Nothing Personal by George Merrill

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The tragic history of the Ford Pinto is an old story. However, it illustrates how people in groups often behave in ways they never would in their private lives.

In 1968, the idea of the Ford Pinto was conceived. It was designed to compete with the small cars with which the Japanese had successfully flooded the American market. Lee Iacocca pushed aggressively to get the car on the market. The program was given a delivery deadline of just 25 months, a record time in the industry.

Design flaws soon appeared. One was significant. The gas tank was easily punctured and could catch fire. Management was determined to get the car into production. They did a cost-benefit analysis. To rectify the flaw would cost eleven dollars a vehicle. The cost was weighed against the projected injury claims for severe burns, repair costs, and other claims including liability for death. The total repair costs would have been approximately one hundred million including production delays and parts for thousands of cars. According to Ford’s calculations, damage payouts would cost only forty million. The Pinto went into production in 1970 without addressing the design flaw. The Pinto was hot, in more than one way.

The decision to go ahead and manufacture the Pinto was decided in the atmosphere of a cooperate boardroom. The decisions to weigh the human factors against company profit goals were intentionally calculated. To me, the deliberations seemed reminiscent of the moral vacuity and emotional detachment Nazis exhibited when discussing their policies. They sought the most economic means to execute their corporate policy that history knows as the final solution. An overstatement, maybe, but the moral detachment in both deliberations can’t be ignored.Admittedly this is an old incident but illustrative of corporate malignancy. Similar incidents of corporations signing off on fraudulent dealings like Volkswagen’s fudging on diesel emissions and Enron cooking the books with devastating effects on employees.

I am guessing that many of the executives supporting the decision to produce the car and go for profit were average family men who lived in nice homes and loved their wives and children. They were not by nature monstrous and without feeling. I’m sure many had religious connections, and presumably gave generously to community causes. As many corporate leaders frequently are, they were pillars of the community. Can their decisions be dismissed as nothing personal, just business?

My question is how is it an average person leaves basic human values at the boardroom door?

The biblical tale of the unclean spirit has one suggestion.

“When an evil spirit goes out of a person, it travels over dry country looking for a place to rest. If it can’t find one, it says to itself, ‘I will go back to my house.’ So, it goes back and finds the house empty, clean, and all fixed up. Then it goes out and brings along seven other spirits even worse than itself, and they come and live there. So, when it is all over, that person is in worse shape than at the beginning. This is what will happen to the evil people of this day.”

The evil spirit, as the parable goes, having been exorcized from the demoniac, eventually returns. Why? Because the empty spaces its original exit created were never filled. There was no one home. Spiritual emptiness invites all kinds of mischief.

Values make a difference.

A look at the recent immigration crisis illustrates the point. The decision to separate the children from parents was made ostensibly to follow the law. Where the decision was made, compassion never entered the decision.

Nothing personal; just politics

In the evolution of humanity’s moral development certain values emerged as timeless. They don’t make headlines today, as you might well imagine. We’re far more familiar with the seven deadly sins. But here are the seven heavenly virtues: chastity (fidelity); temperance (moderation); charity (aiding the disadvantaged); diligence (being focused and responsible); patience (not acting impulsively); kindness (benignly disposed to others); and last, but not least, humility (don’t think more highly of yourself than you ought.)

I’ve wondered whether if a conscious awareness of half these virtues had been inculcated in the interior lives of those Ford executives signing off on the Pinto’s production, would the results have been different? Would the appetite for financial gain and economic power still dominate? Internalized values serve as a moderating influence in human interactions, whether in politics, business or in domestic affairs.

Ironically, a mother’s relationship to her child is probably one of the most intimate, self-giving and sacrificial in the human equation. The peculiarities of this maternal bond incarnate some of the timeless human values: kindness, patience, and humility. I include humility here because as every mom soon learns, her needs are not going to be the priority for a long time. That’s humbling.

What, then?

The question remains: How will we, average Americans, fundamentally decent people, behave collectively when we, symbolically speaking, meet at the boardroom to vote on our future? Will we leave our conscience at the door, and simply run the numbers, or will our deliberations include guidance by the values of our common humanity?

This is about as personal as it can get.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Letters to Editor

  1. Rod Coleman says:

    Thank you for this essay. I’m glad to be reminded occasionally that not being bad isn’t really enough….we need to be good as well.

    Hard to imagine our current President exhibiting any of those seven virtues – or even caring to try. Not a good example for future generations of citizens and leaders.

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