rediscovering the moral compass
“We are the ones who give moral guidelines body and life.
You can take, if you will, your solace in heaven, but you must work out your ethics on earth.”
Susan Neiman <Moral Clarity>
The threat posed by Bank of America isn’t just financial – it’s a full-blown assault on the American dream.
Where’s the incentive to play fair and do well, when what we see rewarded at the highest levels of society is failure, stupidity, incompetence and meanness?
If this is what winning in our system looks like, who doesn’t want to be a loser?
“Truth tells us how the world is; morality tells us how it ought to be.”
This began as a business piece on ethics in business and then I decided to simply take a stance on my belief that the world, and society, is not crumbling, decaying or dropping into the depths of some dismal despair, but rather we are in the throes of some moral rediscovery. I believe that maybe we have simply lost our moral way or maybe we are getting lost within some warped struggle within moral ambiguity or maybe we are simply rediscovering our moral compass.
And, yes, I purposefully suggest ‘rediscover.’ Research has proven we are all born with a moral compass. We are born knowing what is right from wrong, well, at least at its core <research shows that even psychopaths have a moral compass … they simply elect to not follow it>. But while the core is within our soul the problem is that the edges of what is right or wrong becomes contextual.
That almost sounds crazy in its ambiguity.
Crazy because you would think morality, simple day to day morality, would be easy. Crazy because you would think … well … right is right and wrong is wrong. But it’s not.
Moral ambiguity, which can inevitably lead to structural corruption, is an ongoing challenge. Yes. Ongoing. Because I did some research and I began to realize that this is not simply a “random crisis”, but rather that each generation struggles to identify its moral ‘north star.’ In other words, what we worry about today <greed, lying, corruption, etc.> are simply trappings of an ongoing discussion over our moral compass. It is a reflection of our human nature to have this ongoing discussion. This whole discussion is an ongoing cycle of discovery, feelings of lostness and rediscovery of this little, but important thing, called “the moral compass.”
This happens because we live in a dynamic world where society, culture & civilization, as well as events and experiences, are constantly tugging at individual morality, constantly challenging it as it tries to catch its breath dealing with everything <and the constant decisions we make every day>. In other words, everyting is connected with everything. In other words, just as we draw breath in and out … morality ebbs and flows.
The good news? Just as with breathing, morality keeps going as long as we live. By the way, that doesn’t mean we don’t have to catch our breath on occasion.
In addition it doesn’t mean we don’t have to assess our moral health on occasion.
And with this generation and today’s society? I think we need to assess and rediscover our moral compass.
Now. In a book called “Morality Adrift” a guy named Christian Smith discusses our moral compass in some fairly bleak terms. I don’t agree with him <albeit he says some really smart insightful thoughts>. He argues that emerging adults are morally lost, not morally corrupt; they are morally adrift and discusses the question of morality, moral beliefs, and moral reasoning. His morally adrift refers to how individualism is driving moral behavior rather than pluralism <I would imagine>.
At the core of his dismal view is a researched fact that 60% of emerging adults are strongly individualistic in morality. This means that these people believe a moral decision is a personal choice and an individual decision … up to each person and one ought to respect the moral choices of others.
The posture is:
“I’m not going to tell others what to do.”
While they nod to influences — parents, teachers, etc — the predominant idea is that one makes one’s own moral choices. It is wrong to judge the moral decisions of others.
Some are moral realists <there is something morally right but they choose what> and others moral relativists <they choose what and that makes it right>.
I do not share his dismal view maybe because I have more faith in people as individuals, however, I do recognize that this inherent individualism leads to something called ‘being moral relativists.’ In fact, this relativism leads to a significant group of people who will actually go against their own moral beliefs if it works to their advantage. Yup. These people, more or less, make their decisions on the basis of what makes them happy or helps them get ahead in life. I could argue this ‘selfish’ individualism has arisen because we have done a horrible job when it comes to moral education, but instead I tend to believe we are simply going through the actions of people rediscovering our moral compass <blaming ‘unfairness of society’ to justify our individual actions>.
Regardless. I do tend to believe we need some re-education. I tend to believe the education & rediscovery begins with discussions – discussions about moral truths & facts:
What do we think about morality?
How do we know what is moral?
How do we make moral decisions?
Where do we think moral rights and wrongs, goods and bads, even come from?
How important is it to choose what is morally good?
Good important questions.
