Conscience, Moral Compass, and Ethical Behavior
I’ve blogged about it before – the lack of a moral compass. I’ve spoken out about fraud in our society. Business fraud contributed to financial meltdowns in the early 2000s because top executives in companies such as Enron and WorldCom played fast and loose with the accounting rules while auditors looked the other way. It happened again in the 2007-2008 period when some of the largest financial institutions granted risky mortgages and allowed for unclear/misleading statements in home mortgage loans. Fraudulent medical billings, the topic of my next blog, has infected the Medicare program and cost society anywhere from $600 billion, an amount estimated in the Affordable Health Care Act (Obamacare), to trillions of dollars. And, of course, some politicians use their office for personal gain while others accept bribes and kickbacks. Do they all lack a moral compass?
A moral compass is generally thought of as, "Anything which serves to guide a person’s decisions based on morals or virtues." The common understanding is one’s conscience. Most of us from an older generation remember the phrase “Let your conscience be your guide.” An interesting side note about this statement is it appears prominently in Disney’s story of Pinocchio. I’m always amazed how we can learn so much about ethics from literature. Now, some might now consider Pinocchio literature but it does illustrate how the movies and television used to be a force to promote good behavior rather than today’s emphasis on offensive behavior, immature attitudes, and just being a jerk.
For those of you who have forgotten the famous exchange in Pinocchio, here it is:
“Well it's a good thing you didn't get to wrapped up in it" Jiminy Cricket said walking her home; Pinocchio had already gone home after his game with the other boys ended and asked Jiminy to take his sister home.
"I know Jiminy" Gizela said "I don't wanna end up like my brother" she said "like you told me."
"Don't worry Gizela that won't happen to you" he said." “Just let your conscience be your guide"…
Jiminy started to dance while twirling his umbrella
"When you get in trouble and you don't know right from wrong
Give a little whistle!"…
"When you meet temptation and the urge is very strong, give a little whistle! Give a little whistle!"
Gizela started to dance along
"Take the straight and narrow path" she sang. "And always let your conscience be your guide" he sang.
Now, most people know that their actions should be guided by their conscience. Some take this to mean, "I think this is right," or, "I think this is what I should do." Some take it to an even easier level and say things like, "I need to listen to my heart," or, "I need to follow my heart."
But, here is the problem with that mind-set. Everyone is doing what they think is right (or at least seemed right to themselves), but the underlying action is not necessarily guided by moral values.
The problem is one of formation, which results in orientation. If one’s conscience is not properly formed, then it will not point (or orient) you in the correct direction. Hence, the analogy of conscience to a compass – it must be properly oriented. If a compass is not pointing to true North (or the markings on the compass indicate that the needle is off-North), it doesn’t matter how closely it is being followed – you are still going to go the wrong way, and the longer you continue in that wrong path, the more wrong you will be.
So essentially, our conscience already knows right from wrong, much like a child already has the instinct to walk – however, the conscience must be strengthened by act of the will/mind to follow what is right, and not just what is felt.
The concept of morality is also relatively simple at its absolute core. It denotes conduct or duties based on what is right and wrong. Morality is considered to be the basis of character and is wrapped around ethics.
But while both the concept of a moral compass and the definition of morality are simple and clear, the concept of what constitutes morality is not. One person’s moral compass may not point in the same direction as another’s as far as right and wrong conduct and belief are concerned.
I always tell my ethics students that there is a difference between knowing the right thing to do and doing it. Our conscience guides us but it is our inner strength of character, or virtue to the ancient Greeks, that leads to moral action. The moral values that enable such action include truthfulness, trustworthiness, fair-mindedness, and integrity.
I always have a goal in mind when I lecture to my students. It is to get them to the point where they know the right thing to do before being faced with an ethical dilemma. It’s often too late, after the fact, to do the right thing because pressures build up by external forces to go along with wrongdoing. In other words, it is our inner conscience that drives to act one way or another informed by moral values and a desire to do the right thing not because of any personal gain but, instead, because it is the right thing to do.
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on July 31, 2012