Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics Through Movies 1444332872, 9781444332872

Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics Through Movies is an engaging and innovative approach to the study of philosophy and

462 63 4MB

English Pages 367 [385] Year 2012

Report DMCA / Copyright


Table of contents :
Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies
0.0 Introduction to the Text
Where We Go From Here
Structure of the Text
Works Cited
Online Resources
Unit 1 The Human Condition
1.0 Introduction to Unit 1
Tools for the Journey
Aristotle’s Poetics and the Six Components of a Movie
Works Cited
1.1 Authenticity
The Ethical Framework: Existential Philosophy
SPOTLIGHT: Groundhog Day
SPOTLIGHT: Up in the Air
Short Takes: Revolutionary Road
Outtakes: Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Paulain (Amélie)
Short Takes: The Visitor
Outtakes: Alice and Midnight in Paris
Works Cited
Online Resources
Discussion Questions
1.2 Personal Identity
SPOTLIGHT: The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum
Short Takes: All of Me
Short Takes: Big
Short Takes: Prelude to a Kiss
Outtakes: The Unmistaken Child
Outtakes: Lât Den Rätte Kama In (Let the Right One In)
Outtakes: Being John Malkovich and Memento
Works Cited
Online Resources
Discussion Questions
1.3 Autonomy and Liberty
SPOTLIGHT: Million Dollar Baby
SPOTLIGHT: District 9
SPOTLIGHT: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Short Takes: The Shawshank Redemption
Outtakes: The Soloist
Outtakes: K-19: The Widowmaker
Outtakes: Yogen (Premonition)
Works Cited
Online Resources
Discussion Questions
1.4 Courage and Inner Strength
SPOTLIGHT: The Hurt Locker
SPOTLIGHT: The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day
SPOTLIGHT: El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth)
Short Takes: Die Hard
Outtakes: Dirty Pretty Things
Outtakes: Thunderheart
Works Cited
Online Resources
Discussion Questions
Unit 2 Ethical Theory
2.0 Introduction to Unit 2
Moral Agency
Applying the Theories
Works Cited
Online Resources
Discussion Questions
2.1 Ethical Egoism
The Ethical Framework: Ethical Egoism
SPOTLIGHT: What About Bob?
SPOTLIGHT: The Proposal
Short Takes: Clueless
Outtakes: The Social Network
Outtakes: The Purple Rose of Cairo
Outtakes: Solitary Man
Outtakes: Ghost Town
Works Cited
Online Resources
Discussion Questions
2.2 Cultural Relativism
The Ethical Framework: Cultural Relativism
SPOTLIGHT: Gran Torino
SPOTLIGHT: Mutluluk (Bliss)
Short Takes: Boyz N the Hood
Short Takes: The Godfather
Outtakes: The Namesake
Works Cited
Online Resources
Discussion Questions
2.3 Utilitarianism
The Ethical Framework: Utilitarianism
SPOTLIGHT: Minority Report
Short Takes: The Manchurian Candidate
Short Takes: Torchwood: Children of Earth
Short Takes: Secrecy
Outtakes: Star Chamber
Outtakes: Inception
Works Cited
Online Resources
Discussion Questions
2.4 Kantian Ethics
The Ethical Framework: Kantian Ethics
SPOTLIGHT: The Truman Show
SPOTLIGHT: School of Rock
Short Takes: La Historia Oficial (The Official Story) and Cautiva (Captive)
Short Takes: Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring
Outtakes: Shattered Glass
Works Cited
Online Resources
Discussion Questions
2.5 Rawls’ Justice Theory
The Ethical Framework: Rawls’ “Justice As Fairness”
SPOTLIGHT: My Cousin Vinny
SPOTLIGHT: The Accused and The Brave One
Short Takes: Michael Clayton
Short Takes: John Q
Short Takes: Stand and Deliver
Outtakes: El Secreto de Sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes)
Outtakes: Food, Inc. and Darwin’s Nightmare
Works Cited
Online Resources
Discussion Questions
2.6 Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics
The Ethical Framework: Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics
SPOTLIGHT: The Insider
SPOTLIGHT: To Kill a Mockingbird
Short Takes: Idiocracy
Short Takes: Lethal Weapon 2
Outtakes: Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Taxi to the Dark Side
Works Cited
Online Resources
Discussion Questions
2.7 Feminist Ethics
The Ethical Framework: Feminist Ethics
SPOTLIGHT: Pleasantville
Short Takes: Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Short Takes: Secrets and Lies
Outtakes: Salt
Works Cited
Online Resources
Discussion Questions
Unit 3 Ethical Dilemmas
3.0 Introduction to Unit 3
Works Cited
Online Resources
3.1 Confronting the Dilemma
Setting Up the Dilemma
Short Takes: Fearless and The Sweet Hereafter
Short Takes: The Fabulous Baker Boys and Crazy Heart
Outtakes: Juno
Outtakes: Slumdog Millionaire
Works Cited
Online Resources
Discussion Questions
3.2 Encountering Evil
SPOTLIGHT: Silence of the Lambs
SPOTLIGHT: The Dark Knight and The Empire Strikes Back
SPOTLIGHT: Wizard of Oz
Short Takes: Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)
Short Takes: The Matrix
Outtakes: Fanny and Alexander
Outtakes: Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog)
Works Cited
Online Resources
Discussion Questions
3.3 Impact of Perspective
Assessing the Impact of Diverse Perspectives
Frames of Reference
SPOTLIGHT: House of Sand and Fog
SPOTLIGHT: Powwow Highway
Short Takes: Så som i himmele (As it is in Heaven)
Outtakes: Mississippi Masala
Outtakes: Paradise Now
Works Cited
Online Resources
Discussion Questions
3.4 Reflecting on Ethical Decisions
Ethical Reflection
SPOTLIGHT: Touching the Void
SPOTLIGHT: Sleep Dealer
Short Takes: Thelma & Louise
Short Takes: The Verdict
Short Takes: North Country
Outtakes: Efter brylluppe (After the Wedding)
Works Cited
Online Resources
Discussion Questions
Unit 4 Conclusion and Sources
4.0 Conclusion to the Text
Works Cited
4.1 Reading List
4.2 Contemporary Moral Problems
4.3 Official Websites
Recommend Papers

Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics Through Movies
 1444332872, 9781444332872

  • 0 0 0
  • Like this paper and download? You can publish your own PDF file online for free in a few minutes! Sign Up
File loading please wait...
Citation preview



Wanda Teays is truly an original thinker and captivating writer. Now I know how to answer the question “Have you seen any good movies lately?” Teays analyzes the ethical content of a battery of classical and very recent films, and I can’t wait to get a copy of the book and teach it. What an intellectual and emotional blast that will be. Rosemarie Tong, UNC Charlotte

Visit the SeeingThe Light website at: or using your smartphone via the QR code. Cover image: Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty in Blade Runner (1982) © Photos 12 / Alamy Cover design by


Wanda Teays is a professor of philosophy and ethics at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, where she is also Chair of the Philosophy Department. She is the author or editor of numerous books and articles on ethics, global justice, and critical reasoning, including Bioethics and Culture; Bioethics, Justice, and Health Care; and Second Thoughts: Critical Thinking for a Diverse Society.


In a visual culture such as ours, movies represent a compelling and surprisingly effective vehicle for ethical reflection. Through the stories that unfold on the big screen—everything from The Wizard of Oz to the Bourne trilogy—viewers can gain profound insights into the moral dimension of their own lives. By a close analysis of a variety of popular movies, foreign films, and documentaries, Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics Through Movies represents an innovative approach to the study of ethics and the development of moral reasoning skills. Initial chapters focus on the human condition as a springboard for ethical reflection, followed by coverage of how seven major ethical theories can provide a framework for analyzing movies for their moral message. Later chapters reveal how movies help us reflect on ethical decision-making. A diverse range of classic and contemporary films are woven throughout the text to illustrate each argument. Filled with illuminating insights and thoughtful reflection, Seeing the Light reveals an ethical microcosm in the world of film that can help us think more clearly about the choices we face and decisions we make in the real world.


This is a wonderful book! Film is a dynamic vehicle to engage philosophy. You should buy this book if you want to energize your teaching or if you’re looking for new avenues for your research. Teays has got it spot on. Michael Boylan, Marymount University






Part I.indd 10

12/9/2011 6:44:07 PM

Seeing the Light

Ffirs.indd i

12/9/2011 6:44:28 PM

To Anthea You spread happiness like rose petals tossed in the wind, covering everything, touching everyone.

Ffirs.indd ii

12/9/2011 6:44:29 PM

Seeing the Light Exploring Ethics through Movies Wanda Teays

A John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., Publication

Ffirs.indd iii

12/9/2011 6:44:29 PM

This edition first published 2012 © 2012 Wanda Teays Blackwell Publishing was acquired by John Wiley & Sons in February 2007. Blackwell’s publishing program has been merged with Wiley’s global Scientific, Technical, and Medical business to form Wiley‐Blackwell. Registered Office John Wiley & Sons Ltd, The Atrium, Southern Gate, Chichester, West Sussex, PO19 8SQ, UK Editorial Offices 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148–5020, USA 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK The Atrium, Southern Gate, Chichester, West Sussex, PO19 8SQ, UK For details of our global editorial offices, for customer services, and for information about how to apply for permission to reuse the copyright material in this book please see our website at‐blackwell. The right of Wanda Teays to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, except as permitted by the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, without the prior permission of the publisher. Wiley also publishes its books in a variety of electronic formats. Some content that appears in print may not be available in electronic books. Designations used by companies to distinguish their products are often claimed as trademarks. All brand names and product names used in this book are trade names, service marks, trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners. The publisher is not associated with any product or vendor mentioned in this book. This publication is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold on the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering professional services. If professional advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional should be sought. Library of Congress Cataloging‐in‐Publication Data Teays, Wanda. Seeing the light : exploring ethics through movies / Wanda Teays. – 1st ed. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-1-4443-3287-2 (hardback) – ISBN 978-1-4443-3288-9 (paperback) 1. Ethics in motion pictures. I. Title. PN1995.5.T395 2012 175–dc23 2011038086 A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. This book is published in the following electronic formats: ePDFs 9781444355857; ePub 9781444355864; Mobi 9781444355871 Set in 10/12pt Galliard by SPi Publisher Services, Pondicherry, India


Ffirs.indd iv


12/9/2011 6:44:29 PM


Preface Acknowledgments 0.0 Introduction to the Text Where We Go From Here Structure of the Text Works Cited Online Resources

Unit 1

The Human Condition

1.0 Introduction to Unit 1 Tools for the Journey Aristotle’s Poetics and the Six Components of a Movie Works Cited

1.1 Authenticity The Ethical Framework: Existential Philosophy SPOTLIGHT: Groundhog Day SPOTLIGHT: Up in the Air Short Takes: Revolutionary Road Outtakes: Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Paulain (Amélie) Short Takes: The Visitor Outtakes: Alice and Midnight in Paris Works Cited Online Resources Discussion Questions

1.2 Personal Identity SPOTLIGHT: Avatar SPOTLIGHT: The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum Short Takes: All of Me Short Takes: Big

Ftoc.indd v

xi xvi 1 5 6 7 7

9 11 14 15 21 22 23 24 30 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 45 48 52 55

12/9/2011 6:44:16 PM


Contents Short Takes: Prelude to a Kiss Outtakes: The Unmistaken Child Outtakes: Lât Den Rätte Kama In (Let the Right One In) Outtakes: Being John Malkovich and Memento Works Cited Online Resources Discussion Questions

1.3 Autonomy and Liberty SPOTLIGHT: Million Dollar Baby SPOTLIGHT: District 9 SPOTLIGHT: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days Short Takes: The Shawshank Redemption Outtakes: The Soloist Outtakes: K-19: The Widowmaker Outtakes: Yogen (Premonition) Works Cited Online Resources Discussion Questions

1.4 Courage and Inner Strength SPOTLIGHT: The Hurt Locker SPOTLIGHT: The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day SPOTLIGHT: El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) Short Takes: Die Hard Outtakes: Dirty Pretty Things Outtakes: Thunderheart Works Cited Online Resources Discussion Questions

Unit 2 Ethical Theory 2.0 Introduction to Unit 2 Moral Agency Applying the Theories Works Cited Online Resources Discussion Questions

2.1 Ethical Egoism The Ethical Framework: Ethical Egoism SPOTLIGHT: What About Bob? SPOTLIGHT: The Proposal Short Takes: Clueless Outtakes: The Social Network

Ftoc.indd vi

55 57 58 58 59 60 61 62 64 67 73 75 77 77 78 79 80 81 82 85 88 91 96 97 98 99 99 100

101 103 104 105 115 115 116 117 119 121 125 128 130

12/9/2011 6:44:16 PM

Contents Outtakes: The Purple Rose of Cairo Outtakes: Solitary Man Outtakes: Ghost Town Works Cited Online Resources Discussion Questions

2.2 Cultural Relativism The Ethical Framework: Cultural Relativism SPOTLIGHT: Witness SPOTLIGHT: Gran Torino SPOTLIGHT: Mutluluk (Bliss) Short Takes: Boyz N the Hood Short Takes: The Godfather Outtakes: The Namesake Works Cited Online Resources Discussion Questions

2.3 Utilitarianism The Ethical Framework: Utilitarianism SPOTLIGHT: Outbreak SPOTLIGHT: Minority Report Short Takes: The Manchurian Candidate Short Takes: Torchwood: Children of Earth Short Takes: Secrecy Outtakes: Star Chamber Outtakes: Inception Works Cited Online Resources Discussion Questions

2.4 Kantian Ethics The Ethical Framework: Kantian Ethics SPOTLIGHT: Alien SPOTLIGHT: The Truman Show SPOTLIGHT: School of Rock Short Takes: La Historia Oficial (The Official Story) and Cautiva (Captive) Short Takes: Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring Outtakes: Shattered Glass Works Cited Online Resources Discussion Questions

Ftoc.indd vii

vii 131 132 133 133 134 134 135 136 138 140 142 144 145 147 148 149 149 150 151 153 155 158 159 160 162 163 165 166 166 167 169 171 176 178 180 182 183 184 185 185

12/9/2011 6:44:16 PM



2.5 Rawls’ Justice Theory The Ethical Framework: Rawls’ “Justice As Fairness” SPOTLIGHT: My Cousin Vinny SPOTLIGHT: The Accused and The Brave One Short Takes: Michael Clayton Short Takes: John Q Short Takes: Stand and Deliver Outtakes: El Secreto de Sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes) Outtakes: Food, Inc. and Darwin’s Nightmare Works Cited Online Resources Discussion Questions

2.6 Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics The Ethical Framework: Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics SPOTLIGHT: The Insider SPOTLIGHT: To Kill a Mockingbird Short Takes: Idiocracy Short Takes: Lethal Weapon 2 Outtakes: Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Taxi to the Dark Side Works Cited Online Resources Discussion Questions

2.7 Feminist Ethics The Ethical Framework: Feminist Ethics SPOTLIGHT: Pleasantville SPOTLIGHT: The Island Short Takes: Terminator 2: Judgment Day Short Takes: Secrets and Lies Outtakes: Salt Works Cited Online Resources Discussion Questions

Unit 3 Ethical Dilemmas 3.0 Introduction to Unit 3 Works Cited Online Resources

3.1 Confronting the Dilemma Setting Up the Dilemma SPOTLIGHT: Fargo SPOTLIGHT: Vitus

Ftoc.indd viii

186 188 190 193 197 199 201 203 204 205 205 206 207 208 210 214 218 219 220 223 223 224 225 226 230 234 237 239 240 241 242 242

245 247 251 251 253 254 258 263

12/9/2011 6:44:16 PM

Contents ix Short Takes: Fearless and The Sweet Hereafter Short Takes: The Fabulous Baker Boys and Crazy Heart Outtakes: Juno Outtakes: Slumdog Millionaire Works Cited Online Resources Discussion Questions

3.2 Encountering Evil SPOTLIGHT: Silence of the Lambs SPOTLIGHT: The Dark Knight and The Empire Strikes Back SPOTLIGHT: Wizard of Oz Short Takes: Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) Short Takes: The Matrix Outtakes: Fanny and Alexander Outtakes: Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) Works Cited Online Resources Discussion Questions

3.3 Impact of Perspective Assessing the Impact of Diverse Perspectives Frames of Reference SPOTLIGHT: House of Sand and Fog SPOTLIGHT: 21 Grams SPOTLIGHT: Powwow Highway Short Takes: Så som i himmele (As it is in Heaven) Outtakes: Mississippi Masala Outtakes: Paradise Now Works Cited Online Resources Discussion Questions

3.4 Reflecting on Ethical Decisions Ethical Reflection SPOTLIGHT: Touching the Void SPOTLIGHT: Sleep Dealer Short Takes: Thelma & Louise Short Takes: The Verdict Short Takes: North Country Outtakes: Efter brylluppe (After the Wedding) Works Cited Online Resources Discussion Questions

Ftoc.indd ix

265 267 268 268 269 269 270 271 274 277 280 283 284 285 285 287 288 288 289 290 291 292 295 298 302 304 304 305 305 306 307 308 311 315 318 320 321 324 325 325 326

12/9/2011 6:44:16 PM



Unit 4 Conclusion and Sources 4.0 Conclusion to the Text Works Cited

Ftoc.indd x

327 329 332

4.1 Reading List


4.2 Contemporary Moral Problems


4.3 Official Websites




12/9/2011 6:44:16 PM


I will tell you something about stories, [he said] They aren't just entertainment. Don't be fooled … You don't have anything if you don't have the stories. —Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony I will tell you something about movies. They aren't just entertainment; they are powerful ways to see into the workings of our minds and hearts. With movies, we can get a better sense of what we are doing here, why we are doing it, and what in the world we need to do to bring about the changes we seek. If you love movies or like to come at philosophical concepts and ethics from the ground up, this book is for you. If you are fascinated by characters who are wrestling over decisions, trying to be true to their values, and reflecting on the choices they made, then you're in the right place. And if you like the interplay between ideas and theories and what we see on screen, welcome to Seeing the Light. We don't have anything if we don't have the stories, as Leslie Marmon Silko says. Stories—the backbone of the movies we see—keep hope alive, give us a glimpse of what we are capable of, help us see more clearly, and reflect on the decisions we make. “Stories make you live right. Stories make you replace yourself,” Benton Lewis told anthropologist Keith Basso. How right he was! The power of movies goes far beyond one-liners etched inside our skulls. They set in motion thoughts and ideas that enable us to get a better moral grip. They inspire us to look beyond this or that movie to our own lives, to the lives of others, and to the society as a whole. We gain insight into moral reasoning in general and our own thought processes in particular. As a philosophy professor who teaches ethics and problem solving (e.g., in critical thinking, logic, philosophy of law, bioethics, and contemporary moral problems), I wanted a book to reflect on ethics and explore the moral territory in a way that was neither dry nor abstract. Bring it to life! Aristotle was right to see the power of art and particularly drama (thus, movies) to help us develop moral character. Going into this territory and writing this book seemed right on target. Thus this project.

fpref.indd xi

12/9/2011 6:44:19 PM



Goals of this Book This is a book about movies giving us insight into ethics, and ethical theories helping us deepen our moral awareness through the stories unfolding on screen. We see characters navigating through murky ethical waters, struggling with adversity, being called to do the right thing, to act with integrity (which some do, some don't), facing moral dilemmas and making decisions (some wise, others less so), and dealing with the consequences that follow. We stand to gain by understanding the ethical core of a movie, how we are shown what happens as a result of this or that decision. How often we identify with the characters or the dilemmas they face varies with the particulars of our own lives. But even if we never have to face flood or famine, viral outbreaks or invaders from other worlds, serial killers or murderous zombies, it is nevertheless true that we will know hardship and we will face choices between good and evil, justice and injustice. Whether you are teacher or student, in a film club or just one of those people who enjoy contemplating the movies they see, there's a lot to learn from the interplay of ethics and film. This book offers you tools for understanding ethics, for examining the dimensions of moral reasoning, and for thinking about its role in our lives—all on a playing field of movies, movies, movies. The many films here pull us in and give us a front row seat on ethical decision-making.