Now. What makes the discussion even more difficult is the fact research has continually found that the ability to reason in complex ways about moral issues does not predictably lead to moral actions. This tends to happen because, sadly, what others think of you and what is done <society and actions around you> often shape much of someone’s moral decisions and morality.
This would suggest that we live in a world where very little counts as truly moral.
That was not an easy thing to type.
Yet, it also reflects my hope. Before I discuss the rediscovery aspect let me quickly share my hope.
My hope resides in when I listen to young people. They tend to voice their morality with more humility, even hesitation, than the older generations. That’s partly because they are legitimately suspicious of easy answers to complex questions, and their moral compasses tell them that condemning others is rarely the right way to treat people.
I mention youth because the myth of youth being an amoral generation has been around for a long time. Our grandparents talked about how our parents were morally adrift and their parents did the same of them. Conceptually, in our minds, every generation is morally worse than the previous.
And then they grow up.
The cycle is a myth.
Anyway. Back to moral rediscovery … many people today hold an individualistic approach to morality.
“I choose these morals because they are right for me in my opinion”.
And most people express moral relativism how?
“There are no absolutes, it depends on the situation”.
Sadly this means when we think of morals we think of, well, more than one right answer. Or everyone has to decide for themselves. And you can’t tell others what to think.
This is kind of crazy.
I don’t think we are morally adrift nor do I think morality should be subjective but it seems like when you drill down to its core, morality and moral behavior should be fairly black and white <or let’s say ‘less shades of gray’>.
We shouldn’t be behaving in a “moral licensing” fashion which is our tendency that leaves us feeling entitled to do something bad because we’ve already done something good.
Ok … even given all the semi-dismal things I have written about people and morals I still do not believe we are in any moral crisis. Despite the seeming despair of today people were no less greedy, ignorant, selfish and violent then than they are today, and no more generous, fair-minded and idealistic.
So what’s the problem?
I would suggest <as did Peter Drucker> that the institutions of American democracy, stronger than the excesses of individuals, were usually able to contain and channel our natural tendencies to more useful ends in the past.
In other words, human nature does not change, but social structures can, and they did.
Now. I will speak specifically about the United States, but I tend to believe many of the thoughts are relevant wherever there is some type of prosperity and/or version of capitalism. I say this because prosperity <in some ways> seems to have suffocated common sense and our sense of moral behavior and I don’t just mean the infamous 1% but everyone in America <excepting of course those in poverty>.
But America. America is a country with seemingly boundless degrees of possibilities and opportunities. Not just for good or for bad, but a land of excess & indulgence and poverty & beggars, the best and some of the worst in the world and it is a country that sometimes seems to struggle to know the difference.
Those who live the best are some of the worst.
And some who live the worst are of the best.
Television shoves good taste to us with the same enthusiasm as bad taste.
The truly talented get as much exposure as the moronic idiots.
All the while there has been a general democratization of ‘everyday luxuries’ <everyone has a tv, air conditioning, car, etc.> as well as a perceived social mobility <somewhat realistic> built by the fact the working schmuck had such luxury available <Caribbean cruise vacation or boat in the driveway> it created social connection points to the wealthy in ways that blurred social classes. Luxury, or luxuriousness, blended aspects into the everyday ‘blue collar’ population. It elevated the tide of ‘comfort’ but the gap between the haves and the have nots has become so discernible America’s immensity now actually includes good and bad within the haves and have nots. In other words, everything became connected with everything.
To be clear. It has always been there, but it has been semi-balanced. It is just out of balance at the moment <yet, reflects an ongoing struggle>.
Which leads me to answer the obvious question. A crisis? Geez. I am not sure about that. An issue? Yeah. I believe so.
It becomes a crisis if we ignore it or if it is not naturally balanced again. But, once again, the struggle is ongoing.
Even Emerson commented on it in the 1800’s:
“Our culture has truckled to the times–to the senses. It is not manworthy.
If the vast and the spiritual are omitted, so are the practical and the moral. It does not make us brave or free. We teach boys to be such men as we are. We do not teach them to aspire to be all they can. We do not give them training as if we believed in their noble nature.
We scarce educate their bodies.
We do not train the eye and the hand. We exercise their understandings to the apprehension and: comparison of some facts, to a skill in numbers, in words; we aim to make accountants, attorneys, engineers; but not to make able, earnest, great-hearted men. The great object of Education should be commensurate with the object of life.
