NEW YORK (AP) — In some ways, the college-admissions bribery scheme newly revealed by federal prosecutors seemed almost inevitable. Ethics experts say Americans these days are barraged with accounts of corruption, greed and amoral behavior to the point that many likely wonder, “Why should I play by the rules?”
Whether it’s gaming the system to secure entry to an elite college, or circumventing laws and ethical norms to evade taxes, swindle customers or pocket illicit gains, unethical behavior has always been among America’s national pastimes. Yet a strong case can be made that this moment is distinctive, with its constant stream of high-profile scandals entangling bankers, drug companies, sports organizations, government officials and others.
“There’s a rawer pursuit of opportunities and benefits than there once was,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “It was always there, but now it’s broader, and there are elements of society that once responded to social and professional restraints that no longer do so.”
The admissions scandal, as outlined this week by federal authorities, is the biggest such scam ever prosecuted by the Justice Department. Fifty people were charged in a scheme in which wealthy parents allegedly paid an estimated $25 million in bribes to college coaches and other insiders to get their children into elite schools.
“I don’t think anyone is shocked that children of the wealthy have an easier time getting into top schools,” said Nick Smith, a philosophy professor at the University of New Hampshire. “The deck is stacked in their favor, even if they can’t quite directly buy their way in.”
“What is new here is that all of those considerable advantages apparently aren’t enough for some and they will go to any length to directly buy their way in,” Smith said. “It’s like the veneer of fairness is cracking all around us, and corruption is increasingly on the surface of our most esteemed institutions.”
However, public cynicism about America’s moral standards is high, as evidenced in the annual Values and Morals poll conducted by Gallup since 2002. In the latest poll, released last June, a record high 49 percent of respondents rated moral values in the U.S. as poor, and only 14 percent rated them excellent or good.
The perception that unethical behavior is increasingly commonplace could have a snowball effect, says Andrew Cullison, a philosophy professor who heads DePauw University’s Prindle Institute for Ethics.