Key Features of this Book User-Friendly. This book presumes no background in ethical theory or philosophy. Nor does it assume you are versed in esoteric elements of film theory. It is written for people who want to journey into the realm of ethics and value theory and get a better sense of its impact on each of us—both individually and collectively. Diverse Range of Movies. The movies range across a spectrum from classics to blockbusters and action films to independent and foreign films. They range from megahits like The Dark Knight and the Bourne trilogy to classics like The Shawshank Redemption and The Godfather; from Indies and foreign films, like Atanarjuat, and District 9 to documentaries, like Food, Inc. and Taxi to the Dark Side. So many interesting movies to think about! Solid Introduction to Ethical Theories. The seven major ethical theories are covered in this book—from the Consequentialists (Ethical Egoists, Cultural Relativists, and Utilitarians) to the Duty-based Deontological Ethicists Immanuel Kant and John Rawls and on to Aristotle's Virtue Ethics and Feminist Ethicists. Each theory is brought to life with its application to a variety of contemporary movies.

fpref.indd xii

12/9/2011 6:44:20 PM

Preface xiii Balanced Approach. We start with the existential level (Unit 1), move on to ethical frameworks and theories (Unit 2) and then reflect on ethical dilemmas and decision-making (Unit 3). For those wanting to emphasize ethical theory, you could start with Unit 2 or even Unit 3 and then go from there. Good Quantity to Pick From. Each chapter touches on between six and nine movies, with two or three looked at in more depth. Together, they offer insight into moral reasoning and its significance in our lives. Works Well With Different Approaches. Focus on either themes/issues or the movies themselves—or some of both! The first gives an ethical framework to take to the movies for example and explication; the second uses the movies as a vehicle for exploring ideas and understanding moral reasoning. Use short clips from the movies to show moral quandaries or let the discussions open the door for more careful study of the movies (and theories) themselves. Flexible Structure. Units and chapters can be read in any order. The order of the three units reflects how our moral reasoning evolves. We start with the existential level of our individual lives and then turn to ethical theories and how best to incorporate those frameworks in our moral reasoning. We end the book on the ways we reflect on ethical dilemmas, the decisions made and actions taken—and adjust as we see fit. Shifting them around, however, allows different ways to approach the subject and suit the pedagogical objectives of the instructor or film group. Wide Coverage. Movies are covered in depth (“Spotlight”), more narrowly (“Short Takes”), or flagged for future study (“Outtakes”). In this way, we can see how movies illustrate and explore ethical decision-making and other aspects of the moral dimension in imaginative and insightful ways. Tools and Techniques. Seeing the Light gives us the tools for watching other movies and not just the ones included here. The techniques used in approaching films and the insights you've gained will be ready for deployment as you watch movies in theatres or in the comfort of your own home. Useful References and Resources. Each chapter includes a list of ethics links, articles and books on the subject, as well as online references. At the end of Seeing the Light are general references to guide those who want to explore other resources or do more in-depth research in the field. Handy Table of Official Websites. A table of Official Websites of the films we examine can be found in the book's appendix so you can have this information at your fingertips. Discussion Questions. Each chapter ends with discussion questions. They help us highlight the issues, see the connections between the theories and the various films, and delve deeper into the topics. They are useful for faculty and students,

fpref.indd xiii

12/9/2011 6:44:20 PM



film groups, or anyone seeking to reflect on concerns and principles that are raised in the chapters. Nifty Website. The worldwide web is a powerful tool and we benefit from that. At you'll find a host of resources that keeps on growing. This includes interviews, film links, references on ethics, advice on using this book, resources for students and instructors, and tips for film groups. There'll also be more put under the spotlight, as thought-provoking movies come out in theatres or on DVD. Check out the website of Seeing the Light at

Organization of This Book There are three units and 15 chapters. The units are: (1) the Human Condition, (2) Ethical Theories, and (3) Ethical Dilemmas. Unit 1 takes us into the realm of the human condition—authenticity, personal identity, autonomy and liberty, and courage—where we see ethics up close and personal. Here Existentialism's emphasis on individual existence is particularly useful to flesh out the issues and concerns. Unit 2 goes into the realm of ethical theory, where we are introduced to the thinkers and their tools. We start with Ethical Egoism with its emphasis on selfinterest, and end with Feminist Ethics, with its emphasis on care, relationships, and relative moral status. Each theory is then taken to a selection of movies, for us to get a clearer vision of the moral life. Unit 3 presents ethical dilemmas, where we face moral hurdles and may have to make some very difficult decisions. This calls us to consider the obstacles in our path and how best to tackle them. Together the sections present an exploration through movies into the realm of ethics. Let's now turn to the layout of the chapters.

The Structural Nitty Gritty UNIT 1: The Human Condition. Here we look at some key ethical concerns of our everyday lives. For this, Existential philosophy gives us effective tools to explore the moral terrain. The chapters here look at authenticity, personal identity, autonomy and liberty, and, courage and inner strength. Each chapter explores the issues and draws from a great collection of mostly contemporary movies to bring the ideas to life. UNIT 2: Ethical Theories. Here we look at seven major ethical theories, one to a chapter to allow an in-depth discussion and to keep the aspects of the theories clear in our minds. We go from Teleological Ethics (focused on consequences)

fpref.indd xiv

12/9/2011 6:44:20 PM

Preface xv to Deontological Ethics (focused on moral duty), to Aristotle (focused on moral character) and the Feminist Ethics (focused on relationships and dynamics of power). Each theory is used as an ethical framework for understanding movies and giving us a handle for setting out the ethical dilemmas the chapter moves set out. The unit starts with Consequentialism (three chapters—Ethical Egoism, Cultural Relativism, and Utilitarianism). These three theories favor moral reasoning that aims at maximizing favorable outcomes, while minimizing harms. They differ as to whose interests should prevail in the balance of weighing pros and cons. In the next two chapters we examine the Deontological Ethics of Immanuel Kant (who wants to universalize moral decision-making) and John Rawls (who focuses on the quest for justice). These two theories emphasize moral duty, intentions, and obligations over potential consequences of ethical decisionmaking. Individual rights factor into this equation. We end Unit 2, the theory section, with a chapter on Aristotle's Virtue Ethics and one on Feminist Ethics. These two theories share a focus on moral character and leading a life of purpose, meaning. The first puts more emphasis on rationality and a purposeful life; the second looks more at relationships and addressing gender and other inequities. UNIT 3: This last section of the book looks at ethical dilemmas and the importance of reflecting on moral decision-making. Its four chapters are: Confronting the Dilemma, Encountering Evil, Impact of Perspective, and (the last chapter of the book) Reflecting on Ethical Decisions.

fpref.indd xv

12/9/2011 6:44:20 PM


ROY BATTY (replicant): I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. —Blade Runner Thanks to all the replicants, cyborgs, androids, and humans who populate the world of film and may or may not be persons! Maybe you have seen things I wouldn't believe. But that doesn't stop me from wanting to know what it is you are “thinking” about. Thanks, too, to all my students of Ethics and Film, who never once let me forget why I love to teach. I am very grateful to the two anonymous reviewers of Wiley-Blackwell, whose astute comments and insights were so helpful to me. As for my editor Jeff Dean and my copy editor Alec McAulay—thank you, thank you so much. I am so indebted to you both. My colleagues at Mount St. Mary's College deserve recognition for being so supportive. Thanks especially to the Philosophy Department faculty. My gratitude also goes to Alison Renteln, Michael Boylan, Rita Manning, and Mary Anne Warren for their contributions to the field of ethics and human rights. Thank you for being such good friends to me. Mary Anne—you died too young, with dreams and journeys still ahead. Things aren't the same without you, they'll never be. But they are better because of you. Then there's my family who cheered me on, thank you. I am so glad my husband Silvio Nardoni was my film buddy and so much more. My daughter Willow Bunu helped put together the resources and online references. I so appreciate her support and organizational skills. My appreciation also goes to Birgit Tregenza and Deniz Cizmeciyan for their enthusiasm and friendship. Thank you also Omar, Adam, Rahma, Ibrahim, Zachary, and Luke—you are agents of transformation. Hats off to you! My father never lived to see the Paris of his dreams, but he made a world of difference in my life. In teaching me how to be alone and with others, to never give up, he infused my life with a sense of purpose. My path led me to Philosophy and to Ethics. I write, I teach, I reflect on the power of movies to transform our lives and infuse a sense of hope for the future. Fortunately, this is a view others share. And it's to you that I extend my last thank you: thank you for exploring ethics through movies with me. I am grateful that we're on this journey together.

flast.indd xvi

12/9/2011 6:44:24 PM


Introduction to the Text


If his was more than just a vague ambition, if he was absolutely determined to discover the truth, there’s no way we could prevent him. —The Truman Show

Movies are a powerful medium, maybe the most powerful medium. They have an ability to draw us in, touch us to the core, hit us with new, sometimes disturbing images, make us care about worlds far removed from the ones we inhabit, and bring characters to life. No wonder we are pulled into this parallel universe that vividly presents ideas and issues and plops us right into the middle of ethical dilemmas crying out for resolution. It’s virtually irresistible. There’s something about movies, that visual method of storytelling, that pulls us in. One aspect of its force is that it integrates so many aesthetic components (narrative/plot, cinematography, graphics, special effects, music, animation). The larger‐than‐life aspects of filmmaking allow us to study expressions, fixate on a sneer, a smile, or a wink, internalize a sob or wails of grief, and examine a host of human expressions while events unfold in front of our eyes. By connecting with one of more characters, we feel what they feel, as they mull over the choices, weigh the risks and benefits, and try to avoid danger or harm. It’s hard not to be drawn to the ethical dimension of movies, given their capacity to raise questions of morality and put us face to face with good or evil. This can catapult us to reflect on our lives, reassess our priorities, and rebuild the parts of our lives that have become worn down, or full of holes. If we think of ethics more broadly as a way to examine questions of meaning, we find that movies offer us a means to explore this terrain. By presenting us with social and moral problems, and with characters acting or being acted upon, we can do some serious moral reasoning without the weight of “this is your life.” We have enough distance to stand back, think about what’s presented on screen and then apply it to our own lives. Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Introduction.indd 1

12/9/2011 6:44:11 PM


Seeing the Light

We can learn lessons from what we see onscreen, knowing that we can walk out and step back into everyday reality. The ethical dimension of movies serves a valuable function. Even one scene can tap us into self‐reflection, set ideas in motion, or inspire us to change our lives. In a visual culture, movies are a compelling and effective vehicle for moral reflection. A good movie, a powerful story, a well‐drawn character, or a striking image can stick in our minds long after we exit the theatre. Who can forget the alien bursting out of Kane’s abdomen and scurrying across the floor? Who didn’t have nightmares after seeing the Terminator’s metal skeleton rise from the ashes and continue its pursuit of Sarah Connor? Who can erase the image of  Trinity in midair dazzling the ill‐prepared police, or that of the naked Atarnajuat running for his life over the Arctic snow? Surely there’s a mental slot in our minds to store such images. Think also how snappy dialogue sticks in our brains, recycled like lines from a song—such as, “I see dead people” and “I see you as a glass‐half‐empty kind of guy.” And who doesn’t wonder if “I’ll be back” will ever fall from the “Top 10” list? Then there are the scenes that touch us, causing laughter or despair, joy or sorrow. Admit it : No one could have dry eyes when Paulie made it home to Marie, when Stitch was revived after nearly drowning, when Noah and Allie were finally reunited, or when Rose hung on tight while Jack sank into the icy waters. Such pivotal images, dialogue, and scenes are seared onto our skulls. And don’t forget the visceral effect of the audience reacting as one. Consider 127 Hours, a retelling of hiker Aron Ralston’s fateful fall into a crevasse. The only way out was to cut himself free of the arm trapped by boulders. “You could clearly see people in shock, struggling to stay in their seats, working to get past the intensity of what was going on in front of them,” film critic John Foote wrote, “So overwhelmed were these [audience] members by what was happening on screen …they simply could not take it.” In fact, “I cannot remember a reaction to a film like this in a very long time,” says Foote, “perhaps not since The Exorcist sent audiences scurrying for the doors” (Kellett, 2010). Members of the audience were linked in a shared moment. Movies have a way of leaving their mark beyond any connection to the “real” world. Look at Takako Konishi, who took to heart Fargo’s opening claim that it was based on a true story. It wasn’t. But thinking a million dollars was hidden beside the road, Konishi flew from Tokyo to Minneapolis and grabbed a bus to North Dakota, hoping to find the loot. Bismarck Police Lieutenant Nick Sevart said, “They tried to explain to her this was just a movie. It was fictional” (Gardner, 2001). Their advice floated right by her. A few days later, they found her body and concluded that she died of exposure. It’s hard not to commiserate, for the line between movies and everyday life, and between appearance and reality, is often blurry, dubious, arbitrary. As Konishi’s actions demonstrate, movies have impact. It may be on the conscious plane, where we are called to look at our lives and reexamine what we are doing.

Introduction.indd 2

12/9/2011 6:44:11 PM

0.0 Introduction to the Text 3 Alternatively, they could hit us on the unconscious plane, where we may be transformed without ever fully realizing it. As a medium, movies have the potential to pick us up and carry us along, changing us along the way. Rare are those who haven’t been touched by a movie they love or hate. Sometimes we are taken by surprise by our conceptions, or misconceptions as the case may be. When disagreeing with a friend’s assessment of a movie, we realize that there’s an element of subjectivity in rankings in the Top 10, Top 100, or Top 1000. Our differing perceptions and ways of seeing the world result in a range of interpretations about the movies we see—that’s one reason watching and discussing films with others can be so enjoyable and thought‐provoking. As we’ll see throughout this book, moral reasoning and food for ethical thought can be found in all sorts of movies—from yuck‐yuck comedies to art house favorites and every genre in between. This ranges over films as similar and different as District 9 (prawn‐like aliens radically alter one man’s life), The Shawshank Redemption (innocent man transforms prison inmates), Groundhog Day (cynical weatherman relives the same day), the Bourne trilogy (amnesiac is thorn in the side of the CIA), Fanny and Alexander (siblings suffer at hands of cruel stepfather), and The Manchurian Candidate (mind‐control victim messes with the program). Some of the movies examined here are megahits with big‐name stars. Some are foreign films, noted for their insights into the meaning of life. Others are little‐known documentaries. This collection of movies serves a valuable function beyond entertainment (which has its place!), and that is to help us develop our own moral character and live better lives. Movies are alongside literature as carriers of contemporary mythology. We see it with such great directors as Guillermo del Toro, Peter Jackson, and Ridley Scott. In his commentary on Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro talks about the influence of fairy tales on his work. He sees movies as a way to link magic and reality, myth and history. This power is not to be underestimated. Jane Caputi (2004), scholar of popular culture, has studied the mythic dimension of film and observes: A culture’s myths, its symbolic and imaginative truths, are continually retold and reinterpreted in many ways—both sacred and secular, educational and entertaining. Indeed, popular culture’s genres (romance, horror, detection, and so on) and conventional characters (femme fatales, princesses, sex goddesses, cowboys and serial killers) are based in the traditional narrative structural patterns of myth. Film, it has often been noted, most originally by Parker Tyler (1947), is a prime arena for the mythic experience. Viewers sit in the dark in a space that is both collective and set apart from other activities. Dramas, fantasies and dream‐like stories and images are enacted, often by charismatic, larger than life “stars,” immortals, archetypal personas, existing in a realm of light, apart from ordinary reality.

Exploring the realm of ideas can open our minds to new ways of thinking. This shapes our experiences and how we perceive the world. Movies offer us

Introduction.indd 3

12/9/2011 6:44:12 PM


Seeing the Light

a  parallel universe that shows both the beautiful and the grotesque, and the exotic as well as the mundane. In this way we are exposed to alternative visions of reality and differing values and beliefs. It is a rich and varied medium. It is a great platform for delving into ethical dilemmas, allowing us to grapple with concerns that lie along the moral spectrum. On the individual level these include loyalty, integrity, justice, courage on one hand, and betrayal, deceit, injustice, cowardice on the other. On the societal level these include liberty rights, euthanasia, the death penalty, genetic engineering, world hunger, organ sales, war, terrorism, and interpersonal violence. Watching how such issues can be life‐changing is extremely useful for  our moral development. What we see on the screen affirms the role of ethical concepts and theories in making sense of the natural and human‐caused dilemmas we might encounter as we journey along. We stand to gain by watching characters wade into the moral waters—some swim, some barely tread across to solid ground, while others sink. Look at Cypher in The Matrix (betrayal), Bryan in Taken (revenge), and Hank in A Simple Plan (greed). We also benefit by having societal issues placed in a context, as with Ramon in The Sea Inside (euthanasia), Thao and Sue in Gran Torino (gang violence), and Jeffrey in The Insider (corporate malfeasance). The issues are no longer abstract and distant, but are brought to life so the audience can experience yet can’t intervene in what transpires. It is not just for entertainment, these moments. Not even close. We will have many opportunities to examine ethical dilemmas and join in our collective moral discourse. Commenting on the power of art, Mary Anne Staniszewski states, “If we accept the fact that everything is shaped by culture, we then acknowledge that we create our reality. We therefore contribute to it and can change it. This is an empowering way of living and of seeing ourselves and the world” (1995, 298). Such empowering ways of seeing teaches us about what it means to be human. We learn ways to work for a more meaningful life. For example, Sleep Dealer and both The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day show us a possible, uncertain future. In T2 John Connor explains to his cyborg protector that the future is not set, that there is “no fate but what we make.” Our lives are not preordained, with the endpoint carved in stone. Free will is a necessary condition for living ethically. If we were not autonomous moral agents, how could we be responsible for what we do? How can we be held accountable, if we lacked the ability to choose freely (e.g., we were brainwashed by double agents or abused by a vicious nanny)? This philosophical issue doesn’t escape filmmakers. We see this in the movie trailer for The Adjustment Bureau. It has a message reminiscent of Nietzsche: If you believe in free will. If you believe in chance. If you believe in choice. Fight for it. Moral knowledge is necessary for an ethical life. Without a grasp of good and evil and the way to be a virtuous person, how can we be blamed or praised

Introduction.indd 4

12/9/2011 6:44:12 PM

0.0 Introduction to the Text 5 for our decisions and actions? We need the personal wherewithal to choose well and live a meaningful life. Both qualities of moral agency—free will and rationality—should be present for actions to be subjected to moral judgment. Otherwise we cannot grasp the concepts of good and evil or assess moral deeds. We must know people were free to choose and were competent to do so. Our inquiry rests on this foundation.

Where We Go From Here The movies we examine in this book provide an ethical microcosm, offering us insights into moral reasoning. With the tools to confront ethical dilemmas, we can arrive at defensible decisions. Ideally, our actions should be well thought out, consistent with our values, and able to withstand the scrutiny of others. To accomplish that goal, it helps to see how the human condition provides a springboard for ethical reflection. This we do in Unit 1. Another goal is to show how ethical theory provides a framework for analyzing and learning moral lessons from movies. Seven of the most significant ethical theories (none aligned with a particular religion) give us the framework. These are set out in Unit 2. Each ethical theory is applied to a collection of movies so we see their value in shaping our moral development. My third major goal, pursued in Unit 3, is to show how movies help us reflect on our decision‐making. We can run, but can’t hide from moral problems. They may not even be our problems and, yet, we may be called to weigh‐in. What sets the gears into motion? Wherein lie the pitfalls, the things that trip us up and blow our assumptions to smithereens? And what about the major leagues of ethics—such as how to persevere in the face of evil? You know. We’re in the cellar, the light bulb blows, and our most dreaded nightmare leaps out at us. And there we are barefoot, with no weapon beyond the mop next to the washing machine, and our screams go unheeded. That scenario gets played and replayed— because it always sucks us in and keeps us glued to the screen, fearing the worst, but hoping for the best. What inner strengths can we count on? Can we avoid tunnel vision when resolving moral problems? How do we keep track of different perspectives? Here’s where the stories on screen guide the way out of the darkness. Think of Dorothy, alone in the Witch’s castle, Clarice, alone in the dark against Buffalo Bill, and Neo alone against agents multiplying like rabbits. They were on their own. These three units—“The Human Condition” (Unit 1), “Ethical Theory” (Unit 2), and “Ethical Dilemmas” (Unit 3) offer channels for exploring the philosophical ideas and moral reasoning that forms the groundwork of this text. Thanks to the movies we discuss here, we can reflect on what it means to be a good person, one with the personal wherewithal and moral character to help others and make some difference in the world. This allows us to explore the

Introduction.indd 5

12/9/2011 6:44:12 PM


Seeing the Light

territory and decide what we ought to do, what we owe others and what, if anything, we should expect from those around us. Secondly, we will discover how movies can teach us about ethical theories in a way that’s neither dry nor tedious. They are a marvelous vehicle for gaining insight into moral concepts and ways to frame ethical decision‐making. Doing this also provides the tools and skills we can take with us.

Structure of the Text This book has three units. The first, “The Human Condition,” has four chapters: 1.1 Authenticity, 1.2 Personal Identity, 1.3 Autonomy and Liberty, and 1.4 Courage and Inner Strength. The second unit, “Ethical Theory,” has seven chapters. The first three focus on Teleological Ethics (emphasizing end goals): 2.1 Ethical Egoism, 2.2 Cultural Relativism, and 2.3 Utilitarianism. The next two center on Deontological Ethics (emphasizing moral obligations): 2.4 Kantian Ethics and 2.5 Rawls’ Justice Theory. The last two (emphasizing moral character and relationships) are 2.6 Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics and 2.7 Feminist Ethics. These are the foremost ethical theories; each provides a powerful framework for understanding the ethical dimension of movies and how our own lives can become more purposeful and meaningful. The last (third) unit is “Ethical Dilemmas,” with chapters: 3.1 Confronting the Dilemma, 3.2 Encountering Evil, 3.3. Impact of Perspective, and 3.4 Reflecting on Ethical Decisions. Each chapter looks at between six and nine movies, so we have variety and flexibility for thinking about movies and reflecting on issues that shape our world. There are three levels. First, we “Spotlight” two or three movies to allow for a more detailed discussion. The next is “Short Takes,” where the discussion is brief or more narrowly focused. The third level, “Outtakes,” introduces movies that merit further study.

The chapters The end‐result is fifteen chapters geared to helping us look at the ethical aspects of our lives, develop our moral reasoning, and examine our moral character. The spectrum includes drama, comedy, action films, sci‐fi, and documentaries. It ranges from Hollywood blockbusters to foreign films, from mega‐hits to small independent films that barely got funding, from classics to rarely seen gems. So many movies to expand our moral awareness. So many paths to build our ethical consciousness. Together they strengthen our ability to think and reflect about what we watch on screen. And together they help shine a light on the lives we lead, how we function in community, and what we need to do to live right.

Introduction.indd 6

12/9/2011 6:44:12 PM

0.0 Introduction to the Text 7

Resources There are six types of resources at your fingertips: (1) Tools for analysis (in the unit introductions); (2) Text references, video/audio and other online resources (at the end of each chapter); (3) Discussion questions (at the end of each chapter); (4) General references (4.1 at the end of the book), (5) Apps to Contemporary Moral Problems (4.2 at the end of the book), and (6) Official Websites and other  resources (on the Seeing the Light website— For those who want to go further into the territory of ethics using movies as the springboard, these resources should be quite handy. Thanks to movies, we can explore ideas and reflect on ethical issues and decisions that have personal as well as global impact. Hopefully this book will be useful for navigating that terrain.

