Maybe it started with Primal Scream Therapy, or with the generalized notion "If it feels good, do it." As with most significant trends, it had overtaken us before we even knew it was there.

I first noticed it around the time of "Open Marriage: a New Lifestyle for Couples," the 1972 blockbuster by Nena and George O'Neill. And although she later recanted ("The Marriage Premise," 1977) the damage had been done. It was, it occurred to me, the beginning of the end of that most underappreciated of virtues: hypocrisy.

The attractive theory behind what was happening was that one should not feel guilty for doing what one really wanted to do. It seemed almost Biblical in its contention that the wanting to do it was the critical thing -- lust in the heart, you now. Indeed, not doing what you wanted to do was nothing more than unhealthy repression, a sort of "desirus interruptus."

But if the theory was attractive, the practice has been devastating. We're still paying the price for our loss of hypocrisy -- in everything from family breakup to drug abuse to adolescent pregnancy.

What, you ask, has hypocrisy to do with it? Just this: the let-it-all-hang-out amorality that crashed in upon us in the 1970s accepts no standard, no morality, no code of behavior outside the mind of those engaging in the behavior. The idea is that it's okay to do anything that crosses your mind so long as you don't hurt anybody else.

Hypocrisy recognizes that the erosion of standards hurts everybody. It accepts the sanctity of societal standards, even while violating them. It says: What I'm doing is wrong; therefore I must not be found out. La Rochefoucauld said it 300 years ago: "Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue."

People aren't less virtuous now than they were before the decline of hypocrisy. But their behavior is. The problem is that being wicked takes a lot worse behavior than it used to.

Marital infidelity, which used to be thought of (correctly) as cheating, is now considered normal and perhaps even healthy. Screaming your silly lungs out, which used to be an embarrassing show of weakness, has been transformed into therapy. Does anyone still believe we're better off for this new "freedom"?

Think of standards as an electrified fence that describes the limits of acceptable behavior. We are constantly tempted to cross the fence, and all of us, at one time or another, yield to the temptation. But the violation both thrills us and shocks us into a return to the confines of the fence. The deadly revolution came when instead of shying away from the fence, we simply moved it back to accommodate our actual behavior. And since human beings are forever inclined to test the limits, we kept moving the fence. I mean, what is so terrible about doing a little dope when nearly everybody is doing a little dope? What is the harm of cheating, whether on one's taxes or on one's spouse, when everybody else is cheating? What's the point of teaching kids that adolescent sex is wrong (rather than merely pragmatically risky) when the statistical evidence is that most kids are doing it?

The field of acceptable behavior has been expanded to the point where nearly anything goes and nothing thrills.

Hypocrisy recognizes the importance of keeping the fence in place and thus keeps even its wicked thrills within reasonable limits.

Normative rules, which describe acceptable behavior in terms of what we actually do, have put us on a slippery slope to moral chaos from which neither pious preachments nor appeals to pragmatism can save us.

Our only hope is a resurrection of that most- maligned virtue: hypocrisy.