The Moral Advantage

How to Succeed in Business by Doing the Right Thing

William Damon (Author)

Publication date: 09/09/2004

The Moral Advantage
All too many people view business as a ruthless, dog-eat-dog world where only the pitiless survive. But here Bill Damon tells the compelling stories of real-life business leaders who have achieved great success by adhering to moral conviction. Based on interviews with 48 executives in a variety of industries, The Moral Advantage illustrates how moral insights can be used to gain competitive advantage. By showing how to employ rather than compromise moral standards, The Moral Advantage provides a roadmap for achieving success by sticking to the high road, and for building a business career that is both personally and materially rewarding.
  • Examines the many ways that adhering to a personal moral code helps people succeed in business by conferring a "moral advantage"
  • Tells compelling stories of real-life business leaders who have achieved great success without compromising-in fact because of-their moral convictions
  • Written by the acknowledged leading scholar on moral psychology in this country and perhaps the world today

Read more and meet author below

Read An Excerpt


(member price: $22.46)
Free shipping on all orders from the BK Publishers store.
Or find a local bookseller with Indiebound.

Other Available Formats and Editions


(member price: $17.47)


(member price: $17.47)
Bulk Discounts
Rights Information

Featured Books

More About This Product


All too many people view business as a ruthless, dog-eat-dog world where only the pitiless survive. But here Bill Damon tells the compelling stories of real-life business leaders who have achieved great success by adhering to moral conviction. Based on interviews with 48 executives in a variety of industries, The Moral Advantage illustrates how moral insights can be used to gain competitive advantage. By showing how to employ rather than compromise moral standards, The Moral Advantage provides a roadmap for achieving success by sticking to the high road, and for building a business career that is both personally and materially rewarding.

  • Examines the many ways that adhering to a personal moral code helps people succeed in business by conferring a "moral advantage"
  • Tells compelling stories of real-life business leaders who have achieved great success without compromising-in fact because of-their moral convictions
  • Written by the acknowledged leading scholar on moral psychology in this country and perhaps the world today

Back to Top ↑

Meet the Author

Visit Author Page - William Damon

William Damon is Professor of Education at Stanford University and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace. His books include The Moral Child, Some Do Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Commitment Greater Expectations, Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, and Noble Purpose: The Joys of Living a Meaningful Life. Damon has received awards and grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John Templeton Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Back to Top ↑

Table of Contents

Introduction: Success and Satisfaction in Business
Leading Lights
The Moral Advantage
Generative Morality: Acts of Creation Empathic Morality and the Golden Rule
Business Ethics That Come Naturally
Philanthropy in Business: Doing it Right
Forging a Moral Identity in Business
About the Author

Back to Top ↑


The Moral Advantage: How to Succeed in Business by Doing the Right Thing


Introduction: Success and Satisfaction in Business

Some time ago, I gave a lecture to a group of students who had just entered a teacher-training program. In the group, there was the usual smattering of recent college graduates eager to get started on a teaching career. But there were a number of more wizened faces as well, slightly older people in their thirties and forties who were preparing for their first job in a classroom. Where, I wondered, had they come from? What had brought them to this place, after what must have been some serious attempts at first trying something else?

After the lecture, I hung around to chat. Soon I found out that some of the older students had dropped out of law or medicine, a couple had been in the military, but by far the greatest number had just left careers in business. Had they failed? In many cases, no, at least not in the material sense. Some had been in secure jobs, others said they had been on fast tracks in the corporate world, and still others had run franchises or even started their own profitable enterprises.

What none of these folks professed to have was a sense that they had been accomplishing things that really mattered to them, or even that something of consequence happened when they went to work each day. They were neither especially proud of the work that they were doing nor of the kinds of workers that they had become. For some of these people, this meant a nagging discomfort about the cutthroat acts and semi-shady dealings that they had felt called on to carry out. For others, it was more a depressing sense that they were wasting their time on goals that reflected neither their own deepest concerns nor those of anyone else. These men and women had come to the teaching profession with the expectation that here, at least, they could make a difference in the futures of young people.


I am sure that there are dozens of other fields that attract refugees from the business world. Some people will find the sense of meaningful calling that they had failed to find in business, and others no doubt will continue to drift. Business is by no means the only field in which workers have a hard time finding personal meaning these days.

