Good News Interview. The Erosion of Our Moral Ozone

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Good News Interview. The Erosion of Our Moral Ozone

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Michael Josephson on character and values

 The GoodNews: When did you establish the Institute of Ethics and Character Counts Coalition, and what motivated you to establish them?

Michael Josephson: I established the institute in 1987 after a fairly successful career in legal education. Previous to this, in 1976, I had what was for me the most life-changing experience: the birth of our first child. The experience of recognizing that I was going to be responsible for the moral development of this child affected me very strongly.

When I graduated from law school, the only view I really held was that it was wrong to be judgmental. I pursued the creed for ethical relativists: “whatever works for you.” I really believed that was a moral position to take. But, once I became a parent, it was obvious to me that that was a terrible parenting strategy. I would not have been comfortable if my child turned out to be a liar or a cheat or a philanderer. That started my own search for what I thought of as universal values.

The founding of the institute was based on the notion that there were these basic principles, what we now call the Six Pillars of Character. They are trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.

In 1993 the Character Counts Coalition was founded to build awareness of these values and teach them to children. These are not the only values, but these are the universal ones that bind us together. These are the basic things that, when not practiced, have contributed to a diminution of our moral ozone, if you will.

GN: I noted your use of the phrase moral ozone in a press release in 1993.

MJ: That’s the phrase we used in the report we released, and there are many things that contribute to it. One of our studies involved asking people questions about stealing, lying, cheating, etc. We also asked them questions on how important religion was to their lives. Then we broke down the group, which was well over 12,000 people, and compared the answers of those who said religion was very important to their lives as opposed to those who said religion was unimportant. The results were disturbing, a good news-bad news story. The good news was that religious people did lie and cheat less; the bad news was not by very much.

One of my conclusions, and I state it when I have the opportunity to speak to people active in a religious community, is to say you’re too easy on people. People ought not to be able to claim that religion is very important to them and behave in ways that are inconsistent with the teachings of that religion.

My approach is not in any way a criticism of religion as religion; it’s a criticism of what we’re doing to allow people to think they’re religious, to claim that it is very important in their lives and yet admit that they act in ways that could never be justified under their religious doctrine.

For me, religion is absolutely one of the primary answers to our moral erosion-if it’s authentic, if it’s serious and if it’s translated into conduct. But, if our own religious leaders are getting so easy on their congregations that they allow these people to think that they can claim piety without acting piously, I think that becomes part of the problem. Religious leaders must not allow these people to claim that they have some kind of special commitment to these wonderful, divine principles when they just do what everybody else does.

GN: Profession of a religious value is not the same thing as performing it.

MJ: Absolutely. It’s similar to what we’re trying to do in society, working with public schools. Religion is not the vehicle that we can use. So we use the vehicle of ethics or character, which talks about the same things. They lead you to the same destination. We have that exact same issue: Being ethical is not talking about being ethical, not having a code on your wall. It’s how you behave. Good intentions are not enough.

GN: You have these six pillars of character that, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, appear to be some type of a code.

MJ: Yes. There’s nothing wrong with a code; it’s just that a code is not self-operational. We should have a code. I believe in codes. But, when people hold up a code, it’s not the same thing as living up to a code.

That’s what Scripture is, and that’s what ethical principles are. But there are people who think that, if they profess it, that’s enough.

GN: What is your view of the moral state of America? Are we winning the battle against lying, cheating and stealing?

MJ: We’re still losing ground. But I think there are signs of a resurgence. On the negative side, I think lying is becoming much too accepted. We’re losing our sense of righteous indignation and moral outrage. A lot of politicians and journalists and business people have let us down by being dishonest, but the everyday person is also contributing to this erosion of the moral ozone.

Whether it’s having a radar detector in your car to break the speed limit or lying about your kid’s age to save a few dollars or lying about your address to put them into a better school system, it’s still dishonest. The average person today is finding too many excuses and alibis to lie, and the cumulative effect of that is to derogate the importance of truth, whereas a person of integrity does the right thing, even when it costs more than they want to pay.

Most people today are doing a cost-benefit analysis. What they’re saying is, “I’d just as soon be honest, but how much will it cost me?” So, if it will cost them too much time or trouble, honesty is ignored. But that is not what is openly eroding our moral ozone. It is the everyday person who thinks of himself or herself as a good person, yet who is contributing to this moral erosion by just adding their own little bit of hypocrisy.

As young people watch this, they rationally conclude that all this talk about virtue isn’t real, because they don’t see too many people who live it.

GN: People stretching the truth?

MJ: Exactly. What I have always found to be the most effective is to ask people to think of the dishonesty and the misbehaviors in their own arena. I think we need to judge. I’m somebody who believes that we need to make some moral judgment, and I’m saying that because it helps you see what you can fix. The religious organizations should look at themselves and say, “Where can we purify ourselves? Where are the temptations? Where have we slipped?” The journalistic and political organizations should do the same. But the religious organizations criticize the politicians, and the politicians criticize the journalists, and nobody fixes the problem by looking at themselves.

We need to be willing to look at where the religious community has let us down. Some religious organizations have become part of the problem. One evangelistic minister I know used phrases to distort how many viewers they had. They think of it as a little white lie or that it’s just a petty thing, but it isn’t. There is no such thing as a little lie from someone we should trust.

I always ask, “What message are you sending?” If you’re willing to stretch the truth, exaggerate, deceive or confuse on an issue, what message are you sending? And why should you be surprised when people imitate your example?

GN: How do people treat you in your everyday life? Are they especially observant of your conduct and what you say?

MJ: Absolutely. One of the risks of trying to be a do-gooder is that people hold you to a pretty high standard, and I think that’s appropriate. I don’t think I should expect anything less of people trying to hold me to what I teach. If I’m disrespectful to someone with a sarcastic remark, the only remedy I try to offer is, “You’re right. I’m a work in process like everybody else.”

But just don’t kill the messenger. If I’m an inadequate messenger, don’t kill the message as a result. And, if I had to be a saint in order to convey the messages of virtue, then I’m not qualified, but I don’t know who else is, either. We must try to recognize that we’re all in the struggle together.

I don’t object to being criticized or scrutinized, but don’t let it undermine the validity of my message. We’ve been in an era where, if we can find something wrong with the messenger, we ignore the message. And that’s a real problem.

GN: So the message can transcend the messenger?

MJ: Yes. We have to recognize that we receive important messages through usually imperfect messengers. For me, the message is character, which is what I’m concerned with.

Character is a quest. It’s not quite a destination because we never reach there and we are always accountable for who we are. Some of the self-esteem movements I very much agree with, but to deliberately enhance esteem but not make people accountable for their choices is a mistake. I call that self-esteemia. Self-esteemia is to be more concerned with feeling good than being good.

GN: What are your thoughts about those who hold the movie industry to greater responsibility and accountability for their values?

MJ: It isn’t the movie industry alone, but it includes the movie industry: Everyone is responsible for the consequences of their conduct. Do they sow good things, or do they sow bad things? People in the movies have to make individual and personal choices as to what contribution they’re going to make to this world.

But the problem isn’t unique to the movies. It’s true for journalists; it’s true for politicians; it’s true for business people and religious leaders. People must stop using their profession as an excuse or an alibi. They must do the right thing. GN

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