05/17/2013 02:02 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2013

Our Unethical Republic

The IRS investigates conservative groups. Military officers and NCOs use their authority to commit and cover up sex crimes. Education administrators manipulate student scores on standardized tests to meet mandated progress targets and collect bonuses. The nation's largest lenders illegally foreclose on homeowners. CEO compensation grows exponentially while the jobless rate and median pay for the workforce stagnates. Congress repeals the one-year-old prohibition on Congressional insider trading. Everywhere we turn Americans are confronted by unethical behavior.

Every society has individuals who break the law -- people who cross over the boundaries of acceptable behavior and damage others. Citizens work together to arrest and convict those who commit murder, assault, larceny, conspiracy, and other crimes. It is disturbing when laws are broken, but we feel even more violated when our fellow citizens profane our trust -- and there is no need to break any laws to do so. Obedience to the law is not enough. Americans demand legal and ethical behavior from themselves and their fellow citizens. Today we have cause to question the ethics of our society. We have a crisis of confidence in our government, our military, and in religious, social, and business institutions.

It is not the first time Americans have faced such a crisis of confidence. Our history reminds us that acting ethically has been a constant challenge. Remember that ethical concerns were one of the chief causes of the American Revolution. We all want to commemorate tea parties and taxes, but the causes for our separation from Great Britain ran much deeper than just a tax revolt.

In the decade before the Revolution, Americans questioned the ethical values of the British government. It was not simply that Americans disliked laws the British government passed. Americans believed that British government had become corrupt: that government officials used authority self-servingly, that the British mercantile system trapped American colonists in economic subservience, that politicians and corporations were in collusion, and even that British society itself had slipped into moral decay.

Two hundred and thirty-seven years ago this month, Virginians, meeting in the Fifth Virginia Convention in Williamsburg, took action and separated themselves from this perceived unethical behavior. Virginians declared independence from Great Britain: they sent instructions to the Virginia delegates sitting in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to make a motion for American independence. Then, the Fifth Virginia Convention delegates penned and adopted the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights is a clear statement of the principles on which Virginia established its first constitutional government; both the inherent legal rights of individuals and the ethical responsibilities of citizens. The declaration reminds us that there is a synergy between law and ethics. The purpose of law and government is to provide the "greatest degree of happiness and safety" for the community. But delegates were aware that law alone was not sufficient. The document does not just allude to our ethical responsibilities. The declaration reminds us that it is the "mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other." Article fifteen explicitly states "That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles." It was clear to the founders of our nation, then, that government as well as individual citizens must be held to an ethical standard, not just a legal one.

"We the People" and our representatives pass laws and enforce them, but that does not fulfill our ethical responsibility. If we understand our civic responsibility, we understand that we must create a synergy and balance between the law and our ethical values. Just as citizens work to create just laws, we must demand from ourselves and our leaders -- governmental, military, social, business, religious -- the ethical values of "justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue" essential to our American republic. The American Revolution lives within every American citizen. We are the beneficiaries of the Fifth Virginia Convention. It is our civic responsibility to demand ethical -- not just legal -- behavior from those who purport to be our leaders.