ARE today's children ethically illiterate? Not at all, say the authors of the Girl Scouts Survey on the Beliefs and Moral Values of America's Children. They are often capable of making ``very subtle moral decisions'' that show ``consistency and reflection.'' They also speak with ``many voices'' and hold a range of values.
Those conclusions are borne out by a recent two-day Monitor roundtable discussion with a group of seniors at Northfield Mount Hermon School, a private preparatory school nestled in the western Massachusetts hills.
Addressing the question of ethics, the students began by asserting that there are no clear standards. ``There are no absolute rights or absolute wrongs,'' said Bill Rutledge from affluent New Canaan, Conn. Jacqueline Hedman, from inner-city New Orleans, agreed. Ethics, she said, is ``relative to a person's life and experience. How can you tell somebody what they're doing is wrong if it's what they believe in?''
Challenged by their peers, however, they began reconsidering. Jos'e De Oteyza of Caracas, Venezuela, pointed out that ethics has to be more than simply personal. ``We don't live by ourselves,'' he said. ``You have to set standards to live in a community.'' To which Bill agreed, noting that ``without ethics there's absolutely no social adhesive.''
``A society without ethics would be great - for a while,'' quipped Minm-Hiep Kong, a native of South Korea whose home is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. But the consequences of everyone doing what they wanted would be ``worse than a society with ethics.''
Asked to describe a society without ethics, Jesse Friedman of Woodstock, N.Y., saw it as ``an old Western, with bars on the windows - just mayhem, no structure.''
``I don't think we've thrown values out the window,'' insisted Kate Chynoweth of Canterbury, N.H. Though she agreed that survey data accurately reflects the willingness of students nationwide to cheat on examinations, she says that values can improve as children mature. In eighth grade she was ``caught cheating in the band room.'' Before being caught, she had ``no qualms about it at all.'' But ``I think that once you learn your lesson like that, things change.''
Then are there some ``absolute'' standards of right and wrong after all?
``I think that there are a few universal, basic qualities,'' said Lila Javan of Cambridge, Mass. One of them, she noted, is ``not to kill without reason.''
``Even in societies where [children] are brought up with war and killing,'' said Jesse, ``I'd like to believe that there's something inside of them that's saying, `Hey, this is wrong!' I think people know inside - I think there's something that comes from your heart and from your soul that tells you, `This isn't moral!'''
All of the students agreed, however, that ethical decisionmaking in modern society is complex and troublesome. ``I'm just wondering whether we are living in a world of ethics,'' said Minm-Hiep, ``or whether we just think we are.''