`SUPPOSE you were making what you thought was the best target rifle in the world. And all of a sudden you find that 90 percent of them are going to assassins - that it's the best assassin rifle in the world.'' Ronald A. Howard, a Stanford University professor, pauses over a lunchtime bowl of soup to finish his thought.
``If I were that maker of rifles,'' he continues, ``I'd have a real ethical responsibility to check into the people who were buying them - and, if I couldn't do that, maybe not even to make them any more.''
It's with analogies like this that Professor Howard brings the sometimes abstract questions of ethics down to earth. His task: to confront the students he teaches and the corporations he advises with what he calls ``the ethical implications of decision-making in today's world.''
Those sorts of problems also form the basis for what Howard calls his ``hobby'': teaching a course at Stanford called ``The Ethical Analyst.'' He does it, he says, out of a conviction that ethics is crucial to human survival. ``If we don't have ethics,'' he says simply, ``I don't care whether we survive. I guarantee that if somebody doesn't live with an ethical code, it will come back to bite him.''
For many students, that's an unfamiliar perspective. Often, he finds, ``the initial reaction to ethics is, `One more thing to worry about! It's hard enough to make a living, and now they want me to make an ethical living!''' His aim is to push beyond that response. ``If you go into [the study of ethics] thoroughly, you find it energizing - because what most of us have done is cut off pieces of ourselves in order to live with ethical compromises.''
What does he mean by ethics? ``Ethics is what you do in the dark,'' he notes. ``It seemed to me there are two issues involved in ethics. One is the part of your ethical code you're willing to impose on others by force.'' That part of the code, he says, consists of prohibitions against killing and stealing, which are ``crimes of violence against people and property.'' On these two issues, he finds ``an amazing universality'' of agreement in nearly every culture.
Then there are other ethical issues that are not so universally or rigorously imposed. ``Whether we're willing to say, `you shouldn't worship false images' - I'm not personally willing to stone people for worshiping false images,'' he says. Into this less-enforced category he also places the issue of lying. ``In our society today,'' he notes, ``sheer lying is not against the law.
``Just think about it,'' he says, gesturing around the sunny outdoor restaurant. ``You walk up to someone here and say, `The cops are putting a ticket on your car!' They get up and run out - and then come back and say, `Nobody's at the car.' And you say, `Yeah, I know.' Suppose they say, `Call a cop: This guy lied to me!' And you admit it, and the cop comes. What does the cop charge you with? It's not a crime.
``A lot of people haven't thought about that. A lot of not-nice acts are not crimes.''
That may seem a trivial instance. But for Howard, such ``not-nice acts'' can have global consequences. One of the examples he uses in class is the United States' bombing of Libya on April 15, 1986, in response to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's sponsorship of international terrorism. On that occasion, several bombs killed innocent civilians, and the crew of one US plane was killed.
``Suppose [the US crew] hadn't been killed, but had been captured,'' says Howard, ``and now they are put on a criminal trial for the murder of a particular Libyan child. What's their defense? They can't claim it was an act of war, because there is no state of war between the US and Libya. It wasn't even a response to an attack - like hot pursuit, where they shot at us and we shot back. It wasn't self-defense. They can't say it was orders, since at the Nuremberg trial the US established a principle that even following legal orders doesn't excuse you from a moral responsibility. So what's the story?''
The point, he says, is that in seeking to punish Colonel Qaddafi for his own heinous crimes, ``we were punishing innocent people.''
But what about the fact that, in the wake of the Libyan bombing, international terrorism declined? ``I'm not saying some of these things might not be effective,'' Howard responds. ``It's a question as to whether they're right.''
``That's the problem,'' he adds. ``I never want to take an action that violates my own ethics.''
Is such thinking too idealistic for contemporary society? Howard admits that it gets ``quite a bit away from the world we live in today. I'm not saying this is the way things are; it's not. But one of my missions is to hold up that mirror to show just how far we are departing from the kinds of standards that we would want to have in our society.''
Those standards, to judge by the increasing appearance of the word ``ethics'' in newspaper headlines, are currently up for review. Does that mean that American society is more ethical than it was, or simply that the news media is now raising issues it didn't previously raise?
``It's a very good question, and it doesn't have a simple answer,'' he says. ``I think we're accepting the way things are as being the way they should be much more than we did in the past. That's what I'm concerned about. We've lost our sensitivity to what's really going on. At the same time we're gaining it in some other areas, like the environment. I want us to have it all over.''
Yet he cautions against taking the issue, or the present age, too seriously - as though ethics had never before been such an important issue. ``Whenever I get to thinking that way,'' he says, ``I go out and I look at the stars on a dark night. If our sun, a relatively minor one, winked out, those guys wouldn't even know it.
``Are we important? That's not the issue. We're important if we think we are. The only thing that can make a difference is our word, or what we stand for - not what we do in some mechanical sense. And that's threatened if you don't have ethical sensitivity.''