A survey of the everyday breakdown of ethical behavior and a strong case for a new emphasis on moral education in America.
Enumerating the modern accumulation of lies, tricks, cheats, and scams by Americans in all walks of life—not just the corporate officers of Enron, Worldcom, and their ilk, but test-cheating students, serial adulterers, tax evaders, plagiarizing journalists, and academics who fake research results—Allen (Law and Philosophy/Univ. of Pennsylvania) also purges herself. She’s haunted by an affair she had with a friend’s husband and by the time she won a prestigious school award by overstating her grades to a teacher she knew would trust her word. Once purged, however, Allen brings to bear on this subject the unusual perspective of an African-American woman who has a Ph.D. but grew up with addicts, alcoholics, and petty criminals in her extended family. Thus her analysis, for example, of why people cheat is informed by both life experience and academic rigor. Try these on: “I cheated because I deserved it; I only cheated because I got cheated first; I’m not wrong, the rule’s a stupid one; nobody got hurt”—and, of course, the ever-popular “everybody does it.” But there’s cheating and there’s, well, what about a padded bra? Cosmetic surgery? Allen gives readers who want to decide for themselves hefty ethical chapter and verse, but fundamentally she finds unethical behavior both “normal and avoidable.” The bad news is that willpower is still the principal answer. Allen does, however, offer solid advice on how to avoid oversimplifying when dealing with the inevitable struggles of children to find and employ an ethical compass. Moral education, even training, she cautions, must extend beyond college and into adulthood.
A sobering, useful compendium of questionable deeds most of us know about but would rather not discuss.