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Ethics and Morality

Finding Our Moral Compass

A proposal for three foundational values.

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 unsatisfactory 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 this post 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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