How We Always Lose It Before We Find It


Jay B Gaskill

Our moral compass is an irreplaceable gift.  It is our species’ survival advantage in a hostile universe. It is a personal life raft in a toxic culture. Morality is not an arbitrary construct, but an immensely valuable discovery, on a par with that of fire, farming & writing. Applying moral intelligence in the real world is the very essence of moral agency. Moral character is the capacity to do the difficult, right thing especially when faced with consequential choices.  To act in accord with one’s moral compass is very difficult when the very moral ground seems to have fallen away. In a culture characterized by fashionable ambivalence, moral character is more than a virtue; it is a beacon of hope.

I am reminded of a cautionary observation by Albert Speer. He was Hitler’s architect and Reichminister of Defense.  Albert Speer was, by all accounts, a civilized man – before the war.  During the Nuremburg war crimes trials, Speer’s life was spared in favor of life in Spandau Prison.  After some reflection time behind bars, he was able to confess that:

“Basically, I exploited the phenomenon of the technician’s often blind devotion to his task. Because of what seems to be the moral neutrality of technology, these people were without scruples about their activities.” (Albert Speer – “Inside The Third Reich”)

For Speer’s technicians we can substitute scientists, engineers, researchers, artists and even physicians. From 1943 to 1944 the infamous Doctor Joseph Mengele performed human experiments on imprisoned twins at Auschwitz. The twins were injected with dyes into their eyes in attempts to change eye color; some were even sewn together to make conjoined twins. Of about three thousand individual twins, only 100 survived. During the War, at Ravensbruck concentration camp, bones, muscles, and nerves were removed from the subjects without pain management or anesthetics.

I could go on with this dreary and sickening catalogue, but you get the idea. There are so many paths down to the abyss, and Nazi eugenics was just one of them. The “greatest good for the greatest number” left out a wise understanding of the “good”, and left room for the Nazis, the Marxists and others to treat those outside “the greatest number” as disposable things. Utilitarian ethics is a dead end.  The abyss has welcomed civilized people into the darkness before and – unless we recover the capacity for moral intelligence, and the necessary motivation and courage to become moral agents – we will succumb to the abyss again, falling even lower than before.


Once again we have lost our way.  This is hardly a novel development in our story; getting lost is part of the human condition.  Our very modernity was not a sufficient bulwark against our own failings.  Is this really surprising?

What is the greatest benefit for those of us who are fortunate enough live in the modern enclaves of Western civilization? Most of us would answer, “Safe, sophisticated comfort”.  And what, we might ask ourselves, holds the greatest peril for us? It is the same answer…safe, sophisticated comfort.

We have so far survived in a turbulent world because of the strong will to live that was instilled into us, and because of the gift of several fruitful biological “technologies” (using that term very broadly), among them: the entire cluster of cognitive faculties and thinking aids we call “reason”, logic, creative imagination, empathy and foresight among them; then the social technologies of  cooperation (including language, of course, but much more than that); and our moral compass without which social cooperation and civilization itself withers and dies.

We are the result of creative processes; we are surrounded by them; and our minds run them.  The creative processes in our minds replicate and recapitulate the creative processes of natural evolution, but at a vastly accelerated rate.  Natural selection has stumbled along over eons, sacrificing entire species (like the obsolete triceratops), but the creative processes of human intelligence move at lightning speed, sacrificing only hypotheses and creative dead-ends.  Creative human intelligence has achieved major innovations over mere days, weeks and years.  While nature took hundreds of millions of years of animal evolution to develop insect and bird flight, we humans developed aircraft and spacecraft in a few centuries[i]. This does not take us outside nature. We are nature, awakened to intelligent self-direction.

So we tend to harbor “king of the universe” conceits, the hubris of a young technological species. We and only we did that, made that or invented that. When we discovered fire…or the wheel…or…the refrigeration principle…or electricity…or atomic power, we naively assumed that these were human inventions.  Yet we still don’t know whether we were the first thinking creatures to arrive and awake in this universe, nor whether even the most improbable and wonderful developments along our path were not prefigured in some way.  But these discovery paths were not accidental or arbitrary. For example, the design features of the human, bird and mammal eyes represent applied versions of a single engineering solution, much as the slipstream form of the fish or the function of the wing have appeared in “nature” before the fundamental idea ever occurred to humankind. Because of the consistency of natural physical laws, engineering solutions are discovered in much the same way that geometrical solutions are discovered.

