The Age of Casting No Stones Private Ethics

Article excerpt

They come into Thomas Donaldson's classroom eager to learn about ethics - young freshmen, he says, "ready to defend their values, almost idealistically so." But, he adds, for all their convictions about ethical behavior, these students also say, "Whatever anybody else thinks of ethics is right for them."

Mr. Donaldson, who directs the ethics program at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, lauds the fact there's an underlying defense of tolerance and pluralism in the students' comments. But he's concerned that there's something crucial missing in their reasoning - an ability to make broader determinations about right and wrong.

"Without a moral center, there's a kind of profound lostness, a profound confusion that can derail both the individual and the organization," he says. Donaldson's students aren't the only ones having a hard time coming to grips with a moral center - with agreed-upon standards of right and wrong that bind a group or community together. All across the country, from the White House and the nation's news rooms to business boardrooms and local school rooms, Americans are being challenged to come to terms with standards for moral behavior. "We're in a great confusion right now, it seems to me," says George Weigel, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "The therapeutic culture has taken over the moral culture. We're much more used to the vocabulary of psychology and therapy - 'What does somebody mean by this? What was their intention?' - than we are with the objective analysis of an act, which is the heart of classic morality." "I don't mean just biblical morality," he adds, "but also the moral theory we inherited from ancient Greece. Aristotle was interested in 'What was the act?' All of that has been lost in a vast fog of therapeutic blah-blah." Many ethicists warn that modern Americans aren't facing anything new in terms of immoral behavior: Even the Founding Fathers, they note, had slaves and illegitimate children. Sissela Bok, who teaches at Harvard University and is the author of "Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life," says that historically there have always been "forces counterpoised against one another, of people who say values don't really matter and people who are much more concerned about doing what they think is the right thing." But late-20th-century America has found its moral center swaying under more than just those forces: From the cultural revolution of the 1960s to the marginalization of religion and the increase in individualism, the country's sense of values is increasingly a matter of personal preferences. "It's changed from the communal sense of things to, 'I can do anything I want as long as it doesn't hurt you,' " says theologian Martin Marty, director of the Pew Foundation's Public Religion Project. "Take open marriage," he says. "Somebody could say what business is it of yours what two people do if they have an agreement. Yet the more that kind of behavior is practiced in society, the more it tears at the fabric of what it takes to make a good marriage, or to make fidelity." Mr. Marty and many other observers argue that the media only compound the problem in their relentless magnification of all kinds of personal flaws and failings - from Hollywood affairs to Washington scandals - making what was once considered immoral behavior seem almost commonplace. …