We are not always aware of the forces that ultimately move us. While focusing on “how” questions—how to survive, how to get ahead, how to make a name for ourselves—often we forget the “why” questions that are more essential for finding and staying on the best course: Why pursue this objective? Why behave in this manner? Why aspire to this kind of life? Why become this kind of person?

These “why” questions help us realize our highest aspirations and our truest interests. To answer these questions well, we must decide what matters most to us, what we will be able to contribute to in our careers, what are the right (as opposed to the wrong) ways of behaving as we aim toward this end, and, ultimately, what kind of persons we want to be. Because everyone, everywhere, wants to live an admirable life, a life of consequence, the “why” questions cannot be ignored for long without great peril to one’s personal stability and enduring success. It is like ignoring the rudder on a ship—no matter how much you look after all the boat’s other moving parts, you may end up lost at sea.

In a vague and uncertain way, many people in business realize this. But they do not always know how to act on it. In fact, many have the mistaken belief that too much attention to their deepest purposes and convictions may get in the way of their career goals. They consider their higher aspirations to be often in opposition to the real path to business success. To survive in business, they feel that they need to put their moral values on hold. They may feel forced to trade off their sense of right and wrong, their sense of moral purpose, against their material ambitions. This is not a trade-off that leaves anyone comfortable. Rather, it leaves people feeling co-opted, hijacked away from the places where they were when they started out, a place where they had expected to stay.


Adding to this feeling is the instability of the times, an age of blinding change, with everything from fierce international forces to revolutionary new technologies altering the economic conditions of business daily. Periods of rapid change always escalate the pressure on individuals to abandon their personal moorings. Adapting to a new, often bewildering set of conditions requires so much attention that people may be hard-pressed to keep in mind their most basic orienting principles. Change demands flexibility, a giving up of old ways. It is never easy to decide which of the “old ways” are essential to the very core of one’s identity and sense of purpose, so essential that they can never be given up, whatever the risk. Caught in the midst of this fog, workers struggle to find the right direction, and too often, in a state of quiet panic, they throw overboard the very instruments they need to give them their bearings.

Many people in business today feel lost or “misplaced.” In the normal course of events, however, they rarely articulate this feeling, even to themselves. It is not a happy condition, yet determined workers can manage the discomfort and stay in this state of being indefinitely. Sometimes, though, a crisis yanks them out of this state involuntarily. “Improprieties” are discovered, a company implodes, a reputation is shattered. No matter that the “improprieties” had once been considered routine ways of doing business—someone else is now asking the “why” questions that had been too long ignored. Or, in a less dramatic but still distressing turn of events, a company or a worker runs out of steam and becomes devoid of the strategies, effective ideas, and the focus needed to come back.

It does not need to be this way. There are many chances to do good work in business without compromising your deepest convictions. There are many examples of successful men and women in business who have done so. They draw on all their best values and aspirations as they pursue their career goals. This unity of purpose— a combination of the desires to excel, to accomplish something important, and to act in a decent and responsible way—is characteristic of many successful business leaders, the men and women who have risen to the top and stayed there, year after year.


How to develop this unity of purpose and enduring focus— what I call “the moral advantage”—is the subject of this book. To provide living examples of how this is done, I draw on cases of forty-eight business leaders whom my colleagues and I interviewed for our study of “good work.”1 As a way of setting an illuminating contrast, I also note a case or two in which the moral advantage was sorely lacking, an experience I know firsthand from a youthful misadventure in my own high-school years.

Why do people go into business to begin with? Although we each may have our own particular reasons, the most general answer is “to make a lot of money”—an answer that is true enough as far as it goes. Moneymaking is an essential aim, a necessary condition, an index of success, a desired prize, the most sought-after “coin of the realm” for anyone in business. Without monetary gain, or at least the anticipation of it, a life in business is not much of a life.

But this obvious answer, when taken out of context, can be misleading. Indeed it has been misleading for too many people, especially those struggling to get their bearings in a field rife with obsessions about the fiscal bottom line. There is nothing more futile than a narrow, tunnel-vision devotion to financial gain as a lone goal. Although everyone who goes into business naturally wants to make plenty of money, those who are destined to succeed in the most satisfying ways go into business with dreams of accomplishment that are far more interesting—and rewarding—than monetary gain for its own sake.

