I wonder how many ethical choices you’ll face today.
How many dilemmas.
Decisions, big and small, about how to respond; what to do; who to be

And what will guide you in those choices?
Will you consult your moral compass?
(And what might that compass actually look like?)

In fact, is your moral compass even actually yours to begin with? Or have you just inherited the standard model that society or your family or your community might like to push into your hands?

Have you ever questioned the validity of it – how reliable it is in certain conditions or whether it has any limitations – or do you just follow it blindly?

It’s an interesting thing to contemplate. For, just as we’re all individuals finding our own way through life, perhaps we all have our own unique versions of our ‘true north.’ And what happens if yours doesn’t match the prescribed one-size-fits-all model? The singular ethical rule and response for all occasions. (Can there even be such a thing?)

Aristotle, the philosopher, had some light to shed on this stuff. Apparently, he felt that flexibility is vital – that as each situation is different, our response should take that into account. That perhaps there can’t be hard and fast rules for ethical behaviour. That the ‘high road’ is always going to be different, depending on the lay of the land.

Martha Nussbaum outlines Aristotle’s approach like this:

“…excellent ethical choice cannot be captured completely in general rules because – like medicine – it is a matter of fitting one’s choice to the complex requirements of a concrete situation, taking all of its contextual features into account.

A rule, like a joke manual (like a medical textbook) would do both too little and too much: too little, because the rule (unless carefully qualified) would imply that it was itself normative for correct response (as a joke manual would have you tailor your wit to the formulae it contains); this could impinge too much on the flexibility of good [ethical] practice.”

So how do you face the ethical dilemmas in your life?

Do you follow ‘the rule/s’?
Or is there a legitimate space for ‘making it up as you go along’? Responding to the particularity of this moment; this opportunity?

Can there be such a thing as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ (that are universally applicable across all circumstances)?

Or is it just as important to discover what’s right for you? At these coordinates on the map of your life. In this specific place you find yourself in.

Perhaps another way of putting it might be to ask:

Will you map out your life using someone else’s compass and coordinates?

Or will you search for your own points of light and meaning in the ambiguous darkness we all must face,

And navigate by the stars…


Reference: Nussbaum, M (1994) The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, Princeton University Press, Princeton, p.67.


Photo: rnavarette
Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar (Grad Dip Counselling & Psychotherapy) is a writer, blogger and Sydney psychotherapist in private practice at One Life Counselling & Psychotherapy. Gabrielle also co-facilitates telephone support groups for people who are living with cancer, for their carers, and for people who have been bereaved through a cancer experience. She was the former editor of a journal on counselling and psychotherapy and she provides regular therapeutic updates on facebook and Twitter @OneLifeTherapy.



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    Last reviewed: 14 Mar 2011

APA Reference
Gawne-Kelnar, G. (2011). Your Moral Compass: Finding Your Truth And Navigating By It. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 2, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/therapist-within/2011/03/your-moral-compass-finding-your-truth-and-navigating-by-it/


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