Ethics, or the Lack Thereof

In the Age of Enron, do Americans take a dim view of business leaders’ morals? Yes. That’s clear from the chart below, which excerpts a poll by the Pew Center for the People and the Press. But let’s put this in context: Americans seem to look askance at everyone’s morals. When the poll asked if people in general are as moral and honest as they used to be, 73 percent of respondents answered “no.” Likewise, 76 percent said young people today don’t have “as strong a sense of right and wrong” as was the case 50 years ago. As for business executives today, the numbers in the chart aren’t very flattering. Still, they’re not much worse than the findings of a 1997 ABC News/Washington Post poll in which 39 percent of respondents said executives try to obey the laws and 51 percent said they try to evade them. The Pew poll found 38 percent saying Enron typifies a “major decline” in business ethics in recent years, and another 22 percent seeing a “minor decline.” Again, that’s not good, but it doesn’t differ vastly from a 1987 ABC poll in which 30 percent saw a major decline and 20 percent a minor decline in the morals of American business.