As a business career plays out, for better or for worse, in most cases money ends up being just one part of the story—and usually not the most memorable part. Some people who single-mindedly attempt to achieve financial success without keeping in touch with their other goals and values burn out, fail, or eke out mediocre careers in insignificant corners of the business world. Those who do manage to achieve financial success without satisfying their other aspirations often end up feeling barren and dispirited. Those who truly thrive year in and year out, building enduring careers that provide them with recognition in their work and meaning in their personal lives, keep a bottom line of a different sort in mind while they pursue their financial goals.


As a life-span developmental psychologist, I have met hundreds of people who have left, or are longing to leave, their business careers to enter other vocational paths. Some leave after records of success and financial reward, some leave broke and feeling beaten up. Others leave their professions because they couldn’t stand the pressure, still others because they didn’t like their positions on the corporate ladder, or because they found the work boring or meaningless, or because they hoped to find a more fulfilling or personally rewarding vocation. Each story of longing and departure looks different from all the others, and each has its own unique pattern of reasons and regrets.

Underlying all the variety, I have noticed one thing that many of these stories have in common: People leaving business careers often complain that they were forced to give up the values and purposes that led them to choose business in the first place. In other words, they felt that they had drifted away from their initial, fundamental moorings and they did not like where they were ending up.

More than a dozen years ago, my wife and coauthor Anne Colby and I examined the lives of another twenty-three Americans—not, for the most part, businesspeople, although there were three or four in the group who fitted that bill.2 What the twenty-three had in common was that they all had dedicated their lives to charitable service and other altruistic causes. The work that they were doing was hard and risky, often without apparent reward. I knew that we would find these people admirable in many ways, but before our study I had little sense of how appreciative they themselves were of their own chosen paths. In fact, I rather expected to find this group conducting their lives with a kind of grim fortitude, constantly fending off despair and gearing up their courage.

It turned out that nothing could be further from the truth. The joy and positivity that these extraordinary men and women expressed about their opportunities to serve was astonishing. They each denied that they ever had demonstrated self-sacrifice, fortitude, or courage. Rather, they said their actions felt so automatic and involuntary that they never questioned or doubted their work, and that they rarely worried about dangers or other adverse personal consequences. For example, Suzie Valadez, a lifelong missionary, said her work felt as natural as moving out of the way of a speeding bus. She had relocated from California to Ciudad Juarez for forty years in order to bring schooling and medical care to Mexican families who had been scraping out an existence on the edge of a garbage dump. In other words, there was no sense of trade-off in the choices that our twenty-three exemplars made. They did not feel that they were sacrificing something by committing themselves to good work. They were doing what they wanted to do, and they felt as fulfilled as any people we have known in our own personal or professional lives.


That study stayed with me intellectually and emotionally long after its completion, in part because of its message that some people find ways to do enormous good in the world without becoming martyrs, silent sufferers, or good-natured victims. Admittedly, these people were unusual. But the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that such people travel in many circles, not only among the ranks of those whose life work is dedicated to wholly altruistic causes such as charitable service. In industry, in the arts, in the professions, I could think of many renowned people who approach their work in such a manner: accepting no trade-offs between ambition and integrity, between success and purpose.

At that point I had a strange thought, strange not because of its oddity but because of its violation of our conventional cynicism: Perhaps certain kinds of success—the most significant and enduring kinds—actually depend on a determination to accept no compromises or trade-offs in our moral convictions. That is, perhaps the moral road is the surest path to both success and fulfillment. Perhaps for all of us, it is wisest to aim for alignment between our moral and personal goals rather than calculating how much and how often we should pay tribute to the moral versus the personal.

Of course this is not the usual way of thinking about the relation between business and morality. Observers of business usually assume that people at the top must put their moral values on hold to get ahead. Competitive achievement is often viewed as morally compromised to begin with. Enterprise for profit is seen as fundamentally self-serving. Good work, it is assumed, can only be done at the margins, on the sly, or after one has made one’s bundle. Those who have made the case for capitalism’s moral core—Adam Smith in the eighteenth century, Frederick Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter in the mid-twentieth century, Thomas Sowell and Michael Novak more recently—often have been considered little more than apologists for the powerful and wealthy.


