SALT LAKE CITY — The German philosopher Immanuel Kant famously expressed wonder at "the starry sky above me and the moral law within me."
But the college admissions scandal that has engulfed some of the nation's top universities has shown how spectacularly a person's moral compass can shatter.
Government investigators say dozens of parents participated in a nationwide conspiracy in order to get their children admitted to prestigious schools. The parents paid up to $500,000 for strategies that included doctoring photos of their children and having test answers changed, the allegations say.
And yet in conversations that were recorded by investigators, the main concern of many of the parents embroiled in the scandal was whether they or their child would suffer repercussions.
“To be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here,” said one Connecticut parent, co-chairman of a global law firm, according to court documents.
When people cast aside moral principles, whether to cheat a child into college or to seek pleasure at a massage parlor that engages in sex trafficking, they sometimes engage in mental gymnastics to justify their actions, ethicists say. Often, they think of themselves as heroes whose behavior is necessary because of the bad actions of others.
William “Rick” Singer, the California consultant who ran the college admissions scheme through a fraudulent charity, helped parents do that when he commiserated with them about the admissions process, telling them, “The playing field is not fair.”
The scandal has exposed multiple ethical fault lines in American society, says Nancy Snow, director of the Institute of the Study of Human Flourishing at the University of Oklahoma and a specialist in virtue ethics and moral psychology.
These fault lines include a justice system that is harsher to poor people of color than to affluent whites, and one that is heavily invested in the ethically dubious but necessary practice of plea bargaining, she said.
More pointedly, the scandal also asks a question of all Americans: If moral standards are encoded in our DNA, as many theologians and philosophers have taught, how can people go so wildly off course?
And when our moral compass malfunctions, how can we recalibrate?
A 'higher purpose'
More than 50 people, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, face charges that stemmed from a six-month investigation that was revealed March 12.
Those arrested include 33 parents and 13 coaches that the FBI says were involved in the scheme to guarantee admission of students to schools that include Yale University, Georgetown University, Stanford University, the University of Southern California and Wake Forest University.
Singer, whose cooperation led to the parents' indictments, has pled guilty to fraud, racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice.
The government has emails and recordings of conversations between Singer and the parents, including the Connecticut father who said he had no "moral issue" with having his daughter fraudulently diagnosed as learning disabled so she could get extra time taking a college placement test, or with having another person take online courses on her behalf.
However, he also told Singer that, being a lawyer, "I’m sort of rules oriented." (The parent, Gordon Caplan, has been put on leave by his law firm.)
Those seemingly contradictory statements may indicate that Caplan believes morals and the law are two different things, Snow said. But, "another interpretation could be that he's self-deceived," she added.
In the 2016 book “Cheating, Corruption, and Concealment,” Celia Moore, an associate professor at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, and a former visiting scholar at Harvard University, argues that self-deception is a key component of unethical behavior, and that people tend to see themselves as heroes of their life stories, regardless of the circumstances.
In the book, Moore cites an exchange with a former student who said theft was wrong and that he would never steal, but he admitted taking a newspaper from Starbucks every morning.
To the student, taking the newspaper wasn’t theft but “a justified act of retaliation against a greedy corporation that charged too much for their coffee.” He didn’t believe he was doing anything wrong because his action served a higher, nobler purpose, Moore said.
That was also the mindset that enabled Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of the biotech company Theranos, to engage in practices that led to her indictment for wire fraud, the producer of the HBO documentary “The Inventor” told Jason Guerrasio of Business Insider recently.
Most people “who are good at telling a fraudulent story are good because they believe it’s true. They convince themselves that they are noble,” Alex Gibney said.
Self-deception is one strategy people employ to reach a state of what is known as “moral disengagement,” Moore said. Others are “distorting consequences” by labeling the action as insignificant and using euphemisms to describe the behavior.
“Moral disengagement allows us to engage in unethical behavior while believing it is moral, and facility in using these mechanisms is associated with a host of unethical behaviors, from cheating on tests to outright criminality,” Moore wrote.
David DeCosse, director of campus ethics programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, believes there’s a willful blindness involved when parents say, “I’m going to Photoshop you so we can make you look like the water polo player we know you never were.”
“It’s almost as if the outrageous quality of that dissipated and was never seen,” DeCosse said.
“One of the great things about the United States is the fact that it has offered opportunity to so many people. … The dark side of that is the way we have really kind of displaced morality with fame, success and riches," he added.
In National Review Online, Matthew Continetti, editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon, argued that the outrage over the scandal shows that this particular problem isn’t widespread.
