Right and wrong in the 21st century

When Anita Allen was young, she attended Sunday School every week, Vacation Bible School in the summer and sang in her church choir. She began reading philosophy as a teenager, studied the subject in college and graduate school and began her career teaching ethics at Carnegie Mellon University.

But Allen, the Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law at Penn, says that even with a strong background in ethics and an intense curiosity about issues of right and wrong, she’s still made mistakes.

In her lively and provocative book, "The New Ethics" (Miramax, 2004), the ethicist and philosopher analyzes science, politics, sports, business and her own personal life to assess how ethics figure in our society. Writing so personally about her own ethical journey is unusual in a scholarly book, Allen admits, but as she writes in her introduction, the cliché is correct—people actually do learn from their mistakes. She says ethical truths become "more vivid when they have undergone the test of experience." For Allen, one such mistake occurred when she was a young woman, and began an intimate affair with a friend’s lover. Ironically, she was studying ethics in graduate school at the time.

Central to Allen’s book is this question: why are there so many cases of ethical failings, from Enron to New Republic fabricator Stephen Glass, in the arenas of politics, sports and business, even though a plethora of ethical resources exist—from the educational (honor codes in many schools) to the popular (Randy Cohen’s column in The New York Times Magazine)?

The reason, she believes, is simple: The potential rewards for unethical behavior outweigh reason. She also believes young people are faced with competing sources of information and have few role models.

Allen urges people to give ethics genuine consideration, especially because topics of war and conflict are on the minds of many people. "Please take ethics seriously," Allen says. "Please be engaged with your ethical self." To do this, Allen suggests a 12-step agenda for better ethics, including learning from mistakes and searching for hidden ethical issues, while respecting different moral guidelines, lifestyles and priorities. She says people can look to their parents for moral guidance and, if they desire, the church, but she cautions against looking blindly to religion. Don’t just honor tradition, she says, but improve upon it.

While she grew up in a religious home, Allen does not have the theological background of such prominent intellectuals as Princeton Professor Cornel West and Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Penn Michael Eric Dyson. "My training is primarily secular. I’m by no means a preacher," she says. "That makes me a different kind of voice."

In many ways, says Allen we are "better" than we used to be. "At the same time, we’ve lost our focus on …being ethical. We can be yet even better."

Originally published on October 21, 2004