But how do those in the arena actually see it? How do businesspeople, especially the “captains of industry” considered by many to be morally suspect, orient to their work? Do they approach their moral obligation as an unwelcome nuisance, a public relations chore, a constraint that they wish they could do away with? Or might their sense of moral purpose be at the heart of their achievements and success?

After examining the lives and careers of the business leaders profiled in this book, I can write with confidence that many of them operate out of a sense of purpose, often moral in tone, and a commitment to conduct themselves in an ethical way. Their personal ambitions, their aspirations to contribute something important to the world, and their personal values are thoroughly intertwined, in many cases inseparable. These leaders draw creativity and staying power from their senses of purpose, and they subject themselves to the discipline imposed by their commitment to ethical standards.

The message of this book is that anyone can operate in this way—a way that, sooner or later, will bestow a moral advantage on both one’s career and one’s search for personal fulfillment. This does not always come easily, especially under conditions of financial pressure and rapid change. But many of these leaders have learned how to function in this way, often by looking at the example of those who have found ways to do so in other challenging circumstances.

I will never forget a realization I had when examining the question of how some journalists manage to do good work despite the deterioration of the overall conditions in the media industry. From national news anchors to cub reporters in an obscure country town, some of the country’s best reporters keep the same portrait over their desks: the determined visage of Edward R. Murrow, an icon of journalistic excellence and integrity. Many reporters look to that picture whenever they have a moment of doubt about what to do next. What would Murrow do? This is also the way they keep in touch with their own convictions. By acting in the manner of a revered exemplar, they can pass their own “mirror test”: they like what they see in their own reflections.


All businesspeople can benefit from the instructive and inspiring examples of those who use moral means to achieve enduring success. But in the business community at large there are not many widely revered icons such as Ed Murrow. Nor have all people in business had the benefit of real-life mentors who exemplify admirable qualities. As a consequence, many businessmen and -women often come up empty-handed when they search for guidance on this front. This book intends to fill that need.

The notion that moral purpose can play an important role is not new. What is new here is a detailed account of the various and particular ways in which this works, beginning with the generative role that moral purpose can play. As I show throughout the book, a sense of moral purpose can be a fertile source of innovation in business. It can be a wellspring of creative inspiration, not merely a restraint on illegitimate behavior. This is not the kind of moral awareness that you will read about in many business ethics courses—which, of course, is why so few students pay attention to their business-school ethics requirements. As I formulate it in this book, the moral advantage is a positive way of thinking about morality that transforms both the worker and the work, a powerful force that can propel people toward their own goals while at the same time generating great benefits for society.

Three Assumptions about Everyday Morality

I begin this book with three assumptions, each of which is solidly grounded in philosophy and the social sciences. Yet they are not well understood by many of the “experts” who speak and write about business ethics, resulting in lots of unnecessary confusion about how morality works in everyday business dealings.

  1. Most people (with the exception of the pure saints or sinners found in fairytales and other fables) approach their life choices with mixed motives. That is to say, in the normal course of events, human motives tend to be in part altruistic and in part self-serving. Most accomplishments are spurred by mixed motives. To do good work, we do not need to forgo our own self-oriented needs; but we do need to keep our moral voices alive and active, especially when encountering hard-to-resist pressures and temptations.
  2. Morality is a broad and inclusive concept with a positive spirit at its center. Unlike some popular conceptions of morality, a true moral sense goes way beyond the kinds of ethical constraints that appear as “do not” rules (e.g., do not steal, do not lie, do not cheat, do not sexually harass your employees, and so on). Although ethical proscriptions may be what many think of first when they use the term moral, morality also includes a positive dedication to doing good, a sense of service to humanity, a commitment to a larger purpose.
  3. Moral integrity, as the term implies, means an integration of our moral concerns with all the other components of our character, including our deepest personal inclinations. It does not require us to sacrifice ourselves entirely for the sake of our altruistic ideals. That approach leads in the end to martyrdom, which fortunately is not necessary for moral integrity (except, sadly, in extreme circumstances). But the search for moral integrity does call on us to keep our natural egotistical inclinations in perspective, through virtues such as honesty and humility. Moral integrity requires keeping in mind the moral implications of our behavior at all times, rather than cutting corners now with the thought of making up for it later.


