Are morals a luxury in times of chaos?

moralcompassMost of us have a moral compass we use to guide us through every day events and to navigate life’s path. Our compass is seldom taken out and examined until we’re faced with a new or tough decision. It’s part of who we are, embedded like our senses and, for the most part, we take it for granted. Is it possible to have no morals whatsoever? Or are they based on how a person views the world around them? And whilst many would consider themselves morally well centred, can a person change their morals (or have them changed) in stressful and chaotic situations?

Why question your morals at all?

Three things have recently prompted me to question my own moral compass.

Fiction that invites the reader to question their morals.

alexscarrow1Firstly, I’ve just read two books by the author Alex Scarrow, Last Light and Afterlight – apocalyptic tales that centre around mankind’s reaction to a sudden loss of oil. I find apocalyptic stories fascinating. Some might say I have a morbid interest in the end of the world, and whilst I think we would all benefit from being unplugged from some forms of technology, my interest in the collapse of society centres around human nature in times of a crisis.

It’s not often that I find myself thinking about a book long after I’ve finished the last page. Both these books prompted me to consider how I would react in such tense and terrifying events. The moral issues faced by the characters are not easy to ignore. One core theme in the story is how the characters deal with the constant turmoil between helping a stranger or leaving them behind because they might turn on them.

A test that surprised me.


Secondly, I recently took a Morality Test on the BBC Lab UK website. I recommend taking a look yourself, the scenarios presented were both challenging and thought-provoking. I took my time and answered honestly as requested. At the end you’re given a score, of sorts, though there really is no wrong or right way to answer the questions, after all morals vary wildly from person to person.

It turns out that my sense of “anger” is lower than average. My score suggested I don’t generally feel anger when someone goes against my personal viewpoint of what is right. That means I’m less likely to react in a confrontational manner toward people who don’t share my values.

That struck me as funny as I prefer confrontation rather than avoiding an issue.

My other senses – disgust, desire to avoid potentially bad people and my desire to punish those who we a threat – were also scored low. This means that I am less likely to feel disgust at someone who has done something wrong, less likely to avoid them for the same reason, and unlikely to want to punish them.

I found this a bit strange.

I thought my morals were different, stronger maybe, or more well-defined. I certainly figured I’d be more angry toward someone who had done something wrong, and think they should be punished. Although I did agree with score that stated I wouldn’t avoid someone because they had acted in a way society considers wrong.

I can’t always judge a person based on someone else’s opinion.

Proven evidence aside, there might be reasons why that person acted the way they did that could be considered morally right from their point of view. And without solid evidence to prove their guilt I prefer to reserve any judgement or opinion.

A question from a spiritual zombie enthusiast.


Lastly, I happened across a post by Zombie Spirituality that seemed to encompass the previous two prompts about morality:

Where do morals fit in during the apocalypse?

The post goes on to say that if you’re trying to stay alive in crazy times, avoiding zombies and trying not to be killed by other survivors, not to mention the basic need to survive, how would you balance your moral compass? Do you go out of your way to help a lonely and vulnerable person? Or avoid them at all costs because they may kill you for your last few tins of beans?

Naturally this is an extreme and unlikely situation, and not everyone finds a zombie apocalypse interesting. But remove the word “zombie” from the question and what are you left with? A simple moral question faced by many throughout history in times of panic and disorder.

When hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans I wonder how many people were forced to adjust their moral compass to survive? In any disaster I’m sure lots of people will act in ways that would be considered dangerous or morally wrong. But from their point of view, at that moment in time, who is to say what is right and wrong, good or evil?

Do morals depend on your point of view?

Did the Nazis consider themselves evil? Do extremists really look in the mirror and know they are wrong? Most of us will say they are, but from their point of view they aren’t. Obviously this doesn’t make an act of violence against an innocent person right, but consider the following:

A disaster has struck. You’re alone and frightened. No help is coming. You’ve already witnessed brutality against your neighbours and know that sooner or later you’ll have to face it too. In order to survive you’ll be faced with tough choices.

  • If someone breaks into your home searching for food, water, shelter etc, do you welcome them?
  • Like you they’re afraid, so do you force them away to protect your supplies and your loved ones?
  • Can you trust them not to harm you?
  • And if they do become violent and it comes down to a question of “them or me” would you be willing to harm or kill another human being to protect yourself?
  • What if you come across someone being attacked by thugs, do you stop them and risk being harmed yourself?
  • Or do you turn away, run and hide, knowing that helping them could lead to you being harmed and your loved ones left alone and defenceless?
  • In times of calamity could you bring yourself to forgive those who have caused great distress and loss to you, or punish them for their actions?

