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Is US a nation of liars? Casey Anthony isn't the only one.

Recent court cases – from Casey Anthony to Roger Clemens to Atlanta school teachers – may point to a prevalence of lying and cheating in US culture. Has America's moral compass gone haywire?

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Ethicists say there is, in some cases, moral justification for not quite living up to George Washington's "I cannot tell a lie" maxim. But the recent spate of lying scandals nevertheless hints at a deeper problem, some say: that serious lies and outright cheating have gotten so pervasive – or at least so well publicized – that they no longer register for many as a moral failing. Yet the justice system, the political system, and even democracy itself can't function if they're built on a foundation of fibs, insist legal experts, ethicists, and others.

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"This culture of accepted cheating and lying tends to empower the people at the top and ... amplifies the inequality in our society, all of which has negative ramifications," says David Callahan, author of "The Cheating Culture." "It sort of moves us more toward Russia or Brazil with oligarchs who can do whatever they want. We're not that bad, but we could be headed in that direction."

Detailed statistics on lying are hard to come by, frankly because its very nature is to deceive and go unnoticed. But concerns have been rising for at least two decades about the moral fraying that leads Americans of all stripes to forgo the truth when faced with tough questions, especially from institutions like the courts or the media.

Still, one study seems to affirm that Americans, on the whole, try their best to tell the truth. A 2009 report in the Human Communication Research journal found that 5 percent of people told 50 percent of lies, causing the authors to conclude that "most reported lies are told by a few prolific liars."

Yet America's moral compass may be wavering, some say. The Josephson Institute of Ethics's biannual survey of teens has found one key paradox: While 92 percent of students believe their parents want them to do the right thing, more than 8 in 10 confessed they had lied to a parent about something significant.

Moreover, 76 percent of Americans say the country's moral values regarding cheating and lying are getting worse, according to a 2010 Gallup poll.

"Mounting evidence suggests that the broad public commitment to telling the truth under oath has been breaking down ... a trend that has been accelerating in recent years," writes novelist and journalist James Stewart in his new book, "Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America." "Perjury," Mr. Stewart continues, "is committed all too often at the highest levels of business, media, politics, sports, culture – even the legal profession itself – by people celebrated for their achievements, followed avidly by the media, and held up as role models."

Those scandals "at the highest levels" are reflected all too often in the broader culture. A recent insurance industry study showed that 8 percent of registered farm vehicles, which get a 20 percent break on insurance premiums, are Porsche Carreras and other high-end cars parked in suburban garages.

Watching others get ahead by telling lies, ethicists argue, provides some people with moral justification for following suit.


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