As cheaters, liars and child molesters emerge among esteemed business executives, valued accountants and honored priests, the moral fabric of society looks to be in danger of unraveling like a cheap sweater. But, as the wry philosopher might say, the opposite may also be true. We are at last seriously looking at ways to revive moral principle.
Teachers, businessmen, religious leaders, politicians, policemen, and especially parents and children are talking about ethics again, and they don't sound like nerds. It's no longer hard to be hard on those who've done wrong. Schools are teaching courses in character development. Corporations are providing training programs with old-fashioned ethical values that are more concerned with right and wrong than hiding behind legal technicalities to cheat. For every scandal there's an action and reaction, and the reaction phase is healthy.
We've heard a lot of debate about whether the University of North Carolina was right to assign incoming freshman to read an expurgated version of the Koran, with the bloody bits omitted, to get acquainted with Islam. But nobody would argue over the book that addresses personal and public moral principle assigned to incoming freshmen at West Point.
"In Search of Ethics: Conversations With Men and Women of Character," by Len Marrella, West Point '57, sounds as if it were written quickly to take advantage of the current scandals, but the author actually began research for it years ago, when he first thought that society would not survive in the 21st century if guided by the immoral behavior flaunted in the second half of the 20th century.
His book highlights several men and women with different careers and concerns reflecting on the meaning of an ethical life. The list includes a retired CEO of a major corporation, a college president, a university basketball coach, a pastor, a rabbi, an Olympic champion and a member of the House of Representatives.
All of them - as all of us - are "works in progress" and not paragons of virtue, and their discussions are meant to inspire efforts in others to achieve success by making hard choices without compromising integrity. West Point freshmen must write an essay on honor using this book as a source for defining that concept.
One of my favorite stories is about Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox icon who died this summer. When he was 40 years old and at the end of his career, Williams slipped into a batting slump, hitting considerably below .300, the benchmark that separates the good from the good enough.
At the time he was arguably the best pure hitter in the game and without question the highest-paid player in baseball, at $125,000 a year. (The average salary this year is $2.8 million.) When the Red Sox offered to renew his contract for the same salary for the following year, Williams balked. He said he didn't deserve that much and cut his own salary by 25 percent. He rebounded with a good year.
Marrella wrote his book to counteract what he calls the "numbing down," the flattening out of sensitivity to vice and virtue. Many parents and public leaders have failed to live up to standards they want children to cultivate. We've heard lots of kids who take drugs say, "What's the big deal. I see my parents doing it."
Washington, D.C., has a program to "rehabilitate" men arrested for soliciting a prostitute (caught when they solicit undercover agents). If the "john" agrees to pay $300 and attend lectures for one full day to learn about the consequences of his deed, the charges are dropped and his record remains clean.
In one class a cop asks men to raise their hands if they have wives. Many do. He asks them to consider how they put the women they love at risk for disease and unhappiness. One john, a regular churchgoer in his 40s, defends his act by comparing himself to a certain former president. "I know that I broke the law, and I'm ashamed that I broke my marriage vows," he told The Washington Post. "But this is a biological issue rather than a moral issue - men are weak that way. Look at President Clinton. We can't control ourselves like we should."
Marrella wants to show young people that professional and personal success does not require lying, cheating or stealing and that American democracy is self-cleansing: "We do have the mechanisms to change our political leaders, to adjust our economy and to commit to our values." There's no scarcity of immoral tales demonstrating the consequences of vice.
It's nice to read inspiring ones, too.