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What is a Moral Compass?

Relationship to the Law

We all know that a compass is a device for determining directions by means of a magnetic needle or group of needles turning freely on a pivot and pointing to the magnetic north. The expression that your moral compass should be directed due north for ethical behavior to occur generally means this is the way a person’s ethics will direct them to do the right thing.

According to Psych Central, your moral compass, conscience, and ethics may all sound like the same set of values, but your moral compass can sometimes steer you away from rigid societal laws. This is one reason why acting in accordance with your values may be justified even if societal laws seem misplaced.

There is an ongoing debate about the relationship between the law and morality. In 1958 the Harvard Law Review published the famous Hart Fuller Debate, which addressed the relationship of law and morality. Hart held that morality and law are separate and Fuller asserted that morality is the source of the law’s binding power. Laws bind every citizen to abide by them; however, moral standards depend upon an individual’s upbringing, values, religious background, and culture.

When you’re faced with a decision or asked to voice an opinion, how you react is often driven by personal values you’ve acquired throughout your lifetime. Some of these values, the ones that dictate how you determine right from wrong, make up your moral compass. In times when societal rules regarding human rights and conduct conflict with your beliefs, your moral compass is what guides your behavior.

Moral Compass vs. Conscience

Morality is what defines whether an action is perceived as good or bad, proper or improper. Morals guide your individual behavior within a society. Your moral compass is your personal set of beliefs and values regarding right and wrong. Morals aren’t fixed. They may change as you face new experiences in life, gain knowledge, or cope with hardships.

Everyone’s moral compass is unique. Even though many concepts of morality appear to be universally accepted, within those foundational beliefs may be unlimited moral considerations.

Your moral compass is not the same as your conscience, though your moral compass can inform your conscience.

Your conscience is an innate sense of right and wrong that helps us make moral judgments, according to Steve Carleton. “In other words, a moral compass provides guidance in making ethical decisions, while a conscience serves as an internal warning system to alert us when we have violated our moral code.

Relationship to Ethics Whats-A-Moral-Compass

The terms “morals” and “ethics” are often used interchangeably, but they aren’t the same. Ethics can align with morals but ethics tend to be the cultural and societal standards that outline how “everyone” is expected to behave.

“While a person’s moral compass may influence their ethical decisions, ethics is more of an externally imposed set of standards or rules that must be followed to maintain social order and prevent chaos,” he says.

An example of ethics would be consequences for dishonesty, such as making fraud illegal under any circumstance. An example of morals could be agreeing that dishonesty is wrong, except in certain situations, such as doing so to protect yourself or another person.

Moral Development

Modern concepts of moral development were pioneered by psychologist Jean Piaget, who believed it emerged in stages, each based on life experiences.

Later on, Piaget’s framework was expanded by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, who felt moral development was a part of three phases in childhood, each phase defined by stages of learning that determined moral alignment.

Phase 1: Pre-conventional

  • Stage 1: Behaviors are driven by punishment avoidance.
  • Stage 2: Behaviors are driven by rewards or satisfying personal needs.

Phase 2: Conventional

  • Stage 3: Children are driven by a desire to gain the approval of others.
  • Stage 4: Children start to consider the laws and rules of society around them.

Phase 3: Post-conventional

  • Stage 5: Individual rights become more important than societal law.
  • Stage 6: Moral decisions are based on the perspective of everyone potentially impacted.

Kohlberg believed not everyone would reach the final level of moral compass development in their lifetime.

Finding Your Moral Compass

It’s not always easy to know right from wrong, but you can start to understand your moral compass through several methods Carleton recommends.

Your moral compass is made up of your beliefs, so it may be helpful to actively review them throughout your life. You can do this by asking questions like:

  • What do I believe in?
  • What values are important to me in others?
  • What is happening in the world around me that I agree with/disagree with?
  • Where do I stand on popular topics of debate?

It’s OK to be unclear where you stand with certain topics. Morality is rarely straightforward, and there may be many perspectives to consider. To help gain those views, you may find it helpful to speak with friends, family, or coworkers who can engage in open, calm discussions about their moral positions.

Self-reflection, learning about other global perspectives, and talking about values with friends and family can all help you find your moral compass.

The Problem Today

Finding one’s moral compass has become more difficult than ever before. There is so much interference because of pressures imposed by one’s peer group or at work that finding a moral compass is challenging. Bad influences create barriers to ethical behavior and using one’s conscience when the going gets tough because of negative factors sometimes found in social media.

We used to believe in a clear line between right and wrong, but that is no longer the case in part because we live in a fractured society. We have some who believe the concept of being “woke” underlies moral behavior while others base it on a strict constructive point of view with values that are immutable.

It’s important that we start to discuss the concept of a moral compass with youngsters at the earliest time in their education. This is a good way to evaluate historical events and societal norms in light of one’s moral conscience. It can bridge the divide in society and bring us closer together.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz on July 5, 2023. You can sign up for Steve’s newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website (https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/).