Works Cited AMC. “Top 10 Best Movie Lines Ever.” (accessed August 5, 2011). Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. (accessed August 5, 2011). Caputi, Jane (2004) Goddesses and Monsters. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. Gardner, Bill (2001) “Police Tried to Explain that Crime was Fictitious.” Messenger‐ Inquirer Newspaper (Kentucky), December 8, 2001. Kellett, Christine (2010) “Audience Faints at ‘Realistic’ Amputation Film.” Sydney Morning Herald, September 15, 2010. movies/audience‐faints‐‐at‐realistic‐amputation‐film‐20100915‐15bpo.html (accessed August 5, 2011). Staniszewski, Mary Anne (1995) Believing is Seeing: Creating the Culture of Art. New York: Penguin Books.

Online Resources Philosophy Talk “Philosophy and Film.” December 17, 2007: Ken Taylor, John Perry, and David Thomson discuss the philosophy of and within film. http://www.philosophytalk. org/pastShows/Film.html (accessed August 5, 2011). “Philosophy and Pop Culture.” August 3, 2008: Ken Taylor, John Perry, and Richard Hanley discuss big questions in popular culture. pastShows/PopCulture.html (accessed August 5, 2011). “Movie Show 2010,” February 28, 2010: Ken Taylor and John Perry present their Dionysus Awards for the most philosophically‐rich films of 2010. http://www. (accessed August 5, 2011).

Introduction.indd 7

12/9/2011 6:44:12 PM


Seeing the Light

Film‐Philosophy: an international journal dedicated to film studies, aesthetics and world cinema.‐ (accessed August 5, 2011). PhilPapers: a comprehensive directory of online philosophy articles and books by academic philosophers with subject‐based organization to help locate articles or books of interest. (accessed August 5, 2011). BMC Medical Ethics, BioMed Central, an open‐access journal on the ethical aspects of biomedical research and clinical practice. http://www.biomedcentral. com/1472‐6939/ (accessed August 5, 2011).

Introduction.indd 8

12/9/2011 6:44:12 PM

Unit 1

The Human Condition

Part I.indd 9

12/9/2011 6:44:07 PM

Part I.indd 10

12/9/2011 6:44:07 PM


Introduction to Unit 1


It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does? —Blade Runner

Watching movies adds another dimension to our lives by bringing us back to ourselves, to our lives, and to our connection with others. As much as eyes are windows to our soul, movies are windows to our society, our values. Marshall McLuhan declared in the 1960s that the media was the message. This was a view that resonated with others and foreshadowed later developments. Two decades after McLuhan, Jean Baudrillard (1990) declared the media incapable of remaining silent, that we are being gorged with information, with meaning. For him, “there is no alternative but to fill the screen; otherwise there would be an irremediable void.” We do turn to the media for information, for interpretation, for reflection and direction, Baudrillard is right about that. This speaks to a yearning for meaning and for some sort of grasp on what we’re doing to fill our personal voids. Baudrillard would appreciate The Truman Show for showing us what happens when too much is invested in sustaining a pretense. The superficial, the charade, is effectively the only reality that Truman Burbank has known. However, it could be shattered in an instant. A light falling onto the set or “out of the sky” as Truman was led to believe revealed the utter emptiness of the world he inhabited. Eventually he rejected the life engineered by Christof and populated by actors whose “feelings” for him were manufactured. He preferred stepping out into uncharted territory and its turbulence to a good life defined by others. Out of the stories we watch on screen we can reflect on the issues, turn over ethical dilemmas in our minds, and gain insight into how to live our lives as we deal with the forces around us. Movies can be powerful vehicles for delving into the existential depths. Some do so with humor—as with All of Me, What About Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

1.0.indd 11

12/9/2011 6:40:07 PM


Seeing the Light

Bob?, and My Cousin Vinny. Some do so in dramatic, even tragic ways—as with Million Dollar Baby, House of Sand and Fog, and 21 Grams. Others do so with action or special effects—as with The Dark Knight, Alien, and Avatar. We never seem to tire of contemplating what it means to be human. Think of all the movies that tackle this question and wrestle it to the ground. From aliens that inhabit other galaxies to the clones, robots, and humanoids serving our needs, film history is populated with beings whose moral status is up for grabs. Look at the dilemma facing bounty hunter Rick Deckard of Blade Runner. He agrees to take out four “replicants.” These are “people” engineered with implanted memories to work in off‐world colonies in tasks no human would willingly perform. That said, their four‐year lifespan rubs them the wrong way. Part of the film’s fascination is that replicants don’t seem that different from humans, other than their greater strength and agility, and their truncated lifespans. They have no scruples about using any violence necessary in order to survive. Deckard finds it disconcerting to find that emotions are not restricted to humans. As sentient beings, replicants experience the emotional gamut. Replicant leader Roy Batty shows this when he says to Deckard, “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” The replicants, regardless of their implanted memories and superhuman physical skills, show a quite‐human quest for self‐identity. They struggle with such boundary conditions as despair, dread, alienation, and death that throw them back on what they are. This brings up a fundamental question: Is there a set of characteristics that define us as human? As Blade Runner shows, arriving at an answer is not an easy task. Philosophers throughout history agree that the line between human and nonhuman is not as clean as we might think. For this reason, movies tackle the issue with gusto. By the time we get to the nonhumans in 2009’s Avatar, we find peace‐loving “people” who show no desire to be other than humanoids (Na’vi). But, like the replicants, the Na’vi resent humans seeking to exploit their skills. They would fight to the death to avoid falling under the control of the humans who put their needs above all else. Blade Runner and Avatar are just two movies that take up the challenge as to what makes us human and what aspects of the human condition merit our attention. When reflecting on our lives, we see the role of both choice and chance. On one hand, our decisions and actions are pivotal in what we make of our lives and the meaning we create. With our choices we set things in motion and the wheels start to turn, or stop turning, as the case may be. To varying degrees, our decisions, even minor ones, play a part in who we are and what we become. We may choose one thing and end up with another, or with nothing. We may head off in one direction and find the road switches back, diverges, forks off,

1.0.indd 12

12/9/2011 6:40:08 PM

1.0 Introduction to Unit 1 13 or comes to an end. Not all plans meet our expectations, not all dreams come to  pass. The person we become at the end of the journey may bear little resemblance to who we were at the beginning. We see this with buddy movies like The Hangover and Thelma & Louise, where a weekend getaway turns everyone’s life upside down. Of course, the prospect of ending up midair over an abyss may seem preferable to the road we are stuck on. Sometimes any change is welcome. Movies can be vital to our intellectual and moral development by offering us insights into the human condition and shining a light on the dilemmas we face. Aristotle saw the potential of drama to “imitate” real life in such a way that we might gain greater understanding of what a meaningful life might entail—how to live right, how to have a life of purpose. His work informs this book. In his Poetics, he examined the traits of tragedy (which he considered the highest form of art because of its inclusion of so many of the arts). His discussion of tragedy versus epic tales can be compared to today’s movies versus novels. As a result, his insights are of great value to our study of film. By gaining insight into virtues, integrity, and how to avoid vice, we can only gain. Consider Deckard’s struggle in Blade Runner. As he tracked the replicants, doubts and uncertainties surfaced in his mind. In the big showdown between hunter and prey, it’s hard to tell the human from the replicant. Deckard is tongue‐tied when (nonhuman) Batty shares, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C‐beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.” Even the cynical Deckard is moved by Batty’s despair. He is called to reexamine what he’s doing with his life and what, if anything, distinguishes him from these replicants he seeks to eliminate. Consequently, it is no accident that Deckard makes some long‐overdue changes so he won’t end up with his own lost moments. Like Deckard, we have choices that help us move forward. We know it and movies show it. In this first unit, The Human Condition, we see how the ethical dimension informs the lives we lead—and how it reaches expression in movies. There are four chapters to this unit. They are: 1.1



1.0.indd 13

Authenticity In this chapter we look at what it means to have an authentic life—one that is purposeful and with integrity. Personal Identity This chapter tackles our sense of self, our “personal identity” as a unique human being, and how it is vital to develop our moral character. Autonomy and Liberty In this chapter we examine the role of free will in moral reasoning—how our ability to make decisions is fundamental for all that follows.

12/9/2011 6:40:08 PM


Seeing the Light


Courage and Inner Strength The last chapter of this unit looks at different aspects of courage and helps us understand why almost everyone, including ethicists, recognizes its importance in moral development.

We’ll start with “Tools for the Journey” that are based on key points in Aristotle’s Poetics. They provide us with concise guidelines for approaching movies in general. Thanks to Aristotle’s insights, we get an overview before moving into the moral territory in the chapters that follow.

Tools for the Journey BOURNE: ROSS: BOURNE:

I’m going to get you to safety but you have to stay calm and do exactly what I say. (fear‐induced autopilot). Sure, okay. No, listen to me: Exactly what I say this time. Understand? … Stay here while I look for an escape. —The Bourne Ultimatum

As we begin a discussion of ethics and the human condition, it is helpful to know the movies’ major components. We find a useful tool in a template based on Aristotle’s Poetics for deconstructing a movie and providing us with the main details. For those who want a more thorough treatment, get your hands on a copy of Michael Tierno’s Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters (2002). Chock‐full of handy tips about Aristotle’s application to studying movies, it brings ideas to life with his discussion and range of examples. This section on “tools” is indebted to Tierno’s book. It inspired me to turn to Aristotle for a solid but user‐friendly approach to getting an overview of the movie itself. This is the first step in studying movies—to get a sense of the movie and its key parts. With the groundwork in place, we can easily take the next step and see Aristotle’s relevance to the ethical dimension of movies. That’s where Seeing the Light comes in and we can proceed to the next step. Aristotle (and Tierno) help us get a handle on the movies themselves—their plot, characterization, and so on, so we know what the movie’s about. This provides the foundation. From that we move to the ethical aspects, reflect on movies’ application to ethical decision‐making, and refine our own moral reasoning. This is what I aim to do in the 15 chapters in this book. This “tools” section can be skipped or skimmed if you already know either Aristotle’s Poetics or Tierno’s nice summary. You’ve got enough of Aristotle’s methodology in place to move on to the next level. If that is the case, you’re ready to turn to Unit 1, 2, or 3. By the way: There is no requirement for reading this

1.0.indd 14

12/9/2011 6:40:08 PM

1.0 Introduction to Unit 1 15 book in the order it appears, as the organization allows for flexibility. However, there is a logic behind the structure. For instance, Unit 3 (Ethical Dilemmas) assumes a basic grasp of the theories discussed in Unit 2 (Ethical Theory). Not so of Unit 1, which presumes little background. Keep that in mind as you stick your toes in the water.

Aristotle’s Poetics and the Six Components of a Movie Aristotle (384–322 BC) is Plato’s most famous student, with good reason! In his book Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explored the moral terrain in a way that has been highly influential, as we’ll see in Unit 2. In his Poetics, he turned his gaze to art and especially drama (= tragedy in his day). By showing how drama offers a window on the human condition, he gave us a valuable tool for examining movies. Aristotle loved theatre and would certainly be a serious movie aficionado if he lived today. He especially liked drama, though he appreciated a good comedy too. He considered drama the highest art form, given that it combines the most artistic elements. Other types of artworks were thought lower on the scale. That’s because the scope of drama was much greater: “For Tragedy [drama] is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life.” He adds, “Life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality” (Poetics, section I, part VI). Aristotle’s method for examining drama is directly applicable to movies and, thus, very useful. Let’s start with an overview of his approach, as that frames the discussion.

Aristotle’s big six: the key components of a movie 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.

Plot Character Thought/Themes Dialogue/Diction Music Special Effects

Here’s the deal: The plot is the first and most important principle. It centers on the action. Without action there cannot be a movie. Aristotle considers plot the soul of the movie (Poetics, section I, part VI). It includes the main features and events. A plot should be structurally sound, with its parts bound together by necessity, not likelihood. In other words, the plot should be tightly structured and not full of holes or subplots. For this reason Aristotle gives thumbs‐up to plots with unity. These should be sufficiently strong that  if one scene or aspect of the plot were removed, the whole would be

1.0.indd 15

12/9/2011 6:40:08 PM


Seeing the Light

disjointed or unclear. In his view, a complex plot is better than a simple one and much better than an episodic plot, which Aristotle has little use for. Character holds the second place. This is the who’s who in the movie. The hero’s moral character is especially significant. Third place is thought. This includes the ideas and themes (= the reasons motivating the characters’ actions). Aristotle calls it the faculty of saying what is pertinent in given circumstances and expressing “general maxims” (Poetics, section 1, part VI). Fourth is dialogue and diction, “the expression of the meaning in words,” as he puts it. For Aristotle, great dialogue can have impact, but is secondary to the plot. In fifth place is music. “Song holds the chief place among the embellishments,” he says. To refer to music as “embellishment” says it all. Music should be fully integrated into the movie by setting a tone or adding emphasis. Mind you, even the most effective musical score can’t replace a strong plot or compelling characters. Plot is on top! The least significant component of drama is “spectacle” (= special effects). He regards this as the least artistic aspect of a movie because it relies more on the “stage machinist” than the artist/director. Nevertheless, “Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own,” admits Aristotle, recognizing the draw of special effects (Poetics, section 1, part VI). And let’s face it: “Spectacle” in Aristotle’s day was significantly less impressive than it is now. Just think of The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, Transformers, and Inception. Aristotle might be wowed by such “spectacle,” but he wouldn’t likely change his mind about the priority of the Big Six. For him, the movie is carried by plot and character (especially moral character), and the themes and ideas. These are the big three, not special effects or music. Plot rules. “What’s the storyline?” is the burning question screenwriters are expected to answer. The plot is the skeleton of the movie. If the plot is strong, the movie has a solid structure and holds up over time. If the plot is weak, the movie is like a gelatinous mass—formless. Movies riddled with sub‐plots or are episodic are fundamentally flawed. Think of all those movie‐franchises that leave you hanging (e.g., Pirates of the Caribbean 1, 2, 3). These all have endings of the “to be continued” variety. Every one of them would make Aristotle yank out his hair and gnash his teeth. The lack of completion or unity doesn’t cut it. And that’s not all. However much Aristotle placed his bets on the plot for movies to succeed artistically, don’t ignore the other five components. Character is important as well, even if it’s not given the same weight as the plot. Aristotle justifies this ranking in saying, “character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse” (Poetics, section 1, part VI). Actions that the plot sets out show us what character cannot. Aristotle considers the moral core of the characters particularly significant. “Character is that which reveals moral purpose,” he says. A good movie would cause the audience to feel fear or pity whenever the hero suffers an undeserved misfortune.

1.0.indd 16

12/9/2011 6:40:08 PM

1.0 Introduction to Unit 1 17 In linking “character” to the moral quality of a person, Aristotle takes us to his ethical theory, Virtue Ethics (see Chapter 2.6). There he looks at moral and intellectual virtues in assessing character. Thought is the idea behind an action, the motivation. It answers the questions, “Why are you doing that?” “ What are you thinking?” The movie should convey the hero’s thoughts so we can see how they lead to action. In turn, choices and actions lay the groundwork for the hero’s moral development in terms of both character and inner strength. Thought follows character in importance. Here are the basics: Plot reveals actions and character, particularly moral character, determines qualities that lead to actions. Thoughts and ideas motivate the characters and lead them to act. Think of it as slicing through the layers of an onion or a triple‐decker sandwich. Action (plot) is on top. We cut through this layer to find (moral) character, and another cut shows us the thought (idea) behind the characters, revealing what motivates them to act one way or another. A great movie has strong characters, memorable ideas and themes, good dialogue, and expression (diction). This assessment on Aristotle’s part is still widely held. The music, sound, and special effects should add quality or at least not detract from the movie. These last two components won’t break a movie if they are weak. But if the plot is a mess or is superf icial, the movie will lack emotional depth, the expression will not be believable, and the movie will sink like a lump of lead. Aristotle would like films like Up in the Air and The Hurt Locker, because they have a strong plot and strong characters. We care about the lead characters, Ryan Bingham and Sergeant Will James, and empathize with their existential crises as the plot unfolds. In watching well‐developed characters like Bingham and James, we see how hard it is for them to balance their interests with those of others. Their strengths and weaknesses give us greater insight into the human condition. Producer Jon Landau says, “Movies that work are movies that have themes that are bigger than their genre.” He adds, “The theme is what you leave with and you leave the plot at the theatre” (Itzkoff, 2010). The key questions are, “What was that movie about?” “What story did it tell?” If you can arrive at a satisfactory answer, Aristotle would say it was thanks to the plot. However, he would agree with Landau that the themes came with you as well. Aristotle thinks a good drama has a beginning, middle, and an end. He calls these the “First Cause”, “Complication,” and “Denouement” (= Resolution). The first cause happens early, but not before, the movie. It is in the beginning, not in a backstory, and sets the ball in motion. For example, in Groundhog Day, the first cause is the blizzard that causes Phil to be sent back to Punxsutawney, where he is doomed to repeat each day until the cycle can be broken. In The Bourne Ultimatum, the first cause is Jason Bourne being framed for a crime he didn’t commit, leading the CIA get all fired up and want him dead.

1.0.indd 17

12/9/2011 6:40:08 PM


Seeing the Light

The first cause leads to the “Complication,” where the hero faces a moral conflict. This occurs in The Bourne Ultimatum when Bourne breaks into CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen’s safe, where he finds vital pieces of evidence that can clear this name. Bourne has to figure out what to do what them; thus, the conflict. Here’s where CIA agent Pamela Landy comes in. She’s a straight shooter who deduced that her superiors were weasels. Bourne’s decision to get the files to Landy puts him and her at risk. However, he can tell that she has the integrity and strength of will to disclose Vosen’s corruption. The road is now paved for the resolution (“Denouement”), pulling it all together for the grand finale. That’s when we move from the middle period, when the hero addresses the moral conflict, to the end stage of the movie. In The Bourne Ultimatum the resolution is pretty darn tidy: The truth comes out, the bad guys are nailed, and Bourne evades another would‐be assassin. What bubbled up to the surface in the middle stage, that of the complication, gets worked out here. Once the pieces fell into place, Landy realized that Bourne was made a scapegoat and an injustice needed to be set aright. Her faxing the files leads to Vosen’s arrest and the scandal is brought to light. This end stage resolves the central issues running through the Bourne trilogy and has an inner coherence that unifies the plot and provides a sense of completeness. Agent Landy has shown that she’s Bourne’s ally. Thanks to her, he has answers to the question of his identity—who he is, what is his real name, and how he came to be involved with the CIA’s secret project Treadstone in the first place. The pieces of the puzzle finally come together. According to Aristotle, the resolution must be necessary and probable. It should come right out of the plot, like a simple extraction. It should make sense on the believability scale and rest on preceding events, so that it fits together like pop beads in a causal chain. A good resolution has nothing extraneous. Whether the end is happy or sad, it should be understandable and seem realistic (= believable). One reason the Bourne movies stand up under multiple viewings is that they are solid thrillers. The story is clear (not muddled); the hero has integrity and is on a quest we can relate to. The story pulls us in, has magnitude and depth, and takes us along for the ride. It also is a good moral tale. The reason for much of the film’s power has to do with structure. This is true of any movie that has impact and bears watching again and again. Robert Duvall (2009) shows this in his praise of The Hurt Locker: “It’s a fantastic film. It stayed with me. I saw it twice in one week, and I never do that. And my wife, who doesn’t see anything—she walks out on everything—she saw it twice in one week. Twice. Wow. I couldn’t believe that.” Aristotle believes structure to be crucial. He hates stories that unravel or go off on a tangent. This is a man who wants the story to be told succinctly and wrapped up neatly. Aristotle particularly likes it when heroes’ fortunes

1.0.indd 18

12/9/2011 6:40:08 PM

1.0 Introduction to Unit 1 19 change because of their moral failings, rather than hardships like broken limbs or family members killed off by enemies. For example, in Avatar hero Jake Sully must own up to the deception and lies that he dished out to the Na’vi (indigenous people) he cozied up to on the planet Pandora. They didn’t know he was a plant for the military‐industrial schemers who were after the precious unobtanium metal. When the truth came out—and it usually does—Sully was ostracized and an object of contempt. Aristotle would appreciate that the edifice constructed of lies came tumbling down and Sully’s complicity was laid bare. This then led to the next stage, the resolution, where Sully had to decide where his allegiances lie. The “complication” of Sully’s ruse brought us to the reversal of his fortunes. Once things took a dive, he faced two issues: He had to deal with those he betrayed and then he had to look into his own soul. Only then he could move on to helping the Na’vi face their problem of being outgunned by the Marines. Aristotle tells us that the plot should be so tight that if you took away any one aspect, any character, scene or event, the whole would collapse. That means that subplots are not okay, because they detract from the quality of the film and could be removed without jeopardizing the plot. The perfect plot has one issue—think “one‐track mind”—so the focus is clear. For Aristotle, it is important to stay on track. Sub‐actions are fine; subplots are not. The best drama is one where it all ties together. The center of gravity of a movie (or drama, in theatre) is the tragic deed. Generally the tragic deed involves something awful, such as physical suffering on the part of the hero or someone close. It gives the story weight, and keeps the other elements of the film tied together. For example, in both The Sweet Hereafter and Fearless, the tragic deed is a horrible accident (a school bus sliding over the icy road in the first movie, a plane crash in the second). In both cases there are numerous deaths and the heroes find themselves conflicted by the demands of others. These demands test their moral fiber. Both are presented with choices and have decisions to make. Aristotle sees misfortune as an important element of a good story. However, the causes of the misfortune shouldn’t be depravity, because that would reflect on our animal nature, which isn’t very interesting. Besides, most depravity would result in a deserved misfortune, as in the case of Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. His chronic alcoholism and irresponsible behavior caused him to bottom out. He finally gets a hold of himself and goes sober, but his misfortune is self‐caused. On the other hand, there’s undeserved misfortune. We see this in Fearless (where the plane crash turns Max’s life upside down), Avatar (with Sully’s war‐ related injuries), and The Lovely Bones (with Susie’s rape and murder). Bad things happen; driving the story down a path it might never have taken. Keep in mind that the plot is the end‐all of the movie. While watching the movie, the plot should be on the front burner of our brains. If it is not well formed, the film may be entertaining, but it won’t have lasting value. There needs

1.0.indd 19

12/9/2011 6:40:08 PM


Seeing the Light

to be a strong storyline. The plot should make sense and be neither shallow nor convoluted. If we end up scratching our heads, wondering what the heck is going on, the plot has imploded. That, for Aristotle, is the kiss of death. In contrast, good movies have strong plots. The plot’s magnitude grows when all the scenes work together. Aristotle thinks complex plots are the best, because it is here we find a reversal of the hero’s fortunes (from bad to good or vice versa). This leads to the “discovery,” where the light bulb comes on and the hero has a mental breakthrough. As a result, he or she undergoes a transformation and reaches a higher level of awareness. In turn, the audience feels pity or fear for the hero, and that rush of feelings leads to a catharsis. This is the emotional release, the outpouring of all that pent‐up tension that has been building as the plot unfolds. As far as Aristotle is concerned, all good movies should have a catharsis; otherwise the audience would leave the theatre wound up and in knots, without a discharge of all the feelings that were stirred up. Let’s see how this works with The Fighter (2010). The resolution occurs after Mickey realizes that he can have it both ways. He can have a trainer and his brother at his side in the ring. He can have a manager and his mother cheering him on too. In bringing together the pieces of his life, Mickey finds a kind of peace and becomes a better boxer too. We have the big build up to the championship fight and, after a ghastly start, Mickey prevails and the audience breathes a collective sigh of relief. Our feelings merge with the ones expressed onscreen. We cheer, too, because we identify with what he’s gone through. Catharsis! Think also of the end of Avatar. The Na’vi are getting pummeled. Their primitive bows and arrows just don’t cut it next to the Marines’ high‐tech weaponry. Just when we think they don’t have a chance—surprise!—the Pleistocene‐like beasts and birds join forces with the Na’vi and kick the Marines’ butts. Their fury was all it took. And once Neytiri takes care of the evil Colonel Quaritch, we breathe a sigh of relief. But it’s not over yet. Sully has to survive his soul‐transfer to his avatar. Will he? Can he? You bet. Catharsis! As we have seen, Aristotle puts a lot of emphasis on the plot and its importance to a good drama—and good movies. The misfortunes that fall upon the hero are a key part of the evolution of the plot. But that’s not all that make for a great film. There is also characterization, thought and diction, music and special effects to be taken into account. His approach gives us structural tools and, with that, a method of getting our heads around the movie. It helps us get an overview, so we see the movie’s component parts and how they work together to make a coherent whole. It then gets much easier to take to heart the importance of ethical decision‐making and moral reasoning. And we’re then ready to tackle the big questions. With the insights and examples from the movies we look at here in Unit 1, we can reflect on the human condition and draw valuable lessons for our own lives.

