BOSTON — They come into Thomas Donaldson's classroom eager to learn about ethics - young freshmen, he says, "ready to defend their values, almost idealistically so." But, he adds, for all their convictions about ethical behavior, these students also say, "Whatever anybody else thinks of ethics is right for them."
Mr. Donaldson, who directs the ethics program at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, lauds the fact there's an underlying defense of tolerance and pluralism in the students' comments. But he's concerned that there's something crucial missing in their reasoning - an ability to make broader determinations about right and wrong.
"Without a moral center, there's a kind of profound lostness, a profound confusion that can derail both the individual and the organization," he says.
Donaldson's students aren't the only ones having a hard time coming to grips with a moral center - with agreed-upon standards of right and wrong that bind a group or community together. All across the country, from the White House and the nation's news rooms to business boardrooms and local school rooms, Americans are being challenged to come to terms with standards for moral behavior.
"We're in a great confusion right now, it seems to me," says George Weigel, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "The therapeutic culture has taken over the moral culture. We're much more used to the vocabulary of psychology and therapy - 'What does somebody mean by this? What was their intention?' - than we are with the objective analysis of an act, which is the heart of classic morality."
"I don't mean just biblical morality," he adds, "but also the moral theory we inherited from ancient Greece. Aristotle was interested in 'What was the act?' All of that has been lost in a vast fog of therapeutic blah-blah."
Many ethicists warn that modern Americans aren't facing anything new in terms of immoral behavior: Even the Founding Fathers, they note, had slaves and illegitimate children. Sissela Bok, who teaches at Harvard University and is the author of "Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life," says that historically there have always been "forces counterpoised against one another, of people who say values don't really matter and people who are much more concerned about doing what they think is the right thing."
But late-20th-century America has found its moral center swaying under more than just those forces: From the cultural revolution of the 1960s to the marginalization of religion and the increase in individualism, the country's sense of values is increasingly a matter of personal preferences.
"It's changed from the communal sense of things to, 'I can do anything I want as long as it doesn't hurt you,' " says theologian Martin Marty, director of the Pew Foundation's Public Religion Project. "Take open marriage," he says. "Somebody could say what business is it of yours what two people do if they have an agreement. Yet the more that kind of behavior is practiced in society, the more it tears at the fabric of what it takes to make a good marriage, or to make fidelity."
Mr. Marty and many other observers argue that the media only compound the problem in their relentless magnification of all kinds of personal flaws and failings - from Hollywood affairs to Washington scandals - making what was once considered immoral behavior seem almost commonplace.
Ethicists such as the Wharton School's Donaldson say that business has also contributed to a confused moral climate in which, he says, the "ethic of the marketplace ... has a tendency to overshadow some of our own personal convictions."
But he argues that despite abuses of public trust by business - such as the tobacco industry's alleged coverup of the link between smoking and health - the economic cycle of capitalism in this country is reaching a new stage. He describes it as "coming to grips with our moral center in business."
He points to the number of companies hiring ethics officers to help determine corporate standards of right and wrong (more than 500 such positions today, compared with 200 six years ago, according to a recent New York Times report).
Many skeptics argue that ethics officers have no clout when it comes to shaping policy. But Donaldson says, "Increasingly, companies will put a flag in the ground. They'll articulate something like the principle of respect for other persons, or integrity, and executives will cite these concepts when they create policies, or make a move to enter China, or leave Burma."
SCHOOLROOMS have also become part of a renewed effort to define moral values, not in religious terms, but through studying "civic" documents like the Constitution and through a renewed emphasis on classic literature such as Homer's works, which illumine the temptations and struggles individuals must overcome to develop character.
"The thing we ought to be talking about with everybody, particularly in schools, is 'What are the virtues and human excellences that are important?' " explains Kevin Ryan, director of Boston University's Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character.
"Things like a sense of justice, personal responsibility and self-discipline, the capacity to persist at a task, have been enormously ignored in recent years," he says. "We've got to tell young people that their task in life is ... to develop character, and that that's what they will be judged by."
Ethicists agree that the reestablishment of a moral center is not likely to come through politicians or at a national level. Discussion, they say, must take place in communities - in groups like families, churches, and businesses.
William Willimon, a minister and dean at Duke University in North Carolina, says he tells students that the first step is a matter of self-examination. As a society, he says, "we kind of work under the assumption, 'If it feels good, do it.' "
"Well, I tell them, that's not good enough," he says. "You've got to say, Wait a minute, let me look at you. And you look at me. Let's see how we live lives that have things like courage, conviction, and compassion built into them."
"Some people say, as long as the stock market is up, we're OK," he says. "I'm encouraging these boys and girls to say, 'Well, that may be all life has. But I bet there's a chance that I'm capable of more, and that I would like to be part of a world peopled by more worthwhile people.' "