These assumptions matter greatly, because without them it is easy to dismiss morality as an inconsequential part of life. Without awareness of the first assumption, morality can be caricatured as the province of naive idealists and losers who are not serious about getting ahead in the rough-and-tumble world. Without awareness of the second assumption, morality is reduced to a bunch of sermons and prohibitions. Without awareness of the third assumption, morality becomes little more than an after-the-fact gesture, a mathematical game to redress the damage one has done. In contrast to such sterile but all-too-common notions of morality, this book presents a view of morality that places it at the center of the good life, connected to every source of personal satisfaction and creative fulfillment. The remaining part of this Introduction addresses how these three assumptions can help people understand the role of the moral voice in business success.

  • The Moral Voice Does Not Sing Alone:
    Good Work Always Arises from Mixed Motives


At the most elevated levels of moral commitment, the personal and the moral become almost fused. True moral exemplars can barely distinguish between the two. In Some Do Care, Colby and I examined the lives and work of men and women who had been widely recognized as living moral exemplars—that is, persons whose actions had represented the finest principles and ideals in society.3 Some of these people had devoted their lives to causes of charity, others to education, civil rights, peace, liberty, health care, justice, and so on. We found that these men and women felt that the work they were doing fulfilled both personal and moral goals. In fact, because of this dual fulfillment, they were able to tackle tough problems and accomplish big results year after year.

Almost all major achievements in life are fueled by motives that are in part self-serving and in part aimed at purposes larger than the self. This is true not only of achievements that appear extraordinarily altruistic but also of just plain good work. Some people, like the moral exemplars covered in Some Do Care, integrate their personal and moral motives so completely that they experience them as inseparable. But most people, inevitably, do distinguish between the two as they go about their lives. Most people recognize a difference between feathering their own nests and contributing something toward the welfare of others. Sometimes people are more driven by self-serving goals and other times by goals that serve the larger society. Eventually, most people try to recognize the importance of both types of goals, tackling endeavors that reflect some combination of the two.


Because most people are driven by mixed motives, does this mean that there can be no distinctions between any endeavors with regard to their moral worth? That is, if most endeavors are “tainted” with self-interest, should we treat just about anything that anyone does with equal cynicism? Not at all. There are two tried-and-true ways to determine the moral worth of any course of action:

  1. Does the course of action follow moral means in pursuit of its ends?
  2. If the moral course of action places at risk the self-interest of the actor, will it be pursued anyway?

The first of these moral litmus tests, the means-ends requirement, winnows out an enormous list of pretenders from those who operate with genuine integrity. Almost all people justify, to themselves and others, the moral validity of their goals. Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Pol Pot—they all professed to be acting out of selfless humanitarian concerns. Partly because many people found such claims persuasive, these monstrous leaders managed to attract huge numbers of supporters. The real monstrosities were the absolutely unscrupulous means that these leaders used to pursue their goals. Deception, murder, torture—all were fair game in the name of the “noble” cause. The evil was not only in the causes (although these too were deeply flawed) but also in the abominations carried out in their names.

In more banal cases, such as politicians who deceive their constituents in order to get support for beneficial pieces of legislation, the harm done—the corrosion of trust, the weakening of the democratic system—can be slow and harder to detect, but the principle and the ultimate effects are the same. Immoral means inevitably undermine the social value of any endeavor. For this reason, it is wise and proper to admire not only those who claim to aspire to noble-sounding results but also those who restrict themselves to ethical codes of conduct in their quest.


The second litmus test—a willingness to sacrifice one’s self-interest for the sake of a moral principle—is more difficult to apply directly, because in the normal course of human events, morality and self-interest often go hand in hand.4 That, in fact, is one of the basic claims of this book. Whenever a mother nurtures her baby, whenever a child shares a toy with a friend in a game, whenever a worker chooses not to reach into a coworker’s purse and lift her wallet, morality and self-interest are combined. In fact, the reason that such actions seem unremarkable—indeed, almost natural and automatic—is that they provoke no conflict between morality and self-interest. What is right is also what one wants to do, so there is no problem that requires conscious mediation. For those who are not habitual sociopaths, the bulk of normal everyday social activity—most of daily life—combines morality and self-interest in precisely this way.