Why, then do we assume that morality is “made up” (as some insist) as opposed to discovered? Our most important social technology is civilization, a system of exchange and regulation among individuals and groups that has greatly enhanced the prospects of human survival by facilitating institutional memory (a sense of history), sophisticated task specialization and the peaceful exchange of goods and services. But all civilizations do not serve us equally well. The ones held together by a common moral framework do better.  In this sense, the moral compass can be understood as survival-enhancing technology.

The natural evolution of living organisms is governed by a single direction, survival, felt consciously as life-affirmation, or as Schweitzer put it, the universal will-to-live[ii] (the seed of human morality). The processes of human social and cultural evolution needed a more complex guidance system, equally life affirming, but more sophisticated: It is the moral directional axis formed in the mix of moral intelligence and experience, saved to our wisdom data base and available to everyone as the “app” we call the moral compass. If we are to avoid falling into the next abyss, we need to keep two ideas firmly in the foreground of our thoughts at all times:

→ The objective reality of the universal moral compass;

→ The strict necessity of personal moral engagement.

Moral engagement is work.  We are hard-wired to resist unnecessary work in order to conserve energy. It is all too easy to avoid engagement, by denying the insights and directions signaled by our internal moral compass.  But moral engagement is the price of survival.

Moral engagement seems like an onerous duty, in part, because it forces us to make either-or choices. The decision-challenged among us can get trapped in the illusion of passive escape, the notion that delay will make the problem go away.  In practice, delay is almost always a choice on the very merits of the dilemma that the decision-challenged among us sought to avoid.  Except at the threshold choice, to be or not to be, there are always more than two choices in the real world.  Each threshold choice (other than suicide) opens up many more choices. This is not an argument for indecision, but instead should tell us that a binary choice usually means rejecting the bad alternative in favor of the one or category of choices that keep other choices open. [You may recognize this as the argument against suicide.]

Many of our biggest mistakes, especially where technological tasks are concerned, can be traced to a failure to consider all of the later options that are hiding behind that first, deceptively simple binary choice. At the beginning of any project, such later implications are very easy to ignore – remember how Reichminister Speer exploited the amoral enthusiasm of the technicians, engineers and scientists working for the Reich.

Even the simplest, no-brainer choices involve work.  An example relating to technology and ethics will demonstrate what I’m talking about. The threshold decision to protect intellectual property is classic binary choice with real, long term consequences.

A society can choose not to protect intellectual property, or (amounting to the same thing) to declare that the work product of all creative types all belongs to the state.  Secrecy will inevitably result and creative energy will be suffocated.  For me, the contrary decision, to protect intellectual property is the obviously superior policy option.

Suppose that a society does undertake to protect intellectual property in order to encourage creative innovation. America was foremost among 18th century countries to protect intellectual property; and that choice ignited a vital creative engine of progress.  But a whole series of hard policy choices and problems have followed that threshold choice as well.

Every decision, even the seemingly easy ones, confers the duty of continuing attention and engagement.  Once we decided to protect creative intellectual property, other choices surfaced – about the kind of property that can be protected (a song, a novel, trademark, an algorithm, an app, a weapon, a cure, even a human DNA strand), and the length and strength of protection.

A caution looms over all of this: Keeping Speer’s example in mind: Intellectual property rights alone do little to guarantee that the creative spirits among us are not being exploited for dark purposes. Most political power brokers understand that creative communities can be dangerous to them, so they tend to keep these types close, like tamed pets.  The Nazi Peenemunde scientists and the captive Soviet communist composers come immediately to mind.  There are softer, but very effective means of taming the creative ones into tools of the dominant political players – using purse-string controls, ideological group-think and the threat of ostracism.  State subsidization is control and the means of creative suffocation. Protections for individual creative property do not alone guarantee the health of free creative communities.

