Is society entering a new `Age of Ethics'?

WHEN historians look back at the American campaign season in the late 1980s, how will they describe our age? American historian Barbara Tuchman has called it an ``Age of Disruption.'' British columnist Paul Johnson, on the other hand, sees it as an ``Age of Realism.''

I'd like to propose something else: ``The Age of Ethics.''

Surprised? So am I. That label would have appeared hopelessly naive a few years ago. Back then, the idea that America was about to reawaken to its moral and ethical underpinnings would have seemed pleasantly optimistic - and basically silly.

But that's no longer the case. These days, Americans are increasingly willing to see the world through the lenses of ethics and morality. Evidence? There are three kinds to examine.

First, you need only look back to the beginning of 1987 to build a substantial list of high-publicity cases involving ethical lapses: the exposure of television evangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker; the fall of presidential candidate Gary Hart; the court-martial of Marine sergeant Clayton Lonetree in the sex-for-secrets scandal at the US Moscow embassy; the revelations of official impropriety in the Iran-contra affair; the arrest and conviction of Wall Street inside-trader Ivan Boesky; the plagiarisms of Democratic presidential hopeful Joseph Biden.

But haven't there always been cases like these? Yes, indeed. But look at the way we now choose to view them. A few years ago, such moral and ethical lapses might have been shrugged off. Now they cause alarm and even outrage. Where once we might have sighed, ``Oh, well, business as usual,'' we're now more apt to hear people say, ``They shouldn't behave like that!''

Second, look at the positive side of the ledger. There's an increasing interest on American campuses in character education. There's a growing number of corporations developing codes of ethics. There's a rising public urgency about teen-age pregnancy, drugs, and broken families. And then, of course, there's the issue of AIDS.

So far, the solution to AIDS seems to be not medical but moral. Earlier this month, in fact, the US Department of Education released a booklet titled ``AIDS and the Education of our Children: A Guide for Parents and Teachers.'' Like other recently published booklets on the subject, it puts moral issues front and center. For example, in advising how best to protect children from AIDS, it lists four points. Only the fourth talks about the nature of AIDS itself. The first three are explicitly ethical: helping children develop clear standards of right and wrong, having adults set good examples, and encouraging children to resist social pressures that would lead them into early sexual activity.

Finally, there's a third kind of evidence - the anecdotal. Traveling around the country in the last few months, I've had several dozen lengthy conversations with university presidents, leading corporate chief executives, and the heads of major philanthropic foundations. In each case I've asked them to identify the major issues on the nation's agenda. Prominent on their lists: The breakdown in public and private morality.

Then are we moving into an age of ethics? If so, that's to be applauded. With the applause, however, come two caveats.

The first danger is that the cynics may still prevail - asserting that our ``scientific'' age has somehow proved that human behavior is rooted in materialism and genetic urges - and insisting that a concern for ethics is merely a throwback to an old-fashioned way of thinking.

The second danger is quite the opposite, which is that the public interest in moral behavior may be co-opted by political and sectarian fundamentalists. If they prove to be sufficiently fanatical in their self-righteous drive for morality, they could make the word ``moral'' so distasteful that most reasonable people end up disdaining it.

What's the way forward? I think it probably lies along the middle ground, where neither cynicism nor fanaticism can prevail. If this thesis is correct - if we really are entering a new age of ethics - that middle ground ought to be especially visible in the coming presidential elections. I think the candidates are going to find voters quite interested in ethical issues. And that's going to make it a campaign well worth watching.

A Monday column

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