Young, 2003) and attracts people with an idealistic desire to improve the lives of students. I will admit, however, that I’m happy to see there are usually one or two people who occupy the other positions in the context of their ethical conflict. I validate their positionality and honor their courage to take a position that may go against the grain in our profession. It isn’t easy to be in the moral minority!

Getting to We: Colleagues in the Profession

So, what does this mean for advocates and other leaders? Sometimes our moral positionality is not aligned with our colleagues’ views. This is not a character flaw. Each of us has varying degrees of ethical awareness, ability, and desire to advocate for change. It is unprofessional to slander those who hold views different from ours. This typology promotes collegiality by giving us language to make our desires less implicit and more authentic. In doing so, we can begin to address the next critical question: Who are we? As colleagues, we are both learners, who acquire new skills and ideas, and servants who support each other to achieve common goals like advocacy for social justice.

Reflection Questions

  1. Reflect on a recent ethical conflict. Where would you place your motivation and valuation on the scales?  How about colleagues who were involved in the conflict?
  2. When have you found yourself at odds with the prevailing moral positionality of your colleagues? Is there a pattern across the conflicts? How did you reconcile the conflict both internally and with others?
  3. How do the moral positions in the typology reflect your experience with colleagues? Would you add or revise the positions? Why?


ACPA Presidential Task Force on Sexual Violence Prevention in Higher Education (2015). Beyond compliance: Sexual violence prevention report and recommendations for ACPA Governing Board. Author: ACPA: College Student Educators International.

Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden biases of good people. Delacorte Press.

Burant, T. J., Chubbuck, S. M., & Whipp, J. L. (2007). Reclaiming the moral in the dispositions debate. Journal of Teacher Education58(5), 397-411.

Greene, J. (2014). Moral tribes: Emotion, reason and the gap between us and them. Atlantic Books.

Harrison, L. M. (2014). How student affairs professionals learn to advocate: A phenomenological study. Journal of College and Character, 15(3), 165-178.

Kidder, R. M. (1995). How good people make tough choices. New York: Morrow.

Mennuti, R. B., & Creamer, D. G. (1991). Role of orientation, gender, and dilemma content in moral reasoning. Journal of College Student Development, 32(3), 241- 248.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford University Press.

Rest, J. R. (1994). Background: Theory and research. In J. R. Rest & D. Narvaez (Eds.), Moral development in the professions. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Sockett, H. (2009). Dispositions as virtues: The complexity of the construct. Journal of Teacher Education, 60(3), 291-303.

Viray, S. & Nash, R. J. (2014). Taming the madvocate within: Social justice meets social compassion. About Campus, 19(5), 20-27.

Weeden, J., & Kurzban, R. (2014). The hidden agenda of the political mind: How self-interest shapes our opinions and why we won’t admit it. Princeton University Press.

Young, R. B. (2003). Philosophies and values guiding the student affairs profession. In S. R. Komives & D. B. Woodard, Jr (Eds.) Student services: A handbook for the profession (pp. 89-106). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

About the Author

Jonathan O’Brien is assistant professor of educational leadership and coordinator of the Student Development in Higher Education master’s program at California State University, Long Beach. He teaches law and ethics and qualitative research methods. Jonathan has worked at public and private universities in Missouri, Kentucky, and California. His consulting and scholarship focus on assisting students in personal crisis and promoting professional conduct in student affairs practice.

Please e-mail inquiries to Jonathan O’Brien.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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