Ethics in America: Where Are We Headed? Purported Findings Paint a Confusing Picture of Attitudes and `Standards'

By Everett Carll Ladd. Everett Carll Ladd is professor of political science the Roper Center . | The Christian Science Monitor, September 3, 1993 | Go to article overview

Ethics in America: Where Are We Headed? Purported Findings Paint a Confusing Picture of Attitudes and `Standards'


Everett Carll Ladd. Everett Carll Ladd is professor of political science the Roper Center ., The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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