The Quest for a Moral Compass


Title: The Quest For A Moral Compass

Rating: 4 Stars

A survey of how we ended up with the moral code that we have today.

Stars off with Homer and the Iliad. Specifically, Achilles. The Spartan king has to give up a slave and in so doing, forces Achilles to give up one of his slaves/concubines. Achilles goes off into a snit, and in so doing, nearly brings his Greek comrades to ruin. From a modern point of view, this looks like insufferable behavior; putting your own needs above your country and comrades. However, in the current codes of that time and place where there wasn’t really an idea of individual moral codes, Achilles was basically being moral by standing up against the injustice that was done against a man of his standing.

Once we get to a monotheistic God, philosophical puzzles emerge that are echoing down even today. If God is all knowing / all powerful, why does evil exist? How does fate and free will co-exist?


Socrates first raises some of the questions that bedevil morality today. Is something moral because it comes from God or is it moral because it is loved by God? In other words, does morality exist external to God or is it intrinsic to God.

He does not seek answers; he raises the questions.


Plato seeks the answers. His answer lies in forms. Philosophers Kings, so raised, reach a level of understanding that is transcendent from normal human experience. The highest of the forms is Goodness.


He taught moral and intellectual virtues. Intellectual virtues can be taught. Moral virtues cannot. It was important to walk the thin line between temperance and excess.

Ethics was still taught as part of the community. There wasn’t the concept of individual ethics standing on its own.

In relation to Plato, Aristotle’s theories seem to be much more grounded upon pragmatism.


Accepting one’s fate is the road to tranquility. Serenity comes from learning to live with the inevitable.

Old Testament

The new concept here is one God.

From the story of Jonah is the basic question why does evil exist. Jonah is a good man that dutifully worships God. Yet God lets the devil destroy Jonah just to prove a point. Killing his wife and all of his children (even if he later allows Jonah to marry again and have more children (yes, does not bring his old wife back; after they are interchangeable, right?)) seems to be a little overkill to prove this point.

This issue was not a problem in the polytheistic day, where gods were capricious. Something bad could be blamed on a god/goddess who was seeking to avenge or just in a fit of pique.


From Augustine comes an answer to why there is evil. Humans were first created with free will. However, when Adam took a bite from the tree of knowledge, that sin (the original sin) has propagated down throughout all of humankind. Marked with this sin, humans are irredeemably evil and can only be saved by the grace / love of God.


Hinduism resolves the conflict of free will and fate via Karma. The fate is your current state in the world. However, through actions that you take during this life will alter your karma and will have an impact upon your state in the next life.

An interesting cultural parallel is that Hinduism original caste system was priests, aristocrats/warriors, farmers, and laborers. This is close to the Western European three main classes (priest, knight, peasant)


4 Noble Truths: World is permeated with suffering, the cause of all suffering is human desire, suffering can only be ended by renunciating all desires, and desire can only be eliminated by following the Eightfold path.


As a society, China has been a series of dynasties lasting several thousand years. Having that cultural unity has had a huge impact upon it.

Confucius teaching focused on duty as it pertains to your role in life, which made it very attractive to rulers; hence it being the major school of philosophy taught over a thousand years.

Another teaching had to do with maintaining relationships of social harmony (ie husband to wife, ruler to subject).  Again, if your goal is continuity, this philosophy dovetails exactly into that.


I found it fascinating that the concept of the Haj predates Islam. Someone had the bright idea of creating a building in Mecca. They then went around to the surrounding villages and convinced them that their idols will be safer if kept in Mecca. So, the idols were stored in the building. Once a year, the surrounding villagers would come to Mecca to worship their idol.

The death of Muhammad almost immediately created a schism.

At the same time, shortly after his death they conquered a very large area, which made them think that they were truly the one religion.

However, they conquered so much that it was impossible to rule in a strict manner. This allowed several distinct different flavors of Islam philosophy to emerge.

With the translation of the Greeks into Arabic, there arose the Rationalists, which tried to marry reason with religion. On the other side were the Traditionalists, who insisted that human wisdom was weak and that only revelation can truly expose the truth of the religion.  I’ll let you figure out who wins.


First proposed God as being outside time and space. Of course, this is a conundrum because people of that time believed that God actively took part in daily existence. How could he do that if he was outside of it?

