How are your morals?

"A few times when I have stayed at a hotel, I have swapped its blow-dryer with mine," writes Lynne Topkis. Her husband calls it stealing, she goes on, but she thinks as long as the dryer is of equal quality, there's no harm. "What do you think?"

Ms. Topkis is addressing The Ethicist at The New York Times Magazine. Randy Cohen's weekly column, full of Dear Abby dilemmas with an ethical tilt, is as much a comment on the gray seepage into the traditional bedrock of right and wrong as the questions themselves.

His answer, gently humorous, erases the gray: It's stealing.

This slow slippage in the once-revered moral ideals of the 19th century is part of what Alan Wolfe calls the new "moral freedom." And it may not be all bad, he suggests.

The Boston College sociologist and author of "Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice," says it's not about "doing whatever one wants," but "the right to work out one's own moral choices, and be responsible for the consequences" (see interview with Wolfe, page 13).

But does choice simply offer a moral escape hatch when things get sticky - a convenient off switch in a difficult situation? And what is the cost of being "unmoored from traditional standards of morality," as Wolfe puts it?

Most Western theorists have argued that moral restraint is what, in fact, allows us freedom in all other aspects of life.

License, for all its apparent appeal, doesn't hold all the cards. Being virtuous is not just a dull Victorian ideal - salutary for the soul, but rather tedious. It is, and has, a positive force and reward of its own.

E-mail Ideas@csps.com.

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