1.0.indd 20

12/9/2011 6:40:08 PM

1.0 Introduction to Unit 1 21

Works Cited Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. (accessed August 5, 2011). Aristotle, Poetics, translated by S.H. Butcher. html (accessed August 5, 2011). Baudrillard, Jean (1990) Cool Memories, translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso. Duvall, Robert (2009) “The Quote.” Los Angeles Times, December 9, 2009. Itzkoff, Dave (2010) “You Saw What in ‘Avatar’? Pass Those 3‐D Glasses!” Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2010. Tierno, Michael (2002) Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters. New York: Hyperion.

1.0.indd 21

12/9/2011 6:40:08 PM



SPOTLIGHT: Groundhog Day, Up in the Air Short Takes: Revolutionary Road, Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Paulain (Amélie) Outtakes: The Visitor, Alice, Midnight in Paris


What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did ever mattered? That about sums it up for me. —Groundhog Day

Phil Connors, a TV weatherman in Pittsburgh, is a cynic with the self‐awareness of a gnat. His world is so well‐fortified by negativity that he has insulated himself from those around him. Dismissive of his underlings at the TV station and oblivious to the needs of others, Phil has a long road ahead. But one day everything changes. He who predicts the weather did not see the coming blizzard. He is about to be trapped in a time warp, reliving the same day, Groundhog Day, over and over again. The movie relays his journey out. Groundhog Day gives us insight into moving beyond egoism to a more embracing view of the world. Phil is forced to look at his life and change it  by  changing himself. It is a wonderful study in both authenticity and inauthenticity.

Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

1.1.indd 22

12/9/2011 6:40:01 PM

1.1 Authenticity 23

The Ethical Framework: Existential Philosophy Existentialists examine the path to a meaningful life. As adherents of free will, they argue that we’re free to choose and are, thus, responsible for the choices we make. Living for either the future or the past is a bad idea. What we do here and now is key. In his early years, Jean‐Paul Sartre argued for “absolute freedom,” that nothing and no one else could be blamed for what we make of our lives (he later softened up on that score). And though we can’t control all the forces that shape us, we have considerable freedom to decide how to live. Our actions define us, not our words or thoughts. We are accountable for what we do and how we interact with other people. In contrast to philosophers focused on “mankind,” Existentialists look at the individual person—you, me, him, her. We are in the world, amidst others. What shapes us? What makes me who I am? Is it what makes me happy or gives me pleasure? Is it my friends? My adversaries? Is it all my stuff—my house, car, or money in the bank? Philosopher Lewis R. Gordon (1997) says the “philosophy of existence is marked by a centering of what is often known as the ‘situation’ of questioning or inquiry itself” (p. 3). Other people are a fact of our existence, even when we are alone. This is crucial for understanding who we are, our personal identity. Existentialist Martin Heidegger says we are always Being‐in‐the‐world, rooted in the truth that others are in the world too. He focused on individual existence instead of general or abstract notions of humanity, using the German term “Dasein.” It means, “to be there in the world” (da = there, sein = to be). We are who we are in the world. My identity is not fixed until I die. Until then I am in the process of creating myself, shaping what I will become. I am my own ongoing project. Being authentic is about personal integrity, being true to oneself and treating others with care and dignity. I need to be my own person and not a mindless follower. Among the inauthentic are conformists, the unquestioning, weak‐ willed, flaky, spineless, and gutless. In contrast, authentic individuals think for themselves, rather than follow the dictates of others. Heidegger speaks of inauthenticity as falling; like leaves blown about by the wind. For him, our everyday self is an inauthentic self that is drawn to idle talk, gossip, superficial curiosity, and being nosy yet uncaring. You know the type, the ones who slow down to gawk at a car accident, but wouldn’t think of stopping to help. In Heidegger’s assessment, most of us are in an inauthentic mode most of the time. It’s easier to be a “they self” than to be authentic. That would require thinking, reflection, and developing a set of criteria for what we believe in. Moving out of inauthenticity into authenticity is possible any time. It’s a choice we make. That’s why Heidegger speaks of authenticity in terms of

1.1.indd 23

12/9/2011 6:40:01 PM


Seeing the Light

“mineness.” I am my own person as an authentic being. I may go astray and delude myself, but the truth is inside of me and can be revealed through my conscience or self‐reflection. Certain states of mind—such as despair, dread, and facing our own mortality—throw us back on ourselves and prod us to reexamine our lives. In our two spotlight films, Groundhog Day and Up in the Air, we see the importance of being authentic. In the first case, Phil Connors is stuck in inauthenticity until he takes responsibility for what he has become. In the second case, Ryan Bingham is stuck in inauthenticity, unable to find his way home.

SPOTLIGHT: Groundhog Day Groundhog Day (1993) is a movie that resonates with its audience. Phil Connors’ journey from arrogant to authentic is both funny and inspiring. It has been embraced across a spectrum of religious faiths. Director Harold Ramis acknowledges its “ah‐ha” effect, in having heard from Catholics, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Wiccans, and Pagans that this movie shows the path to spiritual awareness and personal growth. Its message is their message and Phil’s story one they can learn from. Groundhog Day’s charm is unmatched and its celebration of life sufficient to rekindle the most apathetic spirit. In a 2009 interview, Stephen Tobowolsky (Ned Ryerson) called the movie “incredibly thoughtful.” He said, “I got an email from the Oakland Raiders that they use Groundhog Day as a motivational film for their team. They said the idea is that if you can’t get it right, you do it again and do it again. The film became very special” ( It speaks to Existentialists as well as football players, with Phil’s search for meaning, his despair, dread, and suicides throwing him back on himself. Phil is trapped, waking up every day to find everything the same as the previous day and the day before that and so on, ad infinitum. He wants out, out, out! But there is no exit for Phil, not even death. Until he takes control of his own destiny, he’s stuck on a Möbius strip with even the most minute details in place, unchanging. Commentators note how much Nietzsche applies to Groundhog Day (Lavery, 1999; Spence, 2005). Its repetition calls up Nietzsche’s notion of “eternal recurrence” (see Thus Spake Zarathustra and The Gay Science). It goes like so: What if one day or night a demon were to sneak after you and say that the life as you now live it, you’ll have to live an innumerable times more “with nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh” and in the same succession and sequence? “Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?” asks Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s challenge is to be willing to relive our lives for an eternity, and assume responsibility for making it as fulfilling as possible. We should welcome,

1.1.indd 24

12/9/2011 6:40:01 PM

1.1 Authenticity 25 not dread, such a life being repeated forever. At first Phil found the repetition unbearable. Only when he stopped trying to escape Punxsutawney did he begin to change. In the end, he embraces the life he had. Robert Thurman, Professor of Indo‐Tibetan Buddhist Studies, said, “Actually the best metaphor for the infinite life, the reincarnation thing, is Groundhog Day. You keep coming back until you get it right. When you get it right, then you have a really great time. Nirvana means you live with other beings in a really happy way” (Wellman, 2004). By my count there are a total of thirty‐four Groundhog days that we see replayed. It’s clear there were many more, given that Phil becomes talented at the piano, ice sculpture, and so on. The time warp shows his evolution from self‐centered “wretch” to generous, well‐loved member of the community. Punxsutawney is a town he initially hates, and whose inhabitants he speaks of with scorn. We see how a man as unenlightened as Phil Connors can undergo a dramatic transformation. He redeems himself so totally that it is not surprising priests and ministers cite it in sermons and Buddhists praise it. The movie is seen as a moral allegory, a fable for our times and for all time. Here’s why: At its core Groundhog Day shows an egotistical man who has lost his way and is alienated from others. His intelligence is dwarfed by his moral failings and lack of compassion. It’s the fourth year he’s been sent by WPBH (Pittsburgh) TV to cover the Groundhog Day festivities. He sees the excitement of the townspeople as proof they are “hicks” and “morons,” and views them with disdain. He also distances himself from the crew—producer, Rita, and cameraman, Larry. They stay at lower‐priced lodging, while he—the “star,” “the talent”—is at the cute little bed‐and‐breakfast. The blizzard that he declared would not strike made it impossible to leave, so the three are turned back to town. Phil tries to get a phone line out but fails and is hit on the head by a large snow shovel. This is like Dorothy being knocked out before her adventure in The Wizard of Oz—a rational explanation for the journey that ensues. The ways Dorothy and Phil are propelled out of their ordinary lives makes the metaphysical dimension more interesting than anything on the physical plane. Dorothy, dog Toto, and her three companions head down the yellow brick road with one purpose in mind—to seek the Wizard of Oz’s help in returning to Kansas, and home. Phil also seeks a way back to Pittsburgh, and home. And, like Dorothy, he has a good “witch,” Rita, offering words of wisdom. Rita is more than a spiritual advisor. Her beauty is both inner and outer, so no wonder Phil falls in love. Part of his journey is to prove himself worthy. That will take some doing, given he is not in her moral and spiritual ballpark. “I think we don’t really want Phil to get the girl—we detest Phil,” observes Stephen Tobowolsky (DVD Special Features). Probably true at first, but our sympathies grow as time goes by. Phil changes himself from detestable to magnanimous and worth every cent of the $339.88 that Rita spends to “buy”

1.1.indd 25

12/9/2011 6:40:01 PM


Seeing the Light

him at the town’s bachelor auction. Once the “curse” is lifted and he’s free to leave, Phil realizes that there is little to return to back in Pittsburgh. Nothing of his former life can compare to what he has now. Salman Rushdie (1992) opined that Dorothy was a fool to leave Oz and go back to the black‐and‐white world of Kansas. What she found in Oz couldn’t be duplicated at Aunt Em’s farm (pp. 56–57). Rushdie asserts that Dorothy returns home “in spite of the efforts of Kansas folk, including Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, to have her dreams brainwashed out of her” (p. 57). He would surely say that Phil was right to stay in Punxsutawney, rather than go back to the life he once had. Until he escapes Groundhog Day, Phil’s daily routine is fixed. The clock radio strikes 6:00 a.m. to Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” Phil peers out the window, gets ready and heads out the door. The first person he meets he calls “Pork Chop,” a hefty man who greets him with, “Good morning. Off to see the groundhog?” Downstairs Phil runs into Mrs. Lancaster, owner of the B&B. She asks if he’ll be staying, which he answers in decreasing percentages (“Chance of departure 100 percent,” then 80, then 75–80, and so on). He’s then off to Gobbler’s Knob, where the festival is held. We can gauge Phil’s progress by his on‐air comments and his exchanges at the Tip Top Café. One day Phil surrounds himself with pastries, donuts, and other cholesterol‐ enhancing sweets. He stuffs his face with both hands, the picture of gluttony. A disgusted Rita leans forward, observing what a pathetic wretch he has become. Rita’s words bounce off him. Nothing will change for Phil until he assumes responsibility for his choices, his actions, and what he’s doing with his life. He needs an attitude readjustment. Whether “hicks” or “morons,” the people populating his universe have a role to play. Rita, his producer and spiritual guide, represents the unobtainable; the woman of his dreams. She sees his shortcomings—his inauthenticity—and dismisses him. Cameraman Larry is a target for Phil’s snide remarks, and is the kind of man women tend to avoid. And yet it is he who identifies Phil’s body after the first suicide with a heartfelt, “He was a really great guy. I really liked him.” There is also the pushy life insurance salesman Ned Ryerson, who accosts Phil every morning. Ned models manipulation—using information from a supposed past connection to insinuate himself upon his unsuspecting victim. He is obnoxious, presumptuous, and, for Phil at least, revolting. “It was horrible. A giant leech got me,” Phil said after encountering Ned. Ned may be a parasite, but he’s an endearing one. His advice has multiple meanings: “Watch out for that first step, it’s a doozy!” and “I have friends who live and die by the actuarial tables.” Theologian Tom Armstrong examines Ned’s uncanny knowledge of Phil and hypothesizes that Ned is stuck in a time loop of his own (1998). Phil uses Ned as a model for seducing a local woman, Nancy Taylor, for an empty though pleasurable sexual encounter. What stands out in this foray into lust is that Phil keeps calling her “Rita,” the real object of his desire.

1.1.indd 26

12/9/2011 6:40:01 PM

1.1 Authenticity 27 Two others with something to teach him are Ralph and Gus. Although they first seem to be beer‐guzzling slobs, they are instrumental in Phil’s progress. They function like a Greek chorus, offering another perspective and commenting from the sidelines. It is Gus who first links the two Phils together. When he hears Phil’s name at the Tip Top Café, Gus asks, “Phil? Like the Groundhog Phil?” and warns him, “Look out for your shadow, there, pal.” The groundhog’s shadow predicts a longer winter and, thus, more darkness. Similarly, Phil’s shadow indicates it’ll take some time before he sees the light. He must first leave behind his inauthentic self and turn his life around. Michael P. Foley and Thomas M. Ciesla1 consider Gus a stand‐in for St. Augustine in linking light/dark with good/evil. This explains why Gus warns Phil to watch where he’s heading, and what he’s becoming. In Jungian terms, Gus is pointing out the shadow side lurking behind Phil’s surface persona. By that view, Phil’s uptight, life‐denying side is on a collision course, as his alter ego is cut loose in a free‐for‐all. Later at the bowling alley, Gus observes, “I peg you as a glass‐half‐empty kind of guy.” This casual‐seeming comment pierces Phil’s veneer. As long as Phil focuses on what’s not in his “glass,” he will fall short of what he could be. If Gus helps show Phil the way out of his darkness, Ralph represents what he’ll become if he stays stuck in inauthenticity. It is Ralph who answers the question, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did ever mattered?” with, “That about sums it up for me.” Ralph is like the two strangers meeting in an elevator. One says, “Another day,” to which the second nods, “Yup, another day.” This is Phil’s future if he doesn’t find the way out. Phil is forced to look at what he’s doing with his life. When he experiences despair, he tries to kill himself in virtually every way imaginable. When he goes to bed, he dreads falling asleep and waking up the next day at 6:00 a.m. to “I Got You Babe” on the radio, with the two DJs announcing Groundhog Day yet again. The last person helping Phil on his journey is the beggar he walks by every morning and leaves empty handed. Only later, when Phil’s authentic self is taking shape, does he show compassion to the old man. By the time the beggar collapses on the street, Phil rushes to his side, calling him “Pop” and “Father”— terms of endearment. And when Pop dies, Phil sees that he can’t stop death. It’s a fact of life, the end of life. That boundary condition is the impetus for Phil to make something of his life. Heidegger calls death “our ownmost potentiality for Being.” The fact of death—mortality—propels us to live fully, lead a life of integrity, knowing we have but a finite amount of time to make something of 1

For example, Thomas M. Ciesla says of Gus’s comment that Phil should watch out for his shadow, “Gus is short for Augustine. For St. Augustine, shadows were a privation of light, and evil and vice, a privation of good,” (Ciesla, 2009). Michael P. Foley noted this earlier (Foley, 2004).

1.1.indd 27

12/9/2011 6:40:01 PM


Seeing the Light

our lives. When he finally realizes the finality of death, Phil takes a quantum leap further down the path. He is no longer the aimless pessimist we first meet. In Buddhist discussions, Pop’s death is considered the pivotal moment of the film, for that is when Phil sheds his self‐centered inauthentic self and starts to become authentic. “Phil’s compassion for the old man is [then] transferred to the living” ( Zen Buddhist and Tenshin Roshi, Reb Anderson says the turning point is when Phil realizes he cannot save the old man’s life. “Only here, he said, did Phil realize ‘It’s not me, it is the universe, I  am just the vessel’” (Schindler). Phil then opens himself up to a fuller way of being in the world. The groundhog Phil has also received attention, with comparisons drawn between the two Phils. They are both weathermen, but Phil the groundhog predicted six more weeks of winter, whereas Phil Connors thought the blizzard would pass. Rodent Phil looks at his shadow and makes a diagnosis; human Phil refuses to look at his shadow. He prefers to point out the failings of those around him. For this reason, Phil’s journey goes on for a very long time. Stephen Tobolowsky notes that, Harold Ramis, who’s also a Buddhist, said that in Buddhism they say that it takes 10,000 years for a soul to evolve to the next level. So he said that he felt that the entire progress of Groundhog Day covered 10,000 years, which depressed me. … Danny Rubin, the writer, said that he felt something like 23 days were represented in the movie, [but they lasted] over 10,000 years (Jekelek, 2010).

The groundhog is called the “Seer of Seers, the Prognosticator of Prognosticators,” indicating he is no ordinary rodent. Phil decides that the time warp won’t stop until he gets rid of the groundhog; thus, the murder–suicide at  the quarry. Of course, nothing changes and Phil wakes up again, with everything back in its place. Film critic Michael Bronski hypothesized that, “The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ,” adding that, “And when I say that the groundhog is Jesus, I say that with great respect” (Kuczynski, 2003). Phil’s journey proceeds in stages.2 First there is surprise, disbelief. Can this really be happening, or is this some practical joke? Slaps from Rita fail to wake him from his nightmare. An empirical test is next. Breaking a pencil in two, he leaves the two pieces on his bedside table. Phil’s dismay that the pencil was restored to its original, unbroken condition is palpable. He’s still stuck in Groundhog Day. The next stage is to seek advice. Rita suggests he get his head examined—see a neurologist or a psychiatrist. Neither makes a difference. Commiserating with Ralph and Gus, he bewails the fact he’s not repeating the “pretty good day” 2

A wonderful little book by Ryan Gilbey sets out each of Phil’s days in considerable detail. See Groundhog Day (2004).

