Teyhou Smyth, M.A.
Reading Your Moral Compass
by Teyhou Smyth
Each of us is said to have a “moral compass” of sorts, that guides our behaviors and gives us a sense of what is right and wrong. Being unique individuals with our own life experiences and belief systems, it makes sense that our moral compass would vary slightly from person to person.
It also seems reasonable to believe that most of us have similar morals in some fairly basic ways (don’t kill people, try to do what’s right, etc.). Cultures are based on some general norms and values that are held as basic truths for that population; we would likely be shocked by some of the ways that manifests in other parts of the world, and even in our own ancestral history. Norms and values are only as relevant as a culture deems them to be, and when our cultural values shift, so do our behaviors. We don’t have to look very far back in our own history to see cultural norms that have stemmed from some fairly questionable morals. It makes you wonder what we’re doing now that we will someday find morally reprehensible. (The vegans are probably nodding wholeheartedly).
When you think about your own life, how has your moral compass guided you in the past? Each of us has veered from our own compass from time to time, it’s human nature. Our minds have clever ways to justify behavior when our Id demands it, as Freud tells us. It can be even more confusing to figure out what our moral compass is asking us to do when we see others not taking the moral high ground. When it comes right down to it, we know what our moral compass is telling us, it’s whether we choose to acknowledge that little internal nudge that we feel; whether we choose to listen to the little voice in our mind that says “come on now, you know what you ought to be doing in this situation.”
In many ways, our moral compass, or what Freud called “super ego,” is like our own internal parenting system. As kids, our parents act as our moral compass, instilling their values and morals into us from a young age. Philosophers speculate about whether we are born a “tabula rasa,” (blank slate), or whether we are born with innate knowledge of right and wrong.
It is generally understood that sociopaths do not have an innate understanding of what is right or wrong. They do conceptualize that others perceive right and wrong, however, and they can behave likewise, but a sociopath’s internal moral compass is entirely absent.
Without even realizing it, our moral compass guides our daily lives. Think about all the opportunities you have in any given day to behave badly, and yet you mostly do what’s right, right? But WHY? Why do we just ‘do the right thing’, for the most part? Often doing the right thing is not the easiest choice, and yet we most often do it anyway, even if it means going a bit out of our way. There are three parts of the human brain involved in moral decision making. There are emotional and rational systems at work that take up the task of making ethical decisions. Scientists continue to study the ways our minds draw conclusions about what is right or wrong.
Ethical dilemmas often challenge us to choose what is the best choice in difficult circumstances in which “right and wrong” aren’t as easily defined. In most situations, we would say that stealing is wrong. Easy peasy. But what if you are in a situation in which your child needs a life-saving medication that you don’t have access to except by stealing it? In our comfortable, non-stressed lives we can brainstorm many different options of alternative ways to handle that situation, but in the moment, our value of saving the child outweighs the immorality of stealing. Sometimes our moral compass has to adjust slightly to meet the terrain of our circumstances.
When you consider your own individual moral compass, what are the defining features? In order to determine what your morals are, it helps to explore your underlying values. Sometimes we can determine our underlying values by asking ourselves a few questions:
*What is important to me in life?
*How do I want others to remember me after I’m gone?
The answers to these questions are most likely to be your value set. Values guide morals, which impact behavior. So if family time is important to me, and I want others to remember me as being a family-oriented, loving person, my morals might involve treating family with love. That moral may result in behaviors such as spending time with them, helping out or saying “I love you.”
Often when we fail to listen to our own moral compass, we end up feeling depressed, experience low self worth or justify other behaviors that don’t line up with our true sense of right and wrong. Guilt and shame are powerful forces that arise from not listening to our moral compass. These feelings can haunt us for a lifetime if we let them. Each of us has a few instances in which we harbor guilt about something we did or didn’t do. Guilt can be instructive, however. When we feel guilty, we can use it as a clue for future behavior. Generally we keep our guilt and shame hidden from others when it relates to a lapse in moral decision making, and this can fester into some fairly unhealthy coping mechanisms. Sometimes we can try to “right” the situation in some way, which can help alleviate some lingering guilt about past events.
It may help to ask ourselves a few questions as we make decisions, to help determine whether we are abiding by our moral compass. Here are a few general questions that may help determine the right course of action:
*Does this benefit anyone?
*Do I feel good about this?
*Would I want this publicly known? (i.e., does it pass the ‘front page of the paper’ standard?)
*Does this represent my best self?
We seldom get a do-over in this life. We can only do our best; we are human and therefore, we are fallible. But at the end of the day, if we rely on our moral compass to guide our decision making, we will do right by others and feel better about ourselves.
This article originally appeared on linkedin and was reprinted with permission:
Teyhou Smyth, M.A., is a Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and Registered Associate Professional Clinical Counselor. Teyhou is currently gaining licensure hours at the Center for Individual and Family Counseling and working as a Group Facilitator Cliffsides Malibu. Teyhou has experience supporting clients with trauma, depression, anxiety, relationship issues, addiction and LGBT related issues. Teyhou is originally from the United Kingdom and enjoys being active and traveling to foreign countries in her spare time.