Why your Moral Compass is Off…


person wearing black leather gloves holding brass colored compass

Photo by Simon Migaj on Pexels.com

Another common analogy for moral character is the idea of the Moral Compass. The idea here is that each individual has (or ought to have) an internal sense of right and wrong that guides her navigation through moral dilemmas and problems. People are immoral or experience moral failure to the degree that they fail to follow or consult their moral compass, or when their moral compass is not properly calibrated (on a regular basis) towards the one ‘True North.’   In addition, in the analogy the Moral Compass is viewed as more objective and reliable that other things like your own observations, experience, the context or surrounding landscape of other ideas. And that doesn’t even get the Sea Monsters that inhabit these dangerous waters, which the Moral Compass is designed to tell you how to navigate through.

Ok, What’s wrong with this? It sounds right! You need a compass for navigation, to tell you where to go. 

Before getting into my issues, we should consider how a compass really works. At its most basic, it is a piece of magnetized metal (remember that the core of the earth is a big magnet/magnetized field – see https://gisgeography.com/magnetic-north-vs-geographic-true-pole/ ) which is suspended and if properly floating will point North; this is really just the needle aligning itself with the Earth’s magnetic field, that is, it will orient to Magnetic North. (This is, of course, a massive over simplification but still helpful in thinking about the analogy.)

Further, there is a difference between True North and Magnetic North – these are not exactly the same thing. Depending upon where you are on the planet, the difference between the two can bit significant, so you may need to calibrate or adjust your compass. Of course, you have to know what the difference is in order to do this. Evidently observation and math are involved in this (or a good map which has this information, calculated by others.) At geographic or True North the difference is about 500 km, and this is actually changing over time.

Wait what?

I have several problems with the Moral Compass analogy, some of which overlap with my prior post. First, this idea of the Moral Compass is highly individual, and internal to each person. Second, it also suggests one direction or way that is moral and the context and environment doesn’t matters and isn’t to be trusted as a source of navigational knowledge. (Trust the Compass!) Further, how do you calibrate your personal compass to True North (morally speaking) , which is viewed as an objective, static thing (otherwise it wouldn’t be trust worthy)?  How do you know when you have calibrated right? (Are there moral calibration calculations or maps that you consult? If there are, this is rarely part of the analogy.)

If the Moral Compass is calibrated correctly, it will guide you, help navigate so you do not need to develop other capacities like prudence/practical reasoning based upon experience, empathy, moral imagination, virtues. Moral failure then is a technological problem! The Moral Compass was either not properly calibrated or you failed to follow or use it in your navigation. All of this reinforces the idea that there is one direction, path for moral character, virtue and being Good and that it is a matter for individuals in relative isolation.

My major issue with this analogy is that it fails to take into account social context or impact. What about the ships?  What about the other people on your ship? There is no possibility for integration or character development over time, Just Follow the Compass! As with the Moral Strength analogy there is no emphasis or acknowledgement of moral growth and especially learning from experience and what you ‘see’. Only the directions on the Compass matter, you do not need prudence and moral judgement and discretion. As an argument, this is the Appeal to Authority: My Moral Compass says x! But why? How do you know that is it correct. (Recall all the stories of drivers lost, injured and killed by blindly and uncritically following their GPS directions….)

To effectively navigate you still need to know the landscape and understand the context, the compass only tells you which way North is. This is not an objective moral guide, there is still context, wind, storms, rough seas. The compass alone does not make you a navigator, it is a tool (along with other tools that you might use) along with prudence, experience, empathy (your maps) to help plot out a route. But you also have to move, to act and then articulate why you did what you did once you arrive (or get lost.) You can still get lost!

In addition, there are multiple routes you might take once you know where North is, and it is experience and knowledge of context, and the collective history and experience of those who have come before that will assist you (along with the compass) in plotting out a route and adjusting as you go.  Others have had a hand in plotting the landscape, doing calculations (on the difference between True and Magnetic North at different places) and conveying that information. There is a place for narrative, sharing and experience, not just a compass and a map. Even then, this process of navigation takes practice, trial and error; you will make mistakes, get lost, discover things you did not anticipate and perhaps run into wild animals and even sea monsters. (I will say more on the narrative piece in Part III next week.)

Another major problem is how this analogy leaves little room for  emotion and moral imagination, I suspect quite intentionally. We might think of this as the Lake Wobegon view of moral character, we are all above average and good looking character-wise, but Christian Miller in The Character Gap (and many others working in moral psychology) notes that this is not that case. Most of us are neither virtuous nor vicious, but in some borderland between and it will matter and vary a great deal based upon context and circumstance. Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning makes a similar point, buttressed by things like the Milgram studies, around why and when people will engage in immoral or vicious behavior.

In order to expand moral imagination and empathy, Miller notes several things that we can do to increase the odds or likelihood of virtuous behavior (or moving in that direction.) We can 1) cultivate moral role models; 2)we can acknowledge (which requires honest and realistic self-awareness) and compensate/adjust for our tendencies; and 3) we can select or at least rehearse (in good Stoic fashion) for likely moral situations. All of these ideas make sense in the context of the military, especially the last one. We need to consider how we bridge the character gap, but moral failure or challenge is not simply a matter of weakness or a miscalibrated compass, but a gap between the aspirational ideal and human reality.

Next time: Narrative and Character 




Published by shankskaurin

Philosopher and military ethicist. Author of two books, including "On Obedience" (USNI Press, 2020) I also teach war college students for the Navy. (Views here are personal only.) Mother to two energetic young lads. Foodie, gardener and Diva with a shoe obsession.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: