I don't know if I coined this term; I rather doubt it. Nonetheless, I find it a useful one, and have even used it in ethics classes that I have taught. Immediately, the class gets the sense of what I am talking about, when I refer to "flexible ethics."
Maybe that is because examples abound, and perhaps in our time, seem to multiply. Exponentially.
Take, for example, the peanut company whose executives are being allowed (at the point of this writing) to plead the Fifth Amendment in regard to shipping peanuts which they knew contained salmonella. It seems obvious that they knew this, by their readiness to plead the Fifth.
No doubt, justice will prevail. The evidence will, hopefully, convict them anyway, and with any kind of rationale, they will be punished severely. Salmonella infection, for those who do not know, is harmful, painful, and potentially fatal.
Among the more revolting realities present in this story is the fact that the contaminated peanuts were found in, primarily, peanut butter. I would think it safe to say children are the largest consumers of peanut butter in the population.
Since the executives who pled the Fifth refused, at the Congressional hearing, to eat samples of their own peanut products, perhaps they would volunteer their children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces to form a test group.
I thought not.
I realize it is one’s Constitutional right to plead the Fifth Amendment, and thus avoid incriminating oneself. The flexible ethics I refer to go beyond refusing to admit the truth, to the core of the matter.
What kind of marginal human being would deliberately allow, or cut corners and take a chance on, releasing disease bearing food products into the market place?
Perhaps I am a relic of a different time, a different place, a different era. Since I am only 53, though, I kind of doubt it. I kind of suspect that the CEO of this company, one of those who refused to testify, is very likely older than I am.
Older, but perhaps not wiser. I am a person of faith, though not perfect faith, and recently harshly tested.
One need not be a person of faith to find "flexible ethics" abhorrent. In fact, one of the questions I always ask my ethics and philosophy classes is, can one be an ethical person and be an atheis?
The answer, of course, is yes. One may adhere to a personal ethical standard, not in hope of some future life reward, but simply because one wants to leave behind a better world than now exists, or because one intrinsically values other aspects of creation, humans included.
During the latter part of the previous presidential administration, a bumper sticker became popular: “If You're Not Outraged, You're Not Paying Attention.” Removing the political implications, what if we apply this to CEO buyouts, salmonella infected peanuts, and the other examples of flexible ethics in our society?
I was recently explaining to a high school junior, in regard to a term paper, that we cannot legislate attitude, but we can legislate behavior, and within a generation or two, attitude will follow.
So long as men and women of position, experience and decision-making status manage to slip through the legal system with flexible ethics, we cannot expect to see accountability and change.
The peanut butter story is, at this writing, yet unresolved. Let's hope it has a just ending.
Clyde Davis is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Portales and a college instructor. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org