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An essay donated by Adrian Bishop 1

The Moral Compass Project:
Celebrating our common moral compass

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bullet "The highest principle is without words. Yet if there were no words, how could the principle be known?" Inscription from China dated 764 CE.
bullet "If there are no clear and provable moral values which we can all agree on and share, then how can we prevent future evils performed by individuals or governments on the rest of us?" Dave Robinson 2
bullet "Then we'd know. And we could think about it properly instead of just guessing and being afraid." Philip Pullman

The necessity of a clear Moral Compass:

More than ever a clear Moral Compass is regarded as a necessary benchmark for ethics. It is a personal bulwark against a morally relativistic society and a way of creating trust between individuals and communities by providing an ideal and authoritative code of conduct. But what exactly are these fundamental ethical principles that codify the Moral Compass?

Ethics are now big business. It is almost impossible to open a newspaper, turn on the television or the radio without hearing various religious spokesmen, moral pundits or political leaders all complaining that there is a lack of moral imperative in society. There is a broken Moral Compass and societies standards are declining as never before. They constantly make an appeal for a common unifying framework of ethics and call for the promotion of fundamental shared values throughout society as a basis for moral reasoning and the rejection of faux moralism. They argue for the upholding of universalizable values as a glue to hold society together and re-assert their damming criticisms of both individuals and a society that don't abide by a clear Moral Compass. They claim that society is becoming "de-moralised" and the promotion of an ethical society is more important and urgent than ever before.

The entreaties are by now all to familiar:

bullet "...fundamental, shared values...",
bullet  "...basic principles...",
bullet  "...a clear commitment to shared morals...",
bullet  "...a common framework of ethics...",
bullet  "...some workable common ground of values...",
bullet  "...a core of common ethics..."

There is a constant call for a unifying set of core principles. Not simply for ethics in a generalized sense, but for clear fundamental principles that can be codified and applied as a benchmark for ethical decision making.

The lack of agreement on what a Moral Compass is:

But, when these pundits are asked "What is the Moral Compass?" suddenly it becomes an "unwritten rule" with all the consequent dangers that an unwritten rule presents. They insist there is no such thing as a codified list of fundamental ethical principles and everything is just moral relativism.

Moral relativism is a trap as it recognizes no such thing as ethical "knowledge" at all. It proposes there is a wide variety of moral beliefs and practices which vary not only through time, but between different cultures, races and classes, It claims that "each persons morality is a matter of their concern" and there are as many perfectly valid moral positions as there are individuals." It also alleges that it is impossible to prove which morals are "right" and which are "wrong".

The British Philosopher, Walter T. Stace (1886 - 1967) put this issue into perspective over half a century ago:

"Certainly, if we believe that any one moral standard is as good as any other, we are likely to be more tolerant. We shall tolerate widow-burning, human sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery, infliction of physical torture, or any of the thousand and one abominations which are or have been from time to time, approved by one moral code or another. But this is not the kind of toleration we want or would accept."

The result is, individuals and society are being heavily blamed for not acting with a Moral Compass and then at the same time being criticized and told that it is risible to think that a codified Moral Compass exists.

It is argued that we have no respect for ourselves or for others as independent free moral beings. That we as individuals, now believe that we inhabit a moral vacuum where there is no firm foundation for moral concepts. There is no Moral Compass, and no authentic moral framework for making value distinctions. We are left with nothing except a feeling of isolation, powerlessness, an absence of moral awareness and a lack of a shared experience and social solidarity. There is nothing but a post-modern culture of narcissism, devoid of any real moral framework for making value distinctions. It is claimed that the existence of a Moral Compass is quite simply a myth.

The suspicion that we do not have clear moral values and everything is just moral relativism encourages a deep-rooted culture of suspicion in society and a consequent lack of basic trust between people. Attempts to constantly extend mechanisms to make people more "accountable" founder, because without personal moral accountability, we are reduced to doing what we are told and we in turn do not trust the people doing the telling. The consequence of not being trusted is that we become less and less trustworthy and the downward spiral continues.

Anti-ethical messages in society:

The reason for this is that there are several clear anti-ethical messages being powerfully promoted throughout society:

bullet There's no such thing as fundamental ethical principles at all.

bullet Ethics are not about fundamental principles, but are merely a series of indeterminate, inconsistent, largely cultural guidelines for arriving at a personal and arbitrary decision.

bullet The concept of fundamental ethical principles is simply not important and is all rather silly because it?s just cultural conditioning.

Ethicists and philosophers argue that there is no such thing as fundamental ethical principles at all but then have difficulty in saying much else. They can't say they are: declining, need to be taught, need to be promoted, society doesn't have them, or anything else very much, because (obviously) they don't exist. Even discussing the idea of fundamental ethical principles is regarded as unnecessary.

The ethicists and philosophers argue, that ethics are not consistent, they are merely arbitrary beliefs constantly changing according to the sophistication of the individual, time, politics, religion, culture and place. They are simply a function of national ideology. Ethics are simply another word for enculturation.

They argue that even if there were such a thing as codified ethical principles there would always be so many exceptions to any ethical principle to make any principle invalid. The principles will also contradict each other in any ethical situation. Ethical principles are as such impossible to codify and any attempt to do this will only lead to collapse of any such principle when all the multifarious exceptions and contradictions have been pointed out.