Merely granting legal protections for intellectual property will never prevent some creative communities from wandering into the abyss on their own. Consider the cynical, amoral creative culture that characterized the pre-Nazi Weimar Republic, a classic example of a creative community poisoned by cynicism and national defeat – a cautionary tale.

The Weimar Republic was viable from 1919 ‘till 1933, ending with Hitler’s ascent to power.  Born during the crippling reparations following Germany’s crushing defeat in WW I, under pressure from left and right, the Weimar Republic experienced a burst of cultural energy characterized by a mood of bleakness and failure (often described as “modernism”) in the literature of geniuses like Brecht and Mann and the atonal music of Berg and Schoenberg, and in the political theories of the so called Critical Theorists.  The critical realist intellectuals belonged to the Marxist Frankfort School.  One prominent thread in the Weimar cultural mix was a Marxist-inspired attack on traditional beauty. The beauty “worship” of romanticism was portrayed as part of the ideology of capitalism (much as religion was denounced as the “opiate of the people”).  One sympathetic writer described the role of “modern” music as a “message of despair”.  The Weimar cultural period, whatever its incidental value to world culture, contained a dominant anti-life ethos that ultimately crippled the very creative process itself, marking the beginning of popular alienation from the “elite arts.” This illustrates the danger of severing the link between the life-affirming moral compass and our creative enterprises.

The failure by the creative community of Weimar to honor moral boundaries and to value life-affirmation undermined the commitment to creative freedom, breeding moral denial and passivity, and opening a pathway to a new authoritarian regime.  This was an early example of a catastrophic loss of confidence in the value of liberal civilization, and the consequences that inevitably follow. Weimar’s moral ambivalence provided an opening for the Hitlerian nightmare. That same loss of confidence is rampant among postmodern Western intellectuals.

This is not a simple situation; nor is there a quick, simple fix.  Both ethical and practical considerations interpenetrate. The choices we thought we made are always up for reconsideration.  Which is another way of saying that life is messy. We need robust creative capabilities and communities to survive and thrive, and they need the life-affirming guidance of a moral compass that supports creativity and individual human dignity.

We live in a real world that resembles episodes from Star Trek: The cultural and technological distance between developed Western countries and other, essentially medieval societies, is about the same as that between the men and women aboard the Starship enterprise and some of the fictional native populations on the planets they visited. Enterprise crew members were under strict orders not to hand out phasers to the natives, let alone any of the heavy duty planet busters.  Unlike those Star Trek crew members, when we screw up, we can’t just call the bridge and say “Beam me up Scotty!”  We comfortable high tech societies are like space aliens stranded on a primitive planet. We can’t leave.

Make no mistake. There are some very, very bad choices where our technological advances are concerned.  These examples come to mind:

  • We have allowed the technologies of mass destruction, like nuclear bombs, to fall under the control of pre-modern minds living in bloody- minded cultures. Letting mobs of these types run around with more “primitive” weapons, like machine guns and RPG’s, was a mistake.  Letting them have WMD’s is in another category entirely – insanity. When our WMD’s technologies fall into the wrong hands, we may not live with the consequences.
  • Western scientists have already allowed organ transplant technologies to spread to brutal regimes. People are being sold for parts in China and in many other places in the world. The “greatest good for the greatest number” left room for those with power to treat those outside “the greatest number” as disposable things.  Utilitarian ethics is now a rationale for evil.
  • Scientists are currently experimenting with new techniques employing pharmacological agents and neurological interventions to alter the core human personality. No one in high-tech’s management circles has apparently read or heeded the warnings in Brave New World [iii]. Scarcely a thought is being given to the looming moral questions: Given how handy those technologies are going to be for authoritarian regimes, there are no safeguards? Is this research line even worth the risks?

As a general rule, the heuristic (learn as you go) feedback models work quite well for us – we try something; we incorporate the experience; sometimes we reassess.  Some of us have learned to exercise caution and always reassess because unintended consequences are inevitable…but not all of us are so prudent  Sometimes it is too late to reassess. Bright line rules are necessary.

