December 21, 2017

Presidents, Olympians, congressional leaders, judges, university professors, religious leaders, media stars, military leaders, police, professional and amateur sports celebrities, business titans and a host of others now occupy the burgeoning ranks of debunked heroes. I now expect to open a newspaper or website or turn on my TV and find a daily moral disappointment staring back at me with his lawyer in the background, apology in hand.

Some simply shrug and say what do you expect; we are all flawed. Others are trying to turn the current tsunami of immorality into a political battle. But the impact of the daily corrosion of America’s moral environment is exacting a hidden toll that needs to be taken very seriously.

I teach ethics. In my more than 35 years of doing so I have never seen the profusion of moral doubt that is now besetting young people.  

My students and young people now frequently ask me what I as a professor of ethics think about the total collapse of morality involving our most visible personalities, leading ethical lights and prominent institutions. Many young people are angry, bitter, confused and deeply unsettled about the fall of their latest role model or one their parents held up as men to emulate.  And it is more then just hand-wringing about the usual flaws of Washington, Wall Street, Hollywood or Silicon Valley. A nation flooded with moral failure is creating a generation of cynics. Moral skepticism never had it so good.

American culture has very little to offer in the way of remedies for the loss of its heroes. We tell our kids not to despair because all are flawed. But as heroes transform into hypocrites month after month, day after day at a pace never seen before, ought the media do more than offer a running count?

Obviously unethical conduct has been around forever and will be into the foreseeable future. That said, it is important that the leaders of this nation and, more importantly, those leading our key institutions and professions reaffirm their commitment to the view that there are higher values worth pursuing in a just society. The fact that so many fail to live up to basic values does not mean that the values are meaningless, wrong or misplaced. They aren’t. It is rather that the organizations and professions where the epidemic of moral failure is burgeoning have put other values, often power and profits, ahead of morality.

There is no simple fix for hypocrisy. Egoism, the gross abuse of power and self-indulgence, is a very tough moral opponent in an individualistic society like America. Short-term reward is deceptively more attractive then slogging out the virtues in the name of the long haul. If we are to prepare our children to succeed, then attending to their moral development is as important as anything we can do. If our leaders are to truly lead then we have to reward those who do, not those who don’t, won’t or can’t. Are we?

This is where the media have a key role to play. I don't expect moral cheerleading but rather questions, opinion pieces and projects that try to explore the threat to our common morality that the current era of moral nihilism poses.

Reporting needs nuance. Lumping together venial and mortal sins, misdemeanors with felonies is not useful.  Even though they may both be characterized as exploitative, there is a long ethical distance between ogling a Victoria Secrets catalogue and adults stalking the mall prowling for children or forcing yourself sexually on another in a locked office.

Reporting ought be aimed at institutions not just individuals. Moral misconduct rarely takes place in a vacuum. Individuals learn what their organizations value and behave accordingly.  So where have our institutions failed?

Dismissing unethical conduct as "politics as usual," "that is just the way business is done," or "national security has no room for ethics" not only corrodes our civic life but excuses behavior that ought not be tolerated much less offered as wisdom. The media should challenge oversimplifications like these at every turn whenever they are uttered.

Pluralistic societies have no single moral guide to get them past human frailty, weakness and cowardice. But they do have the resources to do more than simply out the latest instance of moral turpitude and sigh. We need our media to pay attention not just to celebrity and hypocrisy but what academia, politics, social science and religions think we need to do to move the right values forward. Ethics needs to be at the center of what we teach, how we criticize, what we debate and how we approach our problems in our homes and in the streets. That is not just happy talk.  It is the talk that cements the foundation for happiness and the very future of our nation.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.

More News

Back to News