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Erecting a framework of ethics

SOUND ethics underlies public service and business success. So it makes sense to see ethics receiving renewed attention in both realms. Circumstances, however, more than enlightened self-interest, have generated the fresh attention. The slowly unraveling Pentagon procurement saga, the approach of Iran-contra trials, the independent counsel's report on Attorney General Meese, and questions about House Speaker Wright's book publishing make ethics in government an unavoidable issue. Presidential candidates George Bush and Michael Dukakis are busily staking their claims to the high ground.

In the realm of private enterprise, reports of brokerage house employees being fired for using advance knowledge of Business Week stock-market columns gives added urgency to an ethics awareness that has been growing for some time. The past year has also seen charges of fraud in securing government contracts and a huge fine against the Beech-Nut Nutrition Corporation for selling watered-down fruit juice. Companies are drafting formal ethics codes. Business schools are setting up ethics courses.

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Harvard Business School now requires every student to take such a course. This sends an early signal that ``ethics and values have a place in business,'' Thomas Piper, a dean at the business school, has said. The course provides a framework for addressing ethics questions students will later encounter through case studies in accounting, marketing, and finance.

The moves toward formal structures that encourage ethical behavior are welcome - whether they are company codes, courses, or a senior White House adviser to oversee ethics, as suggested by Mr. Bush. An environment where standards of right and wrong are clearly set can give employees a needed moral rudder.

Individuals must bring their own definition of ethics to their work. If demands and pressures push someone beyond the limits of that definition, whistles should go off. The defense industry employee who called government investigators when a consultant offered him inside information about a competing firm's contract bid in effect plugged a leak in the integrity of the procurement process. Others could have done the same - but didn't.

Ethics is the inward process of weighing momentary impulses against timeless values. Individuals sustain the process; the process sustains society.

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