It should be a moral one; to teach self-trust; to inspire the youthful man with an interest in himself; with a curiosity touching his own nature; to acquaint him with the resources of his mind, and to teach him that there is all his strength …”
Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1800’s
Within this struggle, this rediscovery, I actually take some solace in the individualism taking place. Why? Because, in all moral discussions, at the root of all the issues is how one conducts oneself. Character. Moral virtue. Stuff like that. Important stuff like that. Let us call it ‘the virtue of the participants.’
Free markets, in order to function well, depend upon the virtue of their participants. The distrust engendered by vice raises wasteful transaction and monitoring costs to levels that can paralyze the marketplace.
Moreover, vice leads to the phenomenon of “putting profits before people.”
This can be manifested in a variety of ways: by taking imprudent and excessive risks with other people’s money; by selling products and services that harm consumers, families, and society; and by engaging in outright fraud.
Today, of course, we are suffering from all of the above.
It was Adam Smith who stated the link between markets and morality in his economic theory. He did not believe that a successful economy could arise from the raw, unbridled pursuit of self-interest.
He maintained that self-interest could fuel a successful economy only if it were narrowed by the constraints of traditional morality. I mention that constraints thing because it seems like today we are seeing what happens when these constraints are relaxed. Let’s be clear. We have seen and encountered this ‘lack of constraints impact’ before <bringing back the concept of ‘this is a constant struggle’>.
Absent from the many comparisons made between our current recession and the Great Depression has been an examination of the moral disintegration that preceded each. The stock market crash of 1929, and the ensuing Depression, was precipitated by the “roaring ’20s.” That prosperous decade was marked by materialism and licentiousness.
It seems as though the moral laxity of the cabaret and the bedroom were not so restricted, but rather extended to a certain moral laxity within the corporation and the boardroom as well. For the investigations that followed the Crash of ’29 uncovered rampant corruption among America’s boards and bankers.
Now. I am not cynical nor do I believe we are living within the Armageddon of civilization <or the Decay of Civilization which Brooks Adams actually wrote about in 1896> and I’m not saying there isn’t greatness in the the natural ideals of people or that all people are wasteful and clueless or that every shred of what made, and makes, good people … well … good people … has evaporated. There is a strength, a solid core of goodness and possibility, that can never be completely squelched or squandered.
However. Currently I would suggest that America, in particular, is in a mess within this moral rediscovery discussion. We seem to be a society that is bloated, opinionated, greedy, indulgent, complicit, buying too much stuff, wasting energy, time and resources, ignoring the truth while embracing what we want to hear … and all the while complaining but doing nothing about it claiming a powerlessness to do anything about it is creating issues … and questions.
We often attempt to answer the larger moral questions with knee jerk short term course corrections.
Yes. That is indicative of the world we live in <short term is the new long term>.
Yes. That is indicative of the world we live in <individualistic – I gotta take ‘for me’>
What makes the “I” aspect even worse is the moral dilemma wrapped around this wacky discussion around ‘entitlements’. The truth is, as long as we continue to think of entitlement as someone else’s problem, someone else’s fault, we’ll never truly understand it and we’ll have absolutely zero chance of altering its course.
The truth is that America’s growing entitlement culture is far more pervasive than people realize. It’s also far more ‘democratic’ than people realize. Entitlement spans from leadership, and not just in Washington, either, but in business leadership, celebrities and people with gobs of money to the actual people who need it <and have given up hope that ‘working hard will get me somewhere’>. This overall ‘democratization of entitlement’ leads to a situation where everyone, morally, seems to justify ‘getting shit for free’ because we tie it to ‘I deserve it’ <whether it is tied to actual work or not>.
When people have the perception that everyone is getting rich, but them, and they see leaders who aren’t held accountable making gobs of money they don’t deserve … people become resentful, jealous, angry, and selfish. They want their piece of the pie <and why shouldn’t they?>.
Why shouldn’t they when people see out of control executive compensation? In a 1984 Peter Drucker essay he argued that executive pay was out of control and lucrative severance packages destroyed accountability. “This is morally and socially unforgivable,” he said, “and we will pay a heavy price for it.” <note: this bleeds into perceptions in society because business & society are intertwined>.
It’s gotten far, far worse since 1984.
