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a blog by Chris Barrow

The Moral Compass


The week began with a cocaine-snorting, philandering Lord of the Realm, caught with his pants down and somebody else’s brassiere on.

We heard continued stories of a Vicar who skipped from Court as he was found guilty of stealing Church funds.

To top it all, we endured the discomfort of hearing about “Walter and the lion” which probably did more to set back the image of the dental profession than a hundred Consumer Association mystery callers.

During my own working week, I heard a tale, told by a distressed prospective patient, of two dentists in two neighbouring towns.

The first dentist she visited prescribed the removal of 6 teeth and their replacement with complex and very expensive dentistry.

The second dentist prescribed a simple and inexpensive procedure that would achieve the patient’s desired outcome at a modicum of inconvenience and a fraction of the cost.

Before you jump to any politically incorrect conclusions, both dentists were over age 50, experienced in placing implants and WASPs.

Her relief at the second diagnosis was matched by bewilderment at the difference of opinion.

It was an earlier member of that distinguished House, John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton who on April 5th 1887 coined the famous phrase:

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

These events have had me thinking about our moral compass as I’ve been jogging around leafy Cheshire the last few days.

It seems that there have always been three moral compasses by which we navigate:

1. Our personal moral compass – the decisions we make that affect us and us alone;

2. Our tribal moral compass – the decisions we make that affect those nearest to us personally and professionally;

3. Our ethnic moral compass – the term “ethnic” might surprise you but I’m going to use a definition of ethnicity suggested by Wikipedia as a combination of

Shared descent

Shared language

Shared sanctuaries and sacrifices

Shared customs

Each of us is faced with moral decisions to make every day.

They can be personal – do I take home the left over note pads and pens from this conference centre?

They can be tribal – shall I stab my fellow employee in the back to secure this promotion?

They can be ethnic – shall I drive at 90mph through the village after 5 pints?

The Internet of Things has exposed us all to a new moral compass.

4. The global moral compass.

If we shoot a lion, steal from a congregation or pay for drugs and sex – and we get busted – then the story can go globally viral in a heartbeat.

The global moral compass, however, is illusory.

A Facebook post this week showed the horrific scene of 250 whales being slaughtered on a beach in the Faroe Islands by lance throwing local residents.

It was there and gone in hours and our news feeds moved on.

I didn’t see the emergence of a new Facebook community the next day because our Global Moral Compass wasn’t engaged.

In fact, we are so overwhelmed with scenes of death, starvation, cruelty, disease and corruption that we have become immune unless the story touches us in some personal way.

I suspect that the discovery of aircraft wreckage in the Indian ocean will be of lasting interest only to those who lost loved ones (tribal compass) in the Malaysian airline mystery.

A global moral compass is, in fact, an illusion created by the connectedness of the Internet.

People living in the volcanic caves above Mwanza, Tanzania aren’t going to give a hoot about Walter and the lion. They are too busy carrying water and looking for food.

There’s a good chance that the people bill-posting their outrage on Walter’s dental office door in Minnesota are never going to give a hoot about the lovely people of Mwanza – not until something happens that registers on that overwhelmed global moral compass (God forbid) like Ebola.

(by the way, Mwanza is further away from the nearest Ebola outbreak than I am here in Altrincham)

Whenever I see the global moral compass engaged, I anticipate a short life-span for the subject.

There are almost 7 billion of us now and I suspect that, for all my personal disgust at the stories I have heard this week, the vast majority have their own personal, tribal and ethnic compasses that don’t extend to getting worried about Cecil.

The Internet gives us the opportunity to vocalise our disgust but it doesn’t really make any difference unless very large numbers of people are motivated to do something about it (The Arab Spring or Islamic State – both ethnic moral compasses but with different headings).

The world isn’t going to change en masse – it is still simply too big and too diverse.

We can change the heading of an ethnic moral compass if the numbers are large enough.

We can change the heading of a tribal moral compass by an agreement to standards of performance and behaviour.

We can change the heading of our personal moral compass, one decision at a time, all day, every day.

So, after quite a meander, let me get back on course and return to the two dentists.

Acknowledging the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”, one has to ask why the first dentists’s treatment plan was so different?

What were the forces that influenced his diagnosis?

Was his personal moral compass set to the right heading?

That has affected his tribe (a potential new patient), who will share the story with her tribe and potentially, the concerns become a conversation in their ethnic group (after all, it has reached me and here I am sharing it with you).

Lecherous Lords

Venal Vicars

Despicable Dentists

Everybody, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences. – Robert Louis Stevenson

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