Heart, Spirit & Mind

What is a moral compass?


moral-compassWhat is a moral compass?  Simply stated, it is the thing inside of us that tells us which direction we should go when we have to make decisions involving right and wrong.  This is how we judge a person’s character and whether they will make a moral and good decision.

Many claim to have a simple formula on how to evaluate a person’s character. When you hear their opinions on it, it is clear that they form the basis of their opinion on only a single issue.

This is wrong because the sum of a person is not whether they make no mistakes in judgement. Instead it is the quantity and quality of those mistakes. A person could otherwise live an upstanding life, be very moral and very good in so many ways, and yet be guilty of a personal failing on a single issue.

Many people view the act of participating in infidelity a serious and unforgiveable act of selfishness and a egregious moral failing.  No one would argue that Martin Luther King Jr. was a man with an upstanding character, and an inspriation to us all.  His commitment to non-violence and  pursuit of social justice remains to this day an outstanding example of someone we should emulate.  Yet this same man was guilty of having multiple affairs. Would we discount all the other work this man has done simply because he was unfaithful to his wife?

So when we evaluate a person’s character the only fair way to evaluate them is to look at how they conduct themselves in many arenas.  How do they treat strangers? How do they treat their enemies? Are they honest? Are they loyal?  Do they help others in need? There is many other criteria in which we can judge. None of this suggest that we weight all moral failings equally. Judging a person is based on the impact their moral failings have on other people.

One serious failing that many people share is selfishness. It is a serious moral failing to place your self-interests above your integrity and simply doing the right thing. If a person repeatedly avoids discomfort and sacrifice simply to further his own own agenda, while injuring another, this is clearly wrong. Protecting oneself should not ever involve sacrificing another person in the process.

Pride is also a serious flaw. Pride often limits a person’s ability to learn from his or her mistakes. It leads to over confidence in one’s ability to make good decisions and often makes it difficult to listen to the advice of others. People who cling, steadfastly, to an opinion or idea, even when it has clearly been demonstrated that they are wrong, suffer from the sin of pride.

Honesty is something that I consider crucially important. What I consider lying here is the case where a person willfully and knowingly misleads others simply to get their own way.  It is a huge moral failing to be able to and be comfortable with bending the truth easily. People with a stable moral compass will feel uncomfortable with it, and may even be reluctant to do so. Unfortunately, sometimes people believe their own lies. That’s a sign of complete dishonesty and demonstrates a lack of conviction. It is being a hypocrite to oneself and to others.

Lastly, how a person treats those they disagree with and those who are less fortunate in any way says a lot about ones character. Many religions tell us to turn the other cheek when we are attacked. Living up to these standards can sometimes be very hard, maybe impossible. Many people have a difficult time of it. However the true test of character, or lack thereof is when a person is willing to treat their enemy with deliberate and sometimes calculated cruelty and abuse. It becomes clear that he or she has no moral compass and no compassion for other people. When we lack conscience, then we lack humanity. Humanity is what differentiates us from the animal kingdom.

We all make mistakes: failures of judgment and failures of conscience. People with a true moral compass learn from those mistakes and incorporate them into how they conduct themselves in the future. People who don’t have a moral compass often make the same mistakes again and again because they never look closely at themselves and see their moral failings. They are unable to improve themselves.

Then there are others who will sing to the cows come home about morality. Yet, those same people will judge you on a single issue as if they have never made a mistake in judgement. Those people often are really judging their own moral failings that are often more abundant than the one they scorn. They are self-centered and they will often attack those they perceive as enemies with an unrelenting fervor. They will likewise ignore legitimate criticism as unfounded in lieu of doing things their way.

Treating people who treat you in a callous or malicious manner kindly is extremely difficult for even the most saintly people. In this case, one must be resolute. You can’t control what other people do, but you can control your response. No one can take your integrity away from you.  And with a strong moral compass, even if you falter to some degree, eventually you will find the strength to do the right thing.


  1. This is an excellent presentation that I can use on my weekly talk show (Radio) and the use for instruction in College classroom. It would increasingly be valuable in Chartered School for students (k-8). The material is rich.
    Thank you.

  2. Is there any suggested readings on how to repair a broken moral compass?

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