Corporate Ethics, Mormonism, and the Total Product Recall
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?