1.1.indd 28

12/9/2011 6:40:02 PM

1.1 Authenticity 29 he had in the Virgin Islands, where he met a woman, and they “made love like sea otters.” Phil asks, “What if there were no tomorrow?” Gus’s answer hits like lightning: If there were no tomorrow, there would be no consequences. “We could do whatever we wanted.” What a revelation! Phil is propelled to the next stage, throwing caution to the wind. With Phil at the wheel of Ralph’s car and the two buddies beside him, he cuts loose. It’s like Freud’s Id with no Super‐Ego to hold it back: “It’s the same thing your whole life: Clean up your room. Stand up straight. Pick up your feet. Take it like a man. Be nice to your sister. Don’t mix beer and wine, ever. Oh yes. Don’t drive on the railroad tracks.” As his companions gulp in fear, Phil hits the tracks, cackling with glee. The subsequent joy ride ends up with Phil in jail. However, as the new day dawns—guess what—he’s back at the B&B, untouched by the previous day’s events. The door now open, anything goes. Phil indulges in whatever he wants, starting with food. Phil tells Rita he’s a god (not the God, but a god). He asks, “Do you think I’m acting like this because I’m egocentric?” She slams him, “I know you’re egocentric. It’s your defining characteristic.” He moves from food to women, expanding his pleasure quotient. Driving a Mercedes he takes a cute date (both in costume no less!) to the Alpine Theatre to see Heidi II. “I’ve seen it over a hundred times,” he says. As the days go on, Phil studies Rita. He categorizes information, stockpiling her likes, dislikes, love of French poetry, favorite drinks and toasts; you name it. What worked with Nancy is disastrous with Rita. She sees through him, incredulous, and disgusted. “Is this what love is for you?” adding, “You must be crazy. I could never love someone like you. Because you only love yourself.” Phil’s response is revealing. “That’s not true. I don’t even like myself.” He has an even lower opinion of himself than Rita does. He has miles to go to authenticity. Parish Rector and Theology professor Fr. Stephen C. Kostoff (2009) remarks that, One of the great insights of our spiritual tradition is that sin—beyond its moral, ethical and spiritually corrupting effect—is ultimately boring. … [I]nstead of yielding an enhanced sense of life… sin devolves into an empty caricature of life. It is the negation of life. That is why spiritual death precedes biological death. Repetition is not a relief, but an increase of this intolerable boredom … Sin is thus an existential vacuum that is suffocating in its long‐term effects.

Unfortunately, a world where anything goes erodes our ethical foundations and, ultimately, leads to hopelessness. It is a dead‐end. Phil becomes despondent and sinks into lethargy, watching “Jeopardy”, tossing out answers before the questions are asked. He finally snaps. At yet another taping at Gobbler’s Knob he declares, “This is pitiful. A thousand people freezing their butts off, waiting to worship a rat.” Phil hits bottom. “It’s gonna be cold…it’s gonna be gray… and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.” Misery upon misery.

1.1.indd 29

12/9/2011 6:40:02 PM


Seeing the Light

The solution hits him: Shoot the messenger. Phil kidnaps the groundhog and drives off a cliff, into the pits of hell. They die in a ball of flames. It’s the first of many suicide attempts. Death is as meaningless as his life. “I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.” Rita doesn’t blink an eye: “I don’t know, Phil. Maybe it’s not a curse. It just depends on how you look at it.” Her words reverberate in his brain, and ours too. Curses may be blessings in disguise; it depends on our perspective. This moment is a turning point for Phil, with change now set in motion. Suicide is no longer the escape that he sought. He starts to help people he once ignored. He begins to lead a life of service, catching a falling boy, changing a tire for elderly women, doing the Heimlich maneuver on a choking diner, helping a young couple in love, and buying all the life insurance Ned Ryerson has to offer. His newfound empathy for Pop indicates his transformation. Phil tries to save the old man from dying until finally accepting that life has a beginning and an end. In watching Phil’s journey, we see many references to heights: he eats at the Tip Top Café, does the taping at Gobbler’s Knob (hill), and dreams of living in the mountains at high altitudes; his favorite film is Heidi II (set in the Alps, at high altitudes) and his wake‐up music has the line, “there ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb.” Two of his suicides involve heights and depths (the quarry/pit and the tower/fall to the street) and every day Phil catches a boy falling from a tree. He may have killed himself so many times he didn’t exist any more, but Phil isn’t about to let the boy come to an early death. By the time Phil is free of his time warp, he’s 10,000 years from the cynical, sarcastic “talent” at his fourth year of taping in Punxsutawney. 10,000 years, days, hours, or minutes, it’s all a question of time. It all comes together at Gobbler’s Knob, where he embraces the shadows he once scorned. Quoting Chekhov, Phil comes to see that, “winter is just another step in the cycle of life” and that he “couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.” Some of us learn faster than others, but Phil’s journey can teach us about constructing a meaningful life, regardless of our starting point.

SPOTLIGHT: Up in the Air Up in the Air (2009) is not about a man who, like Phil Connors, predicts the weather. But it is about a man who, like Phil Connors, faces repetition as a constant in his life. Ryan Bingham flies from one city to the next to fire employees of corporations across the country. This requires the tough shell of a turtle, but enough awareness of suffering to help people accept the bad news without self‐destructing or going ballistic. The problem with Bingham is that he can help others but can’t seem to help himself. The opening music sets the tone: “This land was made for you and me.” We too can get a taste of this life “from California to the New York Island”

1.1.indd 30

12/9/2011 6:40:02 PM

1.1 Authenticity 31 and points in between. The expansive music is reassuring and inclusive. Perhaps this land is made for you and me, with opportunities for the picking. It’s a comforting illusion. But it’s more like a front in a Hollywood movie: It looks good, yet has little behind it. At the outset Bingham asks, “Who am I?” His answer is that he’s loaned out to cowards who can’t fire people themselves. “To know me is to fly with me—this is where I live.” He has no other “home,” having logged many miles and years at his job. As he says, “All the things you probably hate about traveling ….are warm reminders that I’m home.” This declaration has two functions: (1) It draws a line between Ryan and most other people, and (2) it is self‐defining. His “home” is on the road, in airports, breathing stale air on planes, and nursing watered‐down drinks in airport bars. Bingham oozes self‐confidence. If there were anything others can teach him, you wouldn’t know it. “Work is life” could be his motto. His life is a series of interchangeable trips and his routine repeated so often that it is second nature. He goes in, terminates the hapless employees, offers words of encouragement, and sends them off with a packet of information to read. It’s not without compassion, but it is bounded by the limited time of their encounter. And though there is only a desk separating them, it might as well be an abyss. They part ways, never to see one another again. This suits Ryan just fine. And make no mistake these are trips, not a journey. A journey would require a sense of direction. It would also require a purpose beyond the ephemeral goal of hitting the 10 million mile mark and joining the American Airlines Hall of Fame. That desire drives him. He welcomes the next assignment and the opportunity to chock up more miles. This becomes a comedy of the absurd, with nightly dinners on the road, where he orders $40‐worth of food, whether he’s hungry or not and whether he eats it or not. Anything for frequent f lyer miles. Ryan has a system for everything and everything has its place. He likes those “systematized friendly touches” that come with air travel. He packs only the minimum, nicely folding clothes to avoid wrinkles. He’s a one‐suitcase kind of  guy, gliding through airports like a fish through water. This is a man on autopilot. He knows how to avoid congestion and willingly uses his “gold” status to cut to the head of lines. To short‐circuit security he gets behind Asian businessmen, whose efficiency seems unbeatable. Racist? “I’m like my mother,” says Ryan, “I stereotype. It’s faster.” He wastes no time in airports, hotels, and corporate meeting rooms, then on the road again, toward his next destination. Having calculated how much time he’d lose annually with checked baggage, he forgoes that convenience. Saving time is more important what he does with the time he has. That’s the irony. As a loner, Ryan wants nothing and no one to tie him down. Like Phil in Groundhog Day, Ryan keeps others at a distance. Calls from his family are not quickly returned, leading his sister to bewail his absence. One night in the hotel bar he meets a woman, Alex Goran, who considers herself his female equivalent.

1.1.indd 31

12/9/2011 6:40:02 PM


Seeing the Light

“Think of me as yourself, only with a vagina.” They have fun comparing frequent flyer cards and arguing about the best rental car company, while their sexual energy percolates. She is undemanding and playful. “No strings attached” is her modus operandi. He thinks it’s his too, at first. The drawbacks of his world would be apparent later. When his company switches to “termination engineers” to fire employees via the Internet, Ryan protests. However hard‐hearted is his work, at least it’s face‐to‐face. This reorganization was the bright idea of newcomer Natalie Keener, 23 years old and green as grass. Given Ryan’s outrage, his boss sends Natalie to accompany Ryan to learn the ropes. They are an odd couple; the 50‐ish seasoned veteran thrown together with the young whippersnapper whose lack of experience doesn’t faze her in the slightest. As Natalie points out, she does have a minor in psychology! Only later does she realize that her cost‐saving approach has serious f laws. Natalie is definitely going to cramp Ryan’s style, so he’s not happy to be saddled with her. However, when he spots her staggering across the airport with too much luggage and too little sophistication, he takes her under his wing. He becomes her mentor, but only in the art of letting employees go as gently as possible. She is turned off by his aversion to commitment and his blasé manner. Short term, superficial relationships are not what Natalie wants for her life. Ryan has his movements down pat, having streamlined both his work and his life. He’s about as cool as they come, though now an ageing cool, as Natalie indicates by calling him “old.” He’s also a bit slick; he’s gone through the same paces hundreds of times. “There’s a methodology to what I do.” He attends to details and surprises Natalie with his knowledge of the employees’ resumes. This personal touch suggests that those who are “let go” aren’t just numbers. And while dropping the ax is brutal, “There’s a dignity to what I do.” Ryan tells Natalie that, “This is the most personal situation you are ever going to enter.” Contrary to the script he effortlessly delivers, he has an almost clinical detachment. Like a highly trained surgeon, Ryan can do quick, efficient cuts, spilling little or no blood. He arrives, delivers the bad news, and leaves. This is his reality day after day, year after year. Like Phil in his time warp, Ryan has his own form of repetition. Natalie sees that but hits a wall. When she fires a woman who mentions suicide, Ryan brushes it off as an idle threat. It wasn’t. Ryan denies there were warning signs. This lie may have been intended to protect Natalie (or himself) but reveals how desensitized Ryan has become. Natalie, however, is devastated. She has come to see that real people suffer real crises upon hearing the news that she and Ryan so glibly deliver. For Heidegger, “Language is the house of Being.” Through language we define ourselves, express ourselves, and develop ourselves into the kind of person we want to be. Ryan falls short here. The same job with the same routine has turned Ryan into a man whose daily discourse consists of canned speeches.

1.1.indd 32

12/9/2011 6:40:02 PM

1.1 Authenticity 33 Heidegger wouldn’t hesitate to judge this as inauthentic. They are hollow claims meant to pacify the suffering recipients and to allow those delivering bad news to extract themselves cleanly and quickly. Ryan offers a refrain to comfort the poor blokes he just fired: “Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now. And it’s because they sat there that they were able to do it.” Amazingly, this is done with a straight face. The hope is to ease the pain by presenting losing one’s job as a magnificent opportunity. It is a goose with a golden egg, a purse made out of a sow’s ear. “Kids love athletes because they follow their dreams,” he declares. Hearing this, the fired employee pulls out a photo of his children. “What do you suggest I tell them?” Ryan’s answer? “I’m not a shrink, I’m a wake‐up call.” Like a cross between the Grim Reaper and the Fairy Godmother, Ryan takes people to the edge, pushing them to make changes before it’s too late. It’s the chance for them to reinvent themselves. All it requires is an attitude adjustment. Ryan delivers the news as a recipe for happiness. Sure you didn’t see the ax falling, but it cut you free from a life of drudgery. Now you can do what really wanted to do. Show your children what it’s like to take some risks and live with more intensity. Ryan views himself as a messenger. “We are here to make limbo tolerable [and] to ferry lost souls across the river of dread to the point where hope is dimly visible.” This calls up Dante’s Inferno: Charon ferries the newly dead souls across the River Styx to Hades, over which is posted, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” Of course, most who lose their jobs do not see it as a gift or Ryan as a guardian angel. “On a stress level I’ve heard that losing a job is like a death in the family, but personally I feel more like people I worked with were my family, and I died,” one observed. Ryan’s work routine is punctuated by speaking engagements, “motivational kinds of stuff.” It’s the same presentation over and over again. He has it timed perfectly, heavy on insights, but with enough humor that the audience laughs at their foibles while hearing his message. He opens with, “How much does your life weigh?” and suggests they picture a backpack, then “Load it with all the things you own—stuff it all into the backpack.” They visualize knick‐knacks, furniture, and so on. Shove it all in. “Now try to walk,” he says. The horrors of carrying such weight makes us want to call the Salvation Army and unload all that junk. Ryan knows this. This is our daily reality. Now imagine setting the backpack on fire: “What do you want to take out?” Guessing the answer, Ryan says, “Photos are for people who can’t remember.” His solution is nihilistic. “Let everything burn and imagine waking up tomorrow with nothing. It’s kind of exhilarating, isn’t it?” Ah yes, how liberating! Free, free, free of all that baggage we drag around every day! It’s a powerful presentation, the first time anyway. It’s also a Nietzschean moment—a nihilist’s dream to level the playing field and start anew. With such clearing, we can remake ourselves into the person we’d like to be.

1.1.indd 33

12/9/2011 6:40:02 PM


Seeing the Light

The second canned backpack speech focuses on relationships—the “heaviest components” of our lives. He disdains symbiotic relationships, insisting that, “We’re sharks.” How many marriages do you know that last? Forget the need for committed relationships. And as for our fate: “Make no mistake,” he asserts, “we all die alone.” This resonates with Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. We are necessarily alone, alienated even, and like sharks circling for prey. In his play, No Exit, Sartre declared, “Hell is other people.” Ryan doesn’t go that far, but his cynicism is palpable. And yet the reality is that we do have others around us. As Heidegger put it, we are immersed in the world as a being among others. Even when alone, it is in full awareness that others exist. When we first hear Ryan’s backpack speech he sounds like a Buddhist mutant. He indulges himself, but offers the ideal of nothingness—having nothing and no one to weigh him down. His sister Kara observes, “You’re awfully isolated the way you live.” “Isolated? I’m surrounded,” he replies, walking through the crowded airport. Surrounded maybe; connected no. Images can be deceiving, as we know only too well. Surely we don’t want to carry around every object we’ve laid our hands on. Not being weighed down has its virtues, but let’s not equate attachments with connections. There’s a reason Buddhists recommend freeing ourselves of attachments. Hanging onto things that weigh us down and stop us from living fully would seem like the backpack from Hell. In contrast, connections to those we love and who love us  give meaning to our lives and help us develop ourselves. They also give us alternative perspectives and a means to share what we value. Existentialists examine the ways we become alienated from one another, even in the midst of crowds. Ryan avoids commitments, has never married, is cut off from his own family, and insists that we all die alone. That said, he confesses to Alex, “I’m lonely.” We see a yearning for a loving relationship, a lasting link with others. Alienation is one of those things throwing us back upon ourselves, causing us to reexamine our lives. We may be alienated by contemporary life, the work we do, or by those around us. The fact we are amongst others does not mean we feel connected to them. Marxists look at “alienated labor” and how destructive is the lack of meaningful work, a vocation. Existentialists look at alienation from other people. This is a metaphysical issue, not an economic or political one. Ryan realizes that at the outset in asking, “Who am I?” We spend the rest of the movie trying to figure out the answer. The task of firing people you’ve never met requires psychological armor. Ryan’s skin is pretty thick, but a life long on travel and light on meaning catches up with even the most resilient person. And sure enough, it does for Ryan. He senses hollowness. His life resembles the backpack he drags into conference rooms, empty of content, ready for stuffing—or for burning.

1.1.indd 34

12/9/2011 6:40:02 PM

1.1 Authenticity 35 This hits him before yet another inspirational speech in front of yet another attentive audience. The lights dimmed, the audience quiet in anticipation, the trusty backpack at his side. Everything in place for the same canned speech he could do in his sleep. He starts. He falters. He can’t go on. In a flash he decides to leave it all behind. He races to the airport and off to Chicago. He is ready to go that extra step with the woman of no‐strings, his female counterpart. Hallelujah! Or so he thinks as he rings her bell. She opens the door and his elation disintegrates. Alex looks at Ryan as if he were a zombie from Night of the Living Dead. Her husband calls out from the background. “Honey, who’s there?” “It’s just someone who’s lost,” she replies. The door closes. When she sees him again Alex lets Ryan have it—he crossed the line. But something has shifted. He is lost, she was right about that. But he’s lost in a new way, a way that shakes him up. He is moving between airports and yet no longer sure where he’s headed. The film ends with Ryan in limbo, gazing at an airport destination board. He is dwarfed by the possibilities. Having finally made it into the 10 Million Mile Club, he reached his life’s goal. But has no idea where he’s going, or where he’s from. When asked where he calls home, he admits, “from here, up in the air.” And when asked if he had anything to say, he is speechless. His dream came true, but for what purpose? Ryan said to Natalie, “The miles are the goal.” “What’s the target?” she asked. He couldn’t answer then and he can’t answer now. It doesn’t matter how far he’s gone if he has no sense of purpose. He is responsible for what he has made of his life with his 10 million miles’ worth of trips. His journey lies ahead, uncharted. From all appearances, he’s on his own. Emily Bauman (2010) argues that, “[Ryan’s] isolation has become not a privilege but a sacrifice, the price he pays to make the inhuman human.” And where everyone else will be going home, he’ll be hitting the skies yet again. “Without purpose of his own,” Bauman adds, “he illuminates the purpose of others,” and that Ryan is “a vision of life adrift.” It is curious that Bauman should say this, given that Ryan spoke of lives adrift. This was when he told Natalie not to worry about Carol Barnes, who turned suicidal when Natalie sacked her. He mistakenly assessed it as just talk and consoled Natalie with, “That’s what we do. Take people at their most fragile and set them adrift.” Like to like. The ferryman, a “termination engineer,” is in the same boat as the wounded souls he sets adrift. This is the case no matter how much he eases limbo or points out hope. The difference is that Ryan thought he was in control. But Alex, in thinking she was his doppelgänger, becomes the agent of change. Her rejection of his overture—his longing—throws Ryan back onto himself and all those assumptions about living and dying alone. He is brought back to his opening query, “Who am I?” This time he’ll have a harder time answering the question.

1.1.indd 35

12/9/2011 6:40:02 PM


Seeing the Light

Short Takes: Revolutionary Road Frank and April Wheeler make a beautiful couple living with two children in 1950s suburbia. Every day he takes the train into the city, while she stays home, the trusty housewife and mother. They both hate what they do. Revolutionary Road (2008) tells the story. He’s a salesman. He has the same miserable job his father had, a situation he swore never to end up in. She dreams of becoming an actress so she won’t be stuck in a tract house like every other one around. Something has gone very wrong. Neither wants what they have but he, the “breadwinner,” is constrained by the weight on his shoulders. Her constraint is the empty life she leads as wife and mother. He breaks the monotony with lunches with co‐workers and then an affair. She has no break from her monotony other than the fantasy of chucking it all and moving to Paris. She yearns to be freer, to take risks. At first Frank is receptive, but April’s unexpected pregnancy cuts that short. She shows the strain of an inauthentic life: FRANK: APRIL:

This doesn’t seem very realistic. No, Frank. This is what’s unrealistic. It’s unrealistic for a man with a fine mind to go on working year after year at a job he can’t stand. Coming home to a place he can’t stand, to a wife who’s equally unable to stand the same things. And you know what the worst part of it is? Our whole existence here is based on this great premise that we’re special. That we’re superior to the whole thing. But we’re not. We’re just like everyone else! We bought into the same, ridiculous delusion. That we have to resign from life and settle down the moment we have children. And we’ve been punishing each other for it.

She calls it as she sees it: “Look at us. We’re just like everyone else. We’ve bought into the same, ridiculous delusion.” She is painfully aware that they are growing apart. “Frank knows what he wants, he found his place, he’s just fine. Married, two kids, it should be enough. It is for him. And he’s right; we were never special or destined for anything at all.” She can’t just walk away from her family, but she wants out of the life she has. The unwanted pregnancy is like a stake in the heart of their marriage. Frank tells her, You are an empty, empty, hollow shell of a woman. I mean, what the hell are you doing in my house if you hate me so much? Why the hell are you married to me? What the hell are you doing carrying my child? I mean, why didn’t you just get rid of it when you had the chance? Because listen to me, listen to me, I got news for you—I wish to God that you had!

April’s despair tightens to the breaking point. She feels destined for a life she doesn’t want to lead. Out of desperation she makes a high‐stakes decision and rolls the dice.

1.1.indd 36

12/9/2011 6:40:02 PM

1.1 Authenticity 37 We see how mistakes and lost opportunities can tie us in knots, suck the joy right out of us, leaving us at each others’ throats, blaming one another for the mess that our lives have become. Dreams that die because of the choices we make are often the most painful. Existentialists and others who believe in the power of choice think we need never feel stuck. We can change our lives at a moment’s notice, yank the “in” from inauthenticity and get back on track. April hit the nail on the head when she said, “Tell me the truth, Frank, remember that? We used to live by it. And you know what’s so good about the truth? Everyone knows what it is however long they’ve lived without it.” She drives it home: “No one forgets the truth, Frank, they just get better at lying.” We are never far from the truth no matter how hard we try. It’s there inside, waiting for us to return to it and set things right. April is testimony to that. Revolutionary Road is not an easy film, but its insights into despair, choice and responsibility are up there on the Richter scale. Our next movie has a protagonist whose life is the flipside of April Wheeler’s. Instead of sinking into inauthenticity, Amélie Paulain takes hold of her life and goes out into the world, an agent of change.

Outtakes: Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Paulain (Amélie) Amélie is a young woman who transforms lives, as we see in the French movie, Amélie (2001). It starts with her finding a tiny box tucked in a cubby in the wall. She can see by the box’s contents that these were once someone’s treasures, so Amélie decides to find the owner. She is struck by the surprise and happiness of the owner when he is reunited with his treasure box. Delighted to have been an agent of such pleasure, she is inspired to do this for others. And so it is that Amélie becomes an ambassador of goodwill, a human Easter Bunny. The movie was a big hit in France, no doubt because of its infectious charm. She models how doing good for others makes one’s own life better too. Heidegger argued that Dasein (the individual person) stands in a caring relationship to others, that the person is disposed to care. This is a view others hold—that caring for others is fundamentally part of being human. Is Amélie a paragon of generosity—or a sucker? Some might see the Amélies of the world as dupes for “free riders.” These are the people who let others care for them (e.g., by paying their way, mooching off the system, being carried on the shoulders of others) when they are perfectly able to take care of themselves. It’s clear that Amelia doesn’t give that concern a second thought however much others might. She is too delighted to raise such questions. Bioethicist Mary Mahowald (Mahowald, Silver and Ratcheson, 1987) argues that even human fetuses are predisposed to help out other humans and, thus,

1.1.indd 37

12/9/2011 6:40:02 PM


Seeing the Light

the use of fetal cells in medical treatment would not be an offense to their dignity. In other words, we ought to be able to presume an unspoken consent in using fetal tissue because using humans to help other humans has a moral base. Amélie is such a person. She wants to help others and does so with great relish, never disclosing that she is the agent. These deeds are for the sake of others, not for any recognition, compensation, or praise. Her actions are with no apparent self‐aggrandizement. Any benefit or reward is intangible. Her acts of kindness transform the lives of those around her and give her life meaning it would not otherwise have.

