TODAY IS ETHICS DAY in Washington. Ethics Day is not a holiday, and it is not an anniversary and it is surely not a celebration. But it does, indisputably, mark a moment worth commemorating: the deadline for an estimated 11,000 big-shot federal government workers to file elaborate personal financial statements disclosing all manner of nitty-gritty detail about their income, assets, debts and relationships, if any, with private businesses. This obligation grows out of legislation passed last year, which also led to the creation of the new Office of Government Ethics. Not that this particular preoccupation is the exclusive preserve of the executive branch. The travails of Sen. Herman Talmadge, after all, are taking place before a group called the Senate Select Committee on Ethics.

While the Talmadge hearings are of political importance, as are the questions raised earlier this year about whether the new federal ethics law and regulations might be driving good people out of town, there is another element in all this worth considering. It is the debased and degraded-revealingly so-way in which people in this capital use the term "ethics" in the first place. Ethics, as a concept, has been miniaturized, like an electronic chip. It has been rendered trivial by being considered only in tis least interesting aspect. And it has also been turned inside out: Even the shrunken concept of ethics we begin with is further distorted by the Washington way of considering it only in the negative. Does not a Washington call to consider a question of ethics invariably mean a call to consider whether they have been violated or breached? Ethics in this city is a code word for suspected theft-and usually small bore, nickels-and-dimes theft at that. When someone steals a whole natural resource or a city or an industry we don't call it an ethics question, but rather a matter of policy.

This awful exercise in counter-alchemy-habitually turning gold into lead-affects many terms in Washington, of course, not just the once (and elsewhere) honored concept of ethics. "Human rights" certainly had a deserved and stirring ring to it until it was ground up into moral hamburger in the nation's political discourse. And there are others. But today, on Ethics Day, it is enough to make a pitch for our politicans at least to contemplate the possibility of rescuing both the term and its meaning from terminal cheapening and misuse. They could begin-as could the public as a whole, for that matter-by recognizing that even as we are focused on these secondary and superficial manifestations of ethical issues, we are refusing to acknowledge, let alone to address, the genuine ethical questions before the society.

From a host of so-called social issues dealing with the role of the state in matters of birth and death and family relationships, to the awesome but immediate questions of energy risks and benefits, the government now finds itself in the insistent presence of questions that go to the heart of the society's understanding of its own ethical values. How good it would be if this city were to communicate to its increasingly hostile constituents around the county an understanding of the true ethical issues before it-and a willingness to deal with them.