Moral compass impacts decision-making


Rochita Ghosh

Yin and yang, right and wrong, good and evil.
From the time of childhood to old age, such extremes can guide a person’s moral compass and decisions. Some even take comfort in the closed boundaries, cleanly dividing their world into black and white morality. When it comes to individual standards, however, everyone has a different perspective, and so the world is in different shades of black and white per each person’s moral code.


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As is human nature, people often fight over on what they believe should be black or white. Junior Ava Hemwall said watching people in her extended family deal with the effects of drug and alcohol use shaped her decision to abstain from illegal substances.
“I think that’s what really alters my decision-making,” Hemwall said. “I never want to end up like them or go through the things they did. I guess that’s actually influenced me in a positive way.”
[quote]I never want to end up like [my family] or go through the things they did. I guess that’s actually influenced me in a positive way. -Ava Hemwall, junior[/quote] Hemwall refers to the numerous experiences she’s had with her relatives being intoxicated, saying that is what guides her morals on using drugs and alcohol. Other teens, however, are more likely to develop a problem with such substances later in life if they have easy access to it, according to the Minnesota Prevention Resource Center. Hemwall said groups such as prevention centers and Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), while they have good intentions in mind and provide education on substance abuse, can never properly tell kids how to say no until they experience these moments for themselves.
“People are so sure on things like doing drugs and drinking, but the truth is they don’t really know until there’s an opportunity for it,” Hemwall said. “As my sister’s gotten older, she’s not around a lot, which takes that ‘opportunity’ away. There’s no longer a decision [I have] to make.”
Family can have a large impact on children’s moral compasses, according to a study published by the University of California – Berkeley. The study researched the reaction of toddlers to “good” and “bad” characters shown on screen, as well as the values that their parents had on ideals like justice and empathy. “Good” characters exhibited helping others and sharing, while “bad” characters were physically hurtful. The findings of the research showed a correlation between the toddlers’ choosing of the “good” character and the parental sensitivity to justice.
To Hemwall, the conclusions were no surprise, and she acknowledges how hard it can be for a person to change what is black and white. According to an article on, the most important — and the hardest — mindset to develop when trying to break an intergenerational cycle of substance abuse is viewing oneself as simply that; a person, not as a victim or as a survivor.
When a person breaks free from these labels and realizes individuality, the personality starts to form, and with it comes “the basis for knowledge, decision and action,” according to a paper by Ashok Natarajan, a research fellow at a social science institute in India. Sophomore Jace Brinkerhoff, whose parents prohibited dating because of their Judaism beliefs, broke away from what his parents expected of him and chose to secretly date regardless, as he felt ready to break out of their expectations. This did not come without risks and potential consequences, however.
“In Indiana, I tried to sneak this one girl over through the backdoor,” Brinkerhoff said. “We were on the couch together and [we were] watching TV. All of a sudden, my dad starts to come down the stairs, then we split up and went to opposite ends of the couch in just enough time to get away with it.”
Brinkerhoff tries to follow his grandfather’s footsteps in terms of living and decision-making, fondly remembering an old saying he said frequently: “You can’t shoot without checking your socks,” which Brinkerhoff describes as analyzing your actions before actually doing them.
“I really live by this quote. One day I hope to get this tattooed somewhere on my body,” Brinkerhoff said. “My grandpa was a confusing man, but when he said this to me, it really stuck with me and made me think about my morals and the decisions that I make and will ever make.”
While Brinkerhoff’s grandfather was supportive of him, a family member’s disapproval or negative actions last with a child for years, influencing the way he or she acts. According to a famous psychology experiment done by Harry Harlow, a renowned psychologist, people naturally seek comfort from their parents, and if deprived of that, will seek it elsewhere. Where this elsewhere is, however, has the potential to be damaging for the child. Hemwall finds her comfort in her friends and in school activities instead of turning to drugs like her family members have.
“I focus a lot on school and extracurriculars that I think will benefit me later in life and set me up for a good future,” Hemwall said. “I don’t have a lot of focus on family since they’re pretty [messed] up all across the board. It’s hard to have family for me as a value when they play a big role in your unhappiness.”
There are times when people have to surrender their monochrome lenses for another pair, however, especially in the case of the military. Physics teacher Malcolm Smith, who was in the United States Air Force, worked with thermonuclear bombs during his time. He said that while he was completely aware of the unilateral damage such bombs could cause, he simply had to follow orders.

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“Technically, in the military, the idea is that you do what you’re ordered to do,” Smith said. “That was just the job … I couldn’t do one-on-one combat scenarios, but all the marines that came back from [the Vietnam War] were still affected by it; they still have those visions and see [their victims] in their dreams.”
Smith refers to the 10 to 30 percent of veterans nationwide that suffer from a specialized type of  post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) called moral injury, when the soldier that killed has to live with the action after coming home. According to the American Psychological Association, military men who struggled with the morality of a given combat scenario had a higher risk of depression and suicide.
This is not true of all soldiers, however, or people. The shades of gray seen in such a situation vary from person to person, and what one considers to be black and white can change shades throughout one lifetime. Hemwall stresses that no one can know what to do in any event until it presents itself, and even then, the actions can change depending on whatever circumstances life provides.
“Murder equals bad, stealing equals bad, but if someone is stealing food for their starving family, then I’d be flexible in my views,” Hemwall said. “Morals are centered around what you value, and what you value can change throughout your lifetime.”