Only in occasional circumstances—important ones, to be sure, but nevertheless circumstances out of the ordinary—do morality and self-interest come into opposition with one another and require making choices. By looking at a person’s actions over time, it is possible to gain a sense of the person’s priorities. Does the mother act warmly when the baby is pleasing her but turn a cold shoulder when the baby is unresponsive, difficult, or needy? Does a child share readily when he feels like playing and then turn stingy when he gets bored with the game or the other players? Does the worker resist blatantly ripping off colleagues but find other ways to take advantage of them when she can get away with it? In each of these cases, the person’s moral feelings are submerged when the interests of the self are not wholly aligned with those of the other. This reveals that the moral part of the person’s mixed motives do not assume a very high priority in the mix.

  • The Rarely Recognized Moral Part
    of Mixed Motives in Business

Mixed motives are as much the rule in business as in any other domain in life. Prominent in business are self-promotional goals such as moneymaking, status-seeking, power-grabbing, and personal ego-boosting. At the same time, many people in business—not all, but many—also pursue goals that promote the interests of others, such as serving customers well, producing goods that the world needs or wants, treating employees fairly, building companies that they can pass on to the next generation, and improving communities. Almost every business career that is successful over the long run reflects some such mix of aspirations to serve self and others.


Typically, when thinking about what drives businesspeople, the nobler part of the mix gets shorter shrift than the self-serving part. When noble motives in business are acknowledged at all, they are generally considered to be little more than grudging concessions to social reality, perhaps for the sake of public relations, perhaps simply to stay out of trouble. The effort to act responsibly in business is often viewed as an imposed burden that businesspeople must put up with, certainly not of their own free will.

Indeed, skeptical attitudes toward the motives of people in business date back to ancient times; and by the twentieth century, the skepticism had become dominant in much of Western culture. To be sure, there have been influential religious leaders who have taken a different tack, portraying business as a “calling” meant to serve God. But most of those voices are silent now, and the notion of business as a faith-inspired calling has long since faded in the public mind.5 Within the academy, the press, the nonprofit sector, and the entertainment industry, the consensus is that people in business are driven mainly by greed. And because greed is seen as the primary motive, it is generally assumed that people in business will take the low road to success whenever they can get away with it.

Now there is no question that money, and lots of it, can be made on the low road, through fraud, brazen chicanery, shameless hype, reckless gambling, and irresponsible plundering. The annals of business are full of take-the-money-and-run schemes that have rewarded fast deals, lucrative tricks, lucky bets, wild hits, and get-rich-quick ploys that have left companies and the employees, investors, customers, and communities that supported them in shambles. Such stories are well-known; they make for good reading, and the press glories in reporting them. The most notorious cases end up in criminal or civil court, with blaring media exposure. Many people who operate this way—the lion’s share, perhaps— manage to keep low profiles while hoarding their ill-gotten gains.


Yet even the bitterest critics of capitalism would admit that there are higher roads to business success than this. Plenty of money can be made by dealing honestly, by producing genuinely needed goods and services, by fair dealing, and by responsible conduct. No one can deny that there are successful business leaders who treat their customers well, who act respectfully toward their employees, and who care about their communities. How prevalent such cases are might be argued, but there is little question that many exist.

In this book, I make the case that the high roads to business success are more traveled than today’s conventional wisdom would tell us. This is not to say that those who take the high road do so with purely altruistic motives, or that they behave in saintly manners throughout their careers. Indeed, these actors are as personally ambitious as any other aspiring businessperson, and they may pursue egoistic and materialistic goals. But higher motives drive these people too, motives that derive from their senses of right and wrong, from their desires to contribute to the world, from their feelings of obligation, from the call of service. Such moral concerns are an inextricable part of the motivational mix that fuels their energies.

