Four young men in the Australian Navy have been banished from their ship because a book was discovered in which a tally had been kept of their sexual conquests of female crew members.

The sailors were said to be competing to seduce as many female colleagues as possible. They awarded themselves dollar prizes for each conquest, with bonuses if the woman was an officer or a lesbian. Bonuses were also awarded for having sex in exotic situations such as the ship's pool table.

Their contest came to an abrupt end when the log was uncovered by the Navy's internal campaign against abuse and discrimination, part of an effort to boost recruitment of women and ethnic minorities. The sailors were ordered from the ship, HMAS Success, during exercises in Southeast Asia, and investigators for the Australian Defence Force were called in.

This is a tale of our times, a confused time for moral judgments. Nothing in the report suggested the activity was involuntary, abusive or illegal in any way. If it involved officers misusing their rank, it would be a different story but there was no suggestion of that. It appears to be a case of men with a juvenile attitude to women boasting about their exploits, as immature males do.

This does not excuse their silliness but it calls for a proportionate response. In earlier times, the discovery of their book would have earned them a disgusted dressing down by someone in authority that could have left them feeling foolish and chastened. Today, we seem to have lost that moral confidence.

The permissiveness of the mid-to-late 20th century has merged awkwardly with the social sensitivities of the present. Modern arbiters of acceptability in attitudes, expression and behaviour uphold a high code of respect for women and their equality in all relationships but they hesitate to treat this as the moral code it is.

They prefer to meet it with legalistic judgments. Behaviour that is merely disrespectful of women and sexual relationships, for example, is inclined to be brought under the rubric of abuse. Often the label is quite a stretch. Much of yesteryear's hopeless persistence might be criminalised as harassment today.

Commonly complaints are made to the police, mainly to demonstrate moral disapproval. When the complaint falls short of criminal seriousness, we go to the other extreme, condemning the conduct in terms of mere public relations. A politician forced from office is said to have been unbecoming, unwise, indiscreet, to have shown poor judgment, lost the confidence of his leader. Nobody says his actions were simply wrong.

Nobody dares to moralise any more. The cause and consequence of that reluctance is that we are not sure we agree on what is wrong. Are the Australian sailors under naval investigation for their attitude to women and sex or for writing it down? And if it is merely the latter, was their offence against the privacy and reputations of the women concerned, and does it matter if the women were equally enthusiastic participants?

Women now comprise about a fifth of the Australian Navy; they are on ships in sufficient numbers not to suffer isolation or intimidation by young male colleagues. This childish book of conquests has probably embarrassed the Navy more than the women, and so it should. Any dignified organisation would hope its members conducted themselves with more sophistication, responsibility and respect for sexual partners.

If behaviour was condemned in those terms, the community could begin to agree on some modern moral standards - guidelines for good and decent living.

Until we dare to moralise again we will continue to see overreactions to misbehaviour that, on the face if it, was merely stupid.