Public Concern for Ethics Rises

As individual moral behavior sags, standards of conduct attract greater attention

FOR those watching ethics, the litany for 1989 alone is sobering: Oliver North was convicted May 4 for his role in covering up the Iran-Contra arms scandal under the Reagan administration.

Former House Speaker Jim Wright, facing charges of financial impropriety, resigned his legislative seat May 31. Five days earlier, former House Majority Whip Tony Coelho had resigned to avoid further questions about a $100,000 junk-bond purchase.

Canadian Olympian Ben Johnson, stripped of his gold medal Sept. 5 for using steroids, faces a lifetime ban from international competitions.

Television evangelist Jim Bakker was convicted Oct. 5 on 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy.

New York billionaire hotelier Leona Helmsley was sentenced Dec. 12 to four years in prison and a $7.1-million fine for tax evasion and mail fraud.

Meanwhile, scandal continues to envelop the Department of Housing and Urban Development, five senators are under investigation by the Select Committee on Ethics for their dealings with Charles H. Keating and his failed Lincoln Savings and Loan, and the captain of the Exxon Valdez, Joseph Hazelwood, goes to trial later this month in connection with the massive oil spill in Alaska allegedly resulting from his drinking.

And a poll published by the Pinnacle Group, an international public-relations firm, found that 67 percent of high-school seniors in the United States say they would inflate an expense account, 66 percent would lie to achieve a business objective, 50 percent would pad an insurance claim, and 36 percent would plagiarize to pass an exam.

So are ethical standards collapsing? Or are the lapses simply being more widely publicized as the nation demands higher standards of ethics?

Discussions with dozens of ethics professionals in a wide range of fields during the past year point to a surprising answer: ``Yes'' to both questions.

``You can make a case that things have never been better,'' says Gary Edwards, executive director of the Washington-based Ethics Resource Center. Pointing to increasing interest in such areas as environmental ethics, workplace safety, and consumer regulations, he sees ``an unarguably better world than it was in the robber-baron days.''

Yet given the huge sums of money accessible to leaders, and the ability of technology to leverage small decisions into major environmental or social disasters, he notes that ``ethics, even though it's never been better, has never been less adequate.'' He worries that, with what he sees as the decline in influence of religion, the family, and the schools, ``all of the infrastructure for the moral development of our children has been shattered.''

Ethicist and author Sissela Bok of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., agrees. ``I think there are forces moving in both directions,'' she says. She worries that ``the willingness to do something for the common good'' is declining. But she also notes that, in the decades she's been teaching and writing about ethics, ``people are much more in agreement that we need to talk about ethics - that there's nothing sissyish about it.''

That need has brought ethics, once defined as the way you act when no one is looking, squarely into the public eye. The word has been given new visibility in newspaper headlines, business and professional seminars, radio talk-shows, magazine articles, and book titles.

More than 100 institutionalized ethics programs now flourish in the United States, many newly created and many operating in such specialized areas as journalism, medicine, law, or business.

Prof. Bayard L. Catron of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., notes that membership in Ethnet, a network of individuals and groups concerned about ethics in public service, has topped 1,000. And Michael S. Josephson, president of the Joseph and Edna Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics in Marina del Rey, Calif., says he was kept busy presenting 115 programs to corporations, governmental bodies, educators, and journalists in 1989 - although his institute is only two years old.

So vigorous is this interest, in fact, that Arthur L. Caplan, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, calls it ``an ethics boomlet.'' It is characterized, he says, by new expectations concerning the private behavior of politicians, new concerns about the invasion of privacy by computer databases and the media, and new interests in the rights of animals, children, minorities, the handicapped, the elderly, and the ill.

The very popularity of ethics, however, spells certain dangers. ``Just because people say they are concerned about ethical issues doesn't mean they will behave in ethical ways,'' warns Boston University professor Edwin J. DeLattre, author of ``Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing.'' He sees three ``patterns and trends'' developing that fall under the heading of ethics: patterns of wrongdoing, patterns of moral apathy, and patterns of what he calls ``ethical fanaticism.'' In the latter group he includes right-to-lifers bombing abortion clinics and environmentalists driving spikes into trees so that sawmill blades will explode when the trees are harvested. ``There are lots of kinds of self-righteous behavior marching under the banner of ethics,'' he notes.

Why the newfound enthusiasm for ethics? ``A trend ran itself out,'' explains Stanford University professor John W. Gardner, the founder of Common Cause and author of ``On Leadership.'' Ethics, once deeply ingrained in America's religious and cultural institutions, faded as the authority of those institutions diminished. ``As a philosophy of unrestrained individualism took over, we explored the limits of living without ethics,'' he says. Now, he says, ``a lot of people are saying, `It won't work.' I think there's a movement back toward commitment to shared goals - a movement back toward community.''

Don Frye, associate director of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., agrees, pointing particularly to the greed, careerism, and ``the loose climate of morality in the Reagan administration'' that characterized the 1980s. ``It was a deregulatory effort that turned into a deregulation of morals,'' he notes.

During that very period, however, a ``tremendous countercurrent of ethics'' arose - a trend he measures by the escalating interest in his institute's programs on ethics and the media.

Then how important is ethics as a force for change? ``I think it's the most important of all the forces going on,'' says Mr. Josephson flatly. The public mood entering the 1990s, he says, includes ``a genuine feeling that things need to change'' away from the attitudes of the 1980s, which he says was ``not a decade of aspirations.''

Changes in values, in fact, appear to be driving social changes around the world. Recent revelations of high-level corruption in the government of Erich Honecker have repulsed East Germans. Voters in India knocked former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi out of office in November, in part because of a billion-dollar scandal involving Swedish arms purchases. Charges of sexual immorality contributed to the downfall of Japanese prime minister Sosuke Uno in the July 23 election. On the positive side, Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari has mounted a high-profile drive against graft.

``I don't think [the concern for ethics] is a fad,'' concludes Professor Caplan, echoing the feelings of many other ethics-watchers. ``I think it's a reflection of some sort of change in the way our society is constructed.''

``I see more healthy signs of something moving than I've seen in years,'' says Professor Gardner. Why are they healthy? Because, he observes, ``we need to make it harder to sin.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Public Concern for Ethics Rises
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today