How to Use a Moral Compass

published in Directions, a publication of OK Ethics | November 6, 2008

By Myrna S. Latham

Whether as a result of nature or nurture, attorneys tend to ask a lot of questions, and I am no exception. When the Oklahoma Business Ethics Consortium’s logo was designed, it seemed logical to include a compass, because the term “moral compass” often is used to describe how people respond to ethical challenges. But why is that term used? What is a compass, anyway, and how does it work?

The first stop in my quest for a better understanding of compasses was an on-line dictionary. Two definitions of “compass” in the Encarta World English Dictionary caught my eye: “1. direction finder: a device for finding directions, usually with a magnetized needle that automatically swings to magnetic north,” and “2. personal direction: a sense of personal direction.”

I also found an interesting series of articles on the Internet titled “How to Use a Compass,” written by Kjetil Kjernsmo, a Norwegian orienteer. Orienteers train others how to use compasses and maps to navigate unfamiliar terrain.

The more I read, the more I understood why we refer to a sense of personal direction as a “moral compass.” Kjernsmo was writing about how to safely hike where there are no well-defined trails, but his practical, common-sense advice also applies to people who are seeking a sense of personal direction and guidance in how to navigate unfamiliar terrain in their daily lives.

The first article in the series is subtitled “Using the compass alone.” Kjernsmo begins with the fundamentals: “The first thing you need to learn are the directions: North, South, East and West.” He explains that “North is the most important,” and that the red part of the needle on a compass always points toward the earth’s magnetic north pole.” He cautions users to make sure there are no local magnetic attractions around them that might cause deviations; e.g., staples in maps or metal in hiking equipment. (This made me think about people who have “magnetic personalities” — and the importance of being aware of any “local magnetic attractions” that might cause deviations in your moral compass.)

Kjernsmo recommends that “to avoid getting off the course, make sure to look at the compass quite frequently… But you shouldn’t stare down at the compass. Once you have the direction, aim on some point in the distance, and go there.” (My translation: To avoid getting off course, check your moral compass frequently — but keep your head up and focus on where you are going.)

A compass alone is not always sufficient, Kjernsmo explains, because “it is not very accurate. You are going in the right direction, and you won’t go around in circles, but you’re very lucky if you hit a small spot this way.” He explains that “if you are taking a long hike in unfamiliar terrain, you should always carry a good map that covers the terrain. Especially if you are leaving the trail. It is in this interaction between the map and a compass that the compass becomes really valuable.”

“This is the important lesson, and you should learn it well,” Kjernsmo says in his second article, subtitled “Using the compass in interaction with a map.” “It’s when you use both compass and map the compass is really good, and you will be able to navigate safely and accurately in terrain you’ve never been before without following trails. But it’ll take some training and experience, though…”

According to Kjernsmo, the first step is to put the compass on the map, making sure the orienting arrow on the compass is pointing toward north on the map, and “keep the compass steady on the map” while you determine where you want to go. The final step (after making any adjustments to the compass housing) is to hold the compass in your hand. “Then aim, as careful as you can, in the direction the travel-arrow is pointing. Fix your eye on some special feature in the terrains as far as you can see in the direction. Then go there.”

The lesson here is that even if you have a good “moral compass,” using your sense of personal direction in interaction with a “map” is even better. When faced with ethical dilemmas, we all can benefit from seeking additional guidance (which may come in many different forms, including company policies dealing with ethical issues and advice from ethics officers or trusted mentors), training and experience.

In his third article, Kjernsmo talks about uncertainty: “You can’t always expect to hit exactly what you are looking for. In fact, you must expect to get a little off course. How much you get off course depends very often on the things around you. How dense the forest is, fog, visibility is a keyword. And of course, it depends on how accurate you are. You do make things better by being careful when you take out a course, and it is important to aim as far ahead as you can see.” Good advice.

All of use who are part of OK Ethics have different skills, abilities, interests and life experiences, but each of us can play a vital role as an “orienteer” in the communities in which we live and work — helping others learn to use their moral compasses to navigate unfamiliar terrain.

Myrna Schack Latham is an original member of OK Ethics and has served as General Counsel on the Board of Directors since its inception.