Right and wrong

HARDLY anyone mentions the political connection, but there is a growing desire among Americans for a return to the old-time values. And it is clear that those candidates who ally themselves with this point of view will be helped immensely in their coming campaigns. Indeed, reporters are finding that ``family values'' are becoming the big, vital issue for the late 1980s. People all across America in every walk of life are saying they are ``fed up'' with ``nothing being wrong anymore.'' They are saying that, no matter what the misdeed may be, the person's conduct is explained and excused by saying the person is the victim of his environment -- or sick.

More and more people -- not just evangelicals but people from all across the ideological spectrum -- are saying it is time to face up to this fact: That if crime and other socially unacceptable practices are to be curbed, there must be a return to the old values where right and wrong are the basic guidelines.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, likely to be a presidential candidate, is making new headway among many Americans who had previously been a little fearful of his candidacy, thinking him too extreme in pushing for social change. His assertion, from every podium, that children must say ``no'' to personal misbehavior simply because it is wrong is finding a wide audience.

And, most recently, Meg Greenfield, another whose views are usually regarded as on the ``liberal'' side, expressed her concern on this subject in her Newsweek column. ``We don't seem to have a word anymore for `wrong' in the moral sense,'' she writes, ``as in, for example, `theft is wrong.' ''

She goes on to say that society has developed a broad range of alternatives to ``right and wrong.'' She says these include: ``Right and stupid; right and necessarily unconstitutional; right and sick; right and only to be expected; and right and complex.'' She concludes that she has become even more persuaded that ``our real problem in this: the `still, small voice' of conscience has become far too small -- and utterly still.''

The Rev. Mr. Jackson is telling his audiences that it's high time that children be taught that taking drugs and alcohol and ``babies making babies'' are immoral acts. Here, he says, is where real deterrence must start.

When did this breakdown in guidelines for conduct begin? I saw it emerging in the mid-1950s when I was visiting a number of college campuses for a series of articles called ``Religion on the Campus.''

On every campus I would interview chaplains of several religions, all of whom preached to and counseled a large number of students. But I soon found the most influential, and certainly the most popular, among these spiritual leaders were those who called their views ``progressive'' or ``avant-garde.''

What would they say to students who were having sex without marriage, I asked. There seemed little concern about such conduct unless, as I was told, someone was ``hurt.'' When I would ask about promiscuity, the answer would invariably be: ``We would tell the person involved that it was unwise. We couldn't tell him it was wrong.''

These progressive ministers, most of them rather young, would then go on to explain this way of dealing with ``personal problems'' by emphasizing that they did not want to say anything to students that would make them feel guilty. Thus, they made their appeal to a student's wisdom in making choices, as opposed to his conscience.

Doubtless, many people have suffered from feeling guilt. And much of the ``progressive'' approach to child rearing and teaching in our schools has stressed the importance of not planting any sense of guilt.

But there is a new mood in America. It is a feeling that the pendulum must swing back and that the only way to deal with wrongdoing effectively is to label it wrong, rather than excuse the action as environmentally caused, unwise, or the like.

Let's try hard not to bring back too much guilt -- but let's not erase conscience.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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