The collapse of ethical values in American society is frighteningly real and equally dangerous. Consider the findings of a recent Louis Harris poll of 5,000 young people.

Of those high schoolers in the poll, 65 percent said "Yes, I would cheat to pass an important exam." Fifty-three percent said they would lie to protect a friend who has vandalized school property.

One of the questions asked was, "What do you take to be the most believable authority in matters of truth?" One to two percent said science or the media. Three to four percent said religion or their parents. Most of the kids said "Me."

In a different study done by an international public relations firm, 67 percent of American high school seniors said they would happily inflate an expense account, 50 percent would pad an insurance claim, and 66 percent said they would willingly lie to achieve a business objective.

These and other appalling manifestations of a national ethical vacuum were cited in a remarkable speech last year by Rushworth Kidder, president of The Institute for Global Ethics in Camden, Maine. He was speaking at Principia College in Illinois.

Kidder recounted a true story about a 10-year-old child in Brooklyn, New York, who found on the street a wallet full of money, credit cards, and identification. The boy took the wallet into school and was unable to find either a teacher or an administrator who was able to tell him what was the right thing to do with the wallet.

"I can't possibly impose my values on you," Kidder said the teachers and administrators seemed to be saying. Even more incredibly, when he told this story "in the company of about seven very bright college juniors and seniors sitting around a dinner table at a very good liberal arts college in California," every single one said those teachers and administrators were absolutely right. This is worse than situational ethics; it's just no ethics at all.

At the core of America's ethics crisis, Kidder pointed out so well in his speech, is the destructive, demoralizing notion that ethics are in the eye of the beholder, that there are no "absolutes" against which the actions and decisions of people should be judged.

The teachings of ethics, Kidder says, may not yet be extinct, but it has been relegated (particularly at the college level) to a values-neutral approach, where the teacher "is not to get in the way of kids discovering their own ethical standards."

Distinctions between right and wrong are being eroded. Indeed, it seems that many people these days think the only choices are between right and right, that fewer and fewer things are really "wrong" when their "context" or the individual's motives are taken into account.

Ethical relativism--or "non-ethics" as I prefer to call it--has suffused its poison throughout society, a major reason America seems to be losing its moral compass. But that isn't the only thing we're losing.

The first casualty when the ethical core of society evaporates is freedom. Law (government) fills the void--directing by threat of force those aspects of life that formerly were governed by our ethical standards. Ethical people don't require fines for tossing trash out of car windows or for embezzling funds from their employer, because ethical people just don't do those things.

Nor do ethical people abandon responsibility for the education of their children or the care of their parents and expect society to do the job. Ethical people don't cast off their problems onto others because they have both a healthy dose of self-esteem and a respect for the lives and property of others.

The choice, in other words, is to govern yourself or be governed. The less you do of the former, the more you'll get of the latter.

Ultimately, the standards by which we order our personal lives our relationships with family, associates and others determine the sum and substance of our society. When those standards are strong, people take care of themselves and those around them; they work for a living instead of voting for one.

But when those standards decay, we pay the price in broken families, crime, drug abuse, child neglect, a loss of personal independence and greater reliance upon public welfare. If the rot gets deep enough, the price can be reckoned in terms of national bankruptcy and dictatorship. Whole civilizations in history have traveled this path and bit the dust.

Restoring our ethical foundations ought to be top priority for all Americans. There's just too much at stake for us to do otherwise.