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On My Dishonor

In Our Increasingly Complex World, as the Value of Personal Integrity Is Emphasized Less and Less, Oaths and Ethical Commitments Aren't What They Used to Be

November 11, 1998|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"He who cheats with an oath acknowledges that he's afraid of his enemy, but that he thinks little of God."

--Plutarch, AD 46-120

MacArthur said he'd return. He did.

Schwarzenegger said he'd be back. He was.

Clinton said he'd be faithful to his wife.

Things didn't quite work out that way.

If it's true in this global era that a president doesn't lead the nation so much as reflect it, then Bill Clinton's trail of broken promises raises a disturbing question about the rest of us.

Why doesn't a personal oath mean anything any more?

It could be, some ethicists say, that we've become too forgiving a society, granting others an ever-widening ethical margin of error in an unspoken accommodation to the complexities of modern life.

At the same time, others say, we've become a society of strangers, spending our days in anonymous isolation--at home and at work--even as we live in cheek-to-jowl congestion.

Or, it could just be that we don't care.

"There is no shame" anymore, says Jorja Prover, an anthropologist in UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research.

It's hard to measure the erosion. "Propensity to break oaths" has never been included as a U.S. Census category, and other surveys that might trace changing public attitudes toward promise-breaking have been few and far between. Everyone from British King Henry VIII to Hollywood queen Elizabeth Taylor has shown that marriage vows can, at the least, be recycled, and oath-breaking is not new.

Yet there is a pervasive perception that the once-solemn vow--be it formal, with a hand on the Bible, or an informal personal pledge--doesn't carry the same depth of commitment that it used to. The aura of the oath, with its promise before God, has been deadened by ritual, some experts say. " 'Til death do us part" lasts only a few years for many newlyweds. And a courtroom oath to "tell the whole truth" seems to carry an invisible asterisk: "Unless my lawyer tells me it'll make me look bad."

Even the omerta, the Mafia code of silence, isn't what it used to be, as mobsters step up to the witness stand, opting for shorter prison sentences instead of that old romantic sense of standing together with comrades.

"I've done work in Greek villages, very small mountaintop villages, where if you break a personal oath, you will be shunned and driven from the village," Prover says. "There is something about sitting down to face the person you have failed.

"We don't have that. We have voicemail, e-mail. Believe me, it's a lot more comfortable being called a liar over e-mail than having someone screaming in your face."

"The whole thing is tied up with the depersonalization of society," agrees John P. Crossley Jr., associate professor of religion at USC. "With society structured in an impersonal way, where you don't necessarily know the people you do business with, you can certainly break pledges much more easily."

At the beginning of the century, four of 10 Americans lived in urban areas, which meant that most lived in small villages or on farms. In that environment, someone whose word was unreliable quickly developed an unsavory reputation.

But those population patterns have changed, particularly here in Southern California, where suburban sprawl long ago subsumed the network of small villages and ranches. In the last census, eight years ago, seven of 10 people nationwide were living in urban or suburban areas. That congestion has made strangers of us within our own communities. It's rare, for instance, to recognize your own neighbors in a neighborhood restaurant.

So for most of us, a broken promise can go as unnoticed as slivers of glass on a city sidewalk.

Crossley cites evidence that personal integrity--the backbone of oath-keeping--once coursed more vigorously through community life. In "Democracy in America," the first volume of which was published in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville reported finding "tremendous trust" and an emphasis on personal ethics among Americans.

"Not that it was ever a Shangri-La," Crossley says. "We do mythologize the past, of course. But I think prior to the extensive urbanization and industrialization, things were based on personal relationships far more than they are now, including business affairs."

In fact, Crossley says, the world of business--often viewed by critics as amoral--is one realm in which personal trust still matters. Similar trust, he says, exists within professions--which have replaced the neighborhood as the heart of modern community.

Even though most professions ensure their promises with signed and enforceable contracts, Crossley says that "lawyer to lawyer, businessman to businessman, teacher to student--there is still a tremendous amount of trust. We almost take it for granted that a teacher is going to grade papers fairly and not show favoritism. The whole check-writing industry is just an amazing example of trust."

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