Published: February 17, 2012

By Jim Lichtman
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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

The Beatles auditioned for Decca Records. Two of the high-wire “Flying Wallendas” were killed in an accident. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy took the world on a TV tour of the White House. And the struggle between Communism and Democracy was summarized by a fiercely competitive and precarious Cold War between Russia and the United States which took the world to the brink of nuclear war with the Cuban missile crisis in October.

But on the morning of February 20, all that didn’t matter as I sat in front of a black and white TV to watch John Glenn – in his Friendship 7 Mercury capsule – launched into space to become the first American to orbit the earth three times in the still-astonishing time of 4 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds. While he was preceded by astronauts Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, if you ask most people today, the affable, smiling Glenn who hailed from New Concord, Ohio was the image of those early days of American space flight.

At that time, the Russians had successively made good on their bluster with their own space accomplishments – Yuri Gagarin, Gherman Titov, even the Russian dog, Laika, orbited the earth before Glenn (although the dog died while in orbit).

Nonetheless, such was the power of media spin back then that the only story that mattered was John Glenn. Such a singular achievement was Glenn’s flight, that he was given his own ticker-tape parade in New York, and seated next him on the ride… President John Kennedy.

At that moment in time, John Glenn represented everything that was right about America: small town, big smile, bigger ambition; all at a time when smart mattered, optimism mattered, integrity mattered.

Fifty years later, smart seems to be defined by how fast you can hack into a government computer, cynicism seems to have overtaken optimism, and integrity… well if you have integrity, by some standards you’re considered a fool. (The recent account of a 19-year-old White House intern’s relationship with Kennedy has removed more of the patina of Camelot.)

So, is it wrong to be pessimistic? Is it improper to believe that integrity is something you sell the public?

In a response to my commentary on Confirmation Bias, one reader wrote, “I blame your overly optimistic view of life on your good nature.” This led me to this question:

Is it unethical to be cynical?

“Cynicism exists. It’s toxic,” says Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, which conducts biannual surveys on youth and ethics. Cynicism, as Josephson defines it, is “the belief that lying and cheating are… necessary to success.”

In a 2009 study, Josephson determined that “People who cheated on exams in high school two or more times are considerably more likely to be dishonest later in life on all major measures.” The report says that “high school cheaters [are] three times more likely to lie to a customer, twice as likely to lie to or deceive their boss, [and] one-and-a-half times more likely to lie to a spouse or significant other.”

Too often people argue that ethics are “situational,” or “personal.” Beliefs like these reveal a basic confusion or misunderstanding between what certain people actually do – the ‘is’ – with the more critical question of what people should do – the ‘ought.’

Is’ ethics refers to how an individual or group acts without regard to judgments of right and wrong. ‘Ought’ ethics – often called prescriptive or normative ethics – focuses on a judgment of and commitment to principles of behavior that apply to all of us:

Be honest, tell the truth; be sincere; don’t betray a trust, or deceive; don’t steal, cheat, or defraud; stand-up for your beliefs about right and wrong; resist social pressures to do the wrong thing; show commitment, courage and self-discipline; keep your word; accept responsibility for your actions; exercise self-control; do your best; be diligent; show that you care about others through kindness, caring, generosity, and compassion; treat all people with respect; judge all people on their merits; be tolerant, appreciative and accepting of individual differences.

These are all examples of universal, ethical principles. I can’t think of an individual, culture or religion that does not want to be treated with these principles in mind.

So, is it unethical to be cynical?

When you allow cynicism to cloud your world view; when it causes us to be overtly mistrustful of everyone and everything… Yes. In those examples, cynicism destroys the notion that there noble individuals who are working to make the world a better place.

There are, in fact, examples of ethical heroes with us today. Tobacco insider Jeff Wigand; whistle-blowers Cynthia Cooper, Coleen Rowley, and Harry Markopoulos are just a few of the many individuals who have demonstrated integrity.

Looking back at those black and white images of John Glenn, I would argue that there’s a hero in each of us – unrealized perhaps, but the potential is there waiting for the moment that will define us by what we do. How we respond to our own crisis of conscience will ultimately determine the purpose and course of our lives.


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