Gregg Henriques Ph.D.

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Finding Our Moral Compass

A Proposal for Three Foundational Values

Posted Jan 31, 2012

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   Watching political discourse (and deadlock and chaos), I often experience a longing for an authentic discussion of the core values that ought to be guiding us as a society. I often feel that we are morally adrift, that we do not have a clear sense of how to ground our identities and actions to ultimate values that transcend time and place. That is not to say that our society is largely immoral. Just amoral—lacking clear a compass or a foundational guide. Of course, for many, organized religion is valuable precisely because it provides such a moral grounding. Unfortunately, for many other Americans (including myself), organized religion does not stand up to analytical scrutiny from the vantage point of modern science and thus it is seen as an unsatisfcatory solution.

   Although science has undeniably provided us more and more accurate models of the universe, it has also come with a significant price. In a fascinating book, The Battle for Human Nature , Barry Schwartz detailed how, just over a century ago, the higher educational system in America taught moral philosophy , and in so doing it attempted to create a community of common values and shared aspirations. And yet, following the growth of science and its (in)famous insistence on the separation of ought from is, higher education became a place where people learned about how the world was, but were no longer taught how they ought to be. Schwartz argued that the result has been the loss of moral direction. [To see why a purely scientific worldview might have this effect consider that a text titled, The Scientists , opened with the line, “The most important thing that science has taught us about our place in the universe is that we are not special”].

   Instead of a moral compass, people have been given enormous freedom to construct their own lives and make their own moral decisions. Although this outcome has had many positive elements, it also has resulted in large numbers of people, at least in America, who are fundamentally unsure when it comes to their philosophy of life. In Schwartz’s words, “They don’t seem to know where they belong. They don’t seem to know that they are doing the right things with their lives. They don’t seem to know what the right things are”.

   A recent sociological analysis of emerging adults (the age range between 18-23) drives home Schwartz’s analysis regarding the loss of a moral compass and paints an even bleaker picture of the capacity of today’s young adults to ground their perspective in a moral perspective. Based on hundreds of detailed interviews, the book Lost in Transition explores the darker side of emerging adulthood. Of particular relevance here was the primary finding that emerging adults in America follow a loose, poorly defined moral individualism that, for many, bleeds into an extreme moral relativism. The emerging adults’ reflections on right and wrong generally “reflected weak thinking and provided a fragile basis upon which to build robust moral positions”. Moreover, the authors found this group does not rely on any moral traditions or philosophical ethics to make decisions. Instead, the basic position of most was for each individual to make up their own rules and do what is good for them. Finally, the authors discovered that “the vast majority of emerging adults could not engage in a discussion about real moral dilemmas, and either could not think of any dilemma they had recently faced or misunderstood what a moral dilemma is”.

   I believe we should return to teaching moral values, and engage in an active search for values that can guide the construction of greater societies. In my own quest for ultimate justifications that transcend time and context, I have found three separate but interrelated values that together feel like they offer a strong grounding in guiding my life and moral decisions. They are dignity, well-being, and integrity.

   Dignity is the state of being valued, honored, or respected. I conceive of it in two ways. First, there is FUNDAMENTAL DIGNITY, which we should confer to every human being. This value is already a well-established universal. Through much cross cultural dialogue, the United Nations ratified the United Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, and in doing so it was ultimately concluded that human rights were justified on the grounds that all persons had dignity. Although the various cultural and national groups could not agree on why people had dignity, there nevertheless was universal agreement that they did in fact possess a fundamental dignity, and it was from this foundational starting point that basic human rights were justified. The second sense of the word, INCREMENTAL DIGNITY, refers to acts of individuals or groups that are worthy of respect, honor, and admiration (and, by implication, the reverse). Great works of art or athleticism, noble acts of self-sacrifice, or resilience in the face of major trials and tribulations are all examples of incremental dignity. Thus, while we each have the same level of fundamental dignity at birth, we must nevertheless also judge our actions on the extent to which they enhance or diminish incremental dignity. (See a fellow Psych Today Blog on Dignity )

    Well-being refers to the state of health and contentment of individuals and groups at biological, mental, and social levels of existence (cf. The World Health Organization definition of health). Although happiness is a key element, well-being is actually a much deeper construct. It refers to the degree of life satisfaction, engagement and purpose in life, as well as the capacity to effectively adapt to environmental and social spheres in a way that fosters growth and positive sentiments in both the individual and group.

    Integrity is the state of being honest, sound, and coherent. Whereas dignity and well-being are decidedly humanistic constructs, integrity includes the values such as accuracy, truth, and logical consistency and thus is more scientific in essence. For example, speaking personally, although believing in a higher power may well improve well-being and even plausibly be argued to increase human dignity, for me supernatural justifications do not cohere with my sense of intellectual integrity and thus I have not internalized them. Of course, if I were experientially touched by God like so many feel that they have been, then such beliefs could then be grounded in the subjective element of justification and held with integrity.

   I strive to be that which enhances dignity and well-being with integrity. I have found that whether I am teaching, being with my family, challenging those who do not see the world as I do, conducting psychotherapy , or even struggling with my own issues, I can use this ultimate justification as a guide.

    If the next generation is going to be successful in navigating the complexities ahead and do so in a manner that results in richer, deeper and more meaningful lives, we need more discussions and proposals about what can unite us in vision and transcendent purpose.

