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A Moral Compass for Troubling Times

The President is morally adrift.

Twenty five years ago this month, I was working as a bartender. It was a week before I was to get married to my (current) wife, who is Jewish. A drunk at the bar took a shot and was annoyed because the glass made it look like there was more alcohol in it than there was. He called out to me, “Hey, barkeep! Who made this glass, the Jewish Bartenders of America?” And then he muttered words I will never forget: “Too bad the Nazis didn’t get them all”.

To this day I get gooseflesh thinking about it. I ran back to my manager and told him he had to cut the guy off. I could no longer serve him. I so wanted to jump over the bar and throttle him. Instead, I went out back and bummed a cigarette from a regular smoker to calm my nerves. Images of millions of people gassed flooded my mind.

And so now we turn to today. Charlottesville is thirty minutes down the road from where I live, and is the town where my Jewish daughter will be moving this Saturday to attend her first year of college. That is where a group of individuals, some of whom carried Nazi flags, marched to “unite”. That is where a murderous white nationalist drove his car into a group of innocent people, killing one and wounding many others.

And three days after the episode, the best the President of the United States can do is claim that both sides were to blame. Today I woke up feeling a deep sense of loss and mourning.

As a psychologist, I could see early on what kind of character our President had. And I, along with many others, warned this election would reflect poorly on the character of this great nation. Even I, however, did not think that he would equivocate in consoling a nation following a white nationalist march that included a Nazi flag and a murder of the innocent.

One’s moral compass refers to the core of one’s value structures and how those values inform one’s actions. Watching the President “going rogue” yesterday was a painful display of someone who is morally adrift. The only apparent guiding force to his actions and justifications is his own ego.

We must have moral clarity during these complicated times, and I offer the following moral compass as a guide:

Be that which enhances dignity and well-being with integrity.

Dignity is the core concept of the United Declarations of Human Rights, and it is the foundation on which justice and fairness are built. Important to note in this context is that the UNDR followed the atrocities of World War II and was a deliberate attempt to achieve consensus on guiding nations toward peace and justice and away from the horrors of Nazi Germany.

Well-being refers to health and (deep) happiness, in self and others. Fostering well-being, at the biological, psychological, and social levels, is the primary goal of the World Health Organization

Integrity refers to honesty, coherence and depth and soundness of thought. It is exemplified in the ideals of the scientific enterprise.

In this time of hyper-polarization and hyper-politicization, we need ways to cut through the tensions and the chaos. I offer these three constructs as moral universals than can serve as a guide in times of crisis and confusion.