Freedom of choices

Right vs. wrong: determining if good behavior is still its own reward

Updating the Golden Rule personally, professionally

 

Hartford Courant - Hartford, Conn.    Author: SUSAN CAMPBELL   Date: Feb 8, 1993     Start Page: b.1     Section: CT. LIVING

 

[William McKinney is dean of Hartford Seminary. His first name and title were omitted in a story on Page B1 Monday.]

Clinton didn't inhale, so he's still going to heaven.

Zoe Baird hired illegal aliens and didn't pay taxes, so she might not. And a man on the highest court in the land may have sexually harassed a female in his office and gotten away with it. Just where his soul is heading is up for grabs.

Technically and otherwise, all may have been naughty -- as were Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy and others at different points of their public lives.

Like a bad dog chasing a car, there has always been a pundit running alongside societies to yap and moan that this generation -- yes, yours -- is going down the tubes. Crime is up. So are teenage pregnancies. You can't walk the streets at night. Your 8-year-old, you fear, can buy drugs at school.

So ... are we going to the dogs? Are we tempted to ask, as did Richard Nolan, Episcopal canon at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, in a late '91 sermon: "What is this world coming to?"

That depends on who you ask. Some say we're bereft of values and awash in evil. Others say we're in an exciting time of moral choices. Sure, we may make some bad ones -- isn't the freedom wonderful? Why the confusion?

Blame the '60s. Everyone else does.

"In the late '60s and '70s, rebellion against imposed moral codes occurred, but the revolution wasn't replaced with anything," said Michele Toomey, who runs the Women's Workshop out of Bloomfield.

"So we're left with what we rejected, but not with what we embrace. It leaves a great vacuum."

Nolan agrees.

"A lot of people have been terribly frightened by so many choices," he said. "Now that we're out of those 2 1/2 decades of excess, we're searching." As part of that search, representatives from 30 youth and education groups -- such as the Girl Scouts and the National Education Association -- met last summer in Colorado to discuss ethics. At the end of their 3 1/2 -day summit, participants agreed to take "individual and collaborative action to promote the development of a more involved, caring citizenry."

The group came up with six values -- respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, justice and fairness, and civic virtue and citizenship -- that, said its report, "transcend cultural, religious and socioeconomic differences."

"If you go back to Buddha or Christ or Muhammad, these are core ethical values," said Ralph Wexler, executive vice president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a California nonprofit organization that sponsored the summit. "Nobody's going to disagree with that -- at least in principle." But arguing ethics in principle is easy. It's the application that hurts. In part as a reaction to bad public relations, representatives from some fields of endeavor -- such as law -- have created committees to encourage professional ethics.

"Most situations are not black and white," said Christine Whitehead, a partner in the law firm of Louden, Forzani and Whitehead in Hartford, and a member of the statewide grievance committee. "Most situations are not black and white, but the attorneys grapple with them.

"There are more and more rules to compel you to be ethical. And now ethics is part of the bar exam."

And that speaks volumes, because ethics, as they say in Washington, is almost entirely perception.

"You can ask a roomful of people, `Who's ethical?' and everyone will raise their hand," Wexler said.

"I think lawyers really were getting a very bad image, much of which was deserved," Whitehead said. "The image was sleazy, that they'd do anything for a buck, and I think a lot of the rules came into being to police our own for fear that someone else would police us if we didn't do it."

On the other hand, in law as well as everything else, competition in an economic recession can make getting ahead a priority over being kind or following the Golden Rule.

Victoria Triano is a senior probation officer working out of Hartford. She has been in the business 13 years.

"In the last few years, I've seen a real resurgence of traditional ethics, going back to things that were important to us as children," she said. "Maybe through the '80s, we saw a corrosion of ethical standards, the anything-to-get-by attitude. I see people wanting to go back, returning to church, returning to a stronger ethical view."

But what is a strong ethical view? "There are those who would like to get back to the way it was ‘in my day,’ " Nolan said. "It was secure, and, like it or not, many conformed out of a sense of duty or fear. I would hate to go back to `in my day.'

"I'm 55. When I was being raised, everything was clear-cut, all the rules were there. And then suddenly, we began to realize that many of those rules harmed an awful lot of people. I think a lot of churches and other religious groups provided a lot of people with terrific security, but also closed minds."

On the other hand, Hartford private investigator Rudy D'Angelo misses those days.

"There's no doubt in my mind that the inner fiber of people has changed drastically in the 24 years I've been in the business," D'Angelo said. "And there are many factors for that, none of which I'm going to put onto poverty. That's just a crutch. I'd say it's our materialistic and permissive society, the freedom that we enjoy and suffer from. And the breakdown of the family takes precedence over the freedom.

"I remember when I was a kid growing up, there was something called shame. If you did something that reflected on your family, your next-door neighbor slapped you and then your father would slap you twice -- once for what you did wrong, and once for the shame of having your neighbor bring you home. Today, the neighbor would get sued."

In fact, some scholars argue that the court systems have replaced churches as the arbiter of ethical behavior, McKinney said.

Said Toomey: "We've gotten more and more into separation of church and state. Humanism is looked on as a religion, and when you try to have values and ethical standards in schools, they fight it. Personally, I think it's wrong to think that values belong only in religion. Ethics and integrity should not be the sole jurisdiction of religion."

Especially since religion has slipped on the scale of what influences us, McKinney said.

"When you disestablish religion -- what we've really done in the last 30 years -- you undercut one of the sources of ethical authority in the culture," he said.

A January Princeton University survey of religion breaks down respondents' ethical influences this way: 43 percent rely on their personal experience when making moral judgments; 31 percent on scripture; 16 percent on their parents, 7 percent on science, 6 percent on the media and 3 percent on religious leaders.

Wexler said that that leaves families and youth organizations -- such as schools, which have been reluctant to pass on lessons in morality -- to teach children right from wrong.

But the greatest influence has to come from the home -- a concept parents may give lip service to, but don't always understand, he said.

"There's a story we tell: This father comes home from work and his child is on the floor with a lot of colored pencils, working on a homework assignment," Wexler said. "And the child tells the father, `I took the pencils from school. I took them out of a locker.'

"And the father yells, `I can't believe you haven't learned anything I taught you. If you needed pencils, you should have asked me. I would have taken them from the office. And tomorrow, I'm going to have to call in sick so I can talk to your principal about this.' "

Regardless of who holds the last word on ethics, there will always be arguments over who's naughty and who's nice.

"Whether it be in churches or in society, you've got two types of dynamics," Nolan said. "You've got those who want to perpetuate what's in place because it's working for them, it makes sense to them. Then you have what we could call the inquirers -- who probe to see if additional moral parameters might be appropriate. If either of those sides takes over, we're in trouble. The creative tension between people disposed in either direction is basically healthy."

Some ethicists say, as did your second-grade teacher, that good behavior is its own reward.

"I think if we think about what makes us happy, perhaps it's not going to be in our best interest to be immoral," said Lynn Pasquerella, a University of Rhode Island associate professor of philosophy who writes on ethics for the Study Circles Resource Center in Pomfret.

"The pursuit of human happiness is the basis of ethics. You feel guilty if you're not moral. The majority of people still do believe in some fierce sort of divine retribution." Others agree there is hope. Despite surveys that show young people more likely to steal or lie on a job application than ever before, the very fact that such surveys exist is encouraging.

"These things take decades to work through," Nolan said. "Look at the gay issue. In the '50s, that would not have been discussed as a moral issue. Here, we have the president of the United States making a proposal that is startling to some people, but look at the progress from we-don't-talk-about-that to the president talking about it as he develops policy. I think that's amazing to have happened in a few decades.