We have a crisis in ethics in the United States. For example, some of our largest financial companies packaged risky sub-prime mortgages into companies issuing bonds, falsely stamped with a "triple A" rating and sold them to the innocent public and they were forging documents on an industrial scale to foreclose fraudulently on countless homeowners. A study by scholars at the University of Chicago estimated that at any given moment fraud was being committed by from 11 to 13 percent of America's major corporations. Businesses have been lobbying for repeal of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to enable them to bribe foreign government officials without violating American law. Did it occur to officials of those major American corporations that what they wished to do is wrong, never mind whether it's illegal?
A recent nationwide study conducted by Christian Smith and a distinguished group of sociologists on the ethical judgments of young Americans resulted in appalling revelations. About the only wrong the young people agreed on was that murder and rape were bad. They uniformly thought conduct was ethical as long as they "felt good about it." The interviewers asked questions about right and wrong, ethical dilemmas and the meaning of life. They recount in a new book, "Lost in Transition," you see the young people groping to say anything sensible that matters. They just don't have the categories or vocabulary to do so. When asked to describe an ethical dilemma they had faced, two-thirds either couldn't answer the question or described problems that are not ethical at all, such as whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot. "Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about ethics that we asked," Smith and his co-authors noted.
The Vermont schools cannot address and correct a national problem, but they can crate a model for schools in other states. That is the realistic objective for a course I propose herein. Though I call it a course, it really isn't one. It's more an introduction to critical thinking against an ethical framework. There would be no homework, no tests, and no defined subject matter. There would be questions, discussions, perhaps arguments. The teacher would be a convener, a questioner, and a storyteller. In most cases there would be no correct answer as different cultures have different standards and any one culture may contain different and conflicting values.
How would it work? What would happen in class? The storyteller would first tell a story, say, an outline of Homer's "Illiad," and then ask questions about the story. The princes of Greece had made an oath to bring back Helen. Did it make sense for a thousand ships to sail to Troy and fight a 10-year war to bring back a wayward wife? He might ask questions about the values in the culture at the time of the story and compare it with our values. And if there are two stories, compare the values in each with the other. Students may be asked to take different sides of an issue and each would defend his view of the issue. The idea is for the storyteller to generate discussion among the students about ethical standards. The procedure should allow students to practice supporting their position verbally and to learn about some great classical stories from Greek myths to play of Shakespeare or Aesculus, to novels such as "Huckleberry Finn" or "The Scarlet Letter."
There are living situations where students could be taken on a field trip to court to sit through a criminal trial and then discuss how they would have voted had they been on the jury. A sentencing hearing is another possibility for testing a person's judgment concerning a crime. Perhaps arrangements could be made with the governor's office to let students sit in on clemency hearings so that they could discuss later whether and to what degree they would have granted clemency.
Our storyteller is not expected to read to, or read with, our students, but he or she should know and love the stories and be able to read passages from them to help the students think about ethical issues. They may want to return to the original works later in life. In the end we might ask the students to think of stories or situations, which highlight ethical issues. Our students would not then be like the young people Christian Smith and his colleagues interviewed for his study. They would not say conduct it ethical "if it makes you feel good."
Over the course of 12 years of education, we could achieve the important objective of teaching Vermont's students how to think critically about accepted judgments. The proposed course could change the way they look at the world and open their minds to reach for different goals. If, at the end, they were asked to write their own imaginary obituary to focus their minds on what they would like to accomplish in this life, it would be a very different obituary from what it would have been without this little program.
Mark P. Schlefer has practiced law for 55 years. He received seven air medals and four Presidential Citations for his service in the Army Air Force during World War II and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1949. He was one of the three draftsmen of the original Freedom of Information Act. He lives in Putney.