Short Takes: The Visitor Walter Vale of The Visitor (2007) is a 62‐year‐old college professor who has taught the same class, handed out the same syllabus, and given the same lectures over and over again. His life is like a shriveled‐up leaf. However vibrant it once was, it is now empty. Like Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air, he made a decent living with the minimum of personal investment. Change is long overdue. Three strangers caused him to rethink his priorities. The first two are undocumented aliens—a young Syrian musician Tarek Khalil and his Senegalese artist‐girlfriend Zainab. The third is Tarek’s mother Mouna. Tarek and Zainab had taken up residence (unbeknownst to Walter) in his Manhattan apartment. After ejecting them, Walter has second thoughts and allows them to stay. It’s the best decision he’s made in decades, setting in motion events that transform his life. Walter finds Tarek’s African drums mesmerizing and takes the chance to try them out. This leads to a path of transformation far from the life of an academic. The good fortune was short‐lived. A mistake in the subway causes Tarek to be arrested and then detained in a bureaucracy worthy of Kaf ka. Walter initially thinks he can fix it so Tarek will be released. That this was a pipe dream shocked Walter, who was shaken by the injustices he saw at the detention facility. He couldn’t save Tarek from being deported to Syria. Meanwhile, Mouna arrives looking for Tarek, and an unlikely allegiance, friendship, and a budding romance begins. The contrast with the barrenness of his former life was undeniable. WALTER:

The truth is I haven’t done any real work in a very long time…I’ve been teaching the same course for 20 years and it doesn’t mean anything to me.None of it does. I pretend. I pretend that I’m busy, that I’m working, that I’m writing.I’m not doing anything. I’m sorry. MOUNA: Don’t be. I really appreciate you telling me this. What would you do if you didn’t teach? WALTER: I don’t know. MOUNA: It’s kind of exciting not to know.

1.1.indd 38

12/9/2011 6:40:02 PM

1.1 Authenticity 39 The movie ends with Mouna returning to Syria to be near her son and Walter leaving his teaching to take up drumming in the New York subway. Wherever this takes him, it’s clear that he’s more alive than he has been in ages. He has cast aside his inauthentic life and he’s ready for the adventure ahead.

Outtakes: Alice and Midnight in Paris Woody Allen’s classic Alice (1990) presents the path to authenticity of Alice Tate, wife of wealthy doctor, Doug Tate. It opens with Alice having vague pains that lead her to Dr. Yang. She tells him, “I want to do something with my life before it’s too late,” adding, “I’m at a crossroads. I’m lost. Lost.” Alice no more knows how to get out of the inauthenticity that has become her life than she knows how to sprout wings. She looks back and sees vague aspirations she once had, but those never took shape. And so she spends her time ferrying about her two young children, shopping, getting her hair styled and nails done, more shopping, and getting her sore back rubbed by her masseuse. It’s an easy, luxurious life, but devoid of meaning. And so Alice is at the crossroads, with no idea as to what direction to take. She is lost. Dr. Yang’s unusual curative techniques include a drug that allows Alice to be invisible for a short period of time. Not only does Alice discover that husband Doug is a philanderer, she realizes that she no longer loves him. She is attracted to a single father she meets at her children’s school, but his interest in reviving his failed marriage curtails his momentary fling with her. Each trip to Dr. Yang’s gives her another push to move forward, look within herself, and see what she is made of. After seeing the ghost of a past boyfriend, she asked Dr. Yang for advice. He said, “In times of great stress, people see ghosts,” pointing out the ways in which memories float up to the surface. This includes our own ghosts—the people we once were, the impulsive child, starry‐eyed teenager, the romantic lover, the doting mother, and so on. All these versions of ourselves show up for an accounting when we do some serious soul‐searching. The ghosts of Alice‐past reminded her of dreams. She thought of the desire to help people that she once had. “Where did that part of me go?” she asks. Alice’s journey to self‐awareness led her to thinking about her mother and her sister. She sees her own failings more clearly and how her values had gotten distorted over time. By the last visit to Dr. Yang, he observed, “Mrs. Tate had illusion of happiness. Not very happy with husband. Not happy with self.” He offered her a “potent herb” and the advice, “Choice is yours. Use wisely.” We too need to  see our choices and choose wisely. Alice’s story resonates with that of others who realize how much superficiality has replaced meaning in their lives. Like a male Alice, Gil Pender in Midnight in Paris (2011) has also lost his way. Engaged to a woman who wants him not to trade his successful life for

1.1.indd 39

12/9/2011 6:40:02 PM


Seeing the Light

fool’s gold, Gil finds their trip to Paris an unexpected eye‐opener. While his fiancé falls under the spell of a man whose ego is as inflated as a puffer fish, Gil opts for a late night stroll. This catapults him to rethink his life. As the clock strikes midnight, a 1920s‐era cab pulls up, the door opens, and Gil hops in— only to find Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in a partying mood. He has entered a parallel world—it’s a veritable gift from the gods, as far as Gil is concerned. Like Walter’s life coming alive with music and the agents of change in The Visitor, Gil’s life is also about to open up. And he’s wide‐eyed and ready. Thus begins a series of encounters with artists and writers residing in Paris in the 1920s. Gil is agog at the sheer creative energy surrounding him. The contrast with his “reality” is striking. Each night’s journey brings home to Gil that if he follows his dream he will find what it takes to transcend his fear of death, his insecurities, and his doubts. The call to be free of the inauthenticity rooted in a life of stable mediocrity made for a drumbeat he couldn’t ignore. It’s hard not to cheer for Gil, to affirm the value of welcoming uncertainty, projecting ourselves forward with a sense of purpose, so we see who we are—and can be— if we are true to ourselves. As Dr. Yang said, “Choice is yours. Use wisely.”

Works Cited Armstrong, Tom, “Groundhog Day and the Cosmic Sense.” web/20070301013343/ (accessed August 8, 2011). Armstrong, Tom, “The Ned Ryerson Conundrum.” 19991003033315/ (accessed August 8, 2011). Bauman, Emily (2010) “Inhuman Resources.” In These Times, February 19, 2010. (accessed August 8, 2011). Ciesla, Thomas M. (2009) “Today is Tomorrow: Ten Thousand Years in Punxsutawney.” February, 2009. (accessed August 8, 2011). Foley, Michael P. (2004) “Phil’s Shadow.” Touchstone magazine, April, 2004. Gilbey, Ryan (2004) Groundhog Day. London: BFI publishing. Gordon, Lewis R., ed. (1997) Existence in Black. New York: Routledge. Jekelek, Jan (2010) “In Depth With ‘Groundhog Day’s’ Ned Ryerson, Actor Stephen Tobolowsky.” Epoch Times, February 11, 2010. n2/content/view/29305/ (accessed August 8, 2011). Kostoff, Stephen C. (2009) “Bored by Sin.” August 13, 2009. http://www.orthodoxytoday. org/articles‐2009/Kostoff‐Bored‐By‐Sin.php (accessed August 8, 2011). Kuczynski, Alex (2003) “Groundhog Almighty.” The New York Times, December 7, 2003. Lavery, David (1999) “Same‐O, Same‐O: Eternal Recurrence in Groundhog Day.” Studies in Popular Culture, Issue 22.1. Mahowald, Mary B., Silver, Jerry and Ratcheson, Robert A. (1987) “The Ethical Options in Transplanting Fetal Tissue.” Hastings Center Report 17: 9–15.

1.1.indd 40

12/9/2011 6:40:02 PM

1.1 Authenticity 41 Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science, as quoted by Lavery, David (1999). Ramis, Harold, Comments. “Special Features,” Groundhog Day Special Edition DVD. Sartre, Jean‐Paul (1992) Being and Nothingness. New York: Simon and Schuster. Sartre, Jean‐Paul (1989) No Exit and Three Other Plays. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Schindler, Paul E, Jr., “Groundhog Day: The Movie, Buddhism and Me,” http://www. (accessed August 8, 2011). Spence, James (2005) “What Nietzsche Could Teach You: Eternal Recurrence in Groundhog Day.” In Paul Tudico, ed., Movies and the Meaning of Life, pp. 273–88. Peru, IL: Open Court. Tobolowosky, Stephen (2009) Interview: “Stephen Tobolowsky Gets Repetitive in Groundhog Day.” January 27, 2009.‐ stephen‐tobolowsky‐gets‐repetitive‐in‐groundhog‐day (accessed August 8, 2011). Tobolowsky, Stephen, Comments. “Special Features,” Groundhog Day Special Edition DVD. Transparency, “Groundhog Day: Breakthrough to the True Self.” http://www. (accessed August 8, 2011). Wellman, Laurel (2004) “A Buddhist on Good, Evil, and Gibson.” San Francisco Chronicle, March 17, 2004.

Online Resources Big Think: Interview with Danny Rubin (July 20, 2010). ideas/20943 (accessed August 23, 2011). Daniel (2009) “Amélie and Philosophy 5.” The Nearby Pen, January 27, 2009. http://élie‐and‐philosophy‐1.html (accessed August 8, 2011). Dworkin, Ronald (2011) “What is a Good Life?” New York Review of Books, February  10, 2011.‐ good‐life (accessed August 8, 2011). The Existential Primer: (accessed August 8, 2011). LaBossiere, Mike (2010) “Authenticity & Originality.” Talking Philosophy, March 30, 2010. (accessed August 8, 2011). Sandberg, Anders (2009) “Am I Allowed To Throw Away ‘My’ Memories: Does Memory Editing Threaten Human Identity?” Practical Ethics News, February 17, 2009.‐i‐allowed‐to‐ throw‐away‐my‐memories‐does‐memory‐editing‐threaten‐human‐identity.html (accessed August 8, 2011). Sawyer, Brian (2003) “Authenticity, the Self, and Philosophy as Reflection” [de Beauvoir and Sartre], November 18, 2003.‐2‐ authenticity‐the‐self‐and‐philosophy‐as‐reflection/ (accessed August 8, 2011). Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Baliousis, M., and Joseph, S. (2008) “The Authenticity Scale.” Journal of Counseling Psychology, Vol. 55, No. 3: 385–99. (accessed August 8, 2011). Wright, Karen (2008) “Dare To Be Yourself.” Psychology Today, 1 May 2008. http://www.‐be‐yourself (accessed August 8, 2011).

1.1.indd 41

12/9/2011 6:40:02 PM


Seeing the Light

Discussion Questions 1. What sense of the “good life” is presented in these movies? How does morality and authenticity fit into that equation? 2. How can movies show us the importance of being honest with ourselves? Where do our characters run into obstacles moving out of inauthenticity? 3. To what extent do others act as agents of transformation? Where do we see others helping the hero on the path to authenticity? 4. What is the connection between choices we make and living with integrity? Where do we see good choices being made? Are there any times when you’d say to the character, “Bad idea”? 5. Looking at any two of Phil, Ryan, Amélie, Alice, or Gil, what would you say marks the journey out of inauthenticity?

1.1.indd 42

12/9/2011 6:40:02 PM


Personal Identity

SPOTLIGHT: Avatar, the Bourne trilogy Short Takes: All of Me, Big, Prelude to a Kiss Outtakes: The Unmistaken Child, Låt den rätte komma in (Let The Right One In), Being John Malkovich, and Memento


Welcome to your new body Jake. —Avatar


I send you because you don’t exist. —The Bourne Identity

“Welcome to your new body,” Norm tells Jake in Avatar (2009). How many of us would like to hear that? There’s a reason people dye hair, revamp wardrobes, whiten and straighten teeth, acquire tattoos, go on diets, staple stomachs, join gyms, and buy countless aerobics DVDs. We’re surrounded by, and may even be one of, those who desire to reshape the flesh and watch the “old me” fade from view. All for a newer revitalized self. Avatar opens with Marine veteran Jake dreaming about flying, only to wake up to the confinements of his current life. He was offered the flipside of a Faustian bargain: In exchange for taking his brother’s place on the planet Pandora, the function in his legs would be restored. After being paralyzed from the waist down by a battlefield injury, Jake considered it a great opportunity. It also assumed that a new identity would await him. Like those who lose their sight or hearing and suffer despair, Jake’s loss of the use of his legs was not easy to adjust to and, so, he yearned for the mobility he’d once known. He’s ready Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

1.2.indd 43

12/9/2011 6:39:55 PM


Seeing the Light

to make a trade. He assumed that he had nothing to lose by taking on a double life. Source Code (2011) has a similar premise: An Army vet with massive injuries willingly submits to a mind‐control experiment using time travel as part of a military mission to find a bomber on a commuter train. What he stands to gain is the chance to enter an alternative universe with a preferable ending to the one awaiting him. Taking part in a military scheme in exchange for a chance to regain what was lost was awfully tempting. In each case, the choice was closely tied to the hero’s sense of self, of who he is. Talk about heavy duty! Do you ever wonder what “you” really are? Do you think “you” are a mind? A body? Some combination of the two? Philosophers throughout history have considered the mind distinct from the body, and the spiritual core of who we are. Others reject such dualism. The issue has perplexed philosophers and theologians for centuries. This chapter looks at ways filmmakers have tackled it—from a vet whose mind controls his humanoid‐avatar, to an amnesiac running from strangers who want to kill him, to victims of mind–body switches. For each, the question is, “Who am I?” What mix of intellect, spirituality, creativity, general health, bodily traits, and morality shapes my identity as a person? Can we pin this down once and for all? Philosopher Mary Anne Warren (1973) once defined a member of the moral community in terms of five characteristics of personhood. Not all five are necessary, but at least a few should be in place: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

consciousness and the ability to feel pain, the ability to reason, self‐motivated activity, self‐awareness, the ability to communicate.

Without any of these characteristics, you wouldn’t be a “person.” You might be genetically human and yet not a person, according to the five criteria. For Warren, a “person” must be able to understand and apply moral reasoning. Not all humans can do this. For example, if Uncle Albert had a brain injury and was incompetent, we would surely say, “Yes,” if asked if he was still human. And yet, we might not consider him a moral agent, because he could no longer tell the difference between good and evil or freely act on his wishes. Similarly, if cousin Malina was at a beach party and someone slipped a date‐rape drug in her sangria, we wouldn’t say she agreed to have sex. Humanity is not one of Warren’s criteria for personhood. Someone could reason, communicate, and feel pain and yet not be a human. Think about movies featuring vampires, cyborgs, androids, avatars, and humanoids. None of these are human, or entirely human, but they are persons by Warren’s account. As such, they have moral status. Their destruction would only be permissible in cases like self‐defense, where killing a human is morally acceptable.

1.2.indd 44

12/9/2011 6:39:55 PM

1.2 Personal Identity 45 As we see, the quest for personal identity—finding the defining characteristics that make me the person that I am—covers a lot of terrain. It’s not a simple mind v. body throw of the dice. Many think the mind is the key aspect of our identity. But let’s not discount other factors that shape who I am. Movies offer a compelling way to examine these issues. Let’s start with Avatar (2010).

SPOTLIGHT: Avatar Jake Sully knows this much: “There’s no such thing as an ex‐Marine … You may be out but you never lose the attitude.” Having been paralyzed from the waist down and cryo “frozen” for six years, his whole world is about to change as he disembarks on the distant planet Pandora. He’s there to replace twin brother Tommy, killed in a robbery. Tommy was a highly regarded scientist. Jake, in contrast, has none of his brother’s intellectual skills. His finesse is in being a “warrior of the Jarhead Clan,” as he describes himself. Lead scientist Dr. Grace Augustine is clearly unhappy that Jake, not Tommy, will be working with her. Jake takes it in stride. This new world and the creatures that inhabit it, indigenous beings (humanoids) called Na’vi, offer an opportunity for Jake to get out of his rut. His job is to assist Grace in investigating Pandora, get chummy with the Na’vi, and negotiate a relocation, so the extremely valuable substance “unobtanium” can be mined and taken back to Earth. To accomplish this, Jake is connected to an avatar. This is a 10 foot‐tall blue humanoid with facial features genetically in tune with Jake, a DNA match with twin Tommy. Supposedly the nervous systems of the human and humanoid are calibrated so the human directs the avatar body via brain waves. Jake enters a sort of hyper‐sleep by climbing into a casket‐like “pod,” so the human and avatar can be hooked together. Effectively, Jake’s mind enters his avatar body and moves about on Pandora until someone pulls the plug. At that point, Jake’s mind is yanked out of his avatar. Human Jake then wakes up and Avatar Jake collapses like a wet dishrag. It’s like a dualist’s dream. Dualism is the view that the self has two distinct parts—the mind and the body—with the mind the seat of personal identity and the body a mere vessel. The most famous dualist is Rene Descartes (famous for “I think, therefore I am”). He would like the idea of Jake’s mind moving from his human body to reside in this avatar body. That Jake didn’t question how this was possible indicates he also thinks we can separate the mind from the body. In his case, taking up residence in a physically fit, 10‐foot tall humanoid opens the door to experiences far beyond the limitations brought about by his war injuries. He finds it liberating. The “birth” of Jake’s avatar is like that of a newborn calf, with all its awkwardness and instability. Avatar Jake is unsteady at first, but that doesn’t stop him.

1.2.indd 45

12/9/2011 6:39:56 PM


Seeing the Light

Out he goes. He is ecstatic to be able to run again. When he “awakens” back in his human form, we see him drag his spindly legs out of the chamber and into his wheelchair. The contrast is dramatic. Avatar Jake is the physical equal of the other dudes on Pandora; not so human Jake. This is brought home most clearly when Jake first disembarks on Pandora and tries to navigate in his wheelchair. One of the Marines on the tarmac sees Jake and sneers, “Meals on Wheels,” wondering what in the world Jake is doing there. Right away we get a sense of the power structure that Jake has to deal with. His commanding officer, and ultimately his enemy is Marine Colonel Miles Quaritch. Quaritch looks like a cross between a reptile and a rock; complete with the veins and scars that track his history. The very idea they could “ tame the natives” strikes Quaritch as ludicrous. For him, “The Avatar Program is a bad joke.” He wants Sully to “learn these savages from the inside.” It’s the “from the inside” part that Quaritch underestimates. If Jake can gain their trust, perhaps the Na’vi can be manipulated so that acquiring the mineral needed back on earth can be peacefully accomplished. Of course, that rests on an assumption that Jake would obey the rules that Quaritch sets out. His advice to Jake is to walk like one of “those science pukes,” quack like one, “but you report to me.” Jake responds, “Hell yes, sir.” At this stage, Jake self‐identifies as a Marine in all the ways that matter, wheelchair or no wheelchair. His loyalty is clear. In addition, Quaritch’s offer hangs over him like a carrot. The colonel will get Jake “real legs” when they return to Earth. Their pact is now in place. As often happens however, the best laid plans go awry. Initially, Jake’s alliance is with his fellow‐humans, but this allegiance begins to shift as he is drawn into this more environmentally conscious society. Falling in love with a Na’vi princess, Neytiri, doesn’t hurt, either. Also life on Pandora resonates with Jake’s own value system. The company’s desire for unobtanium at any cost drives him further away. In time Jake will turn against the humans and their greedy, destructive ways. Jake’s sense of self undergoes transformation. He may have initially labeled himself a “Jarhead‐warrior,” but he ceases thinking and acting like a Marine. He no longer follows orders and is not forthcoming with his superiors after resuming his human form. Initially conflicted Jake comes to see that what he wants is on Pandora, not Earth. That’s when he parts ways with the goals and values of his fellow‐Americans. He becomes a traitor. Jake has found a life of meaning as an avatar that he did not have as a human. “Everything is backwards now,” Jake realizes. “Like out there is the true world and in here is the dream.” His values have flipped upside‐down, causing his sense of self to shift from human to humanoid. Pandora offers him a world of opportunity, and a community. We see his Jarhead identity merge with that of an eco‐warrior. His world is no longer the same: “It’s hard

1.2.indd 46

12/9/2011 6:39:56 PM

1.2 Personal Identity 47 to believe it’s only been three months. I can barely remember my old life. I don’t know who I am anymore.” This is a time of personal crisis. When our alternative reality, our parallel universe, our “self ” in “Second Life,” our dream life, our Avatar, is preferable to our waking reality, we know we “aren’t in Kansas anymore,” as Quaritch tells the Marines (in a riff on Wizard of Oz). Jake is torn between the two worlds. Colonel Quaritch tells him, “It’s time to come in,” and that he got the approval for Jake to get his legs back. Jake isn’t ready to go back to Earth. His world on Pandora is expanding—it can only contract returning to earth. Quaritch’s and Jake’s allegiances are diverging. This is made clear when the Na’vi officially accept Jake into the community and he and Neytiri become mates. It’s like a dream come true. Maybe too much so. Hold it right there, Jake! Have you forgot that you are human, not humanoid? Jake wakes up and asks himself, “What the hell are you doing Jake?” When we have two separate identities, it’s time to take a deep breath and do a reality check. Jake’s switched allegiances are about to become evident to his human companions. Moreover, he realizes that he must come clean with the Na’vi that he came to be on Pandora as a plant by corporate interests. It isn’t an easy confession and his sincerity doesn’t cushion the impact of his announcement. Hearing that Jake had been a mole elicits outrage. Neytiri tells him to take a hike, and the other Na’vi reject him summarily. He must turn to dramatic means to get back in their good graces. Betrayal is not easily forgiven. “There’s nothing we have that they want. They’re never going to leave Hometree,” Jake says in a video log that Quaritch now has in his possession. Jake has betrayed them too. “Traitor, traitor.” Jake’s reality is now this: “I was a warrior who dreamed he could bring peace. Sooner or later, though, you always have to wake up.” His duplicity eats at him like acid. “Outcast. Betrayer. Alien. I was in the place the eye does not see. But to ever face them [the Na’vi] again, I was going to have to take it to a whole other level,” he reflects. Jake redeems himself on Pandora by taming the dragon, and flying in on its back in a flash of “shock and awe.” Meanwhile, Quaritch is beating the war drum: “There’s an aboriginal horde out there massing for an attack.” He argues, “Our only security is a preemptive attack. We will fight terror with terror.” The Marines blast away. Quaritch has lost perspective; he is too driven by his anger. Jake‐the‐traitor has pushed every button the colonel has, and Quaritch is out for blood. The war between the worlds begins. After the Marines use such massive force that Pandora and its people are nearly destroyed, the forest animals rise up and drive back the colonizers. All those dinosaur‐like beasts are formidable. The Marines are defeated, but Quaritch fights on. Basically, it’s Custer’s last stand. The political has become personal. After spitting out, “Hey Sully, how does it feel to betray your own race?” Quaritch cuts off Jake’s connection to his avatar. “Time to wake up,” he sneers. But all the firepower in the world can’t save him

1.2.indd 47

12/9/2011 6:39:56 PM


Seeing the Light

from Neytiri’s well‐placed arrow. She saves the day and rescues Jake at the same time. That he can’t go home again doesn’t bother him in the slightest. AVATAR JAKE:

The aliens went back to their dying world…. The time of great sorrow was ending. … I guess this is my last video log … I don’t want to be late to my own party. It’s my birthday after all.

