Questions of ethics

VARIOUS levels of American society are wrestling with profound ethical questions. In Boston, officials are struggling over whether a homosexual couple should be allowed to bring up two little boys as foster children.

The State of Massachusetts at first approved the placement of the children, one three years old, the other not quite two, but then took the children back after a flurry of press attention.

How this particular case will turn out, we do not know. But it raises deep and vexing questions. The Massachusetts experience has drawn attention to the fact that in few states are there regulations barring declared homosexuals from becoming foster parents.

Now the question is, should there be? Are homosexual couples less fit than heterosexual couples to bring up children? Is it unfair to discriminate against them on account of their sexual proclivities? What kind of moral education would a child get in a homosexual household, particularly in shaping the child's own attitude toward homosexuality?

Threaded through all this debate is a much larger question: Is the apparent movement toward American acceptance of homosexuality in the past few years now to be succeeded by actual approval?

In two other areas, sports and business, there is also wrenching self-examination.

Baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth is cracking down on drug use. He wants baseball freed from cocaine and is demanding individual drug tests. Major- league players, under terms of their union contract, do not have to undergo compulsory testing, but Mr. Ueberroth hopes they will submit voluntarily.

The attempt to clean up baseball comes close on the heels of scandal in college basketball. Again, drugs were the culprit, along with high-stake gambling. Some college educators have vowed to toss out corrupted sports programs and get back to ethics and academics. Their decision is a courageous one.

Then there is business. A string of companies doing business with the Pentagon has been suspended from military work for fiddling with costs or padding them. Secretary Caspar Weinberger says the Pentagon itself is catching some of the culprits. A lot of congressmen do not seem impressed and are themselves building in cost controls on military spending.

E. F. Hutton has pleaded guilty to wire and mail fraud, involving a number of banks. The Justice Department says all this indicates it is getting tough with white-collar crime. Critics say the man who robs a bank with a computer instead of a gun simply doesn't go to jail.

The role of ethics in foreign policy is also the subject of discussion. The Central Intelligence Agency has been probed: Did it set up anti-terrorist hit squads staffed by Lebanese, and did these Lebanese engage in an operation against a targeted terrorist which resulted in considerable loss of life?

Should the United States target terrorist leaders outside its borders? Should force ever be used against them? What proof of pending terrorist operations should the United States have in hand before initiating such action? Should the United States use foreign nationals to attack known terrorists, or should only Americans be used in such operations?

Some of these questions are worrisome and conscience-troubling, but in a world with a large quota at large of murderous and irrational terrorists, they must necessarily be confronted.

By his very action -- the stealthy and anonymous attack -- the terrorist has declared the barrenness of his cause, the lack of any substantial base of support. Must the victim, or intended victim, submit to this murder by a maddened minority? If not, how should a government respond whose people and policies are governed by considerations of morality and justice?

These are tough questions. We should be glad they are being aired. Our society will be better for having wrestled with them.

John Hughes was assistant US secretary of state for public affairs from 1982 to 1984.

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