DENVER -- If Beth Dillon has a working motto, it's a very modest one: ''Most people are not sociopathic.'' Most people -- if they know they've been infected with the AIDS virus -- will not go out and bite their prison guard, or turn tricks, or share their used needles, or get pregnant. What they need is to know.

This is why Dillon is part of the team of public-health workers who do AIDS-contact tracing. The team tries to locate, one by one, people who have been exposed to someone with the virus. They go out and talk to such people, especially to those who may have no reason to suspect exposure. They encourage them to be tested, counsel them about ''safe'' behavior and then hope they've cut off another route of transmission. They do it because, as Dillon says, ''Those who say this is a disease of consent are full of baloney. A black woman who has sex with an occasional IV drug user doesn't know she's at risk. She doesn't watch Ted Koppel.''

Back in what Fred Wolf, the AIDS coordinator for the Colorado Department of Health, refers to ruefully as ''the good old days,'' public-health officials traced the path of syphilis and gonorrhea to offer a cure. When AIDS began to spread and a test for the virus was devised, Colorado became the first state to do contact tracing for AIDS as well. But without a cure in sight.

Today there are 400 known cases of AIDS in Colorado, about 2,700 people known to be infected with the virus, and perhaps as many as 15,000 actually infected. But the public-health department has operated this program in the midst of enormous controversy and heated name-calling.

Much of the anxiety revolves around the state law that requires laboratories to report the names of those who test positive for the AIDS virus to the Department of Health. The law protects confidentiality, but there is, somewhere, a locked-up list of names of the infected. It is this vision of a list that alarms many in civil liberties and gay-rights circles.

Many worry that reporting scares people off from taking the test. The Colorado health department's director, Dr. Tom Vernon, assumes it does scare some and that others taking the test may do so under false names. But there are larger questions about contact tracing as other cities and states debate and sometimes adopt variations on this program. Is contact tracing an acceptable option, something that falls between leaflets and lockups, more direct than mass education and surely less Draconian than quarantine?

Arguments over AIDS rigidify quickly into heated debates between those who fight for the civil rights of the infected and those who fight for the public health of the uninfected. The Colorado program falls somewhere in between.

It is, to begin with, voluntary. The work depends on voluntary testing, the willing divulgence of contact names and their voluntary testing in turn. The one right not assured is the right of a contact to remain ignorant. As Vernon says, ''We believe that our overriding moral duty is to warn.''

Precisely because the program operates in the middle of a mine field of anxiety, it is especially vulnerable. Vulnerable to both charges of ''fascism'' and charges of laxity.

''This morning, a social worker said to me, 'What do we do about an HIV-positive {virus-carrying} mother?' '' says Dr. Vernon. ''We talked to her, said she shouldn't breast-feed her baby, and she is anyway. I don't know what we do.''

The reality is that there is not going to be one way to limit the spread of AIDS. There is no fail-safe system that wouldn't deeply offend our entire history of respect for individuals. But does that mean we sit immobilized while one group cries against any testing and another cries for quarantining?

In Colorado, a team of public-health officials goes out and talks to people, one by one, people who might otherwise pass on the disease without even knowing it. They are doing something.