Some people use the term moral compass. When people hear me talk about my work, in which I facilitate moral deliberation in innovation projects and support people in cultivating moral sensitivity, they remark that people who work in tech need a moral compass.

Maybe I agree with that sentiment. Maybe I don’t. It depends on what they mean by moral compass.

Do they mean something that tells them where and when to turn left, and where and when to turn right? That sounds more like satellite navigation in your car. That would be handy. If something tells you exactly what to do. Or would it? Maybe their sentiment is a longing for clarity, akin to a longing for the clarity that satellite navigation brings. You would know the right thing to do in each and any situation.

Satellite navigation; photo by Samuel Foster (‘Ride to IKEA …’)

A compass, however, works differently from satellite navigation. A compass only shows you where North is. It does not tell you where and when to go left or right. A compass does not even tell where you are.

Compass; photo by Denise Jans (‘Navigating in the forest’)

In order to navigate, you need three more ‘things’. First, you need a map. Typically you align the compass needle’s North with map’s North. But you don’t necessarily know where on the map you are. For that you also need to look at the terrain and use your perception and your memory of your journey so far. That mountain top you see over there must be this mountain top on the map. And the village you walked through, is here. You also remember the road via which you left the village. Now you can guess with some precision where on the map you are. Where in the terrain you are. The third ‘thing’ that you need in order to navigate, is a goal that you want to travel to, or at least a general direction in which you want to move.

We can translate the metaphor of the compass back to ethics. When you long for a moral compass, you need three other ‘things’ in order to use it.

You need a moral map. You need some model of the situation. What is your role in it? Where on the map are you? A map shows you swamps you want to avoid, rivers you cannot traverse, places you do want to visit.

You need to look at the moral terrain. What’s happening around you? Use your perception to sense the situation you are in. Which people are involved? What are their concerns, values, interests? What is at stake?

And you need a goal or direction. Maybe a specific goal for now. Maybe a general direction. What values do you want to protect and promote: justice, freedom fairness, equity, solidarity, conviviality, transparency?

These are challenging times. I wish you all a moral compass. And please do also bring your map, your perception, and some clarity about your goals.

Have a safe journey. Be gentle with our planet, and animals and plants. Take care of yourself and of your fellow travelers. I wish you all the best for 2021!

Have a safe journey; Photo by Fas Khan (‘hiking in the hills of the Cotswolds’)

Photo by Fas Khan on Unsplash

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