US ethics in perspective

For generations the United States prided itself on being a nation founded upon the highest ethics. In recent years the ethical standards of many Americans have seemed to slip.

A new survey of public views on ethics, taken by the Gallup poll for the Wall Street Journal, has just come along which offers both challenge and hope. The survey warrants attention.

It reports among other things that two-thirds of Americans believe the level of ethics across the nation has declined over the past 10 years; that many Americans have taken work supplies for personal use; that tax liberties are taken more often by executives; and that in several areas young people have less strict ethical standards than their elders.

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In many instances ethical performance seems to vary with the ease of cheating.

Clearly these are cause for concern; attention should be given toward restoring a higher sense of ethics and morality in the nation.

Yet according to the survey there are good signs, too: In several areas business executives have significantly higher ethical standards than the public thinks they do, or than the public itself has. And once young adults are convinced of the importance of strict standards on specific ethical issues, such as those involving pollution, they can develop substantially stricter views than older Americans.

The survey's findings need to be kept in perspective. Pollsters admit that no matter how precisely they craft their questions, the public by its answers may only be indicating its general views.

For instance, when a person answers specific questions about business ethical practices, he may actually be merely expressing his general feeling about business; if it is negative, it may be based on widespread consumer criticism in recent years of prices and quality of merchandise.

Also, public criticism of national ethics may reflect the expectations Americans have of themselves and their nation, borne of the buoyant view that the US can and should be improved.

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