A Moral Compass: What Is It? How Is It Built? Why Do We Need It?

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You know, about thirty years ago I had a big decision to make while dating my wife-to-be. I could either hide the fact that I had a son that I had never seen before or else tell her the whole truth and risk losing her by paying back child support that I owed my son from all the lost years. Years ago, I was just too scared to face the truth with my beloved. I knew she would want to be in my son’s life. Yet I wasn’t ready to face facts and step up to the plate with my son. I thought it would be easier to live a lie and deny having any son and keep things less complicated. 

Well, it turned out to be more complicated than that. I knew in my heart that denying that I had a son would never work. Just the thought alone of abandoning my son ate at my heart for years and I lost a big part of myself for being such a wimp. I covered my misdeed with alcohol for years and wasn’t the best husband to my dearest wife. When she separated from me, I decided to step up to the plate and be the man who I wanted to be. I joined a 12 Step group, told my wife about my lost son, reunited with him and paid all the child support I owed him. I became a real father for the first time in my life. 

All of this didn’t happen overnight, many tears were shed, and my conscience was clear for the first time in my life. I have my sponsor and home group to thank for all this. Funny thing is my wife told me she knew all along about me having a son years ago, way before I told her. I asked her why she didn’t give up on me. She said she knew all long that despite all my hiding and drinking that I always had a good heart—a moral compass. How very right she was!

What is a moral compass?

Having an internal sense of right and wrong—a moral compass—is the most essential part of who we are. It has to do with doing the right thing when no one else is looking. It is the supreme form of ethics that goes beyond written rules. It makes us a decent and likeable person wherever we go. It often nags at our heart when we have transgressed others. It is something we cannot hide from no matter how hard we try to ignore it or how many years ago our misdeed happened. Others will likely appreciate the emotional safety inherent in our integrity. 

Many people today have a faulty moral compass because they feel they are above the law and don’t accept the limitations inherent to the moral compass.Having a moral compass doesn’t make us a perfect person. Instead, it allows us to be responsibly imperfect as we are more likely to be accountable for our behaviors thanks to having a nagging good conscience. Some of us have a strong moral compass and others have a weaker one. This whole subject was thoroughly discussed in Dostoyevsky’s great novel, Crime and Punishment. It is the story of a man who murders a pawnbroker for what he sees as justifiable reasons and feels he is above the guilt that most people feel. Most of us feel justified in the misdeeds we do but our moral compass guides us in the wisest and most realistic path.  

Many people today have a faulty moral compass because they feel they are above the law and don’t accept the limitations inherent to the moral compass. Most evil deeds are committed by people who feel they are above the law even when they don’t see themselves as evil. Mostly a moral compass teaches us how to repair what we have broken in our life and what we could continue to break. Fewer people today have a religious practice  and are content with not doing an honest self examination because of fear of what they might find out about themselves. When we lack ways of forgiving ourselves or getting the support to do so, such as through a good 12 Step program, we are more prone to lie to ourselves and have a faulty moral compass. We are less prone to say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” True self-forgiveness is the key to having a healthy moral compass,

Living in a society that flaunts misbehavior or minimizes misdeeds, especially by people in positions of authority, only weakens our moral compass, especially for children. It is best when children can see their parents misbehave or make mistakes in judgment only to apologize later and make amends for their wrongs.  

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Why is it so important to have a moral compass?

A moral compass allows us to tell the difference between right and wrong, helps us discern complex moral situations for the better, helps us anticipate how others may sees us, warns us of the grey areas of life that can ruin our reputations, helps us make complex moral decisions, enables us to face the emotional subtleties of intimate relations, helps us make ethical decisions in the business world, helps us repair misdeeds we have done, protects us from ethical violations in our social and work life and helps give us a good name and reputation. It is what allows us to be trustworthy.

Ways to recognize a healthy moral compass

You have a healthy moral compass when:

  • You apologize to others whom you’ve wronged even when they don’t tell you that you hurt them.
  • You actively make amends for your wrongs to others.
  • You always pay your way and wouldn’t dream of not tipping.
  • You own your misdeeds even when it is embarrassing for you to do so, or it makes you feel bad about yourself.
  • You pay people back even when they don’t remember that you owe them.
  • People see you as a good person to talk to in complex moral situations.
  • You worry less about how others see you and more about how you see yourself.
  • You can and do admit your shortcomings and flaws to others.
  • You have haunting experiences and distress about unresolved conflicts with others. 
  • Your personal relationships with others are very much a part of you.