  • Morality Is a Positive Force in Human Life,
    Not Just a Set of Stifling Constraints

When I began studying moral development more than twenty-five years ago, the prevalent view in the social sciences was that morality arose from fear of punishment, power, and negative feelings such as shame and guilt—which are simply one’s own way of punishing the self psychologically. My early studies on the origins of morality found a different set of motives. I discovered that young children share toys with friends because they think it is fair, and also because they like their friends and want to see them happy. I came up with evidence showing that these positive moral inclinations—denoted “fairness” and “empathy” in their full-blown guises—could be found in essentially all children.6 What’s more, children stick by these moral inclinations even in the face of adult injunctions to the contrary (that is, kids will share with friends even if Mom or Dad says not to). So much for power and punishment as morality’s primary source. As I moved up the life span, I found many other examples of positive morality: choices shaped by idealism and noble purpose in adolescence;7 a sense of work as a moral calling among leading professionals;8 and the joys of moral commitment among persons who had dedicated their lives to transcendent causes.9


Within the scientific field of human development, I believe that it is fair to say that the positive role of morality in human affairs is now firmly established. Almost all modern textbooks now reflect this view. At the same time, a fortuitous shift in the fields of social and personality psychology, led by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has opened the doors of the broader discipline’s perception to proactive as well as reactive sources of human motivation.10 These “positive psychologists” reject the idea that people’s goals and values arise from basic drives such as hunger and sex (as the behaviorists once believed), or from defense mechanisms such as sublimation and reaction formation (as the Freudians once believed). Rather, they believe that people can and do freely choose goals and values that promote such higher purposes as morality, creativity, and spirituality. Leaders of the positive psychology movement use notions such as “authentic happiness” (Seligman), “optimal experience” (Csikszentmihalyi), and “ultimate concerns” (Robert Emmons) to capture the essence of our most lofty and enlightened desires.11 Moral purpose and moral inspiration are now officially on the radar screen of today’s social sciences.

The idea that morality plays an essential role in business—or at least that it ought to—is by no means unique to this book (although, as recent headlines have made clear, it is an idea more voiced than followed). What may be unique is this book’s determinedly positive account of the moral approach that underlies a successful career, beginning with the creative and generative insights that I describe in Chapter 3 and continuing with the interpersonal, ethical, and philanthropic uses of moral insight that I discuss in Chapters 4, 5, and 6. As I show, a positive sense of moral purpose is a fertile source of innovative ideas and productive relations in business.

  • The Search for Moral Integrity Requires a Dedication
    to Honesty and Humility at All Times, and Not Merely
    as a Matter of Future Intent


In all phases of a career—the years of preparation, the years of productivity, the final years of consolidation—there can be no substitute for integrity. Moral integrity means, quite literally, an integration of virtue throughout one’s conduct at all times. A person with integrity can be counted on to remain true to all the goals, purposes, and standards that he or she believes in, rather than selling out one in favor of another.

Moral integrity in business has many faces. It can assert itself with a simple and truthful “I don’t know” when an investor demands a number prematurely, or when a boss asks for an answer that you don’t have. Integrity comes into play whenever you feel pressured to abandon the goals that you believe in, or tempted to stop trying to do the work that you entered the field to accomplish: for example, when a news manager programs sensationalistic schlock rather than important news out of fear of losing ratings, or when a tire manufacturer allows dangerous defects to slip through in order to undercut a competitor’s prices.

The public side of integrity is honesty. The truth will come out eventually, and reputations are built on the basis of credibility or deceit. The private side of integrity is humility, the willingness to admit your own imperfections, to self-correct, change course, and keep growing. These two h’s—honesty and humility—are central to good work in business. It is hard for a person who is dishonest and arrogant to learn from failure; and it is hard for a person who is both honest and humble to do much harm in the long run.

The Philanthropic Solution

Some believe that a way to salvage virtue in business is by taking a seemingly magnanimous tack: “Make your money first, any way you can, then concentrate on using it to do some good. Grab success by whatever means necessary—you can always redeem yourself later through good works.” What about this commonly tread path of waiting until later to contribute to society through charitable acts? Many well-intentioned people in business turn eagerly to this solution, because they do indeed want to make a difference, to leave something worthwhile behind, to feel that their material gain has done some good beyond just making themselves a bundle. So they figure that they will settle the score by giving back some of that bundle to others philanthropically. This is a familiar way to try to “have it all”—a feathered nest and a sense of moral well-being.

