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Corporate Ethics, Mormonism, and the Total Product Recall

January 9, 2010
Johnson and Johnson Baby Shampoo

Heck; I'm an adult and I still could use no-tears shampoo some days.

I can’t be sure, because I’ve only taken an unrepresentative sample of business courses (just one student’s curriculum at one school in a post-Enron business climate), but I think one of the most commonly referenced cases for corporate ethics is Johnson and Johnson’s 1982 Tylenol crisis. This was completely before my time, and before hearing this story at least five separate times in the past three years as a paradigm for excellent corporate ethics, I would more easily identify Johnson and Johnson with baby shampoo than with tylenol (and would’ve probably attributed Tylenol to Proctor and Gamble. Oops [although coincidentally, they had a competitor product that also faced product tampering])

But now, I’ve had the story drilled into my head and I know that the proper answer when asked for a J&J product is always Tylenol.

And what heroism on the part of the upper management of Johnson and Johnson! They made a precipitous and costly product recall in an era when product recalls were unheard of (at least, that’s what everyone says; I wasn’t even alive then.)

And it was a controversial recall too. According to one video interview I watched (man, I wish I had that to link to!), the speaker relates to how J+J had a meeting with the FDA and the FBI, who warned J+J not to pull products of shelves. Their reasoning? If such murders were terrorism, to pull the product of the shelves would be giving in to terrorist demands.

Who knows how far the story has been stretched (there are sites that question how saintly the J+J management truly was)? But still, it has become enshrined — whether fact or fable — as a pinacle of corporate ethics.

On the other hand, we can see some of the dark points in corporate ethics too. Perhaps not told as often as the Tylenol story, but what about the case with the Ford Pinto? Ford, allegedly aware of the flaws in the Pinto’s design and aware of the cost-benefit analysis to fix the issues, determined that the expected costs to deal with any product defect lawsuits would be much less than the cost to fix the design flaw. I guess Grimshaw v. Ford changed that in a hurry.

So, what does this have to do with Mormonism? I was thinking, actually, about a metaphor that is made about Mormon beliefs: defining Mormonism is like nailing jello to a wall. In a review of Latayne Scott’s Latter-Day Cipher, Chanson points out a practical problem of the LDS way of dealing with troublesome doctrines (also discussed on Main Street Plaza a bit):

The book’s central point about Mormonism is that the bad parts of Mormonism’s past are smoothed over, but are still there, right under the surface. The author’s key metaphor is that of a the gas fumes that still linger around the site of a plane crash that took place in the distant past. In Mormon terms, this corresponds to doctrines that are simply deleted from one edition of a manual to the next (see, for example this post on the new Gospel Principles).

This is a very real problem within Mormonism, which I think the author illustrates well: When a Mormon leader teaches doctrine X, and then doctrine X is not mentioned (neither confirmed nor disavowed) in General Conference or any official LDS church publication for several decades, that creates a situation where some Mormons are still actively teaching X as doctrine while other Mormons claim that it’s a pernicious lie to suggest that Mormons believe X. And both groups — those that believe X and those that think essentially no Mormons believe/teach X — are innocently honest and sincere in their (incompatible) beliefs.

Disaffected and ex-Mormons, when we see troublesome historical doctrines, often want to see these doctrines denounced and recalled in a fantastically public Tylenol kind of case. Instead, the church seems to go about a different path — they let the “life cycle” of a doctrine die down naturally and simply quietly discontinue. The problem? The life cycle for plenty of doctrines is quite long, and in the mean time, the confusion can cause social damage.

Is it reasonable to expect “total doctrinal recalls”? Some might think so…after all, the church claims to be the one true church. Ford, for its mistakes, doesn’t claim to be the one true car manufacturer. And even if church leaders are concerned about cost-benefit analyses…and they are confident that some changes would cause more disaffection than they would prevent…what about Jesus’s cost-benefit strategy of concern for the one?

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14 Comments
  1. Dude, you weren’t alive in 1982? Man do I feel old.

    I don’t think that the LDS Church has a responsibility to rehash and reject all its its past doctrinal issues. But I do think they need to be less secretive about the way they deal with things.

    For example, changes in the new Gospel Principles manual have been explained away as “clarifications” among the faithful, and harangued as evil and deliberate white-washing among the disaffected. Would it really be so wrong for them to release something on the web for those curious specifically looking at the individual changes and clarifications made? Notably, elimination of the idea that we become gods – the doctrine isn’t removed, but it has been significantly restricted in the new manual to one sentence in one section of the book (rather than being a pervasive theme). Same thing with the idea of having a Heavenly Mother – her name has been removed in the new manual, and all but one or two references to “Heavenly Parents” have also been eliminated.

    But I digress… I guess what I was trying to say, was that it would be really nice if they were more honest and forthright when changes are made, so that people don’t feel made to feel confused and/or stupid when it comes to what doctrine is doctrine and what doctrine is false.

