The cover headline said it all: “Whatever Happened to Ethics?” In that one phrase Newsweek captured the black mood of a nation that in the past year suffered a Wall Street financial scandal, a covert political operation built on systematic disinformation, studies detailing the effect of the public schools’ failure to teach values, arguments over the role of judges as shapers of the laws rather than impartial jurists, and televangelists whose financial and sexual greed startled believers and unbelievers alike. At the heart of all the problems, everyone agrees, is one of the worst ethical crises ever experienced in this country.

The black mood persists despite many good proposals for reform. Business leaders recommend tighter laws and closer supervision of maverick profiteers. Seminars and courses on business ethics have taken on heretofore unheard-of importance. Educators like Allen Bloom advocate a change in educational philosophy and technique. Jurists judge that we should return to the more pure intent of the founders of our country. Religion experts busily write new ethical codes and accountability procedures. Politicians vote for better, more honest politicians—like themselves, presumably. There is no shortage of new, improved programs to restore some semblance of ethical sanity to a nation neurotically bent on being dishonest.

So why don’t we feel better? Even though these reforms have value, an underlying cynicism persists. Many wonder if any of them have the turn-the-corner potential of reestablishing our ethical rigor.

Moral Archaeology

Perhaps we are missing something obvious. New laws and new leaders are fine. But to draft regulations and select leaders we need a wider perspective than ...

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