Can you change your morals?

For many people normal day-to-day life isn’t riddled with huge moral choices. I like to think that if I saw an act of wrongness – a mugging or theft for instance – I would act in the right way, step up and offer help or force against an aggressor to protect the innocent. However, in a chaotic and extreme environment I’m not so sure I would or could. Is it safer to look the other way? Or would my sense of right and wrong still drive me to do what I consider to be right?

I like to think I’d have no issue causing harm to someone intent on doing likewise or worse to me or those I care about. Parents have been protecting their young since time began I guess, sometimes paying the price for their actions. Given a potentially chaotic event I also think my role would be to protect, to act as a guardian against any threat, but I have no idea if my moral compass would allow me to cause harm to another person, even if it seemed justifiable at the time.

Is it possible to change your morals based on the situation? What would it take to change your morals from helping someone in distress to avoiding the situation due to potential harm or loss yourself? If you avoid a bad situation or cause harm to protect yourself would you consider that justifiable because your moral compass has been forced to adjust?

Or would you take the risk, knowing that you cannot change who you are?

Are morals a luxury or a necessity?

Hypothetically would you like to experience what it would feel like to have no moral compass. Just for a short time. Would you feel lost without that guidance? Or would you feel free of a burden you didn’t know you had? In our modern world our morals are pretty safe, largely untested to any great degree. Therefore we take them for granted. They’re not a luxury.

In a crisis situation could your moral compass compromise your safety? Would it then become a luxury you could do without? Or would you consider them to be necessary for your survival – not just physical but mental and spiritual? 

I’m finding it hard to answer these never-ending questions. As is sometimes the way with blogging, I tend to figure out the answers I pose as I write. But not this time. Maybe you don’t know the answer until you’re faced with the question for real. You can state what your intentions, how you’d like to act, though in reality your actions might turn out very differently.

I hope I never have to find out how I would react should a disastrous event occur, yet if it did I believe I would still maintain my integrity, loyalty to my loved ones and friends, courage to do what is right and the ability to act rationally and with compassion.

And so I ask you, dear blog reader, how do you think your moral compass would guide you in a chaotic or stressful situation?

5 thoughts on “Are morals a luxury in times of chaos?

  1. Q. If someone breaks into your home searching for food, water, shelter etc, do you welcome them?
    No, not if they broke in. People don’t break in peoples houses to steal food, they can shop lift from supermarkets or markets to do that.

    Q, Like you they’re afraid, so do you force them away to protect your supplies and your loved ones?
    In a Zombie situation I would force them away to prtoect my family.
    I once stood up to some real thugs to protect my daughter and I never stopped to think. I just did. It was not until afterwards and I heard the gang going mad outside the building did I begin to shake. I think they were surprised a woman with a young child stood up to them.

    Q. Can you trust them not to harm you?
    No my family would come first, always

  2. I’m still thinking half an hour later! I suppose my initial rection would always be to help people, but if it was the end of the world and it was down to me or my family or them a complete stranger, I would put my morals to one side.

    I once said to someone who packed in their job by taking the moral highground – then could not pay his mortgage, had to sell his car and his wife and kids were suffering. Morals are sometimes are a luxury and you have to be able to afford them, especially when the consequence of your actions and taking the moral highground impacts on your loved ones.

    1. Funny how you were still thinking about it for a while! First and foremost I’d be all about the protection aspect, whether that be family or the group I’m with, close friends for example. Once that bond or unit is created the moral choices me or anyone else in the group make become a lot more concentrated and important.

      Taking the moral high ground in normal day to day is okay if you can afford to do it, like your buddy who packed in his job. Therefore his morals were a luxury he couldn’t afford to change.

      When you start seriously looking at them, morals are really weird, twisted things that vary wildly from person to person. I find it fascinating how one person can be so firm with their ideal of how their moral compass would remain unshaken in a crisis situation, regardless of the consequences, whereas another would be more flexible in picking and choosing which morals to dump due to losing their validity and thinking about the survival of their family, friends etc.

      Human nature sure is bizarre!

Leave a Reply to Piglet in Portugal Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s