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Ethics awash: Is America sliding into cynicism?

''America is in the process of becoming more Europeanized. We're becoming more suspicious. We're becoming less certain. We're going back to simple things. But above all there is a climate of distrust.''

Chic cynicism? Moral Majority misgivings? Barbs to bait Europhiles? No, simply a report on some recent research by Donald L. Kanter, a Boston University professor.

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In these post-Watergate years, the subject of America's lapsed ethics is never far beneath the surface. But while tales of public corruption and private amorality abound, the common conclusion - that American morality is somehow going to the dogs - is largely inferential.

Now, however, two Boston University professors have provided statistical underpinnings. In separate polls, they test the moral fiber of Western society. Not surprisingly, their results are sobering.

First, Professor Kanter. An authority on advertising who now heads the marketing department at BU's School of Management, he recently shared his unpublished conclusions from surveys of European and American women.

His method was simple. He polled a select group of wives: city-dwellers, with children living at home, all with average incomes or higher, and all between 22 and 50 years of age. As Dr. Kanter says, they are the ''culture-bearers,'' the ones who set the values of the next generation.

They first swam into his nets in 1978 when he was asked by the advertising firm of Campbell-Ewald International to do a market survey of 2,250 women in Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, and the United Kingdom. The company wanted to know how European women responded to ads for such things as toothpaste and pet foods. Dr. Kanter wanted to know more, and persuaded Campbell-Ewald to let him append some questions about the women's perception of mankind. The answers, to his surprise, revealed a remarkable depth of cynicism. Some samples:

* ''People pretend to care more about one another than they really do.'' In Britain, 52 percent agreed - and that was the low - ranging up to 83 percent agreement in Italy.

* ''People claim to have ethical standards regarding honesty and morality, but few stick to them when money is at stake.'' The European average was 85 percent in agreement, with France, Italy, and Belgium up in the 90's.

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* ''Most people will tell a lie if they could gain by it.'' Two out of 3 British and Dutch women agreed; in Europe as a whole, the ratio was more than 4 in 5.

For Dr. Kanter, that was just the beginning. He next persuaded Diagnostic Research of Los Angeles to let him run the same questions past 750 middle-class, urban mothers in America. The percentage of agreement came out much lower: On the questions above, Americans scored 61 on the first (vs. 74 in Europe), 61 (vs. 85) on the second, and 65 (vs. 82) on the third.

Those lower numbers sound comforting - until you reflect that, even so, nearly two-thirds of the American women were in solid agreement with the statements. ''I take no comfort,'' Dr. Kanter says, ''from the fact that we're less (cynical) than the French.'' What surprises him is that America, known for its can-do optimism, is so pessimistic. ''The fact that 65 percent could bring themselves to support a statement that contradicts the church, the Boy Scouts, and institutional ethics I find astonishing,'' he says.

The really astonishing thing, however, is that the closer you look at the data -- which Dr. Kanter admits are based on small samples -- the more insights they yield. They suggest, for example, that Americans have a high tolerance for paradox. When one question proposed that ''Most people have little control over what happens to their life,'' 97 percent of the Americans concurred. Three lines later, 82 percent agreed that ''The average person is largely master of her own fate'' - apparently without noting the contradiction.

They also tell us about our relations to other countries. For instance:

* To the statement ''Most people are just out for themselves,'' 49 percent of the Americans agreed -- compared with 79 percent of the Europeans. These figures help explain some European responses to the United States. From Watergate through Bert Lance and on to Richard Allen, puritanical America has frequently plunged into flurries of corruption-hunting which have hampered daily governmental operations. That leaves many Europeans puzzled. Why, many ask, all the fuss? The difference resides in their views of mankind: It seems easier for the Europeans to shrug off corruption than for Americans to surrender their belief in man's basic decency.

* Only half the Americans polled thought that ''you can never really understand the feelings of other people.'' But three-quarters of the Europeans agreed. Americans, then, assume more readily than Europeans that feelings are comprehensible.That assumption comes into focus, for example, when Americans are criticized for claiming to understand the feelings of the parties in Northern Ireland well enough to design a solution. The wife of the European bureaucrat, it seems, is more willing to write off the Ulster situation as incomprehensible.

The other study, by a BU assistant professor of psychology, James Hassett, appeared in the November issue of -Psychology Today. It reports the results of a survey of some 24,100 readers. Again, the study needs qualifiers: These self-selected respondents, after all, are elite, well educated, young, and predominantly female.

Yet the results are instructive. Among this set, Professor Hassett writes, ''more people have cheated on their marriage partners than on their tax returns or expense accounts.'' Nearly half admitted to taking unwarranted sick days. Two-thirds had cheated on examinations or school assignments. And 93 percent admitted to driving faster than the speed limit.

Not a pleasant picture to contemplate -- though even here there are some bright spots. The results, for example, suggest that Dr. Kanter's women may have been unduly harsh on their fellows: This group was apparently not as quick to abandon their ethical standards when money was at stake. The magazine's results also give solace to the faithful: ''The most significant predictor of a person's moral behavior,'' writes Dr. Hassett, ''may be religious commitment.''

Where, then, does that leave us? ''Given the amount of rule breaking our survey documents,'' Dr. Hasssett summarizes, ''it would seem unwise to place too much faith in an honor system.'' Glib, perhaps, but troubling: For as the nation grows less willing to police itself, it must either become increasingly lawless (and therefore more selfish) or more authoritarian (and therefore more cynical and rebellious). Dr. Kanter's conclusions are equally thoughtful: ''A society that is flying in the face of its institutional ethics strikes me as being a society in tremendous transition.''

Where will the change take us? Not, he thinks, toward the liberal ideals of former years. ''As far as a communal, caring society is concerned,'' he says, ''these figures throw doubt on it.'' Also in doubt is one of the mainstays of the new right: volunteerism. So far, Americans still seem willing to help others. But will that attitude last?

That raises the great unanswered question in Dr. Kanter's work: What trends underlie his data? It may simply be that America is going through a bleak period. Or it may be that we are watching a steady Europeanization, a steady erosion of inner standards.

For that is where ethics resides: inside. And therein lies our quandary: how to design outside forces that inculcate inner values? Authoritarianism won't do it -- the Ayatollah is busy proving that. Yet neither will laissez faire -- as shown by a plaintive note from a teen-age respondent to the magazine poll who had compromised her standards. ''Although I have no regrets,'' she writes, ''I sometimes long for the days when high regard for morals and respect for strict guidelines were standard modes of behavior.''

However contradictory her two clauses seem, she has put her finger on our need: ''high regard'' and ''strict guidelines.'' The former is the antidote for cynicism. The latter is the result of confidence that what is right can indeed be known and practiced.

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