With financier Bernie Madoff’s recent passing, many people were painfully reminded of what can go wrong when someone with no scruples is allowed to manage someone else’s money. And when one-time “heroes” and “paragons of virtue” fall like Joe Paterno, it reminds us all how many people suffer because caution was not exercised or enough efforts were taken to do the right thing.
Defining the Right Thing and Building a Moral Compass
But what is the right thing and how do we know? Aristotle believed it was found by finding the mean between two extremes, although there are some actions that are simply wrong. There is no right way to commit adultery or murder, for instance.
But Aristotle’s ideal of a person wise enough to always do the right thing at the right time, for the right reasons, and to the right people seems an impossible task. Rather than shoot for the impossible, ethicists today promote the building of a moral compass.
Societal Mores Shift and Change over Time
In reality — or at least in American society — societal mores shift and change. For instance, the Pew Research Center says that the average percentages of Americans who opposed and favored same-sex marriage completely flipped between 2004 and 2019.
Of course, religion and political affiliations still heavily influence someone’s moral position. The Pew Research Center identifies individuals who are “religiously unaffiliated” as “nones” and represent a fast-growing demographic in America. You can peruse research on “nones” and see that America is fast becoming more secular.
From the January 6 insurrection in Washington, DC, we can see that not all changes are positive or helpful. To say that our nation is deeply divided on many issues would be a great understatement.
Perhaps you could say our national moral compass is broken, but sometimes there are mountains to climb to reach safety and it is not bad to reflect on progress as we plot the future. Within my lifetime, it was still illegal to have interracial dating in some states.
In addition, our country has a long history of racism against many different groups, including Asians, the Irish, Native Americans and Italians, among others. It is also obvious that racism still exists against those of sub-Saharan African descent. The hope is that one day our prescient founding fathers’ words about all people being created equal will be realized.
Perhaps the best we can do today is instruct people about that internal sense of right and wrong most humans have. CNN reporter Susan Chun provides adequate evidence to confirm this belief in an internal sense of right and wrong.
Now where that internal sense came from and how much it can change according to societal standards is debatable, but that is not the point here. To help people develop their moral compass, they must be taught to find and develop this disposition, and we are doing just that with at least two courses.
Developing Ethics and Moral Compasses in Our Online Classrooms
Most honest businesses want honest employees who will do right by the company and the customer. They do not care how those employees justify their actions, as long as they follow the rules.
If you refrain from stealing office equipment because you fear being fired or whether you feel it is morally wrong to steal is irrelevant to your employer. Learning about different moral theories allows a person to find better justifications for doing the right thing.
Unfortunately, not all companies want honest employees. Pete Williams of NBC News reports that Wells Fargo was fined $3 billion to settle a lawsuit and prosecution over employees being required to set up fake accounts. How much sooner could this criminal activity have been stopped had the claims of whistleblower Yesenia Guitron been taken seriously earlier?
Whistleblowing is one of the key topics discussed in “Thinking and Acting Ethically” (STEM 270), a course designed for individuals majoring in any of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees. After exploring major moral theories and learning how to assemble a personal moral compass, students see if they can justify the right action concerning the use of social media, data collection, hacking for good, and even policing agencies using technology to predict and prevent crime. The belief is that by exploring these timely and sensitive topics in the classroom, students will be better enabled to make intelligent decisions in the workplace.
For those not looking for a STEM degree, the university has an “Introduction to Ethics” course (PHIL 200) that uses a high-quality (and free) textbook as well as other material to explore major philosophical theories from relativism to feminist ethics. This recently revised ethics course helps students create a moral compass and then use it to make informed moral decisions on a variety of topics, including physician-assisted suicide, abortion, animal morality, and free will.
Clearly, more humans need to critically think through the creation and testing of a personal moral compass. Both Plato and Aristotle promoted the idea that the virtuous life was the best life and would lead to the most happiness.
While a functional moral compass cannot guarantee happiness, it can help you make decisions that you will not regret. That seems like something any rational person should want.