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The plot thus presents the generally accepted method of attaining respectability (the modern version of salvation). In short, do good works to balance your immoral conduct, but above all, don't get caught in your bad deeds.

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Changing Lanes, Changing Values

by Rob Waring

The film Changing Lanes deals with a frequent source of ethical tension in the cinema by revisiting the question: Can salvation be attained by good works? This age old quandary provided much fuel for the Protestant Reformation centuries ago, and remains a box office draw today.

In the film, Ben Affleck plays Gavin Banek, a young lawyer who is just about to leave his idealism behind as he motors down the expressway of corporate law. He works at big law firm headed by his father in law Stephen Delano, played by Sydney Pollack, last seen in Eyes Wide Shut, in another of his evil insider roles. An accident brings out the worst in Banek's character , as he stops at nothing to win a case that he does not believe in. His firm's attempt to cover his mistakes forces him to confront the firm's illegal and unethical tactics, which include forgery and filing false documents.

In a memorable speech to Banek, his father in law berates him, urging him to drop his idealistic pretense and play the game as unethically as everyone else. Delano reminds him that nearly every philanthropic attempt to do good is paid for by companies or individuals who have exploited the weak. Control of a charitable foundation is at stake, and Delano ticks off a list of environmental and labor crimes that funded it. If Banek will just play along, like Delano, he'll have power, money and the pretense of respectability. He can even do probono work to erase the stain of the law firm's fraud. If he does not cooperate and instead reports the fraud he has discovered, it could bring down their entire firm and his marriage to Delano's daughter.

The plot thus presents the generally accepted method of attaining respectability (the modern version of salvation). In short, do good works to balance your immoral conduct, but above all, don't get caught in your bad deeds. Too much publicity about evil conduct can erase the protection brought by good works.

Recently, The New York Times published a special report, in conjunction with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and PBS's Frontline, on McWane Inc., an Alabama based manufacturer of cast iron pipe. If the New York Times is to be believe, McWane has one of the worst environmental and worker safety records of any U.S. Corporation. The company appears to follow Delano's credo, and puts extraordinary effort into not getting caught B staying one step ahead of the law. In addition, the family owned business has given millions to Alabama charities. As a result, many Alabamians have a favorable view of McWane for its generosity, and know nothing of its reckless indifference to human life. It will be interesting to see if the report has any effect on McWane's fortunes.

Perhaps there ought to be an absolute level of evil that can never be outweighed by good deeds. Banek does eventually draw such a line, but where society should draw the line is a source of much dispute. As a nation we ought to say that genocide is never acceptable, but in some situations we do tolerate its practice by some of our allies, particularly if they are not caught in the act. (U.S. opposition to the International Criminal Court was supposed to be about fears it would be used against Americans, but perhaps the fear is more that it might impair our alliances with unsavory dictators.) We ought to say that reckless indifference to human life is never permitted, but we do tolerate this behavior by wealthy corporations, in part because they buy acceptance with campaign contributions and philanthropy.

Critics claim that the company invests great effort in staying one step ahead of regulators and prosecutors, because getting caught might tip the equation that allows it a certain respectability. Both McWane and Changing Lanes illustrate the lengths to which some evil doers will go to keep their criminal behavior out of the public eye. In the movies, where justice usually prevails, the evil law firm cowers before a potential whistle-blower. In real life, where money and power determine justice, McWane just keeps on making pipe.

Posted February 24, 2003

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