Moral Compass Metaphor Points to Surprising Places

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I thought the moral compass metaphor has mostly left current political discourse but it just cropped up – this time pointing from left to right – as David Plouffe accused Mitt Romney of not having one. As I keep repeating, George Lakoff once said “Metaphors can kill.” And Moral Compass has certainly done its share of homicidal damage. Justifying wars, interventions and unflinching black and white resolve in the face of gray circumstances. It is a killer metaphor!

But with a bit of hacking it is not difficult to subvert it for good. Yes, I’m ready to declare, it is good to have a moral compass, providing you make it more like a “true compass” to quote Plouffe. The problem is, as I learned during my sailing courses many years ago, that most people don’t understand how compasses actually work.

First, compasses don’t point to “the North”. They point to what is called the Magnetic North which is quite a ways from the actual North. So if you want to go to the North pole, you need make a lot of adjustment in where you’re going. Sound familiar? Kind of like following your convictions. They often lead you to places that are different from where you’re saying you’re going.

Second, the Magnetic North keeps moving. Yes, the difference of where it is in relation to the “actual” North changes from year to year. So you have to adjust your directions to the times you live in! Sound familiar? Being a devout Christian led people to different actions in the 1500s, 1700s and 1900. Although, we keep saying the “North” or faith is the same, the actual needle showing us where to go points to different directions.

Third, the compass is easily distracted by its immediate physical context. The distribution of metals on a boat, for instance, will throw it completely off course. So it needs to be calibrated differently for each individual installation. Sound familiar?

And it’s also worth noting that the south magnetic pole is not the exact polar opposite of the north magnetic pole!

So what can we learn from this newly hacked moral compass metaphor? Well, nothing terribly useful. Our real ethics and other commitments are always determined by the times we live and contexts we find ourselves in. And often we say we’re going one way when we’re actually heading another way. But we already knew that. Everybody knows that! Even people who say it’s not true (the anti-relativists) know that! They are not complete idiots after all, they just pretend to be to avoid making painful decisions!

As so often, we can tell two stories about the change of views by politicians or anybody else.

The first story is of the feckless, unprincipled opportunist who changes her views following the prevailing winds – supported by the image of the weather vane. This person is contrasted with the stalwart who sticks to her principles even as all around her are swayed the moral fad of the day.

The second story is of the wise (often old) and sage person who can change her views even as all around her persist in their simplistic fundamentalism. Here we have the image of the tree that bends in the wind but does not break. This person is contrasted with the bigot or the zealot who cannot budge even an inch from old prejudices even though they are obviously wrong?

So which story is true of Romney, Bush and Obama? We don’t know. In every instance, we have to fine tune our image and very carefully watch out for our tendencies to just tell the negative stories about people we don’t like. Whether one story is more convincing than the other depends, like the needle of a compass, no a variety of obvious and non-obvious contexts. The stories are here to guide us and help us make decisions. But we must strive to keep them all in mind at the same time. And this can be painful. They are a little bit like the Necker Cube, Vase, the Duck/Rabbit or similar optical illusions. We know they’re both there but while we’re perceiving the one, it is easy to forget the others are there. So it is uncomfortable. And also not a little bit inconvenient.

Is this kind of metaphorical nuance something we can expect in a time of political competition? It can be. Despite their bad rep, politicians and the media surrounding them can be nuanced. But often they’re not. So instead of nuance, when somebody next trots out the moral compass, whether you like them or not, say: “Oh, you mean you’re a liar, then?” and tell them about the Magnetic North!


Post Script: Actually, Plouffe didn’t say Romney didn’t have a moral compass. He said that you “you need to have a true compass, and you’ve got to be willing to make tough calls.” So maybe he was talking about a compass adjusted for surrounding metals and the advice of whose needle we follow only having taken into account as much of our current context as we can. A “true compass” like a true friend! I agree with most of the “old Romney” and none of the “new Romney”. And I loved the old Obama created in the image of our unspoken liberal utopias, and I am lukewarm on the actual Obama (as I actually knew I would) who steers a course pointing to the North of reality rather than the one magnetically attracting our needles. So if its that kind of moral compass after all, we’re in good hands!

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