The Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, Poor Richard's Almanac, and Aesop's Fables provide simple concepts about right and wrong that lubricate society by reducing friction.
Trouble is, temptations tease us into wanting more, whether we're a guy stealing television sets in soggy New Orleans, a teenager downloading music, or a governor failing to report gifts from his rich cronies.
"Ethics is very much concerned with the effects of our behavior on others," says Randy Cohen, author of The Good, the Bad & the Difference: How to Tell Right from Wrong in Everyday Situations (Doubleday, 2002).
Many ethicists believe the guidelines for figuring out the best actions are shared by most cultures, and include respect, trustworthiness, responsibility, compassion, citizenship, and fairness.
To that list Cohen would add actions that discourage human suffering, and that promote happiness, an egalitarian society, and the greatest good for the greatest number of people. A fair deal, he says, is something like the way kids divide a cookie: one cuts and the other picks.
In Ohio, politics at the highest level collided with ethics in August, when Gov. Bob Taft was convicted of four first-degree misdemeanor ethics violations for knowingly failing to disclose dozens of golf outings and other gifts valued at above $75 that he received from lobbyists and businessmen.
An avalanche of problems caused by the unethical actions of individuals, unhealthy institutions, and poorly supervised situations seem to exist at every turn. "It's almost like a shell shock of what's going to be next," says Michael Josephson, president of the Joseph and Edna Institute of Ethics. "There's a heightened interest in everybody regarding ethics,"
Name an aspect of contemporary life and an ethicist can point out transgressions - Hurricane Katrina (a lack of leadership, an inadequate evacuation plan for the underclass), sports (steroid use), religion (the Catholic church's cover up of sex abuse), the military (torture of people at Abu Ghraib prison), journalism (Jayson Blair's fabricated articles for the New York Times).
Mr. Josephson notes other eye-opening examples:
w 2002 was a banner year for business scandals according to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. WorldCom, Tyco, Halliburton, and Adelphia were among 27 huge corporations that admitted they misstated their accounts, often to the tune of billions of dollars. The previous year carried a single entry: Enron. Many of the most prominent accounting firms, including Arthur Andersen, had audited and approved the accounts.
w The sheriff's department in Florida's populous Broward County was discovered this year to have falsified crime statistics by reclassifying scores of unsolved crimes as solved, and by downgrading hundreds of other crimes, such as burglaries, to minor offenses.
w High school principals in Houston, pressured by their superintendent to comply with tough No Child Left Behind standards, reported drop-out rates so low, the district was dubbed the "Texas Miracle." But after an administrator blew the whistle on fraudulent figures, 14 of the 16 schools that earned "best" classification were demoted to "failed."
Mr. Josephson says problems will continue until citizens elect people who have higher standards. "[Supreme Court Justice Louis} Brandeis said every citizen in a democracy is a public official. ● ● How about demanding that competence be part of the credentials of leaders?"
When voting, people should consider candidates' overall skills, he adds, not whether they agree with you on one or two issues.
"I think ethics is how we treat people face to face, day after day, over time," says Al Gini, a philosophy professor at Loyola University Chicago and author of Why It's Hard to be Good, due out in November.
"Should I extend myself for others, or should I do anything that's not in my best interest?"
Facing the biggest temptations and susceptible to the arrogance of power, are people with money, power, and fame.
"It's not brain surgery. It's about the difficulty of standing outside of the shadow of self, to reach out to others, to not be self-absorbed; whether this is about business or taking $10 from your parents," Professor Gini says.
When Randy Cohen undertook an ethics column for the New York Times Magazine in 1999, he figured ethics meant how an individual acts in a moment of crisis. "If you encounter a homeless person and they ask you for money, you make a choice about how to act," he says.
Eventually, he realized what's often more important than whether you give a buck to the poor fellow is what you do to change poverty and homelessness, for example, when you get home.
Laws, he notes, such as those permitting the ownership of slaves, are not always ethical. And sometimes lying might be the most ethical action. If you worked on the Underground Railroad in the 1850s and were asked the whereabouts of an escaped slave, would you lie? How about those sticky little instances such as, "Does this make me look fat?" A sideways response ("That is your color.") is probably preferable to a bruising "yes."
"Ethics often requires you to be an anthropologist and work out what the other person's behavior means," says Mr. Cohen.
Mr. Cohen wasn't formally schooled in ethics. He wrote comedy for David Letterman and Rosie O'Donnell. "When they (the New York Times) were starting the column, the topic sounded a bit off-putting," he says. "I have an analytical mind and can write a lively sentence."
But sometimes, reasonable values bang into each other: truth versus loyalty, justice against mercy, short-term against long-term, and individual versus community good.
"People would like it if these were simple matters. It's much harder than that," he says. "You often have conflicting claims. These are often questions about which honorable people may differ."
Downloading music was a favorite use of the home computer for years but was ruled to be a copyright violation. "It turned millions of otherwise law-abiding people into criminals," says Mr. Cohen. "The music industry were brutes."
However, if you give people an easy way to download music ethically, they'll do it, he says.
"Globally, technology opens up the potential for unethical behavior in ways we've never had before," says Rushland Kidder, president of the Institute for Global Ethics and author of Moral Courage (HarperCollins, 2005). The institute publishes Ethics Newsline, a review of current ethical stories around the world (www.globalethics.org).
With just a few keystrokes, almost anybody can create havoc. The notorious Love Bug virus that flooded computers around the world in 2000 was created by a pair of 20-somethings in a Phillipines apartment.
And the proliferation of bloggers makes keeping secrets harder than ever. In the 1930s, if a U.S. company was making shoes in a Third World country and paying its 12-year-old employees pennies a day, there wasn't much a critic could do, he says. With computers, corporate and political behaviors are more transparent. Moreover, the public voice becomes more meaningful.
Mr. Kidder advocates a preemptive approach to the ethics of technology rather than reacting when problems surface. What about the technology of Global Positioning Systems that will be able to track a car anywhere, or drugs that will make us feel good all the time?
"We need to think about those things beforehand," he says, noting an exemplary approach by the Human Genome Project. It set aside 5 percent of its budget to examine its related ethical, legal, and social implications.
Concerns about declining ethics isn't new.
"People have been complaining about political corruption for more than 2,000 years.
"And how the younger generation doesn't have the values we used to have, for more than 2,000 years," says Chris MacDonald, president of the Canadian Society for the Study of Practical Ethics and operator of a well-stocked online ethics bookstore.
Whenever people's interests are at stake or someone has a choice about who gets what, ethics come into play, says Mr. MacDonald, an assistant professor of philosophy at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Several years ago, Sidney Ribeau was watching people squabble on a televised news show. He realized they weren't listening to each other.
"There were different values," says Mr. Ribeau, president of Bowling Green State University.
"It seemed that we should as a university help students early on to think critically about their values. What leads them to believe that academic dishonesty is wrong? Or about a genetic issue? How do they reach conclusions that are good for more than just the individual?"
What should a student do if her or his friend is drinking heavily? "In terms of values, do you value your friendship with your friend more than their well-being?"
Mr. Ribeau asked faculty to devise a plan that would open the conversation with students. Four years ago, a pilot program was introduced, and it reached full bloom in August when all 3,600 freshmen took part in the values-focused BGeXperience for three days before classes began.
"There are issues we're dealing with as a society that are very, very complex.
"What's missing is that reflective step where people can step back and look at their decisions," says Mr. Ribeau.
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