Despite this, there are ethical organizations that purport to have a Moral Compass, but only in single word, generalist and totally non-prescriptive terms. For example, one says the Moral Compass is: "Fairness, Honesty, Respect and Responsibility" while another says, "Have Respect for Life, Deal Honestly and Fairly, Speak and Act Truthfully, Respect and Love One Another", while another says, " Love, Peace, Right Conduct and Non-Violence" while another says, "Integrity, Responsibility and Forgiveness" while another says, "Wisdom, compassion and Courage"... all of which shows a remarkable lack of agreement.

The result is that the necessity of standing by ethical principles is substantially undermined by the lack of any agreement on what these ethical principles actually are.

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The power of fundamental principles:

If the argument is to be made for a unifying set of core ethics that can be shared and understood, they require to be codified. The necessity of clear codification is exactly the process undergone in the creation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the European Convention on Human Rights. It was necessary to codify them in order to act on them.

The "power" of the UN Declarations is in the fundamental nature of the Declarations themselves. It is possible to argue about the implementation of Human Rights and the successes and failures of their promotion world-wide, but no individual or organization has seriously proposed another competing list. There are no alternatives or rival Universal Declarations of Human Rights. The UN Declarations are Human Rights. Because as they are fundamental, they are almost impossible to challenge as they provide an established benchmark. The principle is exactly the same with the Moral Compass.

It is to address this fundamental gap in ethical understanding that the Centre for Defined Ethics was formed.

Existing shared values:

It is a fact that human societies do share values, a fact demonstrated each time we come to the aid of one another in times of trouble. Moral relativism is contradicted by the facts on the ground. Despite all arguments to the contrary, it is obvious that people do understand what is meant by morality. In all societies, people intuitively understand what "common decency" and "good citizenship" mean and show impressive qualities of altruism, generosity and compassion towards one another. We act as if we are moral beings and we co-operate to further the interests of others, assist in times of trouble and play fair, otherwise there would not be families or societies. We do this not by instinct but by doing what we do consciously. It is the direct result of the way we are and having the freedom to choose. Human beings are unstoppably communitarian. In all civilizations, there is a fundamentally constructive consensus on how interconnected and independent we are. This together with a sense of our shared human experience leads directly to a commitment to universal values that are not imposed by outside political forces but are simply fundamental.

What are fundamental ethical principles?

Working from this basic assumption I created the Centre for Defined Ethics and embarked on a five year, wide-ranging consultation with numerous ethical, philosophical, religious and citizen groups both in the UK and abroad, to ask the question, "What are fundamental ethical principles?"

From the very beginning I found that there is a remarkable and broad ranging agreement, regardless of class, creed or race on the basic axioms on fundamental principles around the world: a real shared Moral Compass exists. Few people or organizations could articulate all of the principles together, but consistently the same fundamental principles were raised time and time again. These are what society already believes are fundamental ethical principles, these fundamental principles are already our shared Moral Compass. Largely unrecognized these are the principles that are holding society together. Societies across the world already have a sense of shared identity on this list of fundamental core ethics that have been discovered and identified, not created by the centre.

The intention is that the Moral Compass is about Personal ethics, or how we as individuals aspire to conduct ourselves towards one another. Business ethics, Environmental ethics, Medical ethics, Confidentially ethics, Animal ethics, Communication ethics, etc, are separate categories all drawing inspiration from Personal ethics.

This is covenant of the Moral Compass we already have. These are the standards of a civilized society.

The Moral Compass: 2011 The Centre for Defined Ethics

  • Never instigate the use of coercive force.
  • Accept responsibilities 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.

The list seems so obvious and familiar because these are the shared principles we already have. They are not merely about a consensus but a benchmark society already shares. These principles are fundamental, not arbitrary. These principles are the antidote to moral relativism. In the increasingly pluralistic societies of the modern world this is the moral cement that binds us all together. It is a powerful vehicle for social cohesion because it puts individual responsibility in a shared social context where we can all celebrate a sense of ourselves and a victory for human dignity.

Society is at a critical ethical cusp, for if we fail to recognize a clearly codified code of core ethics, we are doomed to repeat the inevitable vagaries, ephemeral restraints and conflicts of moral relativism. Now is the time to celebrate and build on this existing ethical infrastructure. By promoting a firm foundation for core ethical concepts and fundamental shared values between people, a codified Moral Compass encourages a strong social sense, promotes trust, unity and an ethically-driven society.

What we are trying to do:

At present the Centre is only a small group with limited funding but I am looking to expand its activities in the following areas:

bullet To establish the Moral Compass as the world-wide de facto benchmark for fundamental ethical principles.
bullet To establish the Moral Compass as the benchmark for social cohesion.
bullet To support people and organizations in the process of ethical decision making.

How you can help

I am now looking to invite people with a solid background in ethics and citizenship and an ability to think 'outside the box' to help create an advisory "Think-Tank" with the remit of expanding and developing the concept of the Moral Compass as a vehicle for social cohesion world-wide.

If you or your organization is interested in supporting the concept of a codified and common Moral Compass, please write to the Centre.

Adrian Bishop, Principal
Centre For Defined Ethics in Plymouth
14 Old Park Road,

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Adrian Bishop is Principal of The Centre for Defined Ethics. Their website is at:
  2. Dave Robinson, "Introducing Ethics: A graphic guide," Totem Books, (2009). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

Copyright 2007 by The Centre for Defined Ethics
Originally posted: 2009-AUG-18
Latest update: 2011-OCT-08. The Moral Compas list was updated.
Author: Adrian Bishop

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