Are Americans Becoming Less Ethical?

Three Experts Debate Whether We’re More Likely to Lie and Cheat

The number of prominent people who lie under oath has reached epic proportions, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart. And those lies, he says, hurt not only the court cases in question, but the entire court system and America’s moral fabric. In advance of Stewart’s visit to Zócalo on May 23 to examine whether lies are ruining America, we asked experts whether the country is undergoing an ethical crisis.

The Need to Succeed Has Made Us Less Ethical

Americans have become less ethical in recent decades when it comes to getting ahead – doing well in school, advancing in their careers, and making money. Evidence of this trend can be found in numerous parts of American life.

Scholars of academic integrity find that cheating has increased among high school, college and graduate students in the past two decades. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of students now admit some cheating in the past year.

The IRS reports that tax evasion has risen since the early 1990s and now costs the government at least $300 billion a year.

The frequency and seriousness of corporate scandals has risen significantly since the 1970s. The past decade alone has seen not only the wave of frauds involving Enron, Worldcom, and many other companies, but the even larger scale financial chicanery associated with the real estate boom and mortgage industry.

Ethical problems have risen in key professions. Medicine has been convulsed by reports of widespread conflicts-of-interest involving doctors and pharmaceutical companies in recent years, while the legal profession has become among the most distrusted professions in American. Chronic overbilling has been commonplace in major law firms. The accounting profession has suffered numerous scandals in recent years as well.

The use of performance enhancing drugs in professional sports soared in the 1990s and the last decade has seen an endless string of scandals involving top athletes — from Barry Bonds to Lance Armstrong.

Workplace theft and occupational fraud has risen according to many reports and is now the most costly form of crime in the United States.

The proliferation of hidden fees and overcharging has occurred in numerous areas of the business, from mobile telephones to cable to healthcare.

Insurance fraud has risen since the 1970s, with huge losses. Medicare fraud crackdowns in the past year have ensnared numerous doctors and healthcare providers.

Evidence of America’s crisis of ethics is everywhere. However, what is notable is that this alarming shift has occurred at the same time that Americans have actually improved their behavior in the past few decades in some areas of social behavior. Crime is way down from two decades ago, particularly violent crime. Drunk driving deaths have fallen by nearly 40 percent since the early 1980s. The teenage pregnancy rate fell sharply during the 1990s, in part because teenagers are less likely to have sex and more likely to use contraception when they do. Nearly 50 percent fewer Americans smoke today than in 1960, and the use of illicit drugs and alcohol is also down. The divorce rate has fallen by 20 percent since 1979. The abortion rate is much lower now than in 1990. Domestic violence is down. In addition, surveys find that Americans are less racist, sexist, and homophobic than they were thirty years.

Why this “morality gap” in America? The reason is that even as our society has focused more attention on improving social behaviors — for instance, around violent crime and drunk driving — trends have conspired to increase the rational incentives for unethical behavior when it comes to school, career, and money. Growing economic inequality has meant larger rewards for winners than ever before — e.g., star athletes and CEOs — which has increased the incentives to become a winner by whatever means necessary. The bigger the carrots, the more likely people will cheat to grasp them.

Meanwhile, the sticks are hitting harder financially for everyone amid rising economic insecurity. Students may feel they need to cheat to hold on to crucial scholarships or gain admissions to schools they see as crucial to being able to get a job. Employees may cheat because they are under extreme pressures from above in an era where the bottom line rules corporate America and job security is decreasing.

Finally, the watchdogs have grown weaker in an anti-government era in which conservatives and some Democrats have worked to role back regulation. The SEC, which polices Wall Street, was downsized starting in the 1980s. The IRS has too few agents to do its job. And so on. Watchdogs have also been weak in other spheres: law, medicine, accounting and other professions do a very poor job of policing the ethics of their members. Major League Baseball didn’t have a drug testing policy until recent years. Schools go easy on student cheaters.

Declining ethics reflects structural incentives. If we can change these incentives, we can reverse this trend and this is already happening in some areas.

David Callahan is a Senior Fellow at Demos and author of The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead. He also editor of


Ethical Standards Are Going Up, Not Down

While I love James Stewart’s books and use Den of Thieves in one of the courses I teach, I disagree completely about the evidence for a broad ethical breakdown in America. My experiences with students over the past half-century indicates just the opposite. If anything, students have become more concerned about ethical issues, more concerned about helping others, and more concerned about the quality of their own lives and the performances of their leaders. While a few students cheat, the numbers have not increased over time. For the most part, they understand plagiarism as well as their professors do and do their own writing.

My study of American history also supports this conclusion. Our standards for business and political behavior have gone up, not down. Look back to the late 19th century when conflict of interest was seldom a problem because it was considered to be the norm. Corruption was rife in American cities, and factories that had cut costs by substituting women for men were able to cut costs even more by employing children. In the cotton mills, they were called “lint heads.” Then, there was little concern with the environment and virtually no regulation of the chemicals that were routinely dumped into our air and rivers. Safety on the job was not an issue because we ignored the dangers. While the enormous array of government regulations we created in the following century don’t always work they way we want them to, they obviously reflect the society’s deep concern with ethical behavior. Lynching is no longer a social problem in America. Today, no president could ignore lynchings as Woodrow Wilson did in the early twentieth century.

Louis Galambos is a historian at Johns Hopkins University at editor of the papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower. He is a former editor of the Journal of Economic History and has written extensively on U.S. economic, business and political history.


We’re Lazier and More Selfish

Americans aren’t necessarily becoming less ethical, but they are lazier in their moral lives than past generations. America has a rich tradition of civic engagement, resulting in both noble and ignoble endeavors; but today’s citizen tends toward selfish interests and narrow ends. The galvanizing moral force of the Transcendentalists in 19th century America, for example, seems impossible to replicate today.

Why is this so? Is it, as many argue, that America is on the decline and any society in decline looks inward? I think not. We have untapped potential in our citizens, especially in our children. Children yearn for moral purpose, and we are providing few examples of moral leadership for them. The corruption of business leaders, the questionable tactics of our military leaders in gaining intelligence, the failing school system, the unending fascination with celebrity lives and the erosion of our natural resources are the building blocks of their moral education. The grim reality of today’s moral climate should not be accepted as unchangeable. Courage, conviction and vigorous discourse will counter the trend toward apathy, relativism and moral paralysis.

Aine Donovan is executive director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth and a professor at the college’s Tuck School of Business. She serves as the campus’ primary point of contact for faculty and administrators in integrating ethics into the curriculum.

*Photo courtesy of sharmili r.