We need to practice eternal vigilance because we dare not ever assume that a choice we thought was a good one five years ago can be taken for granted as a good choice today.  We need an ongoing review process well-grounded in ethics.

And that is the rub.  We are living in an ethically confused era.  Putting it another way, our technological communities are morally illiterate because, increasingly, our culture is morally illiterate. Ask yourselves, Can you readily identify where any formal course in ethics and morally informed thinking is required at any level from K-12 through a BA or BS degree? Modern law students are being taught legal ethics (really, professional rules of narrow scope, not core ethics as the term is used here) and for most of them, this will be the first ethics course they will have taken of any kind.

Finding the path we have lost starts with renewing some commitments (or making them for the first time). Here are my top six:


  • We keep alive our creative options as a person, as a community and as a species because we understand the dual role of creativity and morality to our survival.
  • We preserve our essential humanity. Therefore, we use machines in the service of humanity; and we never use humans in the service of machines.
  • We never cede our control, our humanity or our human dignity, or that of others, to machines, or algorithms, or tyrants.
  • The protection of human dignity is among our very deepest commitments, as essential to our working moral compass as the injunctions – “Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t assault and don’t murder your fellow human beings.”
  • We hold the image of a small child foremost in our minds and we ask – What kind of a world are we making for her?
  • If we don’t like the answer to the last question, we work to bring about a better one.

If you are reading this and it makes sense, then your parents and mentors did something right.  Never forget our mentors; never forget our childhoods…and never forget that we are now the adults in charge. We are all teachers and mentors, whether for the good by example…or for the bad by default.



BUBER —I and Thou by Martin Buber, (1923, 1937, 2010)

KASS —Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity, The Challenge of Bioethics by Leon R. Kass, M. D. (Encounter Books 2002. London & New York)

JOY —Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us, by Bill Joy. (WIRED Magazine April 4, 2000) http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html

LEWIS —The Abolition of Man, by C. S. Lewis (Touchstone 1944, 1947 / 1972, 1975)

“For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please.”

[i] To get a sense of the dramatic speed differences between human, cognitive-driven innovation and that of natural selection in nature, note the four century interval between Da Vinci’s 1485 drawings of a flying device and the Wright Brothers powered flight demonstration in 1903. Now note that roughly 50 million years passed while natural selection worked to endow insects with wings and flight technology – from about 400 until 350 million years ago.

[ii] See Albert Schweitzer’s The Philosophy of Civilization (1960 Macmillan).

[iii] Aldus Huxley’s iconic 1931 novel about a dystopia we might yet create is worth another look.


The problems and issues I’ve addressed here are sufficiently serious that we urgently need to unite all of us who understand the reality and significance of the moral compass, first in our dialogue, then in common purpose.  Our survival depends on it. Whether we see these issues through a spiritual/religious lens, a secular/atheist lens, or any other lens, we are on the same page provided we are clear enough about the scope and nature of the problem and the depth and character of the solution.

It is reasonable to talk about the moral dimension of our experience without referencing religion, but it is not reasonable to talk about religion without referencing the moral dimension of our experience.  So I have been careful to construct these insights and observations in a way that invites both the religious and the non-religious minds among our ranks to join in the task before us.  In this discussion, the special gift of the non-religious is their outsider’s honesty of observation – the emperor’s new clothes view – about some religious moral pretensions.  The special gift of the religious is exactly the same, their outsider’s honesty of observation – the emperor’s new clothes view – about some secular moral pretensions.

I would be remiss if I failed to disclose my own bias that, whether described as a benign unifying principle, or as a loving creator, it is impossible for me to think of the moral compass as anything less than a gift of profound value by a giver who actually cares about our survival.  There is one ultimate moral question of all time.  It is outside the scope of this short article. It rests at the very center of what I will call the unity-traditions within the world’s great religions.  It is this: Why care about the generations of people who will come after us?  The inability of purely utilitarian, purely secular, and strongly anti-spiritual world-views to provide a satisfying answer to this question is a tell. Our children can smell moral ambivalence and spiritual bankruptcy like a dog can smell fear.

Jay B Gaskill

December, 2012

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