IN many ways the ethical problems now being uncovered in Washington reflect the standard of ethics practiced throughout the United States, ethicists say. Across the US, as in the nation's government, there is ``less real abuse, real corruption,'' says Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Foundation for the Advancement of Ethics. But beyond the issues of crime and corruption, ``there also is less real adherence to ethics,'' he says.
At the same time, ethicists say, seeds were sewn during the decade of the 1960s - such as a lack of effort to achieve self-discipline - that pose potential threats for America's future adherence to ethics. These factors require at least society's awareness and perhaps its action, they add.
Future problems are not inevitable. ``I don't see the country as being on some kind of moral slippery slope,'' says Edwin Delattre, Bradley Fellow in Applied Ethics at the American Enterprise Institute. ``I don't think that we are in the middle of or on the brink of a dark age'' of morality, he says.
Yet clear problems exist in today's standards of social ethics, when compared with those of the past. ``Are the worst levels - extortion, ruthlessness - worse than we have been accustomed to in the past?'' Mr. Delattre asks rhetorically. ``It seems to me the answer is yes.''
Perhaps the most shocking example is ``violence for the pleasure of it,'' as noted in various reports of urban brutality, sometimes associated with drugs, he says.
Delattre sees another current problem: the idea that anyone with problems that involve ethics or morality ``is in need of counseling. That's a very dangerous view in terms of morality and liberty.
``If you reduce wrongdoing to a therapeutic matter, you also eliminate all the conditions under which you could offer moral praise,'' Delattre adds. ``You have forsaken the notion of right and wrong, of good and evil.''
During the 1960s there was a general ``failure to emphasize self-discipline, study, and self-control'' to the impressionable young, Delattre says.
Consequently many of the young people of that decade, now approaching middle age, ``didn't learn very much about how to come to grips with a full view of moral issues,'' which affects their approach to ethics at work. And, says Delattre, there is ``a related indifference to decency in private life.''
Another problem exists with the young people of the '60s, Mr. Josephson says. As young people, they questioned and discarded many traditional values about religion, politics, business, and sex. When they became parents they failed to impart a system of values to their children, many of whom are now moving through college and entering the work force. ``They threw out all idea of grounding their children about the values of honesty, fairness, respect for others,'' he says.
Josephson has an deep concern: what will be the eventual ethical values of the children of the '60s generation, now entering the work force? He calls this new generation ``the least morally grounded of any'' he has encountered (previously he was a law professor for 20 years). ``We have not yet experienced the [ethical] jolt that we're going to experience'' in America when these young people, now entering the work force, rise to high positions, he adds.
Many in this generation feel ``that they have a right to win, and deserve to have things,'' Josephson says. They define winning in terms of obtaining ``power and money. It is a group more willing to compromise higher values,'' like ethics, than preceding generations. ``The ease with which they can make excuses and rationalizations for conduct which is indefensible ... is quite alarming.''
Delattre, a former president of St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., thinks that is going a little far. ``I don't see the ostensible concern of students for jobs and job income in the '80s as oblivious to moral questions,'' he says. ``The students that I meet and work with'' include some with high ethical standards as well as some without them.
Yet many of them require an ethical foundation, Josephson insists. Society still needs to inculcate in them a commitment ``to fair play and ethical values. They're only committed to winning.''
``The good news is that it's not too late,'' Josephson adds. ``People do not form their operational values until 20 to 30. Up until then their values are theoretical.''
Initial employers and graduate schools ``are in the most important position'' to change values, he adds. (Stanford University professor talks about teaching ethics, Page 14.)
That's easier to say than do, says Elliott Millstein, dean of the Washington School of Law at the American University. ``We can teach the body of law. We can role-model what a model citizen might look like.'' And students who take clinical programs - actually providing citizens with legal assistance under a professor's guidance - may find themselves confronting ethical issues.
``But I don't know that any school has solved the problem of how to teach legal ethics as a course,'' Dean Millstein adds. The principal reason: Students ``don't really believe that the kinds of ethical issues discussed in the course are real. But lawyers know that they are.''
Mr. Millstein worries that change in the structure of the legal world is increasing the pressure on lawyers to be less ethical. Law firms have evolved from yesteryear's one-man company into huge corporations that may have hundreds of lawyers and scores of support personnel, from filing clerks to copy-machine operators.
``This creates pressure for huge amounts of money to feed the machine,'' Millstein says. ``The overhead is so tremendous that the necessity of keeping that fed ... produces an environment where ethical compromise certainly is possible. I guess there's a pressure to do things that make a lot of money, which sometimes can involve neglecting to notice a conflict of interest, for example.''
Individual lawyers may be every bit as ethical as in the past, Millstein says. Yet he worries because ``things that are the responsibility of a group don't tend to get done. But things that are the responsibility of one person do. I don't have any data, or any evidence. I just have some suspicions.''
Beyond graduate school, a young person's first employer needs to send a clear message through hiring and personnel policies about the importance of honesty and integrity, Josephson says. He says the young people will respond, ``because they are very malleable.'' Business is beginning to recognize the problem, he says. Some firms ``are talking about, and beginning to develop ethics programs'' for employees.
In their own self-interest they ought to, Josephson adds. ``Almost every business is sitting on its own potential scandal,'' as young employees without a clear system of ethical values begin to rise in the corporation.