Don't Forget Ethics When Talking About Values

September 1, 2004 | Albany Times Union |

Democratic candidates John Kerry and John Edwards clearly aspire to recapture the moral high ground from Republicans, and they have spoken about values at nearly every campaign stop.

Meanwhile, President Bush and the GOP have done everything they can to maintain the advantage on moral issues that Republicans have held since the Reagan presidency.

A focus on values is healthy for public debate. But, not surprisingly, this year's campaign talk about values has been unproductive. Democrats use the v-word as if they learned it yesterday, invoking values so often -- whether talking about healthcare or the economy or foreign policy -- that the concept has little meaning. Republicans stick to their usual script on values, depicting themselves as defenders of faith and family who understand the heartland of America.

Notably missing from these stale exchanges is attention to the mounting ethics problems in American society. The recent corporate scandals -- an ethics disaster of colossal dimensions -- are only occasionally mentioned on the campaign trail. Nor has there been much talk of rampant academic dishonesty among high school and college students, which has soared in recent years; or the major steroid scandal that has lately been engulfing the sports world; or tax evasion, which has more than doubled in the past decade; or the deplorable state of ethics in many professions, including medicine, law, and journalism.

Widespread ethical misconduct shows the troubling ways in which economic and social changes are reshaping personal values. While conservatives insist that almost all bad behavior in America is due to the radical individualism that arose during 1960s, in fact a larger share of blame for recent moral decline can be traced to the money culture of the 1980s and 1990s. The past two decades has seen rising greed, harsher competition and growing materialism -- and a concomitant decline in the emphasis on community, service and social responsibility. In a dog-eat-dog America that worships winners and is tougher on economic losers, it is no surprise that so many people will cut corners to get ahead. Lax government regulation also makes it easier to cheat.

Nowhere do such trends play out more perniciously than in business. Ever more lavish rewards for those who get to the top of the business world have created bigger temptations to cut corners. At the same time, intensified competition and a relentless focus on the bottom-line leads some in business to believe that cheating is the only way to survive. Bad ethical choices by many executives and managers are made yet more tempting by weak government regulators -- witness the utter failure of an understaffed Securities and Exchange Commission to deter corporate fraud during the boom of the 1990s. Even now, in the wake of the scandals, the SEC remains woefully ill-equipped to police corporations and financial markets.

The factors that propel ethical misconduct in business -- bigger rewards at the top, harsh competition, and sleeping watchdogs -- also help explain cheating in other areas, like sports and education. Baseball players on steroids point to the unprecedented financial rewards that now go to sluggers -- and to the lack of effective drug-testing. Students who cheat on exams speak of their fears of being left behind economically -- and about faculty too lazy to enforce honor codes.

Ironically, as Americans have become more personally responsible on social issues in recent years -- as evidenced, for example, by falling rates of violent crime and teen pregnancy -- we are acting less morally when it comes to getting ahead academically, professionally and financially.

The fall election offers a unique opportunity to create a broader and more honest debate about values. Voters are deeply worried about moral decline in America, but many are jaded by the polarizing way in which politicians talk about values. Big rewards await the candidate who takes up the issue of ethics and fuses traditional conservative concerns about personal responsibility with longstanding liberal complaints about the overreach of market forces in U.S. society.

David Callahan is a senior fellow at Demos, a public policy organization in New York City.

 

The factors that propel ethical misconduct in business -- bigger rewards at the top, harsh competition, and sleeping watchdogs -- also help explain cheating in other areas, like sports and education. Baseball players on steroids point to the unprecedented financial rewards that now go to sluggers -- and to the lack of effective drug-testing. Students who cheat on exams speak of their fears of being left behind economically -- and about faculty too lazy to enforce honor codes.