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Avoid Simple Answer to Complexity

Foundation president with keen eye for ethics cautions against black-and-white judgments. INTERVIEW: ROGER HEYNS

IS America's newfound interest in ethics a good thing? The usual answer - a resounding ``Yes!'' - is so common that the question itself often goes unchallenged. Except by thinkers like Roger Heyns, who has been tackling issues of ethics for decades.

As president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, with assets of $622 million, Dr. Heyns (pronounced `hines') helps give away about $40 million a year - some of it to educational organizations struggling to find ways to improve the nation's ethical tenor.

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So he's by no means a foe of ethics. He is concerned, however, with what he calls ``zealotry,'' which he feels is appearing in disturbing ways around the globe.

Explaining his position during a leisurely interview in his modern, well-appointed office here, he notes that he was recently asked to speak to a national conference of the Presbyterian Church, of which he is a member, on the subject of ``coping with the future.''

``The safest thing you can say about the future right now,'' he says, is that it is characterized by ``unpredictability and uncertainty and instability. The psychological consequence of that is anxiety. And zealotry is often, it seems to me - and fundamentalism is just one form of it - an escape from anxiety.

``If you're really scared, then the simple answer is going to be better than the complicated answer. And so our tolerance for complexity is going to go down.'' His case in point: the world of Islamic fundamentalism, which appears to be in retreat from the complex uncertainties of the future and to be searching for a rigid set of traditional standards.

Such oversimplifications, he says, don't work in a world where ``we've got all this ambiguity.'' But neither is there a solution in the opposite approach: the kind of ethical relativism that ``led people to think that there weren't any real rules except, finally, the ones I myself choose to make.''

Such relativism, which he says became increasingly popular in the 20th century, simply increased the complexity. And that ``led to just abandoning the problem.''

Yet Heyns is encouraged by evidence of a newfound American willingness to consider ethical issues. Example: conflict resolution, an issue the Hewlett Foundation has been funding since 1984.

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In recent years, says Heyns, there has been ``a burgeoning of interest'' in the field of conflict resolution. ``Hundreds and hundreds of people are eager to renounce force and get serious about social contracts that are not codified, not in law. And I think there's lots of evidence of a renunciation of force as a mechanism of military might, as a mechanism of problem solving.''

He admits that, in a world desperate for solutions to the nuclear threat, part of the interest in conflict resolution may arise simply from ``expediency.'' But he feels that something more is at work. ``Underlying this [interest],'' he says, ``is a conception of a dignified way to behave that reflects one's respect for other human organisms.''

The question increasingly being asked, he says, is ```How should I think about my fellow man?''' From a Christian perspective, he says, the answer is that man has ``the right to live in a nurturing environment. The merit, the value [of man], comes from the fact that we are created in God's image.''

That idea, he feels, is not limited to Christianity. Instead, it reflects a global ethic, a kind of universal moral benchmark. The worldwide interest in conflict resolution, for example, ``seems to be a trend that's derived from some conception of equality of human worth,'' he says. ``I think there's a Hindu equivalent for that, I think there's a Muslim equivalent of that - that mutual trust is better than coercion.''

Does he feel that the increased focus on ethics today stems from a worsening moral climate, or simply from intensified media interest? ``I think both,'' he says after a thoughtful pause. ``I think that the ethical debates in Washington about [former House Speaker James] Wright are a function of [media] attention,'' he says, noting that this level of attention reflects a change in the media's interest.

Recalling his own boyhood in northwest Iowa, Heyns notes that the entire ethical climate has shifted. He sees evidence of this change in business ethics. American capitalism, he says, ``has got to be especially cautious about its impact on the individual. One of its weaknesses, schematically, is that undisciplined entrepreneurship has got so many casualties.''

A member of five corporate boards, he says he has been ``in on about four changes in corporate structure as a result of mergers and acquisitions. I was struck with the indifference to the well-being of the worker. And I don't just mean the guy in the plant in Knoxville, but the junior executives and the middle management people - people who had devoted their whole lives to the organization. The indifference to the impact of [corporate] behavior - that is greater [than in the past].''

Heyns also sees evidence of a changing ethical climate in regard to families. ``It's harder to raise kids now than it was when I was raising kids,'' he notes. Why? Because given the greater ``heterogeneity of the background'' in today's communities, there is ``a greater range, a bigger variety of permissible behaviors: How late do you stay up? Under what conditions is sexual behavior desirable or permissible? What kinds of attitudes do I want to have to another person?''

Heyns is particularly concerned about what he calls ``the use a society makes of children.'' He notes, for example, that in the United States ``we have used children to bring about racial integration - we didn't do it with adult behavior.'' In this and other areas, he worries that ``we're on the exploitative side'' in our attitudes toward children.

Such behavior, he feels, marks a contrast with earlier eras. ``I remember, growing up, that we had chores to do. But the context of that was not exploitative. It was our opportunity to play an important role in the economic and social life of the family.''

But don't these different behaviors point to a new respect for diversity - a respect which many people regard as a central to any ethical framework?

In one sense, Heyns agrees. ``One of the things I said to the Presbyterians is that they ought to cultivate diversity. But I don't think that enables you to duck the question of, `How do we want to live together?'''

In an age of global interdependence, he concludes, ``the fact that you and I differ widely on certain issues doesn't mean that, if we're going to interact in a successful way, we can duck the question of right and wrong.''

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