THE SUNDAY PROFILE
* Have we become a society too concerned with looking out for No. 1 to do the
right thing? Michael Josephson thinks so. That's why he created an institute
to study--and teach--the value of ethics.
By JOSEPH HANANIA , SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 8, 1997
Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 1 View Desk
45 inches; 1597 words |
Type of Material: Column ; Mainbar ; Profile
Walk down the corridor of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in
Marina del Rey, and you'll find a sketch by French satirist Honore
Daumier. The sketch shows a lawyer celebrating his client's not guilty
verdict with a courtroom hug--while the client is picking his lawyer's
A part of Michael Josephson's art collection, the sketch may well
reflect his sense of life's ironies--including the fact that the money
used to found his institute came to him almost by accident.
His father was a New York entrepreneur whose business failed.
Josephson, then a University of Michigan Law School professor, wanted to
help him out. So, he created a bar-exam review course for his father to
His father "believed certain things were OK, including overselling a
product. But it was my reputation on the line," recalls Josephson, 54.
The result was "many, many" conflicts, father and son frequently
slamming the phone on one another. The business took off, however--and
Josephson sold it in 1985 for $10 million, considerably more than his
His lifelong financial needs met, "The question became what was I
going to do for the rest of my life," he says.
More to the point, he now had a son and "I realized I couldn't teach
him the [legal] profession's cynical approach to right and wrong. I
thought, 'There's got to be something I believe in,' " he says.
So, Josephson took $1 million of his self-described windfall and
created the largest private ethical institute in the world.
The first three years saw the institute solidly in the red as income
from classes rose but fell short of expenses--and Josephson continuing to
ponder ethical questions. Did "Thou Shalt Not Kill," for example,
describe ethical or religious behavior? If he had somehow come across the
conspirators plotting to kill Hitler early in World War II, would he not
be ethically bound to help them, saving the lives of others?
On a smaller scale, was good ethics synonymous with good business? Not
necessarily, he concluded. A whistle-blower, for example, might end up
losing his job or his business.
The more Josephson explored, the more he realized that "People wanted
to think more broadly about this." And what did it all matter, anyhow, if
ethical answers remained theoretical? The most meaningful answers, he
realized, were those applicable to real life.
So, five years ago Josephson hosted an invitation-only conference of
educators, religious leaders, civic leaders and the like in Aspen, Colo.
In time, conferees agreed upon six key ethical values: trustworthiness,
respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and good citizenship.
From these, Josephson created Character Counts, a program to teach
ethics in schools. He also created an ethics training for government
officials, including some of the upper echelons of the CIA, the IRS and
the military, as well as for business executives.
Ralph Larsen, chairman of Johnson & Johnson, which employs 80,000
people, calls the impact of the training "profound . . . particularly the
session [Josephson] had with our executive committee made a big
difference in the content and directness of our conversation."
In 1996 the institute released a "Report Card on American Integrity,"
based on a survey of nearly 12,000 respondents ranging in age from early
teens to late 60s. Among its findings:
* Two-thirds of high school students admitted they had cheated on an
exam during the past year; nearly half had cheated repeatedly.
* Seventy percent of all high school students and half of all college
students said they had lied to a parent repeatedly during the last year.
* More than a third of all high school and a sixth of all college
students said they had stolen something from a store in the past year. A
slightly smaller number had stolen from a parent or relative.
* About half of all respondents said living a "religious, righteous"
life was very important. A third of these, however, admitted to stealing
from a store; 60% said they had cheated; and about a sixth of
them--slightly more than their nonreligious counterparts--said they had
lied on a job application.
Concluded Josephson: Not only were American ethical values on the
wane, religious instruction had made little headway fighting the slide.
During a recent training session primarily for educators, most denied
that it was their students who cheated. Rather, they insisted, the
two-thirds of all students who cheated were all at the other schools.
Was this statistically possible? Josephson asked.
Finally, an administrator admitted he looked the other way to help
maintain his school's competitive edge. If he stopped the cheating, his
students would score lower in national test scores, and his school would
lose students to rival schools.
The school's real message, Josephson concluded, was not that students
shouldn't cheat. Rather, with cheating a fact of life, its real message
was that each student should cheat better than the others.
Summarized Battle Creek, Mich., corrections officer Tracy Iagnoco, 29,
"For a lot of people, right is what they can get away with; wrong is
Josephson insists, however, that Americans are not inherently more
selfish than before. Instead, he says, we have swallowed whole the
prevailing pop psychology that happiness derives from "looking out for
We have also lost the countervailing social obligation voiced by
President Kennedy when he says, "Ask not what your country can do for
you; ask what you can do for your country."
We live in a fog of rampant materialism, jockeying for status and
position, Josephson says.
