Monday, October 13, 2008

My Moral Foundation

This week’s post is a bit different. A thought experiment. A bit more personal.
I have been struggling, for at least my entire adult life, to find a moral compass. What should I do with my life? To reason out a direction for my life. What is the most logical action to take? I’ve searched for inspiration in books, in the lives of others. Who do I want to emulate? Whose path can I use for inspiration and guidance?
These investigations have not been fruitless. The conversations I’ve had with my friends have been priceless. The books I’ve read, informative and instructional.
The conclusion that I’m reaching is that this isn’t something to be reasoned or taught. Others can provide inspiration for achievement. The overall direction is something written deep inside the soul (for lack of a better term). My moral compass, the values that I believe in, has been more or less engrained inside me when I was young by forces I cannot really comprehend. Conditioning, or something like that.
And it is definitely, definitely a predominately emotional thing.
I don’t claim I can always follow every part of my moral compass. It would be untrue.
Below, I list as many components of my moral compass as I can think of, as I think of them. By trying to lay my moral compass out, I hope I can become more aware of my moral compass and use this as a guide to discover what I will find most fulfilling in life. I’d be interested to know what you think of this exercise, if you think I’m on the right path, if you think my premises are off, or how you have discovered what you may want to do with your life.

1) Promote understanding.
2) Do not hold every error a person commits against them.
3) Be responsible with money.
4) Do not live beyond your means.
5) It is important to work toward your goals.
6) Accept responsibility for your actions.
7) Value friendship.
8) Beyond meeting basic physical needs, fulfilling human relationships are the most necessary thing for happiness.
9) “Natural areas” or “the outdoors” are good and worth preserving.
10) Being greedy and selfish will not make one happy.
11) Privacy is a right.
12) A person’s actions should cause no undue harm on other people.
13) Polluting and littering are not good things to do and should be avoided.
14) People have the right to consenting relationships, to create, share, and promote ideas, and to assemble.
15) If one comes across another in need, it is good to help them out.
16) Every person has obligations to every other person. For example, we have an obligation not to torture.
17) My knowledge of the world is imperfect and subject to change when new facts present themselves.
18) When making value judgments or moral decisions, the specific circumstances of the situation should be taken into consideration.
19) Waste is bad. We should reuse and recycle. Energy should come from immediately renewable and long-lasting sources, such as the sun, wind, hydro, and geothermal.
20) Concerning government or society, a more long term view is always needed.
21) I believe in secularism in government (i.e. no religion is favored) and freedom of religion in private life.

I am sure this is an incomplete list, and I will update it as I think of more items.
Should I accept these as an unchangeable part of myself, like my height or the color of my eyes? Or should I strive to change my moral compass to something else? If so, how would a new path be chosen?


Daniel said...

Do not try to change your moral compass! Doing so would be to allow reason to rule over something that (as you note) is predominantly emotional. Furthermore, how would you decide how to change it without a (emotional) desire to change it in some way.
I encourage you to refine your knowledge of your moral compass, but I strongly recommend that you do not try to alter it or you may find yourself without one (or without much of one) [which is an unpleasant position].

Eliot said...

Hey Mark. I've been meaning to respond to this for a few days but personal morality is one of the most difficult subjects. "What do I want to do with my life?" is one of the hardest questions possible because it seems like there's very little to help you decide, you just have to figure it out. Meanwhile, life keeps happening.
Since your moral compass is something that can't be reasoned or taught, it makes sense that the point of this exercise is to try to become more aware of it. One suggestion I have is to look to your parents and their actions and values. Oftentimes they are a big part of 'the conditioning forces that you can't really comprehend.' And if you know your parents well, you can get a rough idea of the consequences of their value systems, how they translate into life and what problems they face. I guess you should watch out not to over-psychologize your parents (which would be ironic in your case, since they are both psychologists, right?) but in my case I'm surprised how similar people say I am to my dad when he was my age. Anyway, I think there's a lot one can learn from one's parents both in what to emulate and what to avoid.
As far as changing your moral compass goes, I think figuring out what your compass is can be hard enough. But also I don't think you have to just accept whatever your moral intuitions tell you and resign yourself to that as if its your eye color. I think that trying to change your moral compass top-down, so to speak, by deciding intellectually how you should act and then trying to force yourself into that, can be forced and damaging. But you can also change your moral compass from the bottom up by paying closer attention to your feelings and actions and changing your beliefs to fit those. I think just in trying to become more aware of your moral compass you do this to some degree anyway. More drastically, though, maybe you can accept at what you see as vices or bad tendencies in yourself and instead of trying to eliminate them see if you can fit them into a bigger picture or direct them towards a different function.
I also think it's important to allow yourself some degree of naturalness and slack and not have to be moral all the time. Otherwise you'll get too uptight and self-judging about it. "When virtue has slept, she will get up more refreshed." Looking back at some of the times I've been most in control, most clear-headed and most productive follows a period of just doing whatever I felt even against my better judgment.
I guess the last suggestion is to think not only about what you believe is good to do and believe but also what kind of person you want to be, and then see how your beliefs stem from that. For example, not wanting to litter because that indicates a laziness and an unwillingness or inability to think of oneself and one's actions as having an affect on others in a bigger picture.
As far as selfishness and helping others, I agree that there's a kind of petty selfishness that should probably be avoided, but also that taking care of yourself and making yourself happy can be the best way to help others. On the other side of things, going out of your way to help someone intentionally often backfires, especially when the helper does it to think more highly of himself. Whenever you go to help someone you're assuming that you know what that person needs, which is hard to know. And sometimes it'd be better to let someone struggle through something on their own. Sometimes the obligations created by helping someone restricts them more than their problem did. But I don't think this conflicts with your rule that if someone comes to you in need, it's good to help them out, especially if you qualify this with 18, taking the circumstances of the situation into account.
Anyway, I'm no expert in this and haven't figured out my life quite yet, but those are just some thoughts. I may add more later and I'd be interested in any responses anyone has.

Mark said...

Thanks for the feedback. I think I do agree with you Dan - the goal should not be to change one's moral compass, but to explore and refine one's conception of it. So far, this effort has been very useful and helped me focus my efforts toward environmental/energy issues, which I think is part of my moral compass. I am currently working on developing a new blog/website that I hope to launch to further this interest. I'm also applying for a job as a canvasser with a local environmental group.

Eliot, if you need a little help focusing your search for purpose, making a list like this might help. There really isn't much harm in trying.

Thanks for the comments, as always.