THE state of Americans' ethics is a subject of great concern and, seemingly, growing attention. In an article published in the September/October issue of The Public Perspective, Rushworth M. Kidder, president of the Institute for Global Ethics, notes ``the dozens of ethics organizations growing up around the nation, the hundreds of executive ethics seminars presented each year, and the thousands of students now sharing in the new `character education' movement in schools.''
Discussions of ethics issues figure prominently in press coverage. Mr. Kidder cites data showing, for example, that between 1969 and 1989, the number of stories listed under ``ethics'' in the New York Times index jumped by 400 percent.
The interest in ethics issues has prompted a lot of data-gathering on the subject - in particular on whether standards are slipping in certain areas, such as cheating in schools. Some of the purported findings have been widely covered in the communications media without much attention to whether they are themselves to be trusted.
A case in point is the highly publicized ``survey'' done in 1991 and 1992 by the Josephson Institute of Ethics. The Institute's 1992 report, ``Ethical Values, Attitudes, and Behaviors in American Schools,'' concludes that national permissiveness ``has created vast `free crime zones' where lying, cheating, and even theft are allowed to flourish.'' It cites various data findings to support this view. But while the project directors posed questions to a large number of people (about 9,000), they didn't have a proper sample. Those who answered the questionnaire seem to have been brought into the study mostly as ``targets of opportunity.''
The problem comes because the report doesn't warn readers - and media coverage of it has been heavy - of the implications of not drawing a proper sample of the student population. As it is, we just don't know what to make of the various percentages the study has yielded.
The object of a proper survey is, of course, to give us a measure of precision in charting attitudes or opinions that casual observation cannot provide. The authors of the Josephson Institute study assert that it ``reveals that a disturbingly high proportion of young people regularly engage in dishonest and irresponsible behavior.''
I agree, but only because I would call it ``disturbingly high'' whether 20 percent or 40 percent or 60 percent engaged in various forms of unethical action. It's a little late in human history to present as an important finding that disturbingly high proportions of people variously err and sin. The Josephson Institute study is well-intentioned but wholly lacking in the kind of precision a systematic survey would provide.
What most people want to learn about ethics in contemporary America isn't whether there are areas where behavior is deficient -
because surely there are - but which way, overall, are we trending? It's complex and hard to answer, at best, but are we losing ground?
It does matter which way the great engines of contemporary society are pulling us. Surely we should be reluctant to subject them to radical overhaul simply because the society manifests disturbingly high levels of imperfection. Survey data make clear that a larger proportion of Americans today express concern that we're losing ground in the area of ``standards'' than did so in earlier periods for which we have survey data.
Again, we have to ask what this finding means. Are more people more concerned because there is more to be concerned about? Or is the growing concern about ethics but another facet of a larger story: that Americans have become more inclined than they used to be to look doubtingly on the broad sweep of social performance? Many of us have speculated that changes in communications media structure and content may be importantly implicated in the latter development.
Examining the survey data that are available to us, we see that in some important areas the big story is the absence of broad agreement as to what constitutes ethical behavior. But more often than not, the data indicate that there is in fact considerable agreement on the norm. If the nation seems to be in trouble, it's not because the preponderance of Americans have abandoned their attachment to older verities. And when we can find data over time on such matters as cheating in schools, we see in a number of instances that the proportion admitting to academic dishonesty, while high now, is actually declining substantially.
We say in our responses to survey questions that our own sense of right and wrong was shaped heavily by the family life in which we grew up, and that we hold the same basic values our parents did. We think our children follow us in these beliefs. But we express concern that, for young people in general, the old-time standards-setting to which we were exposed, and which we have passed on to our children, is being replaced by a new one, centered in such remote and morally vacuous institutions as popular music, TV, and movies. This concern has some foundation, I think, but is it in a larger sense valid? From the research now available to us, we just don't know.