Moral Compasses and Purposes

How often do we hear certain words and phrases and have only a fairly vague idea about their meaning without really paying attention to the detail of what someone is saying?

What do we actually mean by “moral compass” or “morality” or “moral purpose”?
Whose “morals” are we talking about? Is there a universal morality for all humanity?

Consider a few of these questions.
1.       Was the invasion of Iraq morally correct?
2.       Is it morally repugnant of Katie Holmes to consider sole custody of her child if she considers the influence of her husband’s church as detrimental and damaging to the girl?
3.       Why did our society once consider hanging to be morally acceptable and yet now we have no capital punishment in this country?
4.       Are we right to question the ‘morality’ of celebrities if we are less than perfect ourselves?

The list of such questions is inexhaustible and probably unanswerable because so much of this “morality” is subjective and relative. It’s an opinion. Listeners to the BBC’s “Moral Maze” will be very familiar with the difficulties of deciding what is ‘morally’ acceptable and justifiable, and what is not.

It may be that one person has a “moral” notion about something that completely contradicts another’s “moral” notion of exactly the same issue. Take the Iraq War as an example. Despite the 2 million objectors who marched in London against the “morality” of such an invasion, Messrs Bush and Blair felt they had a “moral” obligation to blast Baghdad and many of its innocent citizens into oblivion.

So when we talk about “morality” is this what we actually mean, or do we mean something entirely different?

Two different articles in the Observer this weekend used the word “moral” to try to shame certain people into a rethink of their positions.

Anthony Seldon, Headmaster of Wellington College, said that some of his fellow Independent School leaders and governors had “lost their moral purpose.”. He said, “They lead the world in exams, but they are like faith in Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”, with their authority retreating in a ‘melancholic, long, withdrawing roar’. Let us get the power and the might of these schools working not just for those lucky enough to attend them, but for all our children.”

In the same newspaper, Will Hutton – economist – spoke about free markets that “allow a business model to be created in which men and women with very little skill and no moral compass could make themselves millionaires in a very short time. They contributed zero wider economic value but created immense systemic risk for the rest of the economy.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve felt the need to question Mr. Seldon’s use of certain words. His “happiness” lessons are a huge step forward if they are about developing a child’s multiple intelligences, for instance, but to expect everyone to be “happy” all of the time is not an achievable or even desirable target.

We are delighted that Mr Seldon is bringing this issue to the forefront, and identifying the key problem of altruism in education when the proposed philanthropists don’t want to share their wealth and expertise for fear of the repercussions for themselves, i.e. if good state schools continue to grow, independent schools may be put out of business.

So back to the question, is this a moral issue or something quite different?

Perhaps we should consider something else. Perhaps Mr. Seldon is actually wanting to question his colleagues’ values and how they use these values to make virtuous decisions for the good of all and not just those who can afford the exhorbitant education fees.

In the same vein, Mr Hutton is absolutely correct to question the values of banking institutions whose behaviour has been the exact opposite of virtuous, but could equally be within the moral framework of the dog eat dog world of financial gambling.

So often our “moral compass” is left unquestioned, unconsidered, never contradicted because there is almost a historical or, dare we say, religious connotation. Do our morals come from the Bible, the Koran, etc? Or are our ‘morals’ shaped by circumstance and therefore are constantly in a state of evolution?

The basic fact is that one person’s morality is another person’s definition of absolutism or treachery. It is not fact – it is an opinion.

Perhaps, therefore, instead of using this word “moral” – with all its subjectiveness – we could adopt a greater use of the word “values” and in implementing those values in the way we live thereby adopt virtuous ways of living. It’s essential that pupils have opportunities at school to think about substantial lists of what might be considered ‘values’ and ‘virtues’ – which add up to more than 100 different items, according to 3Di’s latest list of words that are part of a curriculum for spiritual intelligence.

In schools, in work settings, we would strongly encourage people to consider what the shared values of a place and the people within it are, and work out a system whereby virtues are known and practiced according to those agreed sets of values.

As things stand the sole responsibilities of companies are towards their shareholders, and they focus on the maximisation of profits, often by any means they consider necessary, both fair and foul.

The sole responsibilities of fee-paying schools are towards those who pay the fees, regardless of the fact that these schools distort the educational achievements of all other schools, and damage all efforts to bring about greater social mobility based on actual pupil ability and effort, rather than attainment that’s been boosted by the benefits of privilege and power.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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2 Responses to Moral Compasses and Purposes

  1. Nice line-up of thoughts. This subject seems quite slippery, simply because even values and virtues can be relative. Whatever names we give to morals and whatever claims people make of them, there should be a way to relate to proper behavior and acceptable character. Decency and moderation should be applied into whatever we do. Those two are relative, as well. Opinions differ from place to place, people to people, religion to religion, the list goes on. But loving ourselves and loving others equally, will simply solve this. Why the wars? Why the segregation, discrimination and multi-faction, if not for the absence of love.
    We have to find a way to be true to ourselves and to give to everyone what is due to them.
    Thanks for directing me to this piece.


  2. Pingback: Morality or Obedience? | Thoughts for Growth

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