But there are real problems with the solution of philanthropy as a sole means to a moral sense of purpose in business. As preachers often remind their flock, sinners who wait until the eve of judgment day to reform their acts too often never get there. Life has a way of disrupting such plans—through sudden disappointments, unanticipated temptations, twists of fate, or premature death. More problematic still, an act of philanthropy, no matter how generous, cannot undo the damage caused by a wholly self-serving business career. I refer here not only to damage done to society—cheating customers, impoverishing investors, wrecking the community, and so on—but also to oneself, by denying in the prime of life that essential, fulfilling sense that one is engaged in good work.

Most troubling, philanthropy is an endeavor that can go terribly awry if it is done in the wrong way. Giving money away does not ensure a socially useful outcome. In fact, misdirected philanthropy actually does more harm than good. The right way to do philanthropy is with the same convictions that make for a moral life in business. People who in their work lives have not cultivated moral purposes nor developed virtues such as honesty and humility will be unprepared to do good philanthropy late in life, no matter how rich their financial balance sheets. I realize that this may seem a surprising notion, so I have devoted Chapter 6 to showing why and how this is so. That chapter is meant as a cautionary tale for the legions of wealthy businesspeople who make the common mistake of looking for salvation late in life by transforming themselves into philanthropists.

  • Moral Purpose and Success Go Hand in Hand


I can hear full well, ringing in my ears, the objections to the idea that purpose and success in business must be pursued together, as a piece; that they must not be separated; that they do not stand in opposition to one another; that they need not be traded off against one another in the course of a career. “This is just idealistic nonsense,” some may object. “You get ahead in business by keeping your eye on the ball, attending to the bottom line, squeezing the most out of every chance to cash in, letting nothing stand in your way. Getting distracted by high-minded dreams and noble purposes is a loser’s game. If you’re looking for meaning, read a book or go to church.”

Yet when a person keeps both purpose and success in mind, the two goals promote one another. When a person separates these two, or allows one to fall by the wayside, the person places at risk all the aspirations, personal and moral, that he or she holds. There are many reasons for preventing these two goals from becoming detached. On the positive side, the integration of purpose and success opens the way to insights that lead to better work and competitive advantages. On the negative side, their separation leads to risks that can derail any career.

All business success means the creation of wealth, which enriches founders and shareholders. But enduring and personally satisfying business success means providing something of worth to customers, supporting employees, serving the public interest, and making a contribution to the world. It means not only accumulating money for oneself, but also building a beneficial enterprise that creates value for society, that endures and thrives, and that continues to grow. For this kind of achievement, money is a means to a larger end rather than an end in itself; and the low and the high roads toward that end are not equally serviceable. The high road bestows a proven advantage, a moral advantage, and it is the only sure way to reach the destination.

Back to Top ↑


"Moral Advantage—what a great idea, especially in business!  Wouldn't it be an odd world—and even an odd God—if doing the right thing mostly brought penalties, instead of advantages?  A great insight, then, but does it hold up to examination?  That's the adventure of this book.  
—Michael Novak, George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy, The American Enterprise Institute, and author of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism

"Bill Damon's book delivers what no other does—a strong argument replete with examples and research—to show that integrity and moral purpose can support long-term success in business.  
The Moral Advantage is a refreshing read and a much needed guidepost in this day and age."
—Michael McCaskey, Chairman of the Board, The Chicago Bears

"Can business leaders turn in excellent results, improve shareholder value, and yet behave morally and ethically? In
The Moral Advantage, Bill Damon answers a resounding YES! Damon's touchstone is moral identity—not easy to achieve, but a powerful guidepost to business decision-making. His ideas will inspire a new generation of business leaders."
—Noel Capon, R.C. Kopf Professor of International Marketing and Chair of Conduct Committee, Graduate School of Business, Columbia University

The Moral Advantage shatters perfectionist views of business ethics that put profit and conscience in separate camps."
—Laura L. Nash, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer, Harvard Business School

Back to Top ↑