The Moral Compass

The Moral Compass

June 10, 2024

When did you last take a moment to check your moral compass? We all have one, and no two are the same, but don’t forget you’ll also need a map. That’s where it gets tricky.

The commemoration of the Normandy Landings reminds us that in the 1940s, Britons were taught values in church, at school, and at home. Of course, not everyone respected these values, but at least they knew where they stood. This is the principle of moral absolutism—knowing that a wrong turn could lead to isolation, ruin, and even jail.

However, different cultures have different values, and even back then, moral relativists said there was no such thing as right or wrong. That morality was contextual and never absolute.

This view becomes problematic when dealing with issues like endemic corruption and when opposing cultures collide. It’s even argued that this is why the US stopped winning wars after 1945. After all, you can’t win at chess against someone who doesn’t follow the same rules.

Then, in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI denounced moral relativism in Western culture, saying it only served to satisfy our selfish egos and desires. Today, this translates into the acceptance of narrative over truth, as predicted by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World as long ago as 1932.

Where does this leave us as individuals? For centuries, thinkers such as Aristotle, Rousseau, and Freud claimed that all morality is learned, but 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that people are inherently good or bad. Recent studies at Yale support this view. They found that babies are born with an innate sense of morality—parents and society can help develop a belief system, but they don’t create one.

But then, how far do our lived experiences affect our adult morality? Although people on the edges of society are unlikely to change, few of us grow old with the values we had in our twenties.

One reason is moral pragmatism. In The Prince (1532), Machiavelli suggested that the morality of the end could justify the means, and this idea was far from new. Ovid had already claimed: “exitus acta probat” (the end justifies the means) in Heroides in 10 BC.

This view is hard to defend when one person’s dream is someone else’s nightmare or when laws are broken, even by those facing difficulty.

This brings us neatly to The Journey. Simon has to make difficult decisions as he navigates an ever-shifting sea of challenges after many would have given up. One outraged reviewer on NetGalley wrote he was “a sleazy man with little control and few principles”. Others understood and identified with him, which takes us back to the question of the moral compass. If you’ve read The Journey, I’d like to hear what you think.

One sub-theme in Jessica, which will be on the bookshelves later this year, is how moral relativism deals with prostitution. Many of us see a world of difference between an upmarket courtesan and a streetwalker pushing grubby banknotes into a handbag stuffed with condoms. But is there, or is it only a question of price? Once again, your viewpoint will depend upon your moral compass.

Perhaps it is time to get it out and have another look.