Jake’s identification with his avatar is complete. Jake the human becomes “Jake,” the humanoid—his Avatar. The last image on the screen is of “Jake” opening his eyes. His transformation is a done deal. He now has the “legs” and can fly to his heart’s content—and not just in his dreams. Or maybe it’s all a dream now.

SPOTLIGHT: The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum The Bourne Identity opens with the Mediterranean Sea; it is raining, the screen blue from the storm above, the ocean below. We can barely make out a shape in the thunder and lightning. It’s a person, arms and legs extended, floating on the rough water. Cut to the interior of a fishing boat, men gathered around a table, playing cards. One goes above to toss things into the ocean and sees the figure through the pouring rain. They think he’s dead, until a hand moves. This is our introduction to Jason Bourne. Once his wet suit is cut off, we see  bullet holes in his back. The captain extracts bullets and then pulls out something else. It is a tiny vial. We have no idea what this is. A magnifying glass reveals a light and on being held out, the vial projects on to the wall a series of numbers and the words Gemeinschaft Bank, Zurich. Jason leaps up and attacks, asking what the man is doing to him. The captain identifies himself and asks, “Who are you? What’s your name? What’s your name?” Those two questions form the basis of three movies: The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). We follow Jason Bourne from the time he is fished out of the ocean to the point he learns his real name. We watch as his military‐constructed self is shed like a snake’s skin and, slowly but surely, a man of integrity comes more clearly into view. The development of our sense of self, our personal identity, is closely correlated to our moral framework, both in terms of shaping who we are and in terms of demonstrating it through words and actions. The Bourne trilogy shows this. Sure, these are action films, but that merely means they are fast‐paced and keep us on our toes. It does not take away from the seriousness of the inquiry or the importance of knowing an answer to the question, “Who are you?” In Jason’s case, “What’s your name?” has no simple answer. His identities have only a birthdate in common; the nationalities are as varied as types of

1.2.indd 48

12/9/2011 6:39:56 PM

1.2 Personal Identity 49 gourmet cheese. “Jason Bourne, John Michael Kane, Gilberto do Piento, Foma Kiniaer, and Paul Kay”— the names and passports are stacked in a safe deposit box in Zurich, Switzerland. The photos are all his, but no one name seems any more legitimate than the next. His personal quest is to figure out just who he is. Meanwhile, highly placed agents in the CIA are doing all they can to find him and take him out. He failed his assignment, to assassinate an African leader, and now is an embarrassment to the secret program of which he was a part. As the head of the clandestine CIA operation, Alex Conklin, replied when Jason asked, “Who am I?”: “You’re US Government property. You’re a malfunctioning $30 million weapon. You’re a total goddamn catastrophe…” Conklin tells Jason: “I send you to be invisible. I send you because you don’t exist.” This is Treadstone. The name rings no bells in Jason’s mind and won’t be put to rest until the last of the trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum. In the first of the series, we see how confused he is. Although his linguistic skills and physical prowess seem limitless, his memory does not extend before his rescue at sea. His only friend is Marie, a rootless young woman who accepts his offer of $20,000 to drive him to Paris. If her life had any tedious elements up to that point, they are about to be rescinded. Accompanying Jason on his attempts to stay ahead of his would‐be killers means her life is also at risk. Nevertheless, something about him attracts Marie and she ends up falling in love with him. The fact she owns a beat‐up old Mini means they’ll be able to have the best car‐chase scene on film. With the Marines at the US Embassy, the Paris gendarme, and a host of henchmen out to get Jason, Marie quickly deduces that this man may be telling the truth, but life with him won’t be easy. She’ll have to walk away from her car, chop off and dye her hair, keep on the move, and go into hiding. In the meantime, their photos are faxed all over Europe as if they’re a modern‐day Bonnie and Clyde. The sheer firepower and network of contacts are enough to suggest a government conspiracy may really be behind all this. The resources brought to bear in the search for Jason are impressive in number and scope. It is about as extreme as you can get. But his sincerity does come across and he’s got us on board too. There’s something about his quest for self that is very engaging. Jason’s amnesia is coupled with a surprising ability to speak multiple languages, tie unusual knots, and handle virtually any weapon within reach. He has reflexes the speed of light and yet is oblivious about his past. Before he’s even left the fishing boat, he struggles with his identity: JASON:

(looking in the ship’s mirror). Do you know who I am? I do not know who I am. Tell me who I am. If you know who I am. Please stop messing around and tell me.

Gazing at his reflection, his image staring back at him, blurry because of the age and poor condition of the ship’s mirror, Jason seeks what he cannot find.

1.2.indd 49

12/9/2011 6:39:56 PM


Seeing the Light

Who am I? Really, now, who am I? His plight is more pronounced than most of ours, as we generally have some inkling of who’s who when it comes to our own identity. And yet his query resonates, as does his frustration that there haven’t been any cracks in his blank memory. He has no illumination as to who he is and how he came to have bullets and a vial with a bank account number in his back. Good action films being what they are, we follow along on the edge of our seats as Jason attempts to get his questions answered. It takes time and fancy footwork to outfox the hired guns and get closer to the truth. They don’t want to bring him in for questioning, that much we can see. They want him dead. This fact generates a number of internal questions about what he did or what seedy connections he has for all these government operatives out to get him. Whatever he knows—and his failed memory isn’t divulging that until the last few minutes of the film—no one in the government or the CIA wants it made public. There are secrets that should go to the grave, preferably sooner rather than later. Jason gets that message loud and clear. Let’s stop by the sidelines for a moment and ask, “Why is it that Jason wants so badly to know his real name? What’s wrong with a pseudonym anyway? And isn’t our sense of who we are merely constructed minute‐by‐minute as we go?” Memento shows the problem of amnesiacs trying to reconstruct a sense of identity and retain whatever memories they can by taking notes and hanging on to snapshots, ticket stubs, and other reminders of where we’ve been and who we’ve spoken with. Reminders only go so far. Memories can recede, blur, or merge with other memories and images. And, as Jason shows, when an image pops up in our minds, how do we evaluate its significance without some larger context of self? This taps into two issues around personal identity: one is the role of memory and the other is the testimony of the past. If I cannot call up memories, how can I fully grasp the dimensions of my self, my personhood? And, without a past to show me how my actions testify to the depths of my values and beliefs, how in the world can my sense of who I am have any solidity to it? Part of knowing who I am is knowing what I have done in the name of my morality, what I hold most dear. This requires a memory. The importance of this becomes evident in a key scene of the film, when Jason and Conklin finally come face‐to‐face. Jason keeps asking about Treadstone, thinking that’s the key to his identity. And he is right in more ways than we see here in the first of the trilogy (but do later). However, Conklin’s responses to Jason’s questions are like nails punching holes in a wall. Each hole allows a little light to come in and, finally, an image takes shape. Conklin tells him that he failed in his mission because he was sent in to be invisible and that he most definitely was not. He was supposed to be a ghost assassin: Go in, take them out, leave without a trace. Jason left a trace. What becomes evident as we watch the three movies is that the trace has pockets with slivers of memories inside. At first they spill out as images, mere flashes of recognition. Later they come in larger chunks, allowing Jason to start connecting the dots.

1.2.indd 50

12/9/2011 6:39:56 PM

1.2 Personal Identity 51 What emerges from Jason’s memories in The Bourne Identity is his attempt to assassinate African leader Nykwana Wombosi. With a gun aimed at the back of Wombosi’s head, Jason’s eyes take in the sight of Wombosi’s little girl and, across the room, his wife and other child. To assassinate Wombosi will require a slaughter of the entire family. Jason couldn’t do it. He turned his back and headed to the window, but Wombosi shot him twice and into the Mediterranean Sea he went. We now understand the bullet holes in the back. But we also understand something more important, and more general. This is that our values are deeply embedded in who we are. They are not easily, if ever, completely erased, even with sophisticated training like SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, escape) brought into play by the government. Jason was trained to fight the bad guys and operate under the wire in order for the secret operations to succeed. His own values were repressed in the bargain. It was just a matter of time, however, before memories and ethical flashes surfaced. The message is this: You can repress your sense of right and wrong, bury it deep inside the recesses of your soul, and try not to think about it, ever. But time has a way of dredging up our past deeds and the pangs of conscience attached to the parts of our history that we regret. Guilt may take awhile to float into view, but it often does. What he was programmed to do required him to suppress his ethics and his conscience. However, like interrogators who later suffer flashbacks and post‐ traumatic stress because of their abusive treatment of POWs and detainees, Jason could not stop the tide of images from his past. In The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, Jason’s quest continues. And, as with The Bourne Identity, what he uncovered about Treadstone and secret operations involving trained assassins made his higher‐ups most uncomfortable. That translated into ongoing attempts to send Jason Bourne back to invisibility, this time for good. As he showed in The Bourne Identity, however, he is no longer invisible. The reality is that he’s the fly in Conklin’s ointment. Both Conklin and Deputy Director of the CIA, Ward Abbot, need Jason dead to make sure their butts are covered. That can only happen if Treadstone stays buried. At this juncture, we can get a moral overview. Right from the outset of The Bourne Identity, Jason’s identity is caught up in his attempts to find out the truth. As the movie proceeds and bits and pieces from the past come to light, Jason figures out that not only was he an assassin, he was a fallible assassin. Morality got in the way of his hired‐gun persona. It’s clear that he couldn’t be an assassin who kills children. In The Bourne Supremacy, Jason realizes that his first job was botched when the wife of his Russian target came in the room. Jason killed her as well, but a photo of the two with their young daughter sank its hook into his memory and wouldn’t let go. At considerable risk Jason makes his way to the now‐older

1.2.indd 51

12/9/2011 6:39:56 PM


Seeing the Light

daughter and tells her the truth (that he killed her parents) and that he was sorry. The difficulty in delivering this apology shows us that Jason’s identity has an ethical base—a deep ethical base. Who he is as a person is inextricably linked to his morality. Interestingly, when Jason does find out his real name, birthday, and birthplace, the conveyor (CIA’s Pamela Landy) knows that it’s one of the few ways she can thank Jason for exposing the corrupt underbelly of Treadstone. And hearing it said out loud—“David Webb”—is clearly a moment to cherish for Jason. The hope is that “David” can take over where “Jason” left off. However, as the series continues, it’s clear that shedding the “Jason” identity isn’t as easy as he might think. The Bourne Ultimatum picks up where the previous film left off. Two things hit us right from the beginning: first, Bourne isn’t a wanton killer and, second, that he was not a willing assassin for the US government. Memories are washing up like dead fish from an oil spill. He “sees” images of being hooded and then subjected to “waterboarding” (= simulated drowning). Repeatedly he says, “I can’t” when asked to be a killing machine for the CIA. We were not privy to this information in the first two movies of the trilogy; though this is consistent with what we’ve come to learn about him. And that is that he is a far more virtuous person than his CIA superiors, and cohorts. Like Jake Sully’s realization that Marine Colonel Quaritch fell short on the moral scale, Jason Bourne’s growing awareness of the tarnished leadership at the CIA underscores how vital is moral character in defining who we are.

Short Takes: All of Me The comedies All of Me (1984), Big (1988), and Prelude to a Kiss (1992) center on souls moving to and from one body to another and sometimes back again. We see the chaos, confusion, and complexities around personal identity that follow. Each movie treats the issue with humor, but also with philosophical insight. Shifting souls from one body to the next can be funny, though problematic, and heart‐wrenching. And even if the trade‐offs are worth it, they’re not without cost. The mind–body problem moves along a spectrum with respect to the consequences. Let’s start with All of Me. Roger Cobb, is the unwitting (and unwilling) victim of a soul transfer. An urn containing the soul of the wealthy, slightly dotty, Edwina Cutwater is inadvertently knocked out the window. It was being readied for transfer to the body of the younger, more attractive Terry Hoskins, when it crashed down on Roger. He had been walking down the street, oblivious to the impending catastrophe. Edwina’s soul enters Roger’s body, or should we say, squeezes in. The thing is that his soul is not exchanged with Edwina’s (or anyone else’s). Rather, hers

1.2.indd 52

12/9/2011 6:39:56 PM

1.2 Personal Identity 53 takes up residence with Roger’s own soul, so both are inside his body. Two minds + one body = sheer craziness. Who is minding the store? Who is the captain of this “ship”? Roger? Edwina? Well, maybe both. This brings to mind Samuel Beckett’s opening line of The Unnamable, “I, say I, unbelieving.” Given both Edwina and Roger are fighting for control of Roger’s body, it’s hard to know who the “I” is when she/he/they speak. Thus begins the battle for Roger’s body. Who will come out on top as the real Roger? We “hear” each one pulling him first this way and then that way, neither acceding to the other. No one person is in command. Roger is not happy and does not want Edwina telling him what to do and when to do it. He exclaims, “I want my body back. I want my freedom and my privacy… I want you out of me by 3:15.” For Roger, Edwina occupying his body is an issue of both freedom and privacy. Freedom is necessary for personal identity. If we aren’t free to choose, we can’t shape who we are and what we become. Part of the problem with Edwina inhabiting Roger is that no more than half of his body is under his control. As Roger shows, just being able to walk can no longer be taken for granted. It would have to be negotiated with the person/entity/force directing the other half of the body. Privacy is another matter. If someone else could inhabit your body without horning in on your mind, perhaps you could hide your thoughts. However, things like your stiff knee, that strange rash on your back, or drooling while asleep would no longer be your little secret. This exposure could be both unsettling and potentially problematic if the other mind had access to information that could be used against you, such as trying to keep your boss from knowing you’re pregnant or that you skipped the annual dinner without good reason. As soon as your body becomes “our” body, you’ve lost control. Roger’s task is thus to get Edwina’s soul out of his body and back into the urn or into somebody else’s body. It may have been easy to come into Roger, but getting Edwina’s soul out is another story. In an insightful discussion of All of Me, philosopher Christopher Falzon points out that, “We usually think of our self as something within us, as that which is most central to who we are” (p. 51). As a result, when Edwina says, “We obviously have mutual control over our body,” this does not set well with Roger. He bristles: “Our body? It’s my body. I’m not sharing my body with anyone!” As Falzon notes, this presupposes “a number of widely held ideas about the nature of the self.” Most significantly, it assumes that the self is immaterial, spiritual, a mind, or a “soul.” For that reason, Falzon suggests we look to philosophers like Plato and Descartes, and examine their theories about “what counts as our real self or true nature” and what relationship exists between that self and our body (p. 51). For Plato, the self or soul consisting of three parts: reason, desire or appetite, and spirit (see The Republic, book 4). Reason is associated with knowledge and

1.2.indd 53

12/9/2011 6:39:56 PM


Seeing the Light

decision‐making; desire/appetite with pleasure and bodily urges; and spirit with courage and strength of will. Plato saw the social correlate to be philosophers (who embody reason), warriors (spirit/honor), and workers (appetite). The philosophers and warriors, in Plato’s view, should be the Guardians of the society, the leaders. Descartes agrees with Plato about the importance of the mind. For Descartes, each individual consist of two parts, the immaterial mind and the material body. Both Plato and Descartes think of the soul or self as immaterial and capable of existing outside of a body. As Falzon notes, the result is a dualistic view that I am essentially my mind or soul, not my body (p. 61). Therefore, the (immaterial) mind and the (physical) brain are not the same. The brain is a part of the body; the mind is not. In all three comedies, the issue is the mind, not the brain, as Falzon observes in his discussion of All of Me. There are no brain transplants, neurological problems, or cognitive dissonance caused by physical catalysts, such as hallucinations or mind‐altering drugs. The soul transfers have to do with spiritual entities only, not physical ones. So, for instance, in All of Me, the urn that smashed when it hit Roger did not contain Edwina’s brain or anything physically associated with Edwina. It was her soul in the urn and it entered Roger like a breath of air, although it did not come quietly. Edwina was not only used to getting her way, she was a blabbermouth. Roger, however, wasn’t about to agree to this arrangement; after all this was his body and he didn’t care who Edwina thought she was or how much she talked. Roger would like to restore the status quo, so his soul has no competition for his own body. The fact that Edwina is a woman and Roger is (or was) a man adds to the comedy, as “she” is faced with some rather distasteful adaptations to his physical form and bodily requirements. There’s a lot that’s philosophically interesting here. The French feminists from Simone de Beauvoir to Julia Kristeva write about the female being seen as “Other.” Unlike the Freudians’ view that females yearn for what they lack (the penis and all it represents), French feminists consider the role of being “Other” should be relished. Whether there’s any penis envy or other kind of envy by females for the male body, there are issues here for personal identity. The question is the degree to  which gender‐identification factors into how we see ourselves. Are souls gendered? We then must decide what counts for defining characteristics of personal identity. If Plato and Descartes are right to see the soul = mind = self = “I” as immaterial, the question then becomes whether the material body can influence the immaterial plane. In other words, if the material body is one sex or the other, does it really matter to the immaterial “self”? If the mind/“self” is truly distinct from the body, the answer probably should be, “No, not really.”

1.2.indd 54

12/9/2011 6:39:56 PM

1.2 Personal Identity 55 With All of Me, we see a woman whose soul is plopped into a male body (and how “she” had to adapt). And certainly Jake learning to use the body of Avatar Jake brought cataclysmic changes to his life, even though it was a male‐to‐male transfer. With Big, we encounter the case of the mind (= “self”) moving forward and back within one’s own lifetime. That raises another set of difficulties. Let’s see how that goes.

Short Takes: Big Josh Baskin is just a boy around 12 years old and a bit small for his age. In fact, he is too small to get on the carnival ride he lined up for. Frustrated, he walks over to a fortune‐telling machine and makes a wish to be big. Josh drops in his coin. As they say, watch what you wish for. The next day he wakes up to find “he” is now a man and one with the body to match. Obviously this is going to be very tricky, as he finds out right away when his mother simply doesn’t recognize him. Until he can regain his 12‐year old body, he is going to have to stay away from home and figure out how to switch his soul back. Unfortunately, the carnival wish machine is gone and Josh is on his own, or almost. Big (1988) tells the story. His best friend accompanies him to New York, where Josh ends up working at a toy manufacturer. His boyish insights into what makes toys “work” propel him up the ladder and a friendship/romance with a woman, Susan, with whom he works. In time he shares with her who he “really” is (a boy) and eventually finds the fortune‐teller to get back to childhood. In the meantime, we watch him try to balance his boyish energy with an adult’s body and expectations. It was beginning to look like a curse until he located the gypsy fortune‐teller machine. By then he’d seen enough to experience some of the freedoms of an adult, but he didn’t want to lose his childhood or being with his family and friends. The price was simply more than he wanted to pay. He was relieved when he could finally go home and resume life as a 12‐year‐old. As he greets his mother and leaves his “big” self behind, we are left to contemplate his possibilities. We don’t know how his time as an adult will carry forward into the person Josh becomes, but he’s no longer the same boy who went to the carnival. His soul transfer goes two ways—first, forward to an adult and then back to a child. Is he the same “Josh” in all three forms? The movie’s answer seems to be “yes,” but we are left to tackle the issue ourselves.

