When good things happen to bad people

Ethicists decry a growing culture of shamelessness where notoriety often leads to more opportunity and wealth

Ethicists and cultural critics have a word for people who do bad things but don't act like it: shameless. And those who track matters of conscience say shamelessness is on the rise - increasingly more acceptable to both perpetrators and the public.

They point to examples like these:

• Disgraced journalists writing books about their misdeeds and profiting from them very soon after their mistakes.

• Executives at major corporations (think Enron) living indulgent lifestyles while knowing their money was obtained fraudulently.

• Former President Clinton first lying about then admitting to having an affair with a White House intern, but still being embraced by the public through approval ratings and a deal for his memoirs.

Actions that once might have qualified for a scarlet letter - or at least sent people into seclusion for a few decades - are today landing them on the covers of magazines and launching their careers (think handbag designer Monica Lewinsky).

The media has helped dilute the "shame on you" message, say observers, but so has a lack of bonding in workplaces and neighborhoods, which allows people to act more independently and think less about how society might react.

"Cheating in business or in politics or in education is not new. What is new is a kind of lack of outrage on the part of the larger public, and of shame on the part of individuals," says James Fowler, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University. "What seems to have emerged is a kind of culture of shamelessness."

In the past 20 years or so, a sense of shame has become less common. At the same time, cultural observers have noticed changes in the way people relate to societal rules. They point to a rising sense of individualism that has people caring less about what others think, and is fed by the public's willingness to ignore bad behavior if it makes good entertainment.

Many of society's current moral problems stem from a rise in the desire to succeed quickly and at any cost, note ethicists. Younger generations also now have less unified rules about right and wrong, says Prof. Robert Lawry, director of the Center for Professional Ethics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Hacking into a computer system, for example, is viewed by them as more of a game or a challenge to try and beat the system, rather than an ethical lapse, he says.

The way public figures deal with shame has also changed in recent decades. Richard Nixon and Gary Hart disappeared and didn't reemerge until some years after lying publicly, notes Joshua Meyrowitz, author of "No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior."

Today, the situation is different. In an information-overloaded culture - one that thrives on exposure - a shameful act is one way to stand out, says Dr. Meyrowitz, professor of media studies at the University of New Hampshire.

"People seem to use shame as a way of capturing attention," he says. "It seems that there's little people can do that really leads to their banishment from the public sphere."

That ultimately may be the case with Jayson Blair, the young New York Times reporter who plagiarized and fabricated material in his stories. He was recently on the covers of both Newsweek and New York magazines, and is working on a book, according to an interview last week in The New York Observer.

Though admitting he feels guilty, a seemingly unapologetic Mr. Blair told that publication that he wants the story he's writing to be a "cautionary tale" for others who might be self-destructing in a job.

If his book does end up in bookstores, it would join that of another young, ostracized journalist, Stephen Glass, who made up stories while writing for The New Republic five years ago and recently published a novel about it, "The Fabulist."

"That is shameless," says Professor Lawry, who is less convinced that the lack of shame is one of the major causes of society's ethical problems - saying the drive to succeed seems like a bigger factor. But he admits that shamelessness "does break down barriers and inhibitions we otherwise might have."

Ethicists want to see more discussions about these issues - something they say has been occurring more often in the past few decades, perhaps because of the conflict between what people feel is right and the actions they see around them.

What might help, says Deni Elliott, director of the Practical Ethics Center at the University of Montana, is for society - including the media - to do a better job of tackling what happens after an ethical lapse.

"We do a lousy job in this society both in public and in private, in terms of moving beyond a moral mistake," she says. "Publicizing mistakes is fine and it's important, but unfortunately, that's where the story stops.... And that's where the story that citizens need begins," she says.

For starters, people need to be better about owning up to their mistakes, rather than excusing them - which is part of why the shamelessness comes about, she says. But she notes there aren't a lot of models for what it looks like to make things right again after a misstep. Getting past it can also involve society's understanding of forgiveness, another topic that doesn't get discussed much, she says.

In the end, cases like Blair's allow people to look at how they behave and learn from it, she says, noting that it's worth thinking about why more victims of Blair's erroneous reporting didn't come forward. "The best opportunity for moral growth and development for all of us," she says, "is in the presence of a moral mistake."

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