Well, all that said, all the issues and society and big world problems aside, moral rediscovery is a hat we wear well and wear often. This constant cycle of moral rediscovery takes place because research shows that each generation believes the past was always better <the corollary to that thought is the belief we are in decline>.
“The current generation now sees everything clearly, it marvels at the errors, it laughs at the folly of its ancestors, not seeing that this chronicle is all overscored by divine fire, that every letter of it cries out, that from everywhere the piercing finger is pointed at it, at this current generation; but the current generation laughs and presumptuously, proudly begins a series of new errors, at which their descendants will also laugh afterwards.”
Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls
In reality we are rarely in a decline simply in the midst of ongoing and, typically, progressive change. Younger generations embrace the change as “theirs” and older generations are resistant to the change <believing why change what was successful in the past>.
The truth lies somewhere in between.
However. I do believe we reach crossroad moments.
And I believe the crossroad moments can often be defined by almost the exact criteria I just mentioned … when everyone feels something is off kilter – but the gap remains solid between those who adamantly want change and those who adamantly want to reach into the past <oppose the change> is .
To me? That is America today <and, separately, it may actually be the Western world at large>.
To me where we are is not an economic crisis but rather a moral crossroads.
Or maybe it is an ideals crossroad <choose one…they are simply derivatives of each other>. And it is a precarious crossroad.
“Human attempts to construct moral order are always precarious: If righteousness too often leads to self-righteousness, the demand for justice can lead to one guillotine or another.”
Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists
It is precarious because the groups work along parallel paths towards a world that is what ought to be rather than settling for the world as it is. One group seeks the ‘ought to be in’ new and the other groups seeks ‘out to be’ in tried & true past thoughts. And yet neither group denies that public morality is frayed. They simply deny the other group.
A moral discussion is a time where every voice counts.
I have moral needs.
We have moral needs.
Shit. Our younger people surely have moral needs and are seeking a world in which moral needs are not shifted to the side because they are inconvenient at the moment. We should be demanding a discussion on moral needs, maybe not answers, but asking the questions.
Demands for moral clarity ring long, loud bells because it is something we are right to seek.
I think it is important for everyone to STRIVE for moral clarity, but not to assume it will always be there. In fact, I think it’s fairly dangerous for anyone to be certain they have moral clarity. Moral clarity isn’t some enlightenment, but rather something that takes work, and you have to work at it, and for it, each and every day all your life. In fact you have to continuously work at it because there will still be many times when you are not sure what the morally right thing to do is, but you push on and move on to the next decision.
Every situation and every dilemma needs to be thought through individually.
By the way, that’s what moral clarity, as opposed to moral simplicity, demands.
This is difficult and will be difficult <for obvious reasons>.
“Right or wrong, right from wrong, right and wrong? I‘d always been confused about that kind of stuff, that stuff troubled me, the legal and moral aspects of things. There are good deeds and bad deeds. A good person can do a bad thing and a bad person can do a good thing. But I never did get to fix the line.”
This suggests that the moral , the ethical, stuff is really hard. While I suggested we have been in this situation before I also believe we can go wrong by treating our current situation like the ’60s or the Great depression. This isn’t the past, or history, or even a simple recycling of issues and challenges, but rather this is a challenge in the present. And, yet, it is also a challenge to recapture concepts that have been seemingly abandoned – good and evil, hero and dignity and nobility.
These concepts are part of an ethical vocabulary we need to use if we are to rediscover that morality we seem to have misplaced.
“Negotiating small differences is part of being a grownup; no one can tell you in advance where to put your foot down.”
Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists
Rediscovery begins within the individual — words we choose and actions we make. Small words and small actions matter in this rediscovery. We are active beings not just observers and we are responsible for our actions – to act as well as we can. And to act with hope … hope that we will do better and that it will be better … and it ought to be better. We must have hope because if decline is inevitable it hardly matters if you do something to hasten or slow it. Hope for something better, in a bigger picture way, is imperative because if we truly only acted in self-interest <without this hope> decline is inevitable.
This is not about ‘getting something’ or even ‘getting someone’ <so you can get yours> it is more about concern for the well being of all. We are in a precarious position because moral judgment is rarely a matter of decisions made once and for all … but, rather, of distinctions. Moral judgments are slow, specific, and seldom absolute. And, yet, while seldom absolute … in our soul we have an absolute need for some morality and moral direction & judgment.
We need to see the world in moral terms. For when righteous people suffer, and wicked people flourish, we begin to ask why.
