This study investigates how participation in moral action affects college students’ moral identity – focusing on ‘giving’ moral action like service work, and ‘buying’ moral action like ethical consumption. Using in depth interviews (N=10) with morally engaged students at an elite liberal arts college, the study found that students’ moral identities were profoundly shaped by service work: they learned how to communicate and connect with different populations, developing both empathy and boundary setting skills, and they gained perspective from their exposure to harsh realities, leading to reflection and changes to their understanding of social inequities. For most students, ethical consumption did not alter their existing moral identities, instead it functioned as a method to maintain and confirm their existing morals. By contrast, service work was found to have a more lasting and transformative effect on students as they felt they were able to have a direct impact with their work and engage socially with the world around them. The findings show a mutual interplay between identity and action, and suggest the adoption of a reciprocal model between moral identity and moral action – as opposed to the prevailing model of identity determining action. Additionally, the results support the incorporation of ethical consumption under the umbrella of moral action and a need for further research on the moral effects of ethical consumption, particularly as consumption becomes increasingly central to capitalist society. This study illustrates the importance of moral action for college students’ personal development, and contributes to an ongoing dialogue in the sociology of morality.

Type of Work

Thesis - Limited Access

Department or Program



Hamilton College


Bachelor of Arts

Date of Graduation


Faculty Advisor

Matthew Grace

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.