How is a moral compass built?

It is built in stages of human development through the relationship between parents and their children. Children learn more from how they are parented, how their parents act in their own lives and how their peers act around them. Most learning is non-verbal in a “monkey-see, monkey-do” context. Children have to make mistakes or be on the verge of making mistakes for them to develop a moral compass. Parents have to make mistakes and be overtly accountable to their children for their misdeeds.

When we lack ways of forgiving ourselves or getting the support to do so, such as through a good 12 Step program, we are more prone to lie to ourselves and have a faulty moral compass.The earliest stage of moral development is about knowing the difference between right and wrong in the context of parental guidance. In this stage, children want to do the right thing because they don’t want to their parents to be mad at them. If they do something wrong, they expect to be fairly punished by their parents. Children learn the ABCs of rules to live by. They learn not to steal, tell lies, hit other people, leave their toys out, sass their parents and apologize for wrong doings. This is the concrete nursery school stage of moral development that goes on between birth and 18 months.

The next stage of moral learning occurs between 18 months and three years when children tune into other people’s feelings through the development of empathy and separation from others. It is the so-called “terrible twos.” Children who are held accountable for how they treat others develop a conscience during this period. Parents may have to ask their children something like “How do you think that other boy felt when you threw his drawing in the trash?” They may need to ask their child to apologize to the wounded boy and ask them to say that they are sorry. This is how healthy moral shame develops in children and is the bedrock of moral development in children.

Children who are let off the hook for their behaviors and are not expected to contribute to house chores are likely to lack a conscience and think they are too special for rules. This “spoiled brat syndrome” is really based on parental neglect and a misguided wish for parents to be their children’s friend. There is no better way to be close to your children than telling them what they don’t want to hear. Indeed, many misguided adults who see themselves as “special” spend their whole lives in legal trouble wishing for somebody finally to tell them what they don’t want to hear.  

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A good TV program like “Leave It to Beaver” strongly illustrates this dynamic between children and their parents in building a moral compass. With a working conscience children need to learn a social conscience—how to respond morally to school peers and teachers and policemen. This happens between ages three to twelve years and it is developed in-pre teen years. Eventually, teens learn to be independent of adult rules if there is a greater good—like breaking curfew to hang out with peers. Teens learn the concept of personal responsibility and learn the difference between being ashamed of their behaviors and being ashamed of themselves. Such learning matures at about age twenty-five in college years when the human brain is fully mature. Children learn that breaking the rules can be healthy for them if the greater good of people, in the form of social justice is at stake. It is a long journey between birth and age twenty-five and parents with a healthy moral compass are required to be a guide all the way. 

It is vital to realize that parents don’t have to be perfect for their children to turn out well. Other people who are part of the village that raises children can and do step up to the plate to help them have a moral compass. Children themselves can reflect and change ways they lack moral character. Children belong to all of us.  

What if your moral compass is broken and you want to fix it?

When a moral compass is broken in the first few years of life it can be nearly impossible to repair. When children are not emotionally sensitive to others and lack empathy, often due to attachment issues with parents, the moral compass may be permanently broken. The 1956 movie, The Bad Seed, painfully illustrates this tragic outcome. However, most children have some degree of sensitivity to others and empathy and generally have consciences that can be repaired. I would say that it is generally possible and likely to be able to repair a broken moral compass.  

It’s best to start by taking a personal inventory of when and how your compass fails. Believing the unwanted news about your children reported by teachers, and the feedback we may not want to hear from peers, is a good place to start. Realize that getting bad reviews from others is unwelcome for most of us, yet it can also be a sign that someone is invested in us personally and wants the best for us. It can be a real gift to hear bad news from others about how we’re behaving.  

You will need a teacher, therapist, 12 Step Group, or trusted guide to make your repairs. Don’t work alone in a do-it-yourself process to repair your broken compass. You may need an extra set of eyes to see what needs to be repaired. The best repair comes about from emotionally close relationships with people who authentically care about you. The comfort and honesty of these relationships will do the trick. Please be an active participant in the healing process and don’t be afraid of speaking up on your own behalf. A collaborative relationship is the best way to repair a broken compass.   

A good movie on this topic is Leap of Faith (1992). It tackles the topic of a fraudulent traveling evangelist/faith healer, played by Steve Martin, and follows through his transformation. God’s blessings in your own journey for a healthy moral compass. 


John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul, MN and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573. 

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Last Updated on July 5, 2024

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