Moral Toolkit

David Brooks, New York Times columnist and author of the recent book, The Road to Character, wrote a column today on the need to deal with the Big Question of the meaning of life. He opens with this question:

Every reflective person sooner or later faces certain questions: What is the purpose of my life? How do I find a moral compass so I can tell right from wrong? What should I do day by day to feel fulfillment and deep joy?

I want to pick on the language of a “moral compass.” I’ve been any many conversations about this moral tool. It sure sounds useful, doesn’t it? A compass helps us navigate, to figure out which direction is which.

If you’ve ever used a “real” compass, you know that the needle of a compass points north, allowing us to orient ourselves. Well, that’s not exactly true. A compass is designed to point to the north. That’s what we expect it to do. What it actually does is point to the strongest local magnetic object. Normally, that will be something pretty close to the earth’s magnetic field, an alignment with the north magnetic pole.

My my penultimate summer of high school, our Boy Scout troop went to El Rancho Cima in Central Texas. We were wanting adventure, so we planned a couple days of hiking as well as canoeing on a local river. Our day of hiking started out well enough. I don’t remember how it came about, but at some point we decided to get off the trail. Maybe it was an accident – a poorly marked trail that we missed. I don’t remember. I do remember that we started encountering one barbed wire fence after another, rather than a clear trail forward.

After a few hours of hopping fences and getting more lost, we also found we were running out of water. Central Texas is hot in the summer, if you’ve ever been there, so water was important. Finally, we saw a windmill in the distance. Windmills pump water, so we knew we could head for it and make our way back to civilization. The problem now was that the route to the windmill wasn’t just straight ahead. We were on a ridge and, according to our guess of where we were on the map, we had several valleys (and ridges) to traverse until we got there. So we went down into the valley. We couldn’t see the windmill any more, but that wasn’t a problem, was it? We were Boy Scouts armed with a compass. We knew how to do this. Our scoutmaster took the reckoning when we were on the ridge, so being out of sight shouldn’t be a problem.

But it was. Each time we topped the next ridge we found ourselves off course. We’d correct, go down into the valley, come up the next ridge, and again find ourselves off track. We did finally make it to the windmill. We also discovered there what the problem was. Our scoutmaster had held his compass in the same hand on which he wore his Aggie ring. The gold of the ring had strong enough magnetic properties that it threw off our readings. We had a compass. We knew how to use it. But it just wasn’t enough.

When we think of a metaphorical moral compass, we sometimes think it is tool enough to help us navigate where we need to go. From my experience with real compasses (and real navigation – across land, not sea, however), there are a couple of other things we need.

First, we need some sort of moral map, something that gives us the lie of the land. Our compass may be entirely useless if we can’t orient ourselves relative to what is around us and where we need to go.

Second, we need the perceptual abilities to look around and figure out where we are. We need the skills to read compass, map, and environment together.

Third, there will be some things we need to set aside – even good things – if we’re not to be led astray or distracted.

Fourth, and finally, some sort of telos will be helpful. Yes, we need guidance to identify our next step. But where are we trying to go? What is our destination? Are we doing more than just trying to survive – or find the next water source?

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