We want to prepare our kids to be responsible and generous and straightforward even when rewards are not forthcoming. We want honesty to often be the best policy. We want kindness to be the norm and reciprocated.
We need to understand that sometimes morality and self-interest go separate ways.
We need to understand consistently applying morals while making decisions in real life while often dealing with conflicting interests is difficult, often contextual and rarely consistent <as in having a set of rules on ‘how to be moral’>.
One of my favorite suggestions is one of Kant’s.
He says that most people go along by seeking their own happiness and worrying about other people’s virtue (or lack of it), but the world would be better if we just did the opposite: to think of other people’s happiness and worry about our own virtue.
And the hardest thing? It is difficult to identify absolutely right or absolutely wrong in every situation.
It was Kant who suggested that moral laws are not true <or absolute>. Truth is a matter of the way the world is, morality is a matter of the way the world ought to be. To know whether a claim is true you must find if t corresponds to a reality that is fixed independently of anyone’s dreams <or nightmares>.
Strictly speaking right cannot be a matter of knowledge … only situational.
It is Susan Neimann who suggests the distinction between is and ought is the most important one we ever draw. If morality is never a fact and living rightly is not something of self-interest than how do we draw a line on what is moral clarity? Kant suggested we look to the heroes. But that is also flawed <as are heroes>.
Morality and deciding moral compass issues?
Sometimes it seems the only way to draw some lines is life/death scenarios.
For while you may choose to die with mixed motives at some point doubt will end … Cornel West said “what is absolute is what I am willing to die for.”
This exercise cuts through our lives which sometimes appear to be driven by an insatiable desire to consume and suggests sacrifice drives moral clarity.
<insert a ‘sigh’ here>
These are not easy life answers in a complex world. But know one thing for sure … push comes to shove and consumerism <greed or desire for more> is not the driving force for people’s behavior … increasingly people refuse to be distracted by economics or ‘things’ as true moral discussions take place. Economics can overshadow moralistic decisions but ultimately we know in our souls the moral/virtue discussion is what is most important. At this crossroads in our rediscovery of our moral compass people don’t want what is, but what ought to be. This may sound trite, but the world does belong to the dreamers.
This is not to suggest that material wellbeing is not important.
But economics is as much about self-respect and dignity as it is about consumption. Autonomy is always preferred over handouts. It’s not about what you can or cannot put on the dinner table but holding your head high. What politicians, and people in general, I imagine need to be reminded … is that while we should be interested in rebuilding our wallets we should also be rebuilding our hearts <dreams> and soul.
To be clear this does not mean winning, being successful and being happy is not important. But the world has shown that winning or ‘being the boss’ doesn’t mean shit when it can all disappear even faster than the time it took to win in the first place. Therefore, it becomes all about balancing trying and success and ‘doing right things’ to gain happiness.
While everything sounds so ‘individualistic’ as I read what I have written … I imagine the positive side of it is that more & more we seem to be more interested in living up to our own standards of accomplishment rather than society’s.
Which leads me to my last thought.
Our own standards. And the fact that all moral responsibility attaches to the individual.
Not society, not others, not ‘the system’ … us. You and I.
We have to want them so badly we need to remake the world to reflect them.
We have to understand that we cling to our values because it gives us hope.
We have to understand that without some moral compass we will lose our souls – whatever we take our souls to be.
We have to understand that if we lose our moral footing we doom our young to a similar fate.
This rediscovery is not an easy path.
Doubt is common and certainty is hard to come by these days.
Doubt is thinker’s territory.
Certainty, or reality, is almost as malleable as our wishes and dreams. Only portions are truly fixed and it is anything but easy to know which pieces or parts are fixed.
In order to rediscover our moral compass we should, no, need to stop blaming society and others and understand that all moral responsibility attaches to the individual.
I cannot remember who said this, but the future of morality resides in this thought: we may act in concert, but each of us will answer alone.
When each of us embrace the answer I can guarantee we will have rediscovered our moral compass.
While most of what I wrote capture my thoughts and use my words … I would like to make sure I credit the words which I may have inadvertently used that were not mine.
<Source/Credit: I utilized a variety of well-respected and well known social philosophers to draw upon and apologize if it seemed like I used their words too often, but specifically, I would like to reference – and credit – Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists … many of the words & thoughts I shared were either a direct response to things she had written or words of hers>