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The barometer of moral courage

Item. In Milwaukee, a group of young computer buffs, using telephone lines, penetrated computer security at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York - rummaging in unclassified correspondence and patient records. Tracked down last month, one of them blandly observed, ''We didn't know we were trespassing on anyone's property.''

Item. In Caracas, 11 athletes were disqualified from the Pan American Games last month for using anabolic steroids - body-building drugs banned by many sports organizations. Explaining the disqualifications, Dr. Evie G. Dennis of the US Olympic Committee said the athletes felt that ''they would not be caught.''

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Item. In New York State, a freshman arriving at a highly regarded men's college was told by his roommate to spend several nights on a couch in the dormitory lounge: The roommate's girlfriend was coming for the weekend. Unsupported by any campus regulations prohibiting such action, the freshman expressed his displeasure but said it was ''OK this time.''

They didn't know they were trespassing. They thought they wouldn't be caught. It's OK this time. The comments have a sadly familiar ring to them. If we had a barometer to measure moral courage - that fearless capacity to discriminate between right and wrong - how would it respond to these items?

Well, it won't do simply to moralize. To be sure, these cases suggest a kind of amorality - an indulgence in individual actions without concern for their social consequences. But that's only part of the point. We're not dealing here with a hard core of immorality. These young men and women are the cream of the world's youth - bright, talented, and supremely confident. Among them may be future corporate stars, think-tank theorists, and high-tech wizards. So what's missing?

Two things stand out:

* Nowhere, apparently, have they been encouraged to to ask deep ethical questions. In Milwaukee, the questions should have been: What is privacy? What's the relation between ease of access to information and the need to protect information from misuse? In Caracas: What's the value of competition? Is the goal physical prowess at any cost? In New York: What's marriage, what's friendship, and how does each contribute to social stability?

* The problem, more than merely personal, arises from our failure as a society to maintain real clarity on the moral issues involved. Calling the Milwaukee group not ''trespassers'' but ''computer hackers,'' we're confused about the value of privacy. Listening to US athletes - who say that their communist-bloc counterparts regularly indulge in anabolic steroids - we're unsure whether we should exclude such drugs. And rebuked by students - some of whose teachers give little thought to moral issues - many of our universities have abandoned the standard of in loco parentis (acting ''in place of parents'') and lean toward an anything-goes approach to dormitory living.

What's needed? Moral courage: the willingness to insist that right be distinguished from wrong, and to help enforce the resulting standards. Such courage is hardly naive. Very simply, it allows our best and brightest to get on with developing their inventiveness, athletic prowess, and intellectual culture - without floundering about trying to discover, case by weary case, what the standards ought to be.

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Are there signs of promise? Yes, indeed:

Item. Modern educational theorists (as a Monitor series on the high schools beginning today observes) increasingly call on schools at every level to set goals and standards - and to tell students what they must do.

Item. ''We're not in the business of telling athletes when to stop (using anabolic steroids) so the drugs won't show,'' the US Olympic Committee's Dr. Dennis said in Caracas. ''We want them to understand that these drugs are dangerous and will not be tolerated.''

Item. ''The potential for damage totally outweighs any curiosity (about computer access) I or any members of the group may have had,'' says one the Milwaukee hackers. ''We have all learned a lesson.''

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