“We are shocked by the actions of these parents precisely because there is so little corruption in America. If the problems were as systemic as some on the Internet believe, they would hardly raise such an outcry. Denizens of countries where bribery is a way of life look at us and say, 'Amateurs,'" Continetti wrote.
But he concedes that the matter is “further evidence of the bankruptcy of American elites.”
Fixing the compass
Steve Mintz, an ethicist and professor emeritus at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, believes a cultural problem seethes beneath what prosecutors call "Operation Varsity Blues," and that until Americans can admit their moral compass is askew and take steps to fix it, the nation will continue to suffer scandals like this.
“There is no way to justify this type of activity. It reflects a society where people no longer live by conventional standards of morality," Mintz said. “I can’t imagine any of these parents stopped and thought, ‘Is what I’m doing harming others? Am I taking away a position from other kids who might be more worthy?’
“This is what ethics is all about — considering how your actions might affect others before you do something, not after the fact, after you’re caught. To look at this one incident in isolation is wrong, in my point of view," he said.
Mintz believes that a creeping moral nihilism, coupled with a widespread belief that few people face serious consequences for ethical wrongdoing, have erased a bright line of right and wrong, leaving in its place a “gray streak.” He said that a deterioration of public discourse is further evidence of the problem, saying “civility and ethics go hand in hand.”
“For many years, we’ve had the Golden Rule, but it’s hard to say that this is still the basic ethical or moral rule in society anymore,” Mintz said.
It's possible, however, that the problem may be part of the solution if enough people are jolted into action by the most recent scandal.
"Some people will be emboldened by bad behavior to do likewise, but others will be horrified and chagrined. From what I've observed, there are clear limits to what people are willing to tolerate," said Snow of the University of Oklahoma.
Mintz says his interest in ethics was first stirred by Watergate scandal of the 1970s. "I was horrified by the lack of ethical standards. … It was then that I committed myself to be a better person — to hold myself to the highest of ethical standards and to influence students to follow the right path in their professional careers."
But the ethicists warn that unethical behavior can also be contagious, if people sense that everyone is else doing it without serious consequences.
As such, if the parents are guilty, it's important that they face consequences equivalent to the offense, Snow said. She noted that a single mother in Ohio was jailed and fined $70,000 for using her father's address so her children could go to a better school. If parents involved in the admissions scheme are found guilty and don't go to jail, Americans could become cynical and more likely to skirt rules themselves.
Mintz said he believes the issue of unethical practices in college admission warrants a congressional investigation, and that colleges and universities should develop a code of ethics specific to admissions.
But he believes it’s also time for America to admit that its moral compass isn’t functioning and take steps to fix it. He’d like to see a weekly television show that addresses ethical issues, as well as a call-in radio show. He believes that ethics should be taught in public schools, beginning in elementary school, and that colleges and universities, as well as parents, should seize on the scandal as a "teachable moment."
As to the individuals involved in the scandal, Snow said the potential for recalibrating a broken moral compass depends on their motivations and what they were thinking. (Similarly, "I'd like to find out what you were thinking" is what Tiger Woods' father said to him in a Nike commercial released after Woods’ scandal.)
“My guess is that greed, selfishness and a sense of entitlement were all at work in what they did, as well as a total disregard for rules, propriety, fairness and the consequences of their actions for others,” Snow said. “Fixing these kinds of deficits would require some heavy duty interventions — maybe ethics classes and service projects so that offenders can get outside of their own privileged worlds and get a sense of how others live.”
The justice system contributes to that when it orders community service as part of punishment, as with the deal reportedly offered to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, caught up in a Florida prostitution scandal.
Mintz cites Michael Milken, the “junk bond king” who was convicted for securities fraud and spent 22 months in prison, as someone who went wildly off course morally but later seemed to recover and now spends much of his time raising money for cancer research and other humanitarian causes. When Milken spoke recently to Goldman Sachs executives, he was given a “hero’s welcome,” Fox Business recently reported.
DeCosse, of Santa Clara University, said the admissions scandal has pushed the nation to a crux point when it comes to ethics, but with it comes opportunity.
“Are we going to clamp down on this behavior as being really fundamentally wrong? Or are we going to nod and wink at this? I think we’re at a strange and difficult moment where we have to ask that question of ourselves,” he said, adding that the nation can strengthen its moral fabric by identifying and celebrating the "moral exemplars" among us.
“We’re all shaped by the communities we inhabit, and those can be communities for good or for ill. People who behave ethically can have a positive impact on other people. And we want to identify and encourage these moral exemplars much as we can.”