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Moral compass and finding the true north

The year was 1497. It was known as the Age of Discovery as explorers from Spain, England and other European countries were fervently seeking a New World. Among them was a Portuguese navigator Dom Vasco da Gama. With his crew, his intuition and a compass, he roved the high seas in search of a rumoured land that existed far beyond his own. He set sail in inhospitable weather and travelled far and wide, with his eyes on the horizon. And when all hope was lost, his compass kept him on the right path, as a good guide would. Without it, he would have been lost in the abyss of Mediterranean and Arabia and would never have found India.

Today, whether it’s a sailor, a pilot or an individual walking the streets, everyone can find their direction with ease. But, when it comes to the path of morality, we are just as lost as ever. We have a tonne of research on morality that could give people a map to find their true north, but not everyone can comprehend the difference between right and wrong. So, let’s take a step back and understand morality at the fundamental level.

In Latin, the word for “right” is “rectus” which means “straight”. It comes to the English language through the Old English word ‘riht’ which means “just, fair, proper, or good.” On the other hand, the word ‘wrong’, means “crooked” in Latin. Since the 12th century, the word has been used to highlight a bad, immoral, or unjust behaviour. The first step to find one’s true north begins with understanding this difference between right and wrong.

In simple words, morality is a value system that directs us towards goodness and kindness. Helping an old person cross the road, giving shelter to a homeless animal, volunteering to provide aid to people in need are all moral behaviours, expected of humans, in general. But unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal society. In a world mired in bigotry and ignorance, the line separating good and bad is never a straight one. What is right for one is wrong for another. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to ethics and virtues. So how can we follow the path of morality, when there is no map for it?

Simple. By using a compass. Not the one Vasco had, but the moral compass that always point towards ‘true north’. Calibrated with the elements of compassion, fairness and just, moral compass is a ‘shadow of virtue’ embedded in each one of us. For some it is a state of mind, for others it is the plinth to their spirituality. Either way, people use this moral instrument to do what is right, even when doing right is not easy.

It takes a strong determination to live virtuously every day and protect our relationships from ego and ingroup prioritisation.

This being said, the moral ground is filled with potholes, where one often trips and falls. Barack Obama once said, “The biggest challenge, I think, is always maintaining your moral compass.” It means, even power, unlimited resources at your disposal or a rational mind could fail to distinguish right from wrong. But why?

Often, a mind responds to external stimuli by manifesting irrational behaviours. It all depends on the environment one is living in. Even Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W., Professor Emeritus, Hofstra University believes that there are various elements that could stop us from finding our true north. “Many factors interfere with living ethically. Some are generated internally e.g. jealousy, while others are external e.g. living in an unjust society.” Selfishness and self-centeredness often inhibit people from leading a moral life or building a society where everyone looks out for each other. It is strange how much we have evolved as a civilisation but seem to have forgotten how to live in unity, harmoniously, says Dobrin.

Sometimes, to find the answers to the most difficult questions, one should look into the past. Darcia Narvaez, PhD, a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame, says we should learn from our ancestors about morality from how they lived their lives by being one with everything. “I look to our ancestral contexts for answers—small-band hunter-gatherers and others who follow an indigenous worldview because they focus on living sustainably and virtuously with all of the bio-community, not just humans but animals, plants, rivers, mountains,” says Darcia. The professor also reveals that the ability to take the right decisions and do right by others is not something one can learn overnight. It takes a strong determination to live virtuously every day and protect our relationships from ego and ingroup prioritisation.

Darcia’s perspectives give a clear image of ‘living virtuously’, and what it takes to be moral—becoming one with nature and everyone else. But in today’s fast-paced world, there is hardly any time for people to stop and observe nature, let alone form a bond with it.

Philosopher, Saint Augustine of Hippo tried to simply the relation of right and wrong to give people a clear perspective of their moral actions. He said, “Right is right even if no one is doing it; wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it.” Although his words are true and inspiring, they don’t give us a clear demarcation between the two. The Centre for Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University gave a more theoretical route to true north, one that can be used by everyone. According to them, one’s moral code is built on the following seven virtues:

Justice: Recognising other people as ends valuable in themselves, not mere means, and treating them fairly, without prejudice or selfishness

Temperance: Controlling ourselves amid promises of pleasure and acquiring healthful habits

Courage: Acting on responsible moral convictions without rashness or cowardice

Honesty: Telling the truth, not deceiving others to manipulate them, and basing judgments on evidence

Compassion: Acquiring a sensitivity to the pain and suffering of others

Respect: Recognising that reasonable people of goodwill can disagree civilly and often have much to learn from each other

Wisdom: Acquiring self-knowledge, right inclinations, and good judgment

If people are a little conscious of these seven virtues, it would certainly make for a more graceful moral life. As Dobrin says, “Live for the moment, but don’t live for the moment only. Live for yourself, but don’t live for yourself alone. You are part of a symphony, so play for notes with beauty and grace.”

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