BACK IN THE 1950s, it seemed that every time you turned around President Eisenhower was appointing yet another commission to study America, figure out if it had lost its way and how it was different from other nations. The answer, then as now, should have been apparent: It is better.

I don't mean better in a flip chauvinistic way, like some sort of statement having to do with the innate superiority of Americans. And I don't mean better in our abilities to turn out cars or grow wheat or field armies. I mean better in some sort of commonly held view of ourselves as being a moral people -- a nation that either pretends to care about morality or really does. I leave the distinction to others.

Now, though, we seem to be abandoning this standard -- as vague as it is. From representatives of the incoming Reagan administration we are getting cold lectures about how human rights and national security don't always mix and that when they clash and one of them has to go, it's goodbye human rights. This is the message David Rockefeller took down to Argentina where he informed the torturers who run the government there that no longer would human rights stand in the way of either a good foreign policy or a sound profit -- the two being the same to Rockefeller.

We have heard similar statements from others, some of them much closer to Ronald Reagan than Rockefeller. In some cases they talk of a new realism and in other cases they talk of moderating our concern for human rights, but in all cases they make it plain that when the sea gets rough, human rights is going to be the first thing overboard. This is a ship of fools they are sailing.

Already their statements have had an impact. Throughout Central America, repressive governments are moving fast to eradicate opposition, feeling, apparently, that the restraints imposed on them by the Carter administration and its concern about human rights are no longer applicable. In El Salvador, five opposition leftist leaders were murdered recently, and while the government denies responsibility, it would have a harder time denying that ever since the American elections things have gotten a bit bloodier in Central America. t

It's hard to understand why some people find the Carter administration's concern for human rights so vexing. It annoyed the hell out of some dictators around the globe and it was unevenly applied, but one would be hard pressed to come up with a single instance where the policy resulted in some foreign policy debacle. Instead, the real debacles have had other causes, but human rights has been cited as if it were somehow responsible for everything -- as if it were the same as weakness or softness or mushy thinking.

At one time a concern for morality seemed to be the exclusive concern of the American Right. It was journals such as the National Review that wrote about right and wrong and scorned what it called "situation ethics." It was the American conservative movement that denounced godless Communism, prayed for an uprising in Eastern Europe and had nothing but scorn for those on the Left who said that we must not impose our morality on other nations. We must learn to live and let live -- find a place on this globe for the mean Ruskies and us nice guys or else we were all going to go up in a puff of smoke -- a mushroom-shaped one at that.

If there is a middle ground on the issue it is that you adhere to a human rights policy until you simply cannot -- until it leads you either into a foreign policy debacle or into a situation where by trying to impose a policy we lose all leverage. But that is not the same as announcing in advance that we will no longer expect governments to measure up to certain minimum standards of decency. What the Reagan representatives seem to be saying is that we would hope that governments would stop torturing, or killing off the opposition, or simply taking people away in the night never to be seen again, but if they simply cannot stop themselves from doing those sorts of things -- if they just feel compelled to torture -- well, then, okay -- we can understand a little torture here and there.

What this does is take this country down into the muck with all the petty little sadists of the world -- with the thumb breakers and the genital smashers and the cold killers of the night. It robs us of our distinction, of our moral tone, of our sense of morality -- what we expect from ourselves and what the world expects from us. It leaves us purposeless, no different from the other guy, no better, no worse and after a while it will make us wonder why we are in the struggle at all. We used to know once. We thought we were better.