Deciding what matters: Americans rethink their ethical values

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

America is rethinking its ethics. People ``are buying books on leadership, values, culture, and all sorts of crazy belief systems,'' says Mark Pastin, director of the Center for Ethics at Arizona State University. ``What they're saying is they don't understand what matters.''

Mr. Pastin is one of a growing breed of consultant who is paid to help people determine what matters.

``The last time . . . Anglo-American society really . . . thought about ethics was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, [when] families collapsed as we knew them . . . churches collapsed as fundamental social institutions. Regions and neighborhoods became more fluid; people organized around the factory.''

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Interest in ethics has been growing for the past decade, adds Barbara Ley Toffler, an ethics consultant and Harvard Business School professor. ``Watergate was really the trigger,'' she explains.

One of the liveliest ethics debates is heating up in the business community. ``People are searching for new standards and values,'' says J. Jennings Partin, a senior vice-president at E.F. Hutton. Recently stung by revelations of fraudulent actions by some of its employees, the firm plans to beef up ethics training and put out a formal ethics statement by the end of this year.

But the reasons for America's reinvestigation of ethics lie deeper than mere bad publicity, says Arizona State's Pastin, who has just completed a book on business ethics called ``The Hard Problems of Management.'' Rapidly changing technology and the globalization of business are pushing a range of issues to the forefront -- from personal considerations (How can a stock trader use insider information?) to technological ones (Should there be limits to the genetic engineering of people?). Other boiling issues also demand deep thinking about ethics:

South Africa.``It's almost as if the only alternatives we can think of [such as divestment] are ones that have the same outcome,'' Pastin says. ``The real question is what would make a difference.''

After thinking about its situation for a long time, one European multinational corporation decided not to abandon its 30- and 40-year employees in South Africa. Instead, the company invested in education and housing for the disadvantaged in that country and refused to pay the portion of government taxes that supported the nation's separatist policies.

Information ethics. Traditionally in US society, people who have gone astray of the legal system get a second chance. But now all kinds of information is readily available that describes a person's record. Pastin says the technological ability to retain this much information may not allow for the second chance: ``A 16-year-old who has a drug conviction is going to have a hard time as 30-year-old getting a bank loan.''

Defense contracting. Remember the $7,600 coffee maker and the $600 toilet. seat sold to the Defense Department? The problem is a lack of clear thinking about ethics, Pastin says.

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