Last month, I talked about using empathy instincts to determine the most moral path on the fly, relying on millennia of human evolutionary survival advantage to quickly guess what will probably be your best moral bet. Today I promised to talk about more difficult cases, when instinctive compassion isn’t necessarily the most compassionate path.

I’ll talk another time about the relationship between morality and our other animal instincts, as well as about the semi-instinctual, semi-conscious conglomeration of impulses most call the “conscience”. Another “inner voice”—which some call the conscience, some the Holy Spirit, and some perhaps the Force (or higher self, or whatever)—may also get its own post. For today, however, I’m going to talk about principles and reason.

When using reason to make decisions, the most important thing you need is good data. Reason is a wonderful, irreplaceable skill, the single best decision-making tool humans have available to us, but bad inputs make for bad outputs. You can’t get to a solid, reasoned answer without gathering good data. For this reason, I cannot recommend using principles or rules to determine morality.

There is, in fact, no principle or rule that can’t lead you to committing immoral acts. They will all eventually fail you. Even compassion can lead you down ultimately cruel paths by making you unwilling to stand up for yourself, thereby encouraging immoral behaviors in others (as only one example). Other principles are far less reliable than compassion. Courage can lead you to stand up AGAINST truth and decency. Loyalty or obedience to the wrong person can lead to all manner of evil. Humility can get in the way of protecting others. Honesty to the wrong person can get good people hurt. The list goes on and on and on. There are NO reliable rules.

In other words, there’s no shortcut to knowing what’s right.

If you have to choose quickly—and sometimes you do—default to whatever your empathy tells you. But if you have time to decide properly, you have to do the work of gathering the relevant data and making a real decision. Principles will lead you astray.

So rules are out the window, and we’re choosing the moral path based on data. Of course, most of us don’t have the resources to gather ALL the necessary data for a rational moral decision—about much of anything. If reason won’t work without good data, and our data is more or less doomed to be incomplete, and if principles can’t fill in the gaps where data is lacking, what do we do?

Well, we accept that we’ll make mistakes for one, and things like the conscience and the higher self might play into the process too, as I’ll lay out later. However, while rules may be bad, I do find that certain principle-like _guidelines_ (pirate’s code style) are very useful.

Compassion is your best bet as the core, leading guideline.

For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.

Something like that.

To temper and strengthen your compassion, give it the “edge” it needs for tackling those fussy edge cases, I recommend setting your second-strongest guiding value to “acceptance”. By acceptance, what I mean is: choosing not to try to control. It’s human nature to crave personal liberty (more on this another time, but this may be more or less universal to living creatures), so accepting other people’s autonomy and liberty is actually a vital component of compassion. Things that may seem compassionate on the surface may not be, if they do not also accept others’ personal choices.

Accepting others’ personal liberty is often terrifying, however. People can be foolish, cruel, incomprehensible, and all manner of other things that might be dangerous to us. That’s why acceptance probably won’t function well as a value unless paired with courage.

Alone, any one of these values might lead you to do harm, but when working together in concert, with compassion as the core or overriding value, these three combine to form an excellent supplemental moral compass, to help your reasoning mind to compensate for bad or incomplete data.

That said, though, even this excellent moral compass is never going to be good enough to get you off the hook from thinking through each situation on a case-by-case basis and taking responsibility for whatever choice you make. These are guidelines. Rules will only cause you trouble, and you’re still responsible for harm you cause by following rules when the rules are wrong.

But wait, what about self-defense? Compassion, acceptance, and courage sounds like a great way to get yourself killed!

I hear that, but no, not really. The key is, full compassion requires that you also offer compassion to yourself. If you don’t, you’re not doing it right. Love thy neighbor, AS THYSELF. That doesn’t mean, “Love your neighbor too, you selfish bastard.” It means, “Love your neighbor and yourself, the same way.” You have to do both. You also need to have compassion for those who rely on you and need you to be healthy and strong for their sake (which is just another reason why loving yourself IS loving others).

With self-compassion in the mix, it’s easy to see how self-defense is a moral good, and sometimes it’s actually more compassionate to all involved for you to place your own needs over those of others, especially if you can do so in a way that is courageously accepting of others’ autonomy and liberty.

But … you keep quoting Jesus. Is this a Christian thing?

No. I see Jesus as an excellent moral philosopher and a human being, not a supernatural entity. I value him alongside Socrates as one of my two favorite moral philosophers, and that will tell you a lot about my ethical process right there:

Love One Another, and Question Everything.

Between the two, you … will still be human and flawed, but you’ll tend to be ahead of the moral game, at any rate.