A theme here at ethics alarms is that ethics, unlike morality, is fluid and dynamic. Society gains in ethical enlightenment over time with reflection and experience.
Since I have been severely limited in my activity of late, I found myself watching an episode of the classic sitcom “The Andy Griffith Show.” Many, indeed most, of the popular shows from the Fifties-Sixties era feel stilted and naive today, but not all of them: “The Andy Griffith Show” is one that holds up beautifully. Like many TV shows then (but few today), the continuing saga of Sheriff Andy Taylor’s challenges as a single dad and the center of sanity in a small town full of Southern eccentrics often focused on societal values and ethics lessons, though it never crossed into preachiness.
The episode I happened across, “One Punch Opie,” was about peer pressure and bullying. A new kid in town is bullying the other children to do things they shouldn’t, like raid Mr. Foley’s fruit and vegetable stands outside his store and steal apples and tomatoes. When Opie (the then-unbearably cute Ron Howard) refuses to follow the gang, the much larger kid threatens him. Opie ultimately confronts the boy who quickly proves that he is a coward, and backs down, ending his malign influence over the other boys.
The bullying theme was not what struck me about the episode, however. The new kid breaks a street lamp with an apple, and Sheriff Andy has Opie round up the other boys who witnessed the crime so he can have a chat with them. (The troublemaking new kid refuses to come along.) The boys all say they witnessed the act, but didn’t throw the fateful fruit. Andy tells them that he’ll let their error in judgment go this time, but the next time, he’ll tell their fathers. “And you know what that means,” Andy says. “It means you’ll get a whippin’!”
Yes, in 1962, a wise and reliably benign TV authority figure casually referenced corporal punishment—probably with a belt, no less, as Andy didn’t say “spanking”—- as a fact of childhood and responsible parenting. Nobody blinked. Sixty years later, such a statement would cause an uproar, and be considered an endorsement of child abuse.
What accepted conduct today will seem equally wrongful in sixty years?