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America, Is Your Moral Compass Broken?

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I spent several years working as a website evaluator and security tester for major technology companies.

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What Is Our "Moral Compass"?

Our moral compass is simply a benchmark against which we can measure the “goodness” of our individual actions, and determine if those actions are leading us on the right moral path. The concept of a moral compass dates back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who taught that "good" meant living a life in ways that allowed one to flourish as a human being, without having too many regrets in the end.

The beliefs that you personally follow as your own moral compass may have been shaped by such things as the place where you grew up, the church that you and your family attended or even by the company that you keep. Each of us has our own unique take on this concept, yet most generally agree that a "moral compass" should include values that enhance the greater good, do no harm to others and promote justice and equity.

There are are several really good reasons why we each need a moral compass:

1. To Protect the Greater Good

So that we can live and prosper in a better society, our moral compass values should include those of justice, kindness and equity. We may never see the full realization of these concepts in our society, but by holding these ideals up as our core values we can hopefully use them to chart a course in the direction of "goodness".

2. Grounding Your Identity

If we don't know what values we stand for as part of our core beliefs, even simple everyday decisions can become difficult. Having a moral compass, which includes concepts such as "I'll always help my family when they need it", can help us make quicker decisions when we need to the most. If you already have a set of ethical guidelines, then everyday moral dilemmas can be more easily resolved, without the need to constantly doubt yourself.

3. Being a Role Model

One of the best reasons to have a set of moral values is so that we can be a role model to everyone around us, especially to our children. Everyone can think of someone in their childhood who helped shape their beliefs and often these individuals can be described as having "strong moral values".

There's no question about it, the concept of a "moral compass" is one that can help us become better citizens, friends and family members, but what happens when our moral compass is led astray and our own "moral common sense" no longer serves us correctly?

Our Nation's Collective Moral Compass

In our nation right now, many of our fellow citizens have chosen to ignore some of their own core, moral compass values and instead follow leaders or movements that may not align with some of those values they'd previously held dear.

If you don't believe this is true, then please try and imagine what it would be like to travel back in time to when you, your parents or grandparents were younger, and try to explain to them some of the language and actions of some our more controversial political figures. Upon exiting the time machine, how far would you go in defending any particular leader before you realized that perhaps some of your own moral values may have become compromised by following that person so faithfully?

Would your younger self, or your parents when they were younger have imagined that Americans would actually one day elect a leader who made fun of disabled people, spoke of grabbing women's genitals, or whose supporters wore shirts with campaign slogans such as "F*** Your Feelings"?

What would they think of recent rioting and property destruction that has now been caused by extremists hailing from both sides of our great political divide?

I don't know for certain, but I suspect that if you could've shown them what now poses as political discourse, most of them would have concluded that something really terrible must have happened to American's moral compasses.

There is a fine line, one that is easily crossed, at which we can choose to continue to follow a leader who we believe can advance our cause, only to have to sacrifice some of our own moral values to do so. Where do we draw the line? The "moral high ground" does not belong to the right or the left, rather it lies in shared common values that should always transcend politics. Unfortunately many people now believe that one cannot possibly belong to the opposing political side without somehow being "less moral" or even "less good" than them in some way. This is simply not true, yet those who wish to divide our society down the middle for profit are heavily vested in promoting this idea.

This fatal, all or none, "choose a side" type of logic has never sustained a united republic for any length of time. If we are to have a "United" States of America, which is something that the majority of Americans really do want, we must look at what morals we value most, and not settle for leaders, or even political tactics, that compromise our own moral standards. Most good causes, if they're truly worthy of advancement, can be advanced without having to give up values that we hold dear.

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What Can Cause Our Moral Compass to Fail?

For several years I lived aboard my own small 30' sailboat. I worked odd jobs to sustain my ability to sail partway around the world in a small, vintage sloop that I spent several months restoring. Back then, before GPS was as reliable as it is now, I relied heavily on my boat's onboard compass. The compass featured a spinning ball, floating in liquid, with the cardinal directions and degrees printed on it. On one voyage between two remote islands, I used the compass to follow a course that I'd traveled a dozen times or more. This time, however, I felt that I was traveling off course. Something, perhaps it was the angle of the midday sun, told me things weren't right, so I checked my GPS. Sure enough, my compass was reading 20 degrees in the wrong direction.

