The Josephson Institute of Los Angeles, which studies contemporary ethics and morals, recently released its “2008 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth.” According to the Institute, the “results paint a troubling picture of our future politicians and parents, cops and corporate executives, and journalists and generals.”
Troubling, but not surprising.
The Report Card was based on a survey of 29,760 high school students across the country. They were asked 62 questions about their actions and their attitudes.
The “troubling picture” Josephson referred to came from results like these:
Thirty percent of those surveyed “admitted stealing from a store within the past year.” Contrary to what you might expect, girls were not significantly less likely to steal than boys-26 percent versus 35 percent.
Whatever drove kids to steal, it wasn’t the impersonal nature of the offense-23 percent admitted to stealing from a parent or relative, and 20 percent acknowledged to stealing from a friend.
Inside the classroom, 64 percent admitted to cheating on at least one test, and 38 percent said that they had cheated two or more times during the past year.
We ought not to expect people who admit to theft and cheating to tell the truth-and the findings bear that out. Forty-two percent said that they sometimes lie to save money, and 83 percent confessed that they had lied to their parents about “something significant.”
As bad as all this sounds, the Institute says that, if anything, it understates the dishonesty of American kids. How do they know? Twenty-six percent admitted that they lied on some of their survey answers.
Yet despite all the admissions of lying, theft, and cheating, 93 percent described themselves as “satisfied with their personal ethics.” Seventy-seven percent said that, when it comes to doing right, they are better than most people they know.
As I said, troubling but not surprising. It reminds me of a newspaper editor I once met who boasted about leading the charge to remove the Ten Commandments from public school classrooms. A few minutes later, we were talking about stealing in the schools, and he was saying that this is a terrible thing. How do we stop it? Maybe we ought to put up a sign that says, “Thou shalt not steal.”
And I’m not even sure he grasped the point. Likewise, I’m not sure that people will see that the Report Card’s results are the logical consequence of what we have taught-or failed to teach-our kids about right and wrong.
Instead of being rooted in an objective moral order that exists independently of ourselves, right and wrong are subjective-they’re the product of the person’s “values.”
In that case, it makes perfect sense that people can lie, cheat, and steal and still be “satisfied” with their ethics. After all, they are not answerable to God or the community, only to themselves. The question isn’t, “How shall we live?” but, “How do I feel about it?”
Apparently, the answer is “just fine,” which we should find even more troubling than what our kids do.