- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2008




Many American teens regard violence as acceptable. A recent poll conducted by Opinion Research surveyed 750 boys and girls from 12 to 17 years of age and found that the majority of teens provided a variety of justifications for violent behavior. The report was featured in a Dec. 22 editorial in The Washington Times, titled “Mean teens?” We asked David W. Miller, professor of business ethics and director of the Princeton University Faith and Work Initiative, for his opinion. Mr. Miller trains youth on ethical behavior in the workplace.

TWT: In a recent Opinion Research Poll, over a quarter of teens viewed violence as an acceptable form of behavior. Why do you believe many teens do not understand the gravity of resorting to violence?

Miller: Perhaps years of exposure to violent video games, movies, TV shows, music, and popular new Xtreme sports like kick-boxing, have finally taken their ethical toll. Youth are exposed to more hours of TV, video and Internet (and therefore countless acts of violence per hour) than they spend in the classroom or talking with their parents. Teenagers learn their ethics and get their behavior reinforced from where they log their time. I suspect teenagers have become anesthetized to violence and its harmful repercussions to self and society.

TWT: What are the social consequences of teens who view violence as an acceptable form of behavior? What are the ramifications in the workplace?

Miller: It is rather staggering that 27 percent of teens - people who will be your and my co-workers in a few years - freely admit that violence is an acceptable form of behavior. Of equal concern was that 80 percent of teenagers surveyed said they feel fully prepared to make good ethical decisions when they enter the workforce. Now, we all get angry or upset at work from time to time. I shudder to think that 27 percent of an entering class of new hires might think it is OK to use violence to solve office disagreements, disputed appraisals and customer complaints. And these are the same people who say they’re ethically prepared to enter the workforce.

I can only hope that the survey was not able to identify that this self-reported acceptance of violence was just temporary youthful posturing and bravado that comes with teenage growing pains. That said, as an educator, or if I were in charge of corporate hiring and training, I wouldn’t take any chances.

TWT: What can parents, educators and other authority figures do to address this lack of essential ethical formation in our youth?

Miller: Every problem also presents an opportunity for leaders and innovators. You can’t start early enough implanting and reinforcing values in youth. Primary responsibility for this starts at home with mothers and fathers explaining and modeling such basic ethical concepts as honesty, trustworthiness, hard work, delayed gratification, and the importance of winning (or losing) ethically. Coaches, clergy and teachers also play a significant role, teaching kids that the ends do not justify the means. Civic organizations like Junior Achievement, with the generous support of Deloitte, are leading the way, developing and offering free “Excellence through Ethics” and “JA Business Ethics” curriculum for K-12.

Many of the youth in the survey said they do not have adult role models. Why are adults no longer fulfilling their traditional roles as educators and models of behavior?

This is one of the great tragedies of this survey - that so few teenagers feel they have good adult role models. Only 54 percent cite their parents as role models. Teachers or coaches are only cited by 13 percent and clergy by a mere 3 percent of teenagers. There are many reasons for this, I suppose. At the top of the list has to be the high percentage of children being raised in single-parent or both-parents-at-work households. In these homes, even where love and good intentions exist, parents are simply not there to do the day-to-day teaching and reinforcement of social values and ethical behavior. I suspect the problem is exacerbated by popular TV shows where the parents and adults are often portrayed as likeable but inept or even irresponsible. Without adult role models, teenagers experiment and try to find their own way, often slipping into a world of ethical relativism without clear cut principles and values to guide them.

TWT: What role can religion play in addressing these concerns? How can this be applied within a secular society?

Miller: Religion is a personal matter but it does have public ramifications. As my students have found, exploring the source of their ethics, and learning how to apply that to their lives and eventual careers in business, may be the best moral compass they’ll ever find. After all, the ancient biblical concept of “fair weights and measures” was around long before Sarbanes-Oxley and the SEC.

One example of how one’s personal faith identity can be applied in a pluralistic society is a class I teach for undergraduates called “Business Ethics and Modern Religious Thought.” The students have dubbed it “Succeeding Without Selling your Soul!” We explore the resources of Judaism, Christianity and other religious traditions, and apply these ancient teachings to modern marketplace dilemmas. Students are amazed to discover how much of religious wisdom is still relevant and helpful in modern business ethics. I also invite guest executives and CEOs to the class to share how their faith tradition underpins and enriches their ethics. These successful role models and their stories leave lasting impressions.

Grace Vuoto is an editorial writer for the Washington Times.

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