An interesting approach is that Aquinas created a ladder of spirituality. At the top was God and the bottom was brute matter. Aquinas placed humans in the middle, at the point where material meets immaterial.

Aquinas has the concept of potentiality and actuality. An acorn has a potentiality of becoming an oak tree. Once it becomes an oak tree, it has actualized its potential. God is the only thing that has no potentiality; he is completely actualized.

Aquinas believed in natural law that humans understand and can act on.  However, being corrupted by original sin, humans often choose evil.

Cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, courage, temperance.

Theological virtues: faith, hope, charity.


Here, humans (not just some ethereal souls) are shown experiencing their suffering in the Inferno.


Obviously, I think, therefore I am.  This introduced the concept of the self.  It’s the concept of the individual much as it is today.

Kept the concept of the mind distinct from nature.


Translated a history from Thucydides. His philosophy uses this as a starting point.

In their natural state, humans live in a state of lawless anarchy. They willingly surrender the minimal set of their freedom to ensure that they can live in a society.

Hobbes idea of morality as self interest dovetails very nice with capitalism.  Hopefully, my libertarian Randian comrades in the tech industry don’t ever read Hobbes (little chance).


Much like the Stoics, he believed that we could accept the world as it is and in so doing so act with virtue or try to change the world and rage against it, instilling hatred and jealousy.


I’ve tried to read Hume before, but have failed miserably.  Now, I’m reading a very compressed summary and I still really just don’t get it.  Apparently just not my thing.


One of the all time great philosophers never married and never traveled more than 10 miles from the town that he was born, lived, and died in.

Duty is the measure of the good. We choose to do our duty, which implies good will.

Kant deals in absolutes (categorical imperative) in a relative world.


Founded utilitarianism. This is the belief that the result of any action determines its morality.

Greatest happiness for the greatest numbers

Humans are only motivated by pleasure and pain


Previously, philosophers thought that human passions / end are somehow innate to the person.

Hegel believed that a person’s experiences is the driver to current behavior. Humans are active creators in the world.


His critique of capitalism is based upon moral grounds. He condemned the behavior of the bourgeoisie on essentially moral grounds (thievery).  Capitalism removes the human-ness from humanity (people are basically objects).

Of course, considering the insane acts of immorality that have taken place in the name of Marx, it’s pretty clear that his philosophy does not lend itself to moral actions.


Christianity has destroyed people because of its emphasis of weak values (eg helping the weak) instead of the strong ‘moral’ values that keep a society strong. An act is good if it affirms life.

His concept of superman, fore-shadowed by Raskilnokov in Crime and Punishment, is beyond all normal laws because they are a higher level of humanity.


First to make the concept of moral relativism mainstream. From his anthropology studies, he understood that no one culture is better than any one and that they can have radically different ideas of what is moral. Hence there is no absolute morality.

In the first decades of the 20th century, the hope that was raised by the Enlightenment began to dim. The sense of optimism seems to be dashed by mass species extermination, holocaust, and global warming.


Found of the Pragmatist movement. It believed in a close relationship between the good, the true, and the useful.

Joshua Greene

Tackles the question of why someone feels obligated to help someone that they across that is in immediate need but feels no moral compunction at all to help someone equally in immediate need on the other side of the planet.

Basically he thinks of moral as two modes. The point-and-click immediate reaction has a gut feel of being right while the longer term more analytical opinion does not.

Sam Harris

He believes that morality is just another function that can be objectively, scientifically measured. Everything is a balance sheet and if the scale tips towards good, it’s a moral action.

It’s not clear how such a measurement can actually take place.


China has the same problems regarding morality that Africa and the other colonized nations have.  Due to the obvious evils of European colonization, it is very tempting to throw our European philosophy as well. An argument can be made that the fact that European philosophy has such paramount importance is just another type of colonization.

The challenge is that European philosophy has the tools that can be used to allow the non European philosophers to move forward with their own beliefs.  Therefore, the feeling is that they have to use the tools of their oppressors to free themselves from the oppressors.

In particular, China, for two millennia, basically had no religion and its morals was deeply tied to the bureaucracy of the various dynasties via the Confucian tradition.  So, in 1911, when the last dynasty finally fell, not only did they lose their government but they also lost their moral tradition. After a struggle, Mao’s Marxism effectively replaced it.



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