    Probably more pernicious, though, in my opinion, are actions in recent church publications to re-write recent Church history. For example, with the hellaballu over Prop 8, the church has recently released statements to newspapers indicating that they didn’t tell Mormons in CA to write reps in CA to vote “Yes on 8,” but that they instead indicated that CA Saints should “vote their conscience” and let their legislative representatives know whether they were “in favor or opposition to the referendum”. The difference is huge – CA Saints were given prophetic counsel to give “time, talents, and money” to a specific political cause, and now the Church PR attempts to spin it as encouraging members to be active in local politics. Since I was alive one election cycle ago, I recognize this as just church PR. But it ticks me off in a way I can’t set aside.

    It all reminds me of the movie Gaslight where Ingrid Bergman’s character is made to believe she is crazy, because her husband keeps remembering everything differently from her. (Turns out he was just trying to use misdirection so he could steal from her).

  2. don’t feel old; i’m just a baby (goo goo ga ga etc.,)

    I think that the church isn’t so forthright on purpose. People who want to believe in a heavenly mother can go ahead…people who want to say, “I don’t know if we teach that…” can go ahead. So what about confusion. It allows for a wide range of opinion and position (even if it’s not the ideal way, I guess, to allow for that wide range.)

    I think the prop 8 example is much more disconcerting though, but I see this too as politics (good politics is icky everything else.)

  3. FireTag permalink

    My DAUGHTER spent most of 1982 inside her mother. You guys feel old?????

    FireTag

  4. Alan permalink

    All of this wouldn’t be nearly so thorny a problem if, concurrently with all these shifts and re-focuses and fluctuating emphases and zig-zags in teachings, the Church wasn’t also consistently and relentlessly claiming its bona fides as “the one true Church” with leaders who are receiving constant, continuing revelation.

    This leads some (like me) to say Wait a minute, if the Church is always true and its leaders are inspired, why have they taught such wildly divergent things over the last 150 years?

    Inevitable answer: Revealed truth doesn’t fluctuate so conveniently in tandem with social and cultural changes. Obviously we have to ascribe much GA teaching to personal interpretation and opinion.

    Result: significant individual responsibility to discern what really are core gospel principles and what can safely be smiled or winked at, or even shrugged off, as the philosophies of men.

  5. Alan, I agree. That really is one of the things that I have to get down to whenever I do a comparison. No matter how I like to compare and contrast with things like corporations (and sometimes, people actively suggest that I do that. “Was the church really all that bad…consider what corporation x or government y would do?”)

    But I realize…corporations and governments generally don’t claim they are “one true” organizations with continuous inspiration and revelation.

    I think your inevitable answer is what most members I’ve talked to online have concluded. I think it’s really starting to sink in that we don’t have any infallibility doctrine for the GAs, so people are beginning to drop the cultural expectation of infallibility. Don’t know what the average member necessarily thinks, though, and blogs are probably unrepresentative.

  6. You also have to take into account that a percentage of people who currently believe in infallibility within the LDS Church might be remarkably easy to persuade otherwise. While another percentage might not be.

  7. I was in my mommy’s tummy for the first 16 days of 1982.

    So I guess I technically lived through this. But I was in Alaska at the time, where nothing exciting ever happens.

    Now I’m in Chicago, where we get cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules and UFOs over our major airports. Hooray!

  8. FireTag permalink

    Ms. Jack:

    You don’t regard a place where polar bears and moose live as exciting? What do you need, a flying squirrel?

  9. We lived right next to a forest. The moose kind of got old after a while. They could be a little too friendly and would follow you around the neighborhood while you were trying to sell Girl Scout Cookies, which is bad for business. I did not really appreciate my moose buddies until I’d moved to Washington state, which really is boring in just about every way possible. So boring that I took up chatting up guys on the Internet as a teenager and got involved studying Mormonism.

    I never saw a polar bear anywhere except in a zoo.

    It is funny to look back and realize that Sarah Palin was the sportscaster for the local news station when I was a kid. I am a proud member of the Alaska: Pissing Off Texas Since 1959 Facebook fan page and encourage everyone else to join. I haven’t quite worked myself up to ordering one of those “Texas is Alaska’s Bitch” t-shirts quite yet though.

    I’m sorry Andrew, I hope you weren’t expecting me to be making on-topic comments or something.

    • FireTag permalink

      Yes. (sobering up). If we use evolutionary analogies, say, a polar bear, there are some things you can’t backtrack from.

      Polar bears are committed to live on the ice. They can’t change back to forest camoflage fast enough to avoid starving out as a species if the ice goes away.

      Similarly, I think the LDS have become so specialized to certain conceptions of gender and its connection to earthly and heavenly roles that it can’t easily adapt to changing cultures.

      I don’t think it’s the one true church idea that’s the issue. We in the CofChrist gave it up without struggling over that as much as we struggled over other cultural things, and Catholicism kept the one true church idea while adapting to many cultures.

      • I approve of this comment.

  10. Jack,

    Expect on-topic comments? Nevar!

    I will say this:

    So boring that I took up chatting up guys on the Internet as a teenager and got involved studying Mormonism.

    I know parents and the media are always talking about the terrors of “chatting up guys on the Internet,” but I didn’t think that the thing they were afraid of was of girls studying Mormonism 😉

    • All kinds of bad things can happen to a girl when she’s studying Mormonism! I even lost my virginity to one of those creeps.

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