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Time for a hypocritical tribute to virtue … ?

The most profound social change that has taken place over the past half–century or so has been the abandonment of moral absolutes in favor of “situation ethics”—ethics that change according to the situation in which they are being applied.

In the early 1960s, for instance, John Profumo, the British defense minister, resigned his office in disgrace—not for sharing a mistress with a Soviet military attaché, but for lying to Parliament about it.

Profumo spent the next 40 years cleaning lavatories in a settlement house in the London slums to atone for that lie. His contemporaries did not consider his display of remorse as excessive. They thought it the proper response for his betrayal not just of his political colleagues, but the entire British people.

Scarcely 30 years later an American president lied to the American people about a sexual escapade even more squalid than Profumo’s. On this occasion, however, the opinion makers in the mainstream media and his party colleagues declared his lie to be quite understandable—a mere peccadillo of no great importance.

No act of self-abasement or atonement followed and, while he was impeached by the House of Representatives, he was exonerated in the Senate. Unabashed, he went on to complete his presidential term and is today hailed in many quarters as one of the nation’s elder statesmen.

The new shamelessness should, I suppose, have taken nobody by surprise. By the mid–1980s it had become quite clear that where “situation ethics” pertain, it means there are no ethics in effect at all.

I learned from personal experience when, in the mid–80s, I was asked to teach a new course in “journalistic ethics” at the journalism school of a well–known New York college.

A hoary old joke with antecedents stretching back to the early years of the 20th Century asserted that the three primary qualifications for a career in journalism were “shorthand, typing, and a sort of low animal cunning.”

With this in mind, I assumed the dean was gently pulling my leg when he asked me to take on the ethics class. But he was very much in earnest. “Why,” I asked, “should a journalist’s ethics be any different from any other person’s ethics?”

“This new breed of youngsters just don’t seem to understand that there are certain ethical boundaries that apply when working as a journalist,” he replied.

Truth to tell, I learned far more from the course than my students. They were, in the main, reasonably well–educated youngsters from comfortable suburban homes. But it soon became painfully clear that few of them believed there were any such things as moral absolutes.

Even in those days, an appeal to Judeo–Christian values was viewed, academically speaking, as a mortal sin. Thus the ethics of journalism were swiftly reduced to “if you do so and so, you’ll get fired.”

Most media corporations are commercial enterprises that depend on making a profit, or, at the least, not making unsustainable losses. To do so, they need to keep their readers, listeners, and viewers, if not happy, at least not wholly dissatisfied.

Once upon a time, journalists subscribed to the idea that mainstream news organizations had an ethical obligation to maintain “a wall of separation” between the news pages and the editorial sections. It also made commercial sense, because people tend to object to being propagandized even in causes with which they agree. But for my students, “freedom of the press” no longer meant a shared corporate responsibility but rather a license for individual indulgence. Editorializing in the news pages became the rule, not the exception.

Now, almost 30 years hence, the consequences of their unwillingness to face the ethical facts of commercial life are readily apparent in the catastrophic loss of readers experienced by so many of our newspapers, and a scarcely less catastrophic loss of viewers by the three big television networks.

But journalists and aspiring journalists by no means have a monopoly on the absence of ethics. The decline and fall of American ethics is apparent in all walks of life from the academic through the political to the commercial.

The baleful effects of our ethical decline and fall could be seen in the financial shenanigans that brought about the current recession. A deficiency of ethics marked the activities of the bankers who granted the mortgages to people who they knew were incapable of repaying them; the “bundlers” who sold them as investments; and the politicians whose reckless policies enabled them to do so.

It was similarly apparent when the preferential shareholders and bondholders were sacrificed on the altar of political expediency in the General Motors and Chrysler bailouts. And the short term gain for the working man has come at the expense of a huge disincentive for private investment in U.S. car makers.

This is not to heap blame on one particular political party. There is plenty of it to be shared. Nobody has ever accused the political class of being overly attached to ethics. Indeed, Mark Twain claimed Congress was America’s only natural criminal class.

Yet in earlier ages, the morally bankrupt at least genuflected to ethics—if only because a failure to do so invited shunning by “decent society.” As Oscar Wilde put it: “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.”

Hypocrisy might be despicable, but it is preferable to shamelessness. And measured against the chicanery that brought about the current recession, and the ethical bankruptcy evident in the presidential campaign, a hypocritical tribute to virtue would make a refreshing change. It would offer some hope that society might actually be reevaluating its priorities. GPH✠

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