MICHAEL JOSEPHSON is nobody's Mr. Goody-two-shoes. Nevertheless, this law professor is going after the Ivan Boeskys, Fawn Halls, and Ben Johnsons of this world. And he wants to get to them before questionable conduct gets them in hot water. In a time of moral disarray, Mr. Josephson has seen the enemy, and, at least potentially, ``he is all of us.''
But there is no temptation so alluring, he says, or pressure so intense, that a grounding in ethical decisionmaking can't help avert disastrous consequences.
``People think pairing the term `ethics' with government, business, and journalism is a contradiction in terms - like `jumbo shrimp,''' says the man who has embarked on a major personal campaign to make American public and professional conduct more ethical.
``But we all have within our character the ability to be very noble, and very good,'' Josephson says. ``And we usually have the ability to be selfish and not so noble. How we evaluate the individual situation, how we prioritize those values is a choice we have to make, but have little, if any, training in doing so.''
If, as a recent Time magazine cover story reported, ``large sections of the nation's ethical roofing have been sagging badly,'' the Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics, established in January of 1987, may supply needed girders. By conducting workshops and seminars for businessmen, journalists, fund-raisers, politicos, and lobbyists, Josephson has already done much.
``Being ethical involves more than staying out of trouble,'' he told a Senate subcommittee reevaluating the federal Ethics in Government Act. ``There is an affirmative dimension which focuses on producing good rather than forbidding bad. We cannot require it by law, but we ought to prod and inspire government employees to view their ethical obligations in broad and affirmative terms.''
The number of clients that have begun to appreciate those lines is growing. Count among them the United States Conference of Mayors, the senior staff of the US Senate, the National Association of Attorneys General, and several major metropolitan newspapers and police departments. Almost 50 senior staff aides to US senators participated in one day-and-a-half seminar. Three months later, more than 25 percent reported they had already made some decisions differently; 50 percent said they ``probably had.''
``Very few people here are knowingly breaking the law,'' says Don Hardy, administrative aide to Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming. ``But many are abusing it or taking advantage of their power, and it becomes rationalized to the point of acceptance. Sessions like this bring us back to the public's expectations of us, and cause us to rethink our actions.''
Jan Faiks, president of the Alaska Senate, told Josephson: ``Over the past year there are two events which truly changed my life, [one being] your ethics workshop for legislative leaders....''
``I want to work from the top down'' - trying to influence the most people by training those in decisionmaking roles, the ethics entrepreneur says. ``But this is also ... a movement designed to help the normal, average person.''
Such was Oliver North's assistant, Fawn Hall, before the spotlight of the Iran-contra case, he notes. ``If Hall would have said, `Mr. North, I think destroying these copies is wrong, I'm just not going to do it, he's got to recalculate this whole thing now, doesn't he?''
Josephson is raising such questions as this in one- to three-day programs all over the country. The format is participatory.
``I'm not saying there is any one answer to all these ethical questions,'' says Josephson. ``I'm not preaching from on high, I'm merely waking people up.''
He begins with a list of problems raising ethical questions or depicting ethical dilemmas. Those attending the workshops - which are tailored to the participants - answer multiple-choice questions on such things as deceptive marketing, invasion of privacy, sexual harassment, and unfair product pricing.
In his opening remarks, Josephson notes that ethics is a process, a logical code of conduct based on timeless values like honesty, integrity, fidelity, fairness, caring, and respect. He espouses a three-part process derived from the biblical ``golden rule'' and a philosophy borrowing from Emmanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. Briefly: 1.Ethical people treat others the way they want to be treated. 2.Ethical values (honesty, fidelity, and so forth) should always take precedence over nonethical ones (wealth, comfort, success). 3.It is proper to violate an ethical principle only to advance a more valid ethical principle (for example, lying to a terrorist to save an innocent life).
``It's the third of these that most professionals have trouble with,'' says Josephson, ``such as politicians who start with the assumption `I can't do all the good I want to do unless I get elected' - and so they rationalize all kinds of behavior, which, if analyzed closely, are not in accord with normal ethical conduct.''
It's the false excuses that Josephson helps identify: the news editor who prints something untoward, maintaining ``the public's right to know,'' when he's really trying to be competitive and enhance his reputation; or a person who fudges a financial report to get a promotion because he is ``doing it for his family.''
Besides uncovering some of these hidden self-deceptions, one of Josephson's main messages is that the seeming costs of being ethical are not necessarily a setback. ``I show people it's possible to be ethical and succeed. It's possible to pursue both excellence and competency.''
Participants are separated into groups of five and taken through real-life situations involving ethical dilemmas. At successive stages of each scenario, discussion ensues: ``What you do now?'' ``Why?'' ``Why not something else?'' Josephson acts as moderator. In nearly all cases, not-so-ethical conduct at the outset of a given scenario produces pressure to be unethical down the line, until disaster hits.
Josephson encourages the broadest consideration of others in decisionmaking. And loyalty. Dog loyalty, he is fond of saying, is loyalty to the master. Cat loyalty is loyalty to the house. ``If you do something wrong out of loyalty to your manager and the roof caves in, you'll go down with him,'' he says. ``But if you consider loyalty to the company first, you're taking the broader view.''
``He doesn't pull any punches,'' says Comdr. Jim Jones of the Los Angeles Police Department, whose officers went through a recent program. ``We identified values, weighed them, thought of short- and long-term consequences, and got incredible diversity of opinion. Many were quite bothered by it. But it zeroed in on something we needed to look at closely again: ethics.''
A graduate of UCLA Law School, where he gave the valedictory address for all graduate departments, Josephson has been a law professor for 20 years - at the University of Michigan, Wayne State, the University of California at Los Angeles, and Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. After a while, he was asked to teach a course on ethics.
``I realized I was teaching from my orientation as a lawyer: Here are the limits of the law, here are the ways around them,'' says Josephson. ``After a while, I thought, `This is terrible, I'm just teaching people how not to get in trouble.'''
The birth of his son brought about a new strength of conscience. His course started focusing on ethics and values and became one of the most popular.
``The transformation this was having on some of my students was extraordinary, and I could feel I was having an impact,'' he says.
He sold a multimillion-dollar bar-review business that prepared law students for state bar exams and dedicated $1 million of the proceeds to his new institute. He has also assembled a board of directors that includes Douglas Fraser, former president of the United Automobile Workers; Arthur Miller, Harvard law professor and TV personality; Marvin Kalb, head of the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government; and Richard Schubert, president of the American Red Cross.
Headquarters is a small, antique-adorned office here with seven full-time office workers besides Josephson, whose goal is to train others. Besides foundation grants and individual donations, Josephson is seeking 100,000 members by 1990, all subscribers to his quarterly, ``Ethics: Easier Said Than Done.''
``Ethics is really about caring,'' says Josephson, who once referred to himself as the Jiminy Cricket of conscience. ``And I tell my workshops one simple technique that can obviate the need for all this sophisticated analysis. ``What would you do if your little boy or girl - or mother - were looking over your shoulder?''