Your moral compass, conscience, and ethics may all sound like the same set of values, but your moral compass can sometimes steer you away from rigid societal laws.

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When you’re faced with a decision or asked to voice an opinion, how you react is often driven by personal values you’ve acquired throughout your lifetime.

Some of these values, the ones that dictate how you determine right from wrong, make up your moral compass. In times when societal rules regarding human rights and conduct conflict with your beliefs, your moral compass is what guides your behavior.

Morality is what defines whether an action is perceived as good or bad, proper or improper. Morals guide your individual behavior within a society.

Your moral compass is your personal set of beliefs and values regarding right and wrong. Morals aren’t fixed. They may change as you face new experiences in life, gain knowledge, or cope with hardships.

Everyone’s moral compass is unique. Even though many concepts of morality appear to be universally accepted, within those foundational beliefs may be unlimited moral considerations.

Moral compass vs. conscience

Your moral compass isn’t the same as your conscience, though your moral compass can inform your conscience.

“It is different from a conscience, which is an innate sense of right and wrong that helps us make moral judgments,” explains Steve Carleton, a licensed clinical social worker from Denver, Colorado. “In other words, a moral compass provides guidance in making ethical decisions, while a conscience serves as an internal alarm system to alert us when we have violated our moral code.”

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The terms “morals” and “ethics” are often used interchangeably, but they aren’t the same.

Ethics can align with morals, explains Carleton, but ethics tend to be the cultural and societal standards that outline how “everyone” is expected to behave.

“While a person’s moral compass may influence their ethical decisions, ethics is more of an externally imposed set of standards or rules that must be followed to maintain social order and prevent chaos,” he says.

An example of ethics would be consequences for dishonesty, such as making fraud illegal under any circumstance.

An example of morals could be agreeing that dishonesty is wrong, except in certain situations, such as doing so to protect yourself or another person.

Modern concepts of moral development were pioneered by psychologist Jean Piaget, who believed it emerged in stages, each based on life experiences.

Later on, Piaget’s framework was expanded by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, who felt moral development was a part of three phases in childhood, each phase defined by stages of learning that determined moral alignment.

Phase 1: Pre-conventional

  • Stage 1: Behaviors are driven by punishment avoidance.
  • Stage 2: Behaviors are driven by rewards or satisfying personal needs.

Phase 2: Conventional

  • Stage 3: Children are driven by a desire to gain the approval of others.
  • Stage 4: Children start to consider the laws and rules of society around them.

Phase 3: Post-conventional

  • Stage 5: Individual rights become more important than societal law.
  • Stage 6: Moral decisions are based on the perspective of everyone potentially impacted.

Kohlberg believed not everyone would reach the final level of moral compass development in their lifetime.

It’s not always easy to know right from wrong, but you can start to understand your moral compass through several methods Carleton recommends.


Your moral compass is made up of your beliefs, so it may be helpful to actively review them throughout your life. You can do this by asking questions like:

  • What do I believe in?
  • What values are important to me in others?
  • What is happening in the world around me that I agree with/disagree with?
  • Where do I stand on popular topics of debate?

Expanding your horizons

Another way to define your moral compass, says Carleton, is by learning about the societies around you.

“Thinking about how different cultures approach morality can help you uncover your own beliefs,” he says. “Additionally, reading books or articles on ethics can help broaden your understanding of morality and assist in formulating your own moral code.”

Engage with others

It’s OK to be unclear where you stand with certain topics. Morality is rarely straightforward, and there may be many perspectives to consider.

To help gain those views, you may find it helpful to speak with friends, family, or coworkers who can engage in open, calm discussions about their moral positions.

Your moral compass is your personal guide to what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s something that starts to develop in childhood and can change throughout the course of your life.

Self-reflection, learning about other global perspectives, and talking about values with friends and family can all help you find your moral compass.