Definition and purpose of a moral compass

I’ve noticed over the past couple of months that one of the most common ways that people find their way to this blog is by doing a search for "moral compass".  I wonder if searchers are looking for a definition of "moral compass" or if they are looking for guidance for their own moral compass.
I guess I should start with what I mean by moral compass.  According to Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English, a moral compass is, "anything which serves to guide a person’s decisions based on morals or virtues."  This could be anything from a book or website to advice from a person or a religion, but I believe the most common usage of moral compass is "conscience."
Now, most people know that their actions should be guided by their conscience.  Some take this to mean, "I think this is right," or, "I think this is what I should do."  Some take it to an even easier level and say things like, "I need to listen to my heart," or, "I need to follow my heart."  This is akin to what was stated in Judges 21:25 – "everyone did what he thought best."  I think it may be advantageous to view how other translations read this as well, according to the Bible Gateway.
  • NIV: "everyone did as he saw fit."
  • NASB: "everyone did what was right in his own eyes."
  • The Message: "People did whatever they felt like doing."
  • KJV: "every man did that which was right in his own eyes."
  • Douay-Rheims Vulgate: "but every one did that which seemed right to himself."
So, here we run into a problem – everyone is doing what they think is right (or at least seemed right to themselves), yet as the last line of the Book of Judges, it sums up this tragic book by implying that this very attitude is the reason for the tragedies contained therein.  So, what is wrong with following your conscience/mind/heart?
The problem is one of formation, which results in orientation.  If the conscience is not properly formed, it will not point (or orient) you in the correct direction.  Hence, the analogy of conscience to a compass – it must be properly oriented.  If a compass is not pointing to true North (or the markings on the compass indicate that the needle is off-North), it doesn’t matter how closely it is being followed – you are still going to go the wrong way, and the longer you continue in that wrong path, the more wrong you will be.
This is the apparent role of religion: to properly form the conscience, so it does not go astray.  (I say this is the apparent role of religion, in the sense that this is how the world views religion – as a source of morality.  In actuality, the chief role of religion, particularly the Catholic faith, is the salvation of souls – moral guidance just happens to be a major by-product of this prime directive of Christianity, which is "you shall love your neighbor as yourself.")  Learning the 10 Commandments is a part of the formation process.  Learning that killing, stealing, adultery, etc. is wrong, makes sure the moral compass is pointing in the right direction.
Fr. Phil Bloom has a wonderful website in which he discusses the top 10 misleading slogans, #3 being "just follow your conscience".  In it, he states another viewpoint on conscience formation.  He writes:
"While everything necessary to guide us can be found in that inner chamber, it is often obscured by external manipulation… Our greatest defense against manipulation is what is called ‘conscience formation.’ …we already know right from wrong. We are born with that knowledge. At best we need to be reminded. However, we fail to act on what we know because of our emotions, our passions. Conscience formation is really cultivating emotions to go along with what we know is right."
So essentially, our conscience already knows right from wrong, much like a child already has the instinct to walk – however, the conscience must be strengthened by act of the will/mind to follow what is right, and not just what is felt.  (Back to the analogy of a child walking, the child’s legs must be strengthened in order to fulfill the potential of walking, and not just being content to crawl or lie there.)  So really, a child is not being taught how to walk (they already innately possess that knowledge), but rather being trained to walk, by strengthening their muscles, much like an injured adult going through physical therapy.
This is why the Church has been likened more to a hospital than a school.  The purpose of the Catholic Church is to rescue the lost, heal the broken, strengthen the weak, and forgive the sinner.  Hence, by training the consciences of the lost and found, the Church is the moral compass, by which we calibrate our own consciences.  The only reason this is possible is because the Church, like the Blessed Mother, like John the Baptist, like all her Saints, is constantly pointing to God, as a true compass always points North.  That is why, even before the prohibitions against murder, adultery, and theft, the 1st Commandment is "I am the Lord, your God – you shall not have strange gods before Me."
Therefore, since there is only one "true North" for our moral compasses to point toward, and that way must be taught to us, then there is only one correct, or right ("ortho-"), teaching ("-doxy").  Heterodoxy just causes confusion and misguidance, which causes so many to be lost. (Imagine a bunch of campers lost in the woods, all pointing in different directions as "the way back to camp".)  Orthodoxy, or holding to the true teachings of the Church, is how we can make sure our consciences are properly formed and our moral compass is guiding us right.
Thus we come to the reason for the name of this blog and the purpose of the articles contained herein.  This blog is named "right teachings for a right moral compass" because of the previous paragraphs.  The articles here are commentaries on other news items, articles, etc. in an attempt to show the proper understanding of the issues contained through the lens of Catholic Church teachings.
I hope this answers any questions seekers might have when looking for "moral compass" on google.  If not, please feel free to leave comments below.  Thank you, and God bless.

