Building Values Begins With Individuals

WE live in a society of deteriorating values and practices; at least so it appears. Of course, the past often looks better than the present when viewed through the romantic filter that we often attach to our memories. Furthermore, pervasive media coverage, frequently biased toward the negative, keeps us better informed than was the case for previous generations. Still, many of us suspect that there have been few times worse than our own with respect to the values and conduct of Americans. Ethics of public officials seem to be at a low ebb. To cite the most recent example, when senators with generally good reputations for high standards seem to have been bought by the savings-and-loan industry with disastrous multibillion-dollar consequences to the taxpayer, we know we are in trouble. Many, if not most of us, can be ``bought.''

Possibly the most disturbing ill in our society is the pervasiveness of drugs. We seem not to be able to move beyond the debate between those who would advocate more strict enforcement and those who offer hope through deregulation. Even religion does not offer a safe haven. The peccadilloes and outright fraud offered up by some of the TV evangelists have uncovered the soft underbelly of hard-shell Christianity.

While it is relatively easy to name the problems, we are overwhelmed when we struggle to find and implement solutions. The fundamental fallacy is that we look to institutions - schools, churches, voluntary associations, and government - for the solution when the only secure answer lies in each of us individually. Of course our problems are societal, but society is made up of individuals and the basic questions of value and practice ultimately are individual matters. We must look to ourselves!

In particular, we, the ``practicing'' adults, must assume responsibility for our collective destiny. What I offer here is one person's opinion and not, I hasten to add, that of a professional ethicist. I truly believe that most of us know the difference between right and wrong. Our problem is less one of knowing than of acting according to our knowledge.

Is money really more important than integrity? I suppose there could be a legitimate dispute if one were starving and without housing. But assuming that an individual has the basics for existence, most of us would condemn theft and unfair and unethical business practices. However, many of us, though we don't steal, will cheat when money is involved. How many of us are totally honest as we fill out our income-tax forms?

Ideas come to us from many sources. In fact, few of them are in any sense original with us. Yet how often are we intellectually honest enough to give credit to those who have stimulated our thinking through sharing their ideas?

Handguns, far too often in our society, are instruments of death. The appalling statistics of death from handguns in America in comparison to all other developed nations are a scandal. Still, citizens and politicians alike bow to the threatening pressure of a determined, one might even say rabid, minority, the gun lobby.

Let us take a subject that is even more difficult to deal with and where, I imagine, my response will offend many of you. We ask our young not to consume alcoholic beverages and not to use controlled substances. Yet one of our prerogatives as adults is to consume alcohol without fear of censure so long as that consumption is moderate. What sort of example does this set? What it shows is that the ``adult'' activity is to drink, while we tell the young not to drink. By drinking, young people, with one gesture, can defy their elders while engaging in adult behavior. There is little hope of altering their behavior without altering our own. If we wish teenagers to quit drinking, we must stop drinking. If we expect to reform the behavior of the young, we must also reform our own behavior.

This last example illustrates the magnitude of our problems. It is only as we accept individual responsibility for the state of our society that, in fact, we can truly reform it. And seldom have we been in more need of reformation.

I am not so naive as to expect that a genuine reformation is likely. Improvement, however, is essential. We must reverse the deterioration, and typically we ask our institutions to do the job for us. Our collective well-being requires improvement in individual behavior so that far more often we will do what we know to be right. Our institutions then will serve us because we serve them.

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