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The De-Valuing of Ethics

April 25, 2012

It was with dismay that I learned of the recent death of Charles Colson, a man who went from “President Nixon’s attack dog” in the 1970’s to a moral and ethical paragon of American society during the latter half of his life. An eloquent and insightful ex-Marine, he worked his way into the inner circle of the ill-fated Nixon White House only to be set up as the scapegoat for its indiscretions by the President and his chief confidants, Bob Haldeman and John Erhlichman. The seven month prison sentence he served for violating the rights of Daniel Ellsberg turned out to be a watershed experience for him, however. He was transformed by the power of Christ into an active and highly regarded advocate for prison reform and the Christian worldview. The former Presidential advisor who was, by his own admission, not encumbered by ethics, became the conscience of America…or at least a leading voice on ethics in politics, in business, in the academy, and in daily life. Unfortunately, he also witnessed the decline of ethical behavior in virtually all of those arenas.

Colson once communicated to a philanthropic colleague who donated $5 million to Harvard for the study and advancement of ethics in business that the gift was “a waste of money.” He noted that Harvard and the Harvard Law School had long before abandoned the concept of absolute truth and Godly standards which are the foundation of any ethical pursuit in favor of practical relativism. As a result, the curriculum the University created to educate its privileged, high potential students focused on pragmatism, clever rationalization and the avoidance of detection or embarrassment when conducting business rather than the definition and adherence to standards set by the ultimate authority and ruler of the Universe. Colson conceded that he couldn’t even generate decent questions from an audience at Harvard when he once lectured on ethics, “because they didn’t even understand the premise.”

I once witnessed something similar in my own experience while attending a Paris Air Show years ago. While acting as a host for visitors to my employers’ chalet, I welcomed a delegation of government dignitaries from the United States, including a well-known Congressman who was accompanied by a striking blonde. It became obvious that the lady in question was traveling with the unmarried Congressman on this official trip and sharing his accommodations. When I mentioned to our VP of Government Affairs (an ironic title under the circumstances) that their obvious and indiscreet arrangement, at the taxpayers expense, was not prudent…or morally defensible, he offered me some “Beltway Wisdom.” “It may not be ‘moral’—but it’s not unethical, either,” he explained. Apparently, in the eyes of even the “Family values” crowd in Washington, the media, and therefore, most of the public, the arrangement was acceptable and would not result in any adverse political consequences. He turned out to be right.

I raise this discussion about ethics because it seems that the subject has been detached from what were once known as “biblical standards,” and as now defined, devalued as a consideration in the workplace and American society. We find great concern among many in our national discourse over what they deem politically incorrect, but there’s an incredible lack of outrage over what evangelicals still refer to as “sin,” albeit in lower tones so as not to offend. It was a significant loss to our society and a measurable blow to our collective intellect when Chuck Colson passed into eternity. We can be grateful for the compendium of knowledge and insight he left in the form of writings, recordings and people he influenced—many of whom are now part of the Kingdom thanks to his example. But, it would be considered inappropriate to suggest that the message he espoused should be proclaimed publicly as a tribute to his memory, even if for only a day. In today’s culture it would probably elicit a response something like, “It might be moral…but it wouldn’t be ethical.” Chuck Colson’s passing isn’t the only thing we have to grieve.