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Conscientious Objector

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.


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 pocket.

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 run.

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 professor's earnings.

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.

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