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Movie Morals

Submitted by Richard Bellush on January 31, 2012 – 4:17pm

I think one reason for a persistent nostalgia for the 40s (even though 85% of the population was born after 1950) evident, for example, in last summer’s Captain America is the moral compass in the images and pop culture from that time. While the real 1940s in the US were deeply flawed, there truly was the sense that, for all our faults, when push comes to shove we’re the good guys — as when the far from perfect Rick Blaine does the right thing at the end of Casablanca. It’s how we still would like to see ourselves but don’t. It’s hard to put such a character in a 21st century setting and make him credible.

A hero suitable for our time is Eddie Morra in the film Limitless who uses a street drug to enhance his mental abilities. Blackouts are a side effect of the drug, and during one he might have murdered a young woman. He can’t quite remember and he doesn’t care much either so long as he avoids criminal prosecution (which he does). It’s not quite the same attitude as the Cap’s, is it?

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Interesting Point

Submitted by Gregg Henriques Ph.D. on February 1, 2012 – 10:00am

I haven’t seen Limitless, but will have to do so with this in mind. Thanks for the interesting reflection.


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Moral Compass

Submitted by Alice Carleton on January 31, 2012 – 4:27pm

I SO agree ad resonate with what you said.

To quote Elie Wiesel (one of the endorsers, to my amazement…of my book): “When good men do nothing, evil prevails.”…..Title: Sanctuary of the Soul

“Every man’s death diminishes me.”

I am more impressed by what someone has overcome, than by what they have accomplished.”

Kind Regards, Alice (student at age 65, because I wrote about my life, and won a scholarship.

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I think it is important to

Submitted by Matt H on February 1, 2012 – 2:28pm

I think it is important to examine both the role of our government in the decline of moral values and its inability to teach moral values. The structure of government is a terrible vehicle for teaching moral values, unless those values are “might makes right”. The government is far too often a negative force in the three areas you discuss (dignity, well-being, integrity).

Government is fundamentally incapable of teaching moral values. Those with the political skills necessary to gain power teach the version of morality that best suits their political needs. I bristled when Obama, after bin Laden was killed, said, “Today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people”. Killing is what makes this country great? USA!

What a government can do, to a certain extent, is lead by example. It must, at all times, strive to hold the moral high ground. American government currently fails miserably in this regard at every level. A brief look at our government – perpetual war, endless debt, torture, indefinite detentions without charges, assassination of citizens without trial, the criminal justice system etc… – clearly reveals its immorality. While we might disagree on what moral values should be taught, I doubt many see the US government as a blueprint for good behavior.

Our government is losing its legitimacy in the eyes of many citizens. You can see it on the left (OWS) the right (Tea Party) and in the countless non-political others who feel disconnected from a government that serves rich and powerful but in no way represents their values. I believe Gregg’s post strikes this tone to a certain degree as well.

The government deals with the world primarily through violence and the threat of violence. The government incarcerates citizens in horrendous conditions for victimless crimes like smoking marijuana. It is no surprise that people raised to look to their government for moral guidance (and to solve every problem they might have) would adopt similar morals. Obama recently began assassinating US citizens without due process. Not only did he have al-Awlaki killed, but two weeks later his 16 year old son was also killed (along with 8 others, merely “collateral damage”). Should we be surprised when US citizens adopt similarly flexible morals? If the president can ignore the Constitution because he knows he’s right…

The first step in building a foundation for teaching moral values is getting our government under control.

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The Moral Compass Foundation

Submitted by Adrian Bishop on March 20, 2013 – 8:16am

Try this list of fundamental principles from the Moral Compass Foundation

The Moral Compass

• Do no harm.

• Accept responsibility for personal actions and the consequences of those actions.

• Accept a duty of care.

• Affirm the individual’s right to self-determination.

• Put the truth first.

• Never use a person as merely an unconsenting means to an end, even if the end benefits others.

• Be honest.

• Honour agreements.

• Conduct relationships with integrity.

• Leave a positive legacy to future generations.

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Moral Compass

Submitted by Anonymous on September 11, 2014 – 5:05pm

Too funny – the Moral Compass project has a link to Dell Computer coupons at the bottom of their web page. I guess nobody is beyond the polar pull of consumerism.

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The Moral Compass

Submitted by Adrian Bishop on September 12, 2014 – 4:20am

This is a new one!

The Moral Compass Foundation runs on a zero budget as few people are interested in ethics and in order to put a free counter on the website so I can see if anyone is looking at it it apparently has a link!

This is what happens when there is no budget! The Foundation has been going now for over nine years and you are the first person that has ever noticed.


Adrian Bishop
The Moral Compass Foundation

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moral compass

Submitted by angry and used on November 7, 2015 – 10:11am

men have no moral compass guy mid 30 dating women no older then 20 years old to me there predators who don,t care only for huge ego and image .very selfish needs the girl is only immature entertainment basicly young adult with out brain in her head that what he planning on of course easy pickings

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Moral Compass

Submitted by Steve Giunta on March 6, 2018 – 11:48pm

Unfortunately, the author fails to show where the values of dignity, well-being, and integrity come from. He also fails to show to what end these ideals matter. It is true that science deals with “how” questions and not “why” questions. So you cannot test dignity through scientific (or even humanistic) methods. Dignity might look totally different in a different culture. How do you establish integrity (or truth) as it applies to dignity that conflicts with your idea of dignity in your own context and culture? On what basis do you persuade another culture that one ideal is greater or truer than another? This is the fundamental that the whole issue rests upon. Sounds like you’re just preaching another religion and that’s why it will never work.

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Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at James Madison University.

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