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17 Responses to Definition and purpose of a moral compass

  1. Daniel says:

    Your blog seems to have been around a while and I\’m glad I ran across it , but like you stated in your opening paragraph it seems most people find your blog by entering a search engine looking for the definition of "Moral Compass," and I\’m no different. That is exactly what I was looking for. Thank you for your insight I found you argument extremely interesting and helpful. Dan

  2. Joe says:

    But where did the term ‘moral compass’ originate from?

    • jamiebeu says:

      Hmmm… that’s a good question. I have no idea! I just liked the term, because so many people say that they “follow their conscience”, but if the conscience is not well-formed (i.e., pointing in the correct direction), it’s as useless as a compass that doesn’t point North.
      Thanks for reading, and if you have any ideas for topics I can address here, let me know.

    • Norminha says:

      The author points out that a person with a well-formed (alive) conscience has the ability to do good and avoid evil -contrary to the MORAL relativism the world is saturated.

  3. If you are looking for a clear moral compass, try the moral compass by The Moral Compass Foundation at

    The Moral Compass

    Never instigate the use of coercive force.

    Accept responsibility for personal actions and the consequences of those actions.

    Practice a duty of care.

    Affirm the individual’s right to self-determination.

    Put the truth first.

    Never use a person as merely an unconsenting means to an end, even if the end benefits others.

    Be honest.

    Honour agreements.

    Treat others as you want to be treated yourself.

    Leave a positive legacy to future generations.

    © CDE

    • Norminha says:

      If we all just attempt to practice the Golden Rule, the world would be peaceful.

      • jamiebeu says:

        Ahh, but because we are all flawed human beings, we cannot practice the Golden Rule perfectly on our own.
        Even a person in the woods with a perfect compass can get lost or trip and fall or get injured and need someone to rescue them… a savior, if you will. This is where Jesus – the perfect God-man – comes in to play.

  4. jenn says:

    You like to talk. How come people don’t like to lay things out simply anymore??? Your not applying for a freaking job as a writer/editor!! D**n I didn’t evn read this and its to much to read

    • jamiebeu says:

      (NOTE: I had to edit your comment to remove the taking of the Lord’s name in vain, and to blur an obscenity – all else is as you wrote it.)
      First off, this is my blog – I never said I was applying for a job as a writer (although, based on the other comments, some have found this post helpful). I’m sorry you didn’t get much out of this (but, then again, you wrote that you didn’t evn (sic) read it – might I suggest not judging a book by its length?).

      As for laying things out simply, I think C.S. Lewis put it best when he said that those complaining about the lack of simplicity in religion are in denial of reality, because reality is not simple. A chair looks simple – and you can even give a description of one to a child and they can understand it at a simple level. However, for those that wish to delve deeper, there is much more to it than the mere appearance of a flat surface elevated by 3 or 4 legs. A carpenter understands the balance of forces and tensions among the legs, braces, nails, etc. A biologist or chemist understands the type of wood (or other material) used in building it, as well as how the material is treated to preserve it, stain the color, prevent damage, etc. And a quantum physicist can really get into the details of the intermolecular forces, the quantum mechanical effects of the components quarks, electrons, atoms, etc.

      Reality is not simple. It all depends on how deep you want your understanding to go. If you’re happy with childlike explanations, don’t complain when a more adult (and complicated) explanation is given when you try to attack those same childlike descriptions (e.g., God is an old man in the clouds).

      I hope I didn’t make your eyes glaze over by attempting to explain this further.

  5. Kay says:

    Thanks for the blog. I’m doing a study on Proverbs and it speaks of simple ones and simple ways. When my commentary provided a foot note, it referred to simple as the Hebrew word that means “one without moral direction”. Hence my google search was moral direction. On a current event, I lconverse of your blog is the decision that the Boy Scouts of America made with inclusion of gays. The leadership of BSA has traded their moral compass for what you reference in Judges. If anyone should understand a true north, it should be BSA. Too bad leadership did not read your blog!

  6. Tina says:

    I am looking for a logical argument as to why children of parents not attending church need some sort of moral compass training. I want this information to give to or present to my daughter so she might see that her girls need spiritual guidance to develop a sense of right and wrong beyond the do’s and don’t of their parents and society. Is there any such information? Kids that grow up without a Godly moral compass generally adopt the ‘if it feels right to me then it is ok’ philosophy so prevalent today. What is a good argument for getting the girls in religion education and or church for such parents?