"But our fundamental capacity to see clearly hasn't gone away. That's
why I call it a fog--because it can be blown away. . . . In a democracy,
every citizen is a public official. Ethically, it's not proper just to
vote your pocketbook; each citizen must consider the welfare of the
This concept of the greater good is critical to Josephson's thinking.
For example, he says, former Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams
"demanded what amounted to extortion when he threatened to sue the city
if his contract was not renewed." Ethically, Josephson says, Williams
should have put his demands on public money behind the greater needs of
the city's citizens.
Ethical decision-making does not necessarily lead to consensus,
however. Americans may heatedly--and ethically--debate the proper outlays
for, say, the environment, education and the military, he says.
What ethics does call for is public debate in which respect for one's
opponents is a paramount value. Thus, he says, it is always unethical to
lie about or misrepresent an opponent's views.
Similarly, he says, many choices are neither inherently ethical or
unethical. Rather, the ethical quality of any choice is determined by the
reasons behind it. For example, a citizen who believes a needle exchange
program encourages drug use may ethically argue against it. If, however,
his argument is based on a bias against a class of people, his argument
Nor is the law-abiding citizen necessarily ethical.
"We've tried to legislate ourselves into morality and want to think
that anything that's legal is ethical," he says. But ethics surpasses the
law. Thus, he says, lying to one's spouse is legal--but unethical.
Favoring a natural child over an adopted child is likewise legal--but
Widespread unethical behavior, in turn, destroys the common values and
social programs by which we have built society. Thus, programs that
benefit needy people have been corrupted by John Q. Public's entitlement
mentality, he says.
"Once a person feels entitled to something, he feels he has a right to
it, and then he'll do anything to get it," Josephson says. "So, you have
wealthy individuals hiding assets to get Social Security benefits,"
imperiling the social safety, and students from wealthy families lying to
get college scholarships, making such aid unavailable for many in need.
The inevitable result is "a growing belief that it's stupid to be
ethical, that ethical people can't compete," he says. "The answer is,
they can compete, but the ethical person may have to work harder and
Not that exercising our sense of ethics is simple or painless. Indeed,
Josephson frequently emphasizes how often our actions differ from our
knowledge of what's right.
Thus, Josephson recently landed hard on a training participant who
admitted that, even if she had the money to move, she would falsely list
a sister's address as her own to enroll her child in a better public
school: "You're part of the problem."
In this take-no-prisoners type of atmosphere, only about three of the
35 participants, each of whom had paid upward of $750 plus air fare and
hotel to take the 3 1/2-day training, will be certified as an instructor.
Even among them, about half will drop out within a year.
Nevertheless, Josephson says, Character Counts has licensed about
1,200 trainers, causing the institute to double its annual budget within
the last year to $2 million.
Not that all of Josephson's decisions are noncontroversial. Indeed, he
has undergone his own trial by fire. His second wife, Anne, a former
institute volunteer, is just six years older than his 21-year-old son,
Justin. Although his marriage broke "the cultural norm" and "raises
eyebrows," Josephson insists, "When you fall in love, you fall in love."
Equally controversially, Josephson has decided to bequeath most of his
money to charity rather than to his four children.
"I want to raise my children with good values. If they knew the money
was coming, it would negatively affect them," he says.
Insisting on their right to privacy, Josephson made none of his family
available for comment.
Controversial or not, however, Josephson is still attracting recruits.
Thus, former television writer Joyce Brubaker, 63, is now one of
Josephson's full-time employees.
"In Hollywood, I didn't see I had a chance in hell to make a
difference," she says. She started out as an institute volunteer because
"I thought I could make more of a difference here."
Other volunteers include actor Tom Selleck, who first heard Josephson
on the radio. Selleck threw himself behind the cause because "the more I
talk ethics, the more I'm apt to walk it."
Especially in his dealing with his 8-year-old daughter, Hannah, "I'd
like to think I wasn't a hypocrite before. But it certainly has made me
more aware of how I try to fool myself."
Similarly, Sen. Pete Domenici (R.-N.M.), has talked up the program
"because I am absolutely positive that values and character are leaving
the American lifestyle. . . ."
"Teachers are frightened by society equating values with religion," he
says. "But Josephson has succeeded in adapting character values so that
no one can object."
The result is that as many New Mexico schools have adopted Josephson's
program. "Angry kids are less numerous; cheating is down; kids are taking
care of each other," Domenici says.
But the ethics training has yet to impact Washington.
"Government can't perfect the program, but the program may perfect
government," he says wryly.
Marine captain and recent training participant Vince Vertin, 27, who
commanded 135 men during the peacekeeping mission in Somalia, summed it
"Even if I don't agree with another man's decisions, I can live with
them if I respect his character. For me, character is not an additional
option. For me, character is everything."
PHOTO: In a democracy ". . . each citizen must consider the welfare
of the community," says Michael Josephson, founder of the Josephson
Institute of Ethics.
PHOTOGRAPHER: KEN HIVELY / Los Angeles Times