Ethics Part 2: Moral Compasses

As I explained in the previous post, morality is an individual's personal impulses and impressions about what is right and what is wrong.  One idea recent proposed in the field of psychology is that our morality can be broken down into one of five moral compasses.  I'm going to explain each of these moral compasses, and give my opinion on their value to a secular morality.  (I've listed the moral compasses in the order they were presented to me, rather than in any value based order).

Harm:  Actions which help people are moral, actions that hurt people are immoral.  Anything that doesn't cause harm to self or others is allowable

I find this to be the most important moral compass for a secular morality.  This principle helps you to recognize that not everyone will think the way you do, not everyone will share your values.  If someone's behavior is harmful then it is wrong, but if you just don't like it because it is different then it's probably none of your business.

Fairness:  Fair or just actions are moral, actions that are unfair or unjust are immoral.  Which then begs the question about what is fair or just?  A major component of our perception of fairness and justice is consistency, but like ethics these are social constructs that can change over time.

Like Harm I find this to be especially important for the secularist when considering people who are different in some way.  Are you basing your actions on their differences, or are you being fair and treating them as you would anyone else?

Authority:  Those in positions of authority in family, government, or fields of expertise should be respected simply because their position demands it.  Actions that show proper deference to authority are moral, actions that are defiant of authority are immoral.

Some societies put great weight behind this principle, but I would argue that in a secular and pluralist society it is one that should be held only in moderation.  There are obvious benefits to having a degree of respect for authority, but we are individuals with personal responsibility for our actions as well, and putting too much value in it leaves us vulnerable to Appeal to Authority fallacies.  If we cannot recognize the flawed reasoning of others we're less able to think for ourselves.

Loyalty:  Actions have moral value because that is how things have always been done.  Behavior that breaks sharply with established traditions or group loyalty is considered immoral.

Like Authority, when striving for a pluralist and secular society this principle should be held in moderation.  It is useful to take the time to learn the lessons of the previous generations and evaluate their value instead of just rejecting them.  However, blind respect for tradition will leave you unaware of when people are making the Appeal to Authority or Appeal to the Majority fallacies to support their views.

Purity:  Behavior that keeps a clean or pure mind and body is moral, anything that threatens this cleanliness is immoral.  Often this principle is attached to dietary restrictions or ritual purifications, like kosher foods, or confessions and communions.  It is most prominent in cultures or subcultures that have strong theocratic hierarchies.

While this principle has some potential, it is generally applied in superstitious ways.  A rationalist that wants to include this principle for guiding their personal behavior should take the time to study the science how foods and behaviors affect our bodies and minds.  In this respect it becomes a more personal version of the help/harm principle.

Everyone has all five of these moral compasses to a greater or lesser extent.  That is why we sometimes feel conflicted about issues, each moral compass can reach a different conclusion about a situation.  Each person's own morality is thus determined by how strong each moral compass is for them.  What is your primary moral compass?  What are your thoughts between the interplay of these different moral standards?

Our morality is based on the more primitive parts of our brain that process emotions.  It doesn't access the areas for higher reasoning skills or speech, which is why we often hear someone say "well I can't explain it, but it just doesn't feel right."  Because of this, it isn't a simple matter to choose a different moral compass as your primary.  However by understanding these different measurements of right and wrong, we can make a conscious effort to adjust our thinking even when our emotional reaction doesn't match.  Slowly over time this can imprint itself on the part of the brain that controls our moral impulses, much in the way our parents influenced our moral impulses when we were growing up.

When I learned about these moral compasses I evaluated each of them and made a choice to work towards realigning my morality to the Harm an Fairness values.  At first I would have an emotional reaction to an event based on my old alignments, but I would think over the event again and again to see what each moral compass would say about it.  Then I would put the most importance on the evaluations involving help/harm and fairness/justice, even if it went against my gut reaction.

Now, more and more often I find that my gut reaction is already aligned with a Harm or Fairness moral compass.  It's amazing the influence we can have over even our own ways of thinking when we try to understand it and make a conscious effort to change it.

In search of reason,


Edit: Monday, May 31, 2010

I had another thought to share that is related to this subject: When talking about morality I consider moral/immoral to be a false dichotomy.  Actions that are wrong and should be avoided or punished are obviously immoral, however everything else is not moral by default.  I consider moral actions to be actions and behaviors that we want to encourage and reward.  Actions that we would not punish but we also do not feel any need to encourage are morally neutral.  For example, doing you homework in order to do well in school is a moral action, however watching an hour of TV after you finish would be morally neutral.  I know I didn't explicitly mention morally neutral actions in my post, but they were part of the framework I was basing everything on.  Sorry for being incomplete and possibly confusing, I'll try harder in the future!


  1. I love the last part. It sounds very similar to Rational Emotive Therapy, where you adjust your cognitions with relation to a specific situation. The end goal is to slowly shift your emotions to match. It's based on the Schachter Two-Factor theory of emotion, which states that we first experience physical arousal, then we label it. It is the combination of these two that produces an emotion. But we are capable of changing the label (read: our cognitions), thereby changing the emotion.

    Your story sounds very similar, and I'm impressed that you stumbled upon this method all on your own.


Thank you for your thoughts!

Please read our 'No Drama Comment Policy' before posting.