Moral Compass or Means Justifying the End?

In the literature, definitions, of “moral compass” abound. Here are four picked out of many.

  • A person’s ability to judge what is right and wrong and to act accordingly.
  • An internalized set of values and objectives that guide a person with regard to ethical behavior and decision-making. 
  • A natural feeling that makes people know what is right from wrong and how they should behave.
  • An inner sense which distinguishes what is right from what is wrong

Bearing those definitions in mind, look at the following examples of what many would regard as, at the very least, unethical behavior. 

Somewhere –

  1. A Welfare Officer admits to teaching her foster children how to shoplift!!
  2. A City Council member is arrested and charged with, among other matters, accepting bribes. 
  3. A County Assessor is charged with accepting illegal payments to reduce the ratable value of a property.
  4. A Building Inspector issues a permit for a structure that does not conform with regulations, and receives a “reward”.
  5. A schoolteacher is charged with having sexual relations with one of her students.
  6. A senior politician consistently tells blatant lies.
  7. A parent pays a “facilitator” to get his son into a prestigious University on an athletic scholarship, using false information about his son’s sporting ability.

In each of these seven examples it is almost impossible to believe that the person involved did not understand that their behavior was unethical and/or illegal. Does this mean that these individuals did not have a moral compass? Not at all. Looking at the four definitions at the beginning of this article it is clear that while each of them suggest that a moral compass tells you there are choices to make, none of the four TELL you which decision to make. The seven actions identified in the examples have nothing to do with the presence or absence of a moral compass. In the first four cases greed would appear to be the motive. In the fifth case the motive could have been one of sexual gratification or could have been one of rebellion against what the individual saw as an unfair restriction on her personal behavior. The case of the politician telling obvious lies is a case of ‘I will say what I like, and you can do nothing about it.’ The parent who willingly participates in a scheme to get one of his children into a prestigious University on a sporting scholarship, when he knows that his child does not have an appropriate level of sporting ability, is guilty of fraud. If that parent later claims that he thought he was making a charitable donation to the University, rather than gaining his son an unlikely athletic scholarship, that rationale definitely fails the ‘smell test’ of credibility.

It would be great if our moral compass not only enabled us to recognize the options available but also provided a rationale for choosing one path rather than another. By definition a compass is something that can point to a multitude of directions. In relation to our behavior we need something more than such a piece of equipment. In each of the seven cases listed above it is fairly obvious that the people involved had a guiding philosophy of ‘the end justifies the means’. I suspect I am not being too cynical if I believe that, if the individuals feel any remorse, it is not remorse about what they did, or are still doing, but it is remorse about ‘being caught’.

The moral compass enables us to see the options. That needs to be coupled with a philosophy of the means justifying the end. 

Yes, we can, and should, make America great but this has nothing to do with politics. It involves each and everyone one of us making the ‘right’ decision. Our community needs to understand that making the wrong decision can have unpleasant consequences.

In all aspects of our life integrity should be the dominant principle that guides our actions.