Calibrating your ‘moral compass’

  • Published
  • By Gene Kamena
  • Air War College
The analogy of a "moral compass" as representing a person's ability to reason ethically and act morally has been used to the point of triteness. Although the terms "ethics" and "morality" are not the same thing, for the sake of brevity I will use them interchangeably.
My goal is to resurrect the moral compass theme by underpinning this worn-out thought picture with requisite detail to make it applicable to our contemporary circumstances.

Let's begin by defining what is meant by the phrase moral compass. A person's moral compass is an internal sense that informs ethical discernment and moral deed. In other words, a moral compass is not only the ability to determine what the right action is, but to actually do the right action. As is the nature of compasses, a person's moral compass is susceptible to interference and also requires periodic calibration to perform at peak efficiency over time.

The question is, "If you buy into the moral compass analogy, how is moral calibration accomplished?" Without getting into an extended philosophical discussion, suffice to say that the following steps provide both a framework to think about ethical discernment as well as a process to ensure your moral compass continues to point to true north.

Ethical awareness (Deliberate): Understanding the moral and ethical landscape is the first step toward calibrating one's moral compass. In this sense, awareness is defined as the ability to recognize the ethical implications of a given situation. Awareness involves asking some basic but pertinent questions: Who are the moral agents involved? What specific acts should be considered? What outcomes are desirable? Conflicts of interests and moral dilemmas are sometimes difficult to detect if one is not morally astute.

Ethical judgment (Decide): The ability to discern the best possible solution given the information available. Ethical judgment or moral maturity is developed through experience, ethical knowledge and by understanding people. Having an ethical framework to sort out competing virtues and values is critical. For instance, the concepts of justice and mercy often come into conflict when deciding the appropriate punishment for a disciplinary infraction. Having an understanding of duty ethics, utilitarianism and virtue ethics is a great place to start. If these terms are not familiar, then self-study is in order. Although never guaranteed, ethical judgment should increase with age, experience and education.

Moral impetus (Act): Once a person deliberates and decides on a moral course of action, the last step is to actually do it, to follow through. Doing what is right is never as easy as it sounds. There are always pressures, internal and external, not to act morally. Self-interests, emotions and lack of moral courage are a few of the more common reasons why people do not follow through on their ethical decisions. In other words, we sometimes get in our own way when it comes to follow through.

With regard to interference, it comes in many forms and can occur during any step of the calibration process, but is most common in the last step, the moral impetus or act step of calibration. Interference might come in the form of peer pressure, institutional pressure to arrive at a predestined outcome or even in one's own consideration of sunk cost, such as time already served.

How does one eliminate interference? You don't; it is always present. Be aware that interference exists and allow for it in your moral considerations. Ethics is more than an annual talk or mandatory class. Consistent right action takes practice, self-education and moral discipline. Moral discernment is never easy, but a well-calibrated moral compass does much to keep you heading in the right direction.