A moral compass refers to an individual's internalized set of moral values, beliefs, and principles that guide their decisions and actions in ethical or moral situations. It is the innate sense of right and wrong often shaped by one's upbringing, culture, religion, education, and life experiences that helps a person to navigate through the complexities of life and make ethical choices.
Religions often provide moral guidelines for their followers in determining right from wrong. Catechism summarizes the main doctrine regarding faith and morals of the Catholic Church and is used as a point of reference for actions guided by the moral sense instructs. It covers a wide range of topics including charity, sin, social justice and even capital punishment.
Muslims turn to ‘Sharia’ that literally means “the correct path” in Arabic. These Islamic laws are based on the Quran, Islam’s holy book, and the Hadith, the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, prescribing both religious and secular duties as well as retributions for breaking the rules. Five different categories: obligatory, recommended, permitted, discouraged and forbidden, summarize the governing principles instructing muslims about how to lead an ethical life. While many of the Sharia directives relating to faith, prayer and other religious aspects are fixed and unchangeable, the directives that fall within the economic, political and social aspects may change with the change in circumstances, custom, time and place.
Hindus believe in several central moral values, including belief in Karma (past and present actions), Dharma (Duty), Yamas (behavioral guidance such as nonviolence, truthfulness, honesty, compassion etc), and Niyamas (religious practices such as daily worship and chanting, charity, etc) as basic guides to act virtuously. Dharma is universal but is not the same for everyone and depends on age, gender, social position, etc. Similarly, Niyamas can be different depending on the situation and circumstances.
Buddhist, abide by the Eightfold path taught by Buddha consisting of eight practices: right belief or understanding, right thought and intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation. These eight elements are qualities that are to be developed as far as possible according to the capacity of each person. Following this noble eightfold path anyone and everyone can achieve Nirvana; it has nothing to do with religious belief, prayer, worship or rituals.
Religion and morality are not synonymous. They coexist. An atheist can have high moral values and a religious person’s actions might fail the morality test. That is because most people accept only those religious moralities that match with their own internal ideas of what they think is right or wrong.
Social psychologist Nicholas Epley and his fellow researchers conducted an experiment where they modified people's moral beliefs with persuasive essays. Interestingly, people’s opinion about God’s morality also changed to match with their own and they reported that God was in agreement with their new opinion. Atheists score the same as religious people when presented with the same moral dilemmas. People choose morality based on their own moral sensibility.
Over time, our human civilization has made constant progress in many ways. In terms of material progress, we have dramatically reduced poverty and illiteracy. We have certainly learned more about our physical universe in ways that have allowed us to manipulate our material environments, both on a macroscale and a micro level. But, as historian Yuval Harari points out in his book Sapiens, we may not have achieved a corresponding degree of social or moral progress.
Having a strong moral compass can help people make sound decisions, stay true to their values, maintain integrity, and lead a more fulfilling life. It can also help individuals to be more empathetic and compassionate towards others, and contribute positively to society.
Religious moral systems have always shared the common goals of universal love, and yet so often we see members and institutions of differing faiths at odds with one another. While there are differences in the moral codes and principles of different religions, the concept of moral compass is a common theme that runs through many religious traditions.
Our moral compass as a species needs to be recalibrated. What we need is a new enlightenment marked by real moral and social advances guided by the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
—The New Testament (26:41), Christian text
“The moral virtues grow through education, deliberate acts, and perseverance in struggle. Divine grace purifies and elevates them.”
—Catechism, Christian text
“Should a person do good, let him do it again and again. Let him find pleasure therein, for blissful is the accumulation of good.”
“We shall be sure to admit those who believe and do good deeds to the ranks of the righteous.”
—Qur’an (29:9), Muslim text
“Your actions produce reactions that follow you like shadows. Just as a tall person’s shadow is tall and a short person’s shadow is short, ugly words will produce ugly echoes, and good intentions will produce good reactions. For every action there is a reaction, and for every cause there is an effect.”
—Lieh Tzu, Daoist text
“We are not the judges of fashions. We rather judge the wearer of dresses. If she be chaste, if she be cultured, if she be characterized with heavenly morality, and if she be favored at the Threshold of God, she is honored and respected by us, no matter what manner of dress she wears. We have nothing to do with the ever-changing world of modes.”
– Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i leader
“The Gita has become for us a spiritual reference book. I am aware that we ever fail to act in perfect accord with the teaching. The failure is not due to want of effort, but is in spite of it. Even through the failures we seem to see rays of hope.”
— Mahatma Gandhi, Hindu leader
“The Master said, ‘It is these things that cause me concern: failure to cultivate virtue, failure to go more deeply into what I have learned, inability, when I am told what is right, to move to where it is, and inability to reform myself when I have defects.’”
—The Analects (7:3), Confucian text