A browse of the Sunday papers turns up two texts for a sermon on ethics:

"I want to be rich. I do." That from a high school senior in a Post story on the unabashedly money-oriented goals of many bright teen-agers.

"If the only legitimate goal is maximizing personal income, then there are no ethical principles that must be obeyed." That is Lester C. Thurow, new dean of the business school at MIT, worrying in a New York Times op-ed piece over how to teach ethics to those who will lead corporate America.

Dreams of affluence are nothing new, of course. But this generation of young people, if one can extrapolate from The Post report and personal observation, may be more wealth-oriented than any before it.

Well, one might say, isn't the desire for wealth the engine that drives the capitalist system, the key to America's social and economic progress? Of course it is. But the present-day preoccupation with great wealth has produced criminal excesses, mindless money-grubbing and -- Thurow's concern -- the money-above-all attitude of so many young lawyers, MBAs and Wall Street operatives.

Why, we demand, aren't the law schools and business schools teaching these bright young people something of ethics? Thurow's answer is correct: graduate school is too late to teach ethics. Indeed, The Post article suggests that high school may be too late. We simply cannot legitimize the maximizing of self-interest as measured by personal income and reasonably hope to produce ethical behavior. Says Thurow:

"Individuals simply face a cost-benefit calculus where there is some probability of being punished if one is caught violating society's ethical principles. A person may obey the law because the costs of getting caught outweigh the benefits of getting away with it, but in doing so he or she is being clever or cautious, not ethical. . . . Choosing to sacrifice one's appetites and self-interest {for the good of the community} is at the heart of ethical action."

No such sacrifice is contemplated by the youngsters who declare openly that they are determined to become not well-compensated contributors to the public good but merely rich.

Where do our children get such attitudes to begin with? The answer, I suspect, is: from us. And it is up to us to try to turn things around.

To do so, we must begin, long before they reach college age, to help our children focus on the kind of adults they want to become: not on how much money they hope to accumulate, nor even what fields of endeavor they hope to pursue, but on what sort of people they want to be.

We spend a lot of time talking to young people about their self-image -- by which we mean that we want them to feel good about themselves. Well, my experience is that an awful lot of rip-off artists and BMW-driving dope dealers feel good about themselves. What we need to do is to help young people focus on self-concept -- the sort of people they would like to become -- and help them learn to answer: responsible, respected contributors to the general society.

That doesn't mean that Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa are the only acceptable role models. When we think of the people we truly admire, we tend to think neither of wealth nor the absence of wealth but of the qualities that make them worthwhile individuals. Some of the young people in that Post piece clearly have adopted such positive role models -- for instance, the prospective physical therapist who "would rather help someone than make a lot of money." That sort of attitude, which understands the difference between "Is it legal?" and "Is it right?" is cultivated at home, not in graduate-school ethics courses.

Says Thurow: "Ethics will be restored when most individuals come to the realization that they play for a common team and are willing to sacrifice self-interest for the team."

Thurow does not mean we should encourage our young people to take vows of poverty or strive for sainthood. His is the wisdom of a man who would teach our children that it is at once healthier, more worthy and ultimately more rewarding to think less about doing well and more about doing good.