I found that I'd stored a large iron anchor in a locker too close to the compass. This "polarizing force" had enough magnetism to cause the compass to read incorrectly. All that I had to do to get my compass to read correctly was to remove the strong polarizing force that was affecting it.

Polarizing Forces Around Us

We live in a world where TV news networks no longer even try to keep up the pretense of being objective. Whether your views are on the right, middle or left, there are few outlets from which you can get information that seem truly unbiased. Indeed, many of these networks are owned by powerful individuals or corporations who often have their own specific agendas to promote.

Types of Cognitive Bias

One of the most dangerous forces that can affect our moral compass is that of Cognitive Bias. Cognitive Bias is a flaw in reasoning that may lead you to misinterpret information from the world around you and to come to an inaccurate conclusion. There are many forms of cognitive bias, including Confirmation Bias.

With Confirmation Bias, people tend to seek out and interpret information in ways that confirm what they already believe. If you don't like the information that you're seeing about a subject on one news channel, you may turn to another, where you know that you'll hear something that sounds more like the truth, to you.

Those who're skilled at changing public opinion through propaganda know just how to exploit our tendency toward Confirmation Bias. For example, a news network that's trying to change public opinion about group of people may report only the most inflammatory, damaging content, and never show anything positive about them. "See, that's how THOSE people behave, I knew it", a viewer with confirmation bias might say when they see the story.

If enough of the people around you also get their information and ideas from the same sources and believe similarly, your moral compass may be affected by another type of bias, called the False Consensus effect. If many people around you already believe something, such as that a "deep state" conspiracy theory somehow has validity, you may eventually begin to take on that point of view as well.

Yet another type of cognitive bias is the Dunning-Kruger effect. This occurs when a person believes that they have more knowledge about a subject than they actually do. With the proliferation of "junk science" and misinformation that is spread online, one can easily be misled to believe that they know more than the professionals do in any given area.

A little humility is helpful in fighting the Dunning-Kruger effect type of cognitive bias. Everyone knows that person in their life who "doesn't know what they don't know", and professes to be an expert. As we get older, our age can factor into this effect, as we believe that we've acquired enough life experiences to know better than those younger than us.

How to Protect and Readjust Your Moral Compass

The best way to avoid damage to your own moral compass is to constantly question the information that you're taking inside your brain. Does the news that you're listening to sound "too good to be true", or only tells you things that you already know? Part of being an educated, responsible moral compass owner is to question all of the information that you receive. Hearing views that cause dissonance can be difficult, and for those just trying to work to keep food on the table and the lights on during a pandemic, the last thing they may want to hear on the six-o-clock news is something that challenges their own viewpoint.

As hard as it may be, try to challenge yourself by listening to multiple news networks, newspapers and online sources to gather enough information about the world around you, so that no one single source can polarize your own moral compass in the wrong direction.

Education is crucial in fighting against misinformation and propaganda. Never stop learning, yet make sure that the sources that you're getting your information from are widely recognized as being credible. The most powerful weapon that we have to fight against disinformation is to develop our critical thinking skills.

There's no shame in adjusting your beliefs and morals after realizing you've been led astray. The prosperous, modern nation of Germany is one good example of a people who once were lead astray by a strong, polarizing leader, whose own magnetism caused his followers moral compasses to fail them. It took a world war, that resulted in more than 80 million deaths, before Germany eventually realized its mistake and changed course to become a peaceful, prosperous member of the world community again.

Our own nation has not gone as far yet down the road toward fascism, or believing unconditionally in a despotic leader as Nazi Germany once did, yet there is the constant danger that at some point we could do so, that is, if enough of us don't adjust our moral compasses and get ourselves back on track.

Surrounding the dial of my old boat's compass in its perch up in the cockpit, were several small screws that could be adjusted every so often to compensate for magnetic interference. Every now and then I had to tweak those screws a bit to keep my vessel sailing on course.

It's essential that all of us who are living in this highly polarized society, continually do a self-check to determine if any overly-polarizing forces are causing us to behave in ways that are at odds with our moral beliefs and make adjustments if necessary.

Sources

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.