Category Archives: Ethics

How to develop a moral compass…or a gyroscope

In the last post, I wrote about codes of ethics that guide us with a reliable set of rules to keep us out of trouble. As helpful as this code is, it takes an on-the-spot thought process that isn’t always convenient: First, we feel an impulse to do or say something; then we just do or say it, OR we pause and consider the ethical implications using our code of ethics. (This is where it helps to have a brief memorable code!) Then we either go ahead and do or say what we wanted, feeling assured it’s the right thing; or we back away, aware it was an ill-conceived impulse that would cause harm if indulged.

As beneficial as this process may be, in reality we are unlikely to pause to consider the ethical implications in every situation, given emotions, hormones, split-second demands, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and such. But the code of ethics is still there. Maybe we’ve stuffed it down so we won’t have to think about it, or maybe it’s grown larger, scolding us with its giant wagging finger. On some level we are aware of how we erred by ignoring our code of ethics. Now we feel badly, or at least some part of us does, and that starts an inner battle that makes us less and less happy. Guilt, regret, worry. You know the drill. If we’re lucky, it’s as simple as that, and we can seek to make things right through apology, restitution, etc. But often instead of seeing things clearly, we try to cover our tracks and justify our actions in all sorts of complex ways that further entangle us in shame, self-hatred, vilification of others, etc.

Oh my! What a help a reliable inner moral compass would be! It would save us the hassle of figuring all this out and referring to a list we left in the pocket of our pants when they went through the laundry, so now the ink is so blurry we can barely read it anyway. With an inner moral compass, we’d just know. Right? But is this something some people or born with and others are not? Do we all have the capability to develop such an inner sense?

The Buddhist code of ethics, the Five Precepts, enumerated in the previous post, is easy to remember, but that’s no guarantee, is it? Relying on any list as our sole guidance is going to produce random results. So Buddhism doesn’t just lay down the law. It provides a means of developing an inner moral compass.

The daily practice of mindful meditation and the practice of metta (universal loving-kindness), while not a panacea, strengthens our ability to develop an inner moral compass. If you have a regular practice, perhaps you have noticed that yourself. Just being more aware of physical sensation can help us notice the body’s strong hints that we’re entering questionable territory, or the way our thoughts begin to waver and weave stories, and the way our emotions get overwrought.

Even more profound a shift may be a growing sense of interconnectedness that naturally interferes with tendencies to gossip, lie, cheat, steal, etc. How clearly we can sense that any harm we do is to the whole fabric of life. Why would we despoil the web of our being?

But is what we develop through meditation really like a compass? There is another device that seems to me to be a better simile and that is the gyroscope.

A compass points to the magnetic north (which apparently is shifting!), but a gyroscope stays centered and upright in any situation. A compass is a tool to help us get somewhere else, while a gyroscope helps us to be here and now, able to handle any set of circumstances.

A gyroscope — used in aircraft to help keep them upright — on its own is just a set of metal circles with an axis. It’s only when the center circle (in this image, the solid gold one) is set to spinning that the gyroscope is suddenly able to right itself in even the most precarious circumstances.

It takes some action to set the gyroscope spinning, either a string that we wind and pull or some other mechanical means. In this simile, that ‘setting into motion’ is our regular practice of meditation. Of course the activity of meditation is calming and quieting, but something is being set into motion as well: awareness, compassion, clarity, concentration, kindness, a sense of interconnection and peace.

When we maintain a daily practice of meditation, we are better able to stay balanced regardless of external circumstances, just like the gyroscope.

So a code of ethics informs our wise intention and provides guidance, but it works best when paired with meditation practice, so that we can respond to what arises wisely instead of reacting impulsively. You might think of it as learning to dance with life instead of going into battle with it.

I would love to read your comments, your own experiences and any questions. – Stephanie

What code of ethics do you follow?

I recently saw the Japanese film Shoplifters and recommend it. I mention it here because it has an example of how we develop a code of ethics. The boy in the movie is taught that until an item is purchased it doesn’t belong to anyone, so it’s okay to take it. With this moral guidance in place, he feels fine about shoplifting for the family. But then he sees his foster father checking out cars with the clear intent to do a smash and grab. The boy says, “Hey, wait, don’t these cars belong to people?” This new facet of the family business doesn’t fit into the code of ethics he’d been taught. His world tilts on its axis as he begins to see things differently.

We each live by some code of ethics. The code our parents and culture teach us is likely more skillful than what the boy was taught. Perhaps we learned the Ten Commandments, perhaps the Golden Rule, or perhaps more along the lines of ‘What will the neighbors think?’ or ‘Don’t be a loser.’ It’s worth noticing our ethical underpinnings and how they play out in our daily decisions.

The other day I saw a driver pause at a red light, then make a left turn against the light when the traffic was clear. Did he figure that since no police were present to ticket him, he could disregard the law? These laws are, for the most part, an agreement we make as a community, so that, without having the benefit of being able to look each other in the eye or talk, we can fairly predict what another driver will do.

When someone does something that to me seems so blatantly wrong, I have to wonder if he is drugged or drunk or mentally unstable. Is there some rare circumstance that makes him think that it’s okay just in this instance? Is he rushing to someone’s aid, for example? How is he justifying his behavior to himself? Is this just the way he operates in the world, measuring risk against reward and taking chances? Does he not see the risk? Does he not care? Does he think the rules don’t apply to him?

I’ll never know, but it brings up an interesting exploration into ethical decision making. What rules do we follow, what ones do we ignore, and what if any justification do we give ourselves for doing so? If there are unjust laws, do we as citizens work to get them changed? Or do we just accept them or ignore them?

This kind of inner investigation is useful for anyone to do. If you have been doing the regular practice of meditation, you probably have a better ability to slow down and observe the pattern of thoughts as they arise, and to see the source of the particular pattern that gives or denies permission to do something. Is there a code, either obvious or implied, at the core of the choices you make or the justifications you offer up to explain it to yourself? If there is a code of ethics there, are you living by it? And if not, are you punishing yourself, judging yourself, feeling ashamed, or offering excuses to override your code? Such questioning is valuable in uncovering delusion and seeing how you may be creating inner discordance and unnecessary suffering.

Buddhism has a very clear ethical code. Among other teachings, there are the Precepts. These are vows taken at the beginning of a retreat. They are very simple and reasonable, and they help to assure the retreat runs smoothly. They are easy to remember and refer to throughout our lives: We agree to not harm any living being, to not take what isn’t freely given, to not lie or gossip, to not misuse our sexuality, and to not ingest anything that would affect clarity of mind. A very good set of ethical standards to live by all the time! The exact wording varies, but the Precepts are guiding principles of value.

Some of these Precepts may be easier to follow than others. ‘Do no harm’ precept may seem the easiest, because we have good hearts and aren’t killers; but upon further investigation this precept reveals itself to be quite challenging since we are constantly making choices of what we eat, purchase and do, and all these choices may adversely affect the lives of others or the planet. Setting the intention and making wise effort to live by a precept is in and of itself valuable. Any investigation into what it might mean can most effectively be done with loving-kindness instead of shame, fear and guilt. No one is perfect. We do not need to erase our footprint on the sands of life. But joy is more available to experience if we live in a way that causes the least possible harm to ourselves and all beings.

Following the Buddhist Precepts or any other code of ethics we consciously choose, informs the choices we make in every moment and how we are in relation to everything we do and everyone we meet. It is definitely worth discovering what code we are living by, whether it is working well for us, or if we are at odds with it and, if so how that affects our lives and the lives of those around us.

If this feels like a timely investigation for you, I hope you will share any insights or questions that come up.