    • jamiebeu says:

      There is a lot being asked there, and too much room for speculation about your and your daughter’s circumstances.

      To generalize, I doubt that a “logical argument” is what you are really hoping for, in order to reach your desired outcome. After all, if logic and reason were all that was required, reading St. Thomas Aquinas would be sufficient to end immorality and atheism once and for all. Sadly, though, each person makes individual choices of what to do, what to prioritize, and what to accept in their worldview. As much as we might hope that a cognitive dissonance would shock them back to the Faith, oftentimes it provokes a “fight or flight” situation instead: they become combative and illogically argumentative, or they shut-down and don’t ever want to talk about it again.

      That said, as a grandmother, you are still allowed to give gifts to your grandchildren. Maybe giving them simple books (i.e., simple according to their age) would be helpful, and would also avoid a confrontation with your daughter (which could result if she feels you are accusing her of being a neglectful parent). I would recommend “Did Adam and Eve Have Belly Buttons?” as a good book to give a teenager (or even pre-teen) as something to spark their interest in learning more about the Faith. Once they are drawn to asking more about the Faith, they will simultaneously be drawn more toward learning more about Christian morality.

      I only suggest a book because my own kids are avid readers. If that doesn’t work for your grandkids, maybe other venues would be more helpful, like telling them personal stories of your own moral challenges and choices (with particular emphasis on where you received guidance to do the right thing).

      For yourself, I would recommend “A Refutation of Moral Relativism: Interviews with an Absolutist” by Peter Kreeft. The reason for this is because what you are combating is moral relativism – the prevalent, popular cultural idea that “all views are equally valid, so who am I to impose my morality on someone else?” The primary objections to that are: 1) it isn’t “my morality”, but the laws given by God Himself (through His Son, Jesus Christ) that I am “imposing” on others just as I impose them upon myself, and 2) all views are not equally valid just as all numbers are not valid answers to “what is 2 plus 2?” There are absolutes, and they need to be followed to avoid bodily, mental, and spiritual harm. (the book does a much better job than I just did, but I think you see where I am going with this.)

      Anyway, you need to be aware of the objections your God-centered morality will face, in light of the world’s preference for a man-centered, “me-centric” morality. Not that you will necessarily win your daughter over by arguing with her, but at least you’ll be able to give positive instruction to your grandchildren when you see them. (And, it’s always possible, as Scripture says, that “a child shall lead them”, and “a mother is saved by her children”.)

      Good luck and God bless.

  7. Naumi says:

    What are the components of the moral compass?

    • jamiebeu says:

      I would say that a moral compass – much like a tangible magnetic compass – has two parts with two requirements.
      The parts are:
      1) the base with directions (i.e., the multitude of choices available) and
      2) the needle to provide the correct orientation (i.e., the properly formed conscience).

      The requirements for these – aside from being properly formed as mentioned in the main article – are that:
      1) all the choices are present and known (a compass that only had 3 directions instead of 4 would be misleading), and
      2) the needle is free to move (i.e., free will is being exercised, not coercion).

      Thankfully, the conscience (the needle), the way to form it properly (the Magisterium of the Church), and free will (an unimpeded needed) are all given to us by God. It is up to our prudential judgment, knowledge, wisdom, and creativity (also given to us by God through the exercise of the virtues) to make sure we are aware of the choices available – including those that are forbidden and those that are hidden.

  8. This text is worth everyone’s attention. How can I find out more?

    • jamiebeu says:

      To find out more about forming your moral compass, I would recommend the following:
      1) prayer – cannot make your compass accurate unless you already know where “true North” is. Go to God in prayer for help in being oriented toward Him.
      2) reading Scripture and following the teachings of Christ and His Church – Jesus didn’t just give a sermon or two (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount), and say “this is all of it!” Instead, He had His disciples follow Him for 3 years, learning by what He did as well as by what He said. Furthermore, their actions (laid out in the Acts of the Apostles) laid out the foundation of the Church that has been going for 2000 years. While there are always members of the Church who are more Judas than Jesus, the teachings of the Church are solid, because they are imparted to us, through the Church, by the Holy Spirit, which Jesus promised would guide us to all truth.
      3) read the lives of the Saints – after the Bible itself, the best way to do anything well is to copy those who did it well before you. This is where the lives of the Saints comes in. Every boy scout learning to use his compass has a guide and a troop leader that has done it before and can show him how to use the compass properly. The Saints – “so great a cloud of witnesses that have gone before us” – are our examples, teachers, and mentors in the journey of faith. And their multitude and variety means there is a Saint for every type of person hoping to live a good, moral life from where they currently are.

      Hope this helps. God bless.

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