A Moral Compass

Column by Paul Hein.

Exclusive to STR

The journey you are about to undertake requires you to travel directly South. Would a compass be helpful? Today you would use a GPS device, but its directions would be based upon some sort of internal compass. There is one situation, however, admittedly far-fetched, that would make a compass unnecessary. If you were to begin your journey from the North Pole--not near it, or close-by--but directly upon the pole itself, you could not go in any direction BUT south. Take a step forward, or back, or to the right or left—it wouldn’t matter. You would be going South.

After that first step, however, the possibility of going astray accompanies you. Turn left or right and you deviate to the East or West. You could just continue onward along the direction indicated by your footsteps in the snow, but eventually you’d find yourself in a snow-deprived climate. You would realize that the sun appeared on your left in the morning, and disappeared to your right at night, but that’s not sufficiently precise for your purpose; besides, you may need to travel at night, or when the sky is overcast. You would need a compass!

Of course, if your compass is inaccurate or erratic, it may lead you astray. The last car I bought was equipped with a compass, and the owner’s manual advised calibrating it by driving in large circles in an empty parking lot, which I did. As far as I can tell, it remains accurate today, which is important. As long as the North is North and the South is South, a compass must remain consistent in indicating where they are. If it has an “evolving concept of the idea of North,” junk it.

Years ago, in the Christian era, people spoke of a “moral compass.” By that term, they meant the beliefs and traditions that had guided mankind for hundreds--even thousands—of years. The goal toward which the compass directed them was happiness, which is, ultimately, desired by all men. There were, and are, obstacles in the way: potholes, blizzards, and road signs that confused, such as the one declaring that the measure of all things was man, certainly not some compass! This led to many individuals striking off in whatever direction they found appealing; the compass, they convinced themselves, was an outdated instrument, devised to hold them in thralldom, incompatible with modern thought, and rigid, lacking in adaptability. They achieved their happiness absent the compass’s direction, at least for a while. When their pleasure paled, they struck off again on another path; bliss was just around the next corner. But the north was still north, and the south was still south, and the compass still pointed the way. Many men--perhaps most of them--followed it.

Today, in post-Christian time, there are probably many who would deny that a compass exists. What is my North is not necessarily yours, and there are many paths to happiness, which is after all, a subjective condition. It means nothing that mankind guided itself by the compass for millennia; we are enlightened now. In those dark compass-directed days of superstition and ignorance it was not recognized that a woman could become a man, or vice-versa, by simply declaring it to be so, or that a man could, quite naturally, marry his brother. Happily, we have advanced beyond those prejudices, having reached the point where we now have dozen of terms to replace the divisive and prejudicial “he” and “she.” What insights we can achieve having discarded the compass!

Nowadays we don’t need a compass to guide us; we have men and women who have dedicated themselves to our direction. They are our natural and proper rulers, and the rules they make for us improve our life and increase our happiness. The possibility exists that they might be wrong, but since right and wrong are relative terms, who can say? It is hopelessly anachronistic, for example, to declare that a person is “evil.” If, in his own search for happiness, he must kill a dozen people more or less at random, it is because he is ill. He has not deviated from some compass-directed path, but has suffered from some societal defect. Perhaps his parents were at fault, or the school system failed him. Mankind is good! What the primitive ones called “evil” is some chemical imbalance in the hypothalamus, or too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Even to think in absolute terms is discouraged. Our rulers have thoughtfully provided us with ample means to avoid wasting our time with foolish thoughts about “right” and “wrong.” With the touch of a button we can watch, in glorious color, a magnificent struggle between contestants striving to produce a perfect cupcake; or big men in tight pants knocking each other about to see which side can get a pointy ball across the other side’s goal. If our tastes are more elevated, we can visit a museum to see treasured works of art depicting nothing recognizable, lest we be misled into thinking that beauty is, in some way, an objective reality; or attend a performance of music that eschews such outmoded concepts as melody and harmony.

The compass must not only be ignored, it must be destroyed, and the destruction is well under way.

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Paul Hein's picture
Columns on STR: 150


Jim Davies's picture

Paul, you're right to deplore relative moral standards, but I'm surprised you commend the Christian moral compass instead of the anarchist one.
There are some remarks about the latter in my STRticle Ethics, Religion and Freedom. I think it's a greatly superior standard. The old Christian one tolerated, for example, the great evil of government; the idea that one group of people can properly rule another.
You also deplore transgenderism, if I read your article correctly. Might you also oppose homosexuality? If so, it might be worth revisiting the matter. I'm reluctant to use the word "gay" because those who are homosexual by nature often do their utmost to break free of it and are deeply unhappy with their lot; that seems to me the opposite of "gay." But whether the bias is inbuilt or freely chosen, the individual is his or her own sovereign, and does not deserve belittlement by anyone else - least of all, by libertarians.