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. …