Short Takes: Prelude to a Kiss Prelude to a Kiss (1992) is the only one of the three comedies that involves a soul “exchange.” Whereas Edwina’s soul went into Roger’s body and Josh’s soul moved forward and back in time, joyful bride Rita of Prelude to a Kiss is

1.2.indd 55

12/9/2011 6:39:56 PM


Seeing the Light

about to have her soul sucked out of her body and plunked into a crotchety old man. He had nothing to lose; she had everything to lose. And only her husband was onto the switch. This film has a bit of both All of Me and Big: The souls of a man and a woman are exchanged (bringing in gender differences) and there’s an age shift (young Rita/old man). The movie opens with two people who are very much in love—Rita Boyle and Peter Hoskins. Their wedding is a happy affair and everyone celebrates the couple. That an old man wanders in and joins in the festivities doesn’t send off alarm bells, as people on the bride’s side assume he’s with the groom’s family and vice versa. No one realizes that this old man is about to use Rita for his own purposes. He asks if he can kiss the bride and she agrees, thinking to herself how nice it must be to be at his stage of life knowing all he’s learned along the way. This left her open for a soul exchange: Her soul/self (“Rita”) enters the body of the old man and his soul/self (“old man”) enters her body. One kiss was all it took. Rita is now trapped in the old man’s body and he’s now happily residing in hers. Since “he” looks like Rita by virtue of this being her body, no one is suspicious, with the exception of her new husband. On their honeymoon the evidence mounts. Gleaning all he can from reading Rita’s diary, the old man pretty much stays two steps ahead of everyone other than Peter. This is not the Rita he knew and married. She is no longer the same person; that much is clear to Peter. Unfortunately, no one else agrees. Rita’s own parents are fooled: The old man (inhabiting Rita’s body) persuades them that he is really Rita and that Peter has lost his mind. There’s nothing Peter can do to convince them otherwise. Eventually Rita (in body) moves out and goes back to her parents while Peter sinks into despair. He ends up drowning his troubles at the local bar, where he finds “Rita”(ensouled in the old man’s body). The two reconnect and their joyful reunion shocks the bartender but shows how much they love one another. Though they make a truly odd couple they are thrilled to be reunited. Peter is glad to have Rita back home, even if “she” is in the ageing body of the old man. Both wish she could regain her own body again. Their task is how to pull off a reverse soul exchange. What’s interesting is that neither Rita nor the old man is happy in the other’s body. It’s not surprising that Rita would wants her young woman’s body back; but the old man wants his body back too. He doesn’t care much for her parents and craves the lifestyle (and food) that he had prior to crashing Rita’s wedding. He doesn’t really like being this new person he became after swapping souls with Rita. As a result, when Peter and “Rita” set up a meeting to force him to exchange souls, he has come to want it as much as Rita does. He thought he wanted to be young again, with all that joie‐de‐vivre and energy. The old man came to see that what he had, aches and pains and all, was like a comfortable old shoe, worn into place, nice and snug.

1.2.indd 56

12/9/2011 6:39:56 PM

1.2 Personal Identity 57 Roger, Edwina, Terry, Josh, Rita, Peter, and the old man are all pulled into the quagmire of personal identity. As we see in all three movies, the line between mind–soul‐“self” and body is not as neat and clean as we might think. When the soul moves or is moved into another body, the resulting “self” is not a pure entity untouched by the physical realities of living in the world, having a body, and being affected by sense experience. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Your soul will be dead even before your body: fear nothing further” (Kaufman, 1959, p. 132). In his view, the person who I am is that unity of mind and body and that “I” is not a soul that is popped into bodily form like liquid into a bottle or a gift into a box. The boundary between the one and the other is not clearly differentiated. As the movies show us, each one, each soul/self is affected by the very different body they now have, so who they are as persons undergoes transformation. Josh is changed by his newly acquired body, as are both Rita and the old man. And certainly Jake Sully’s experience in his avatar form opened up vistas he could never have imagined—except in his dreams. How I experience my own body helps define who I am.

Outtakes: The Unmistaken Child If you believe in reincarnation, you’ve already staked out your position on the mind–body problem. The fascinating documentary, The Unmistaken Child (2008), takes a look at the young Buddhist monk, Tenzin Zopa, whose beloved teacher, Geshe Lama Konchog, has died. Tenzin is assigned the task of finding the reincarnated Lama. That goal is not as simple as it seems. The fact you have known someone for a number of years and are quite familiar with their interests and personal traits does not mean you can easily spot them in someone else’s body. But that was what Tenzin was supposed to do. This entailed going from town to town in Nepal, on a baby hunt. Each child he encounters is carefully observed. Tenzin sets out a collection of objects, among which are those belonging to the Lama. He watches for any tell‐tale interest in the Lama’s belongings. It takes a while, but he finally finds a boy who fairly consistently selects the Lama’s bowl and other personal items. In such circumstances, there is little room for error; thus, the movie’s title. The steps to being officially judged the reincarnated lama are set out in the movie—the first being the parent’s willingness to relinquish their claim to their own child. But spiritual leaders being who they are in the Buddhist community, finding the lama in his latest incarnation is a cause of great significance. Skeptics, however, may see the process of verifying that this boy really “is” Geshe Lama Konchog involves a degree of faith. In either case, there is a lot about personal identity to consider with regard to reincarnation and the task

1.2.indd 57

12/9/2011 6:39:56 PM


Seeing the Light

of confirming that this baby is that lama. A great deal more follows in this case than in our three comedies—but they all share key concerns about what makes a person this person.

Outtakes: Lât Den Rätte Kama In (Let the Right One In) Try to picture being a 13‐year‐old vampire for all eternity. The problems are many, such as how to keep a “food” (blood) supply on hand. And how do you make friends? Do you tell your friends the truth? Indeed, can you do anything but tell your friends that you’re a vampire? Do you let them know that you’ll never be like them, with their day‐to‐day concerns? Let The Right One In investigates these questions. There are the rules vampires have to abide by, such as the prohibition of entering a house without an invitation. And don’t forget the need to avoid natural light and sleep in coffin‐like “beds” that are very dark. It may be romantic to contemplate or inviting for those who fear death, but the life of a vampire has some pretty big drawbacks. When the pale Eli befriends the scrawny, picked‐on Oskar, neither has any idea how their lives will become intertwined. She tidily handles the school bullies so they won’t harm him again. He reaches out to her, allowing her to safely share her identity. It’s hard to trust people with the fact that you’re a vampire. Coexisting in the world of mortals is certainly fraught with difficulties. Let the Right One In (2008) turns over a lot of stones in looking at the obstacles.

Outtakes: Being John Malkovich and Memento Two other movies that turn over stones about personal identity are Being John Malkovich (1999) and Memento (2000). Both are mind‐bending examinations of the concept of the “self” and what makes us who we are. In the first movie, a down‐on‐his‐luck puppeteer, Craig Schwartz, gets a menial job as a file clerk on a most unusual floor of the Lester Corporation. It turns out to be the adventure of Craig’s life, as he gets to enter into the mind of John Malkovich, thanks to a long, narrow tunnel. Once inside, he sees the world through Malkovich’s eyes and experiences what it’s like to actually be John Malkovich. After he meets the exotic and enterprising Maxine things move into fast gear. His rather frumpy wife Lotte decides to see what all the excitement’s about, and also finds it intoxicating to “be” John Malkovich. The commercial potential can’t help but cross their minds. Being able to go into the mind of another has the draw of a high‐priced ride at Magic Mountain. Craig and Maxine conclude there’s money to be made here. Meanwhile, Lotte

1.2.indd 58

12/9/2011 6:39:56 PM

1.2 Personal Identity 59 is falling for Maxine and uses Malkovich’s body to have a sexual relationship. That John Malkovich himself finally gets wind of others crowding into his mind seems inevitable and, of course, his interests can’t be discounted either. This invasion is as bad or worse than Edwina horning in on Roger’s body in All of Me. Malkovich will have to fight Craig’s puppeteering skills to repossess his mind and get control of his body. There are interesting questions about personal identity posed by the film and by Memento, as philosopher Mary M. Litch (2002) notes in Philosophy Through Film. Both movies examine the role of memory in the formation of a sense of self. She considers Memento more complex than Being John Malkovich, because of the way memory figures in the attempts made by the central character, Leonard, to overcome his amnesia. Litch points out that, “Craig remains Craig when he enters the portal [of John Malkovich’s mind], because he has memories of being Craig, not memories of being John Malkovich” (p. 82). The result is more “straightforward” than in Memento (in Litch’s estimate anyway!), as Leonard’s quest doubles back on itself with each new day. Memento shifts temporal frames to such a degree that it’s a wonder we don’t get seasick watching it. True enough, but it’s an interesting study of memory and identity, leaving us to wonder what we’d do if we were in Leonard’s shoes. He struggles to keep track of his memories by external means, such as scribbling on notes, writing on his hand, and photographs. His ability to use his mind for such a task is seriously deficient. That he gets taken advantage of seems inevitable. Ethical issues arise when Leonard, with his faulty memory, draws inferences about the role of others in his predicament. He strikes out against those he presumes to be bad guys. Given his all‐too‐fallible memory, his moral reasoning suffers accordingly. The movie prods us to look further into the connection between memory and morality and reflect on the sorts of problems that could arise by failing to do so. Each one of the movies in this chapter has something to teach us about personal identity and what it is that makes us who we are and how that identity informs our moral reasoning—and vice versa.

Works Cited Falzon, Christopher (2002) Philosophy Goes to the Movies. London: Routledge. Kaufman, Walter (1959) The Portable Nietzsche. New York: Viking/Penguin Books. Litch, Mary M. (2002) Philosophy Through Film, 2nd edition. New York: Routledge. McNally, Raymond T. and Florescu, Radu (1994) In Search of Dracula. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Warren, Mary Anne (1973) “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion.” The Monist, Vol. 57, no. 4.

1.2.indd 59

12/9/2011 6:39:56 PM


Seeing the Light

Online Resources Appiah, Kwame Anthony (2005) “The Ethics of Identity.” The New York Times, June 12, 2005. (accessed August 10, 2011). Dennett, Daniel C. (1989) “The Origins of Selves.” Cogito, Vol. 3, Autumn 1989, 163–73. (accessed August 10, 2011). Dreher, Rod (2011) “Inside the ‘Black Box’ of Personhood.” Big Questions Online, May 17, 2011.‐the‐black‐ box‐of‐personhood (accessed August 10, 2011). Hoenderdos, Piet, dir. (1988) Victim of the Brain (video). Available online at http://video. (accessed August 10, 2011). Locke, John. “Of Identity and Diversity” (abridged, Jack Lynch, ed.) http://ethnicity. (accessed August 10, 2011). McDonald, Joshua. “Being John Malkovich and Claims of Body Ownership.” California Undergraduate Philosophy Review, Vol. 1 No. 1.‐1/ McDonald‐CUPR1‐1.pdf (accessed August 10, 2011). Minerva, Francesca (2009) “Facial Transplantation and Identity.” Practical Ethics News, May 25, 2009.‐ transplantation‐and‐identity/ (accessed August 10, 2011). The Paideia Project Online: Persons and Personal Identity. Essays on the topic of personhood and identity. (accessed August 10, 2011). Petkova, Valeria I. and Ehrsson, H. Henrik (2008) “If I Were You: Perceptual Illusion of Body Swapping.” Plos One, December 3, 2008. info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0003832 (accessed August 10, 2011). Pierce, Jeremy, “The Dualist View of Personal Identity,” Parableman, February 26, 2010.‐view.html (accessed August 10, 2011). Philosophy Talk “Ethics of Identity,” June 14, 2005: Ken Taylor and John Perry, and Kwame Anthony Appiah discuss the nature of identity, the impact race or ethnicity and the effect of obligations on our identity. Included are related resources. http://www. (accessed August 10, 2011). “Paternalism and Health,” July 13, 2004: Ken Taylor and John Perry, and Agnieszka Jaworska discuss if it is ever morally justified to take charge of another’s life or body. The website includes related resources. pastShows/PaternalismandHealth.htm (accessed August 10, 2011). “Personal Identity,” December 16 2007: Ken Taylor, John Perry, and Raymond Martin  discuss personal identity, rationality, and morality. Included are related resources. (accessed August 10, 2011). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “Ancient Theories of the Soul.”‐soul/ (accessed August 10, 2011).

1.2.indd 60

12/9/2011 6:39:56 PM

1.2 Personal Identity 61 “Identity Politics.” Cressida Hayes analyzes political theories on behalf of groups defining themselves based on gender, sexual orientation, and ethnic background.‐politics/ (accessed August 10, 2011). “Rene Descartes.” Philosopher Kurt Smith on Descartes’ life and works. Included is a bibliography of works on Descartes, as well as Internet resources.http://plato.‐works/ (accessed August 10, 2011). “Personal Identity.” Philosopher Eric T. Olson looks at personal identity. An extensive list of resources is included.‐personal/ (accessed August 10, 2011).

Discussion Questions 1. Avatar indicates that dualism is not an outmoded concept, as do All of Me, Big, and Prelude to a Kiss. Christopher Falzon (2002) argues that Being John Malkovich is in the end “based on the same dualist premise” (p. 62). What are the best examples of that in these films? Can you point to any movies involving personal identity that do not present the mind (self/soul) as distinctly other from the body? 2. Jason Bourne and Leonard (Memento) both suffer amnesia and must reconstruct their sense of self. How is their quest both like and unlike Jake’s finding a new identity as an Avatar? 3. The Bourne trilogy and Memento show how memory can trick us and cause us to alter our sense of identity. Does this mean that memories—and the past—shouldn’t factor into our identity? 4. McNally and Florescu (1994) say that deep down Dracula represents the uncanny— that which should have remained hidden but does not; that there is something both familiar and alien about the vampire, which we try not to recognize because it’s too frightening to face (p. 181). Does the continuing popularity of films and TV shows about vampires indicate an attempt to have us face our “dark side” and integrate it into our own sense of self? Share your thoughts. 5. Philosopher Mary Litch asks if Leonard (Memento) is morally responsible for the homicides he commits. Should we hold someone responsible for their actions if their memory doesn’t carry over to the next day? 6. What is involved in constructing an identity, judging by what we see on screen? 7. How do movies help us reflect on the mind–body connection? What do you make of movies like The Hand and The Eye containing creepy scenarios around organ transplants (the hand wants to murder, the eye “sees” horrific scenes of fiery deaths)?

1.2.indd 61

12/9/2011 6:39:57 PM


Autonomy and Liberty

SPOTLIGHT: The Sea Inside SPOTLIGHT: Million Dollar Baby, District 9, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days Short Takes: The Shawshank Redemption Outtakes: The Soloist, K‐19: The Widowmaker, Yogen (Premonition)


I swear to God, Father, it’s committing a sin by doing it. By keeping her alive, I’m killing her. Do you know what I mean? How do I get around that? FATHER HORVAK: You don’t. You step aside, Frankie. You leave her with God. FRANKIE DUNN: She’s not asking for God’s help. She’s asking for mine. —Million Dollar Baby MNU AGENT: ALIEN:

MNU! We’re serving eviction notices. What is “eviction”? —District 9

Frankie Dunn has been around boxers for an awfully long time and has seen it all, or close to it. When 30‐something Maggie Fitzgerald asks him to be her trainer, he just shakes his head, “I don’t train girls.” She’s too old to start now and he’s too old to want to spend time on futile pursuits. He is not inclined to change his mind, however much his long‐time pal and ex‐boxer, Scrap, views her quest with sympathy. Scrap shares the story in Million Dollar Baby (2004).

Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

1.3.indd 62

12/9/2011 6:39:49 PM

1.3 Autonomy and Liberty 63 The last thing Frankie wants is this woman bugging him about boxing lessons.  His rejection bounces off of her like a racket ball. Boxing is her one dream. “If I’m too old for this, I got nothing,” she tells Frankie. “I want a trainer, I don’t want charity.” He’s a good trainer. As time goes by, she shows the willpower and physical endurance to deserve a shot at it. In spite of his misgivings Frankie finally agrees to work with Maggie, but warns her, “And don’t come crying to me if you get hurt.” Well, Maggie does get hurt. Badly hurt. The life she ends up with is not the one she ever wanted, and she wants out, which in her case is death. Is she free  to make that choice? Is that an aspect of individual liberty or personal autonomy? The movie tackles these questions. Issues around personal autonomy come in different forms; such as who can exercise liberty rights and whether the right of self‐determination is truncated by the circumstances like Maggie faces. All of the Big Three ethicists—Aristotle, Kant, and Mill—put a high premium on autonomy. They link it to rationality, a characteristic right up there in the ionosphere. Both rationality and autonomy form the basis of moral agency: I am a moral agent if I am cognizant of what I am doing, have a coherent set of values to tell right from wrong, and have the free will to act as I see fit. If I can’t reason well enough to meet a minimal level of clear thinking, or if I am coerced, compelled, or forcibly prevented from acting on my own volition, then I can’t be held accountable for what I do. The concepts of autonomy and liberty are of fundamental importance to ethics. They are employed in all sorts of venues, from Business Ethics to Bioethics, from labor/management disputes to patient rights. They are etched in the moral groundwork of our worldview. Philosopher John Christman (2009) observes, Put most simply, to be autonomous is to be one’s own person, to be directed by considerations, desires, conditions, and characteristics that are not simply imposed externally upon one, but are part of what can somehow be considered one’s authentic self. Autonomy in this sense seems an irrefutable value, especially since its opposite—being guided by forces external to the self and which one cannot authentically embrace—seems to mark the height of oppression.

Autonomy and liberty are the linchpins of self‐determination. This was carved into legal history by the New York Court of Appeals’ 1914 case of Schloendorff v. Society of New York Hospital and has been amplified upon since. The Court ruled that every human being of adult years and sound mind has the right to determine what happens to their own body. That groundbreaking decision propelled patient rights forward. In time, it was modified to include the right to withdraw from invasive medical treatment (Quinlan, 1976), the right to refuse treatment (Bouvia, 1986), and the expansion of informed consent rights (Cobbs v. Grant, 1972).

1.3.indd 63

12/9/2011 6:39:49 PM


Seeing the Light

We might wonder why rationality is necessary for autonomy and liberty rights. What’s wrong with strongly held feelings or intuitions? The view is that those who are not mentally competent or old enough to tell the difference between fantasy and reality cannot make informed decisions and, thus, shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions or the consequences that follow. The three spotlight movies here look at autonomy and liberty from different vantage points. The first focuses on a boxer who seeks to die after being paralyzed. The second, District 9 focuses on a man whose liberty is threatened after an accident causes him to become a transgenic organism. The third, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, focuses on an illegal abortion in Communist‐era Romania and the restrictions on bodily autonomy. Let’s look at each of these.

SPOTLIGHT: Million Dollar Baby Frankie Dunn carries a weight on his shoulder, having been cut off from his daughter for many years. It’s the wound that doesn’t heal. Going to church every day comes out of a sense of obligation, not religious motivation, as his brusque manner with the priest demonstrates. He lives in the shadow of unfinished business. Frankie reluctantly agrees to train aspiring boxer Maggie Fitzgerald. It’s not going to be easy, given her age and lack of experience. But there’s something about her drive that pulls him in. At the heart of personal autonomy is self‐determination. Maggie shows it in spades: She has made any number of sacrifices to become a boxer and has not wavered one bit, regardless of the obstacles she faced. She has a clear head, an awareness of what it means to her, and how it will give purpose to her life. Had she known what lay in store for her, she might have been deterred, though that seems unlikely. We watch Maggie give it her best. She’s good, very good really and her willpower underscores her dedication, hard work, and sacrifice. She puts all her chips on this dream and won’t stop until she’s gone as far as she can. As it turns out, she does make her mark in the ring and makes it to the championship fight. Her opponent is the best of the best, Billie the Bear. Unfortunately, the Bear fights dirty. When the referee’s back is turned she socks it to Maggie, who falls and breaks her neck on a stool that Frankie set out. Maggie is paralyzed, her spinal cord “so broke they’ll never be able to fix it.” Frankie is overcome with guilt. His first response is to blame Scrap. “It’s your fault. It’s your fault. Yeah it’s your fault. … I knew I shouldn’t have done it, her being a girl and all … Everything kept telling me not to. Everything but you…” Both know that, like a hawk with broken wings, Maggie will not easily adapt to being a quadriplegic. Things go from bad to worse. She can’t eat, gets a feeding tube, and a respirator. In time come bedsores and blood clots in her legs. “She was humiliated every moment of every day,” Scrap reports.

1.3.indd 64

12/9/2011 6:39:49 PM

1.3 Autonomy and Liberty 65 After some months, her derelict family members come to see her. They show more interest in going to Disneyland than seeing Maggie. It is obvious they do not have her best interests at heart. Frankie smells the rats they really are. He is the one who loves her as a daughter, as family, not these low‐lifes. Maggie sends them on their way and out of her life. But her physical trials don’t end. Getting her leg amputated came next: “They took my leg boss.” Maggie never once loses her dignity, asks for pity, or ceases to be anything but impressive in the face of catastrophe. Frankie suggests getting her a special wheelchair so she can go back to school. That was not to be. Both Frankie and Maggie grapple with what “quality of life” means when you can no longer act on your own free will. How far should individual autonomy extend? It’s not a simple question. Maggie’s sense of self is that of an athlete and what she now has is simply unbearable. She’s had enough and wants Frankie to help end it all. I can’t be like this, Frankie. Not after what I done. I’ve seen the world. People chanted my name. Well, not my name, some damn name you gave me, but they were chanting for me. I was in magazines. You think I ever dreamed that’d happen? …Daddy used to tell me I fought to get into this world and I’d fight my way out. That’s all I wanna do, Frankie. I just don’t want to fight you to do it. I got what I needed, boss. I got it all. Don’t let ‘em keep takin’ it away from me. Don’t let me lie here till I can’t hear those people chanting no more.

Frankie can’t do it. “Please don’t ask.” “I’m asking,” she replies. He can’t, he just can’t take her life. He feels the weight of the decision. Sometimes people want something so badly they go to extremes, terrible, heart‐breaking extremes. Maggie’s options for killing herself are few, so in the middle of the night she tries to bite her tongue off. She nearly bleeds to death. They stitch her up and she tries again. Her mind is made up—this is not the life she wants to lead. Assisted suicide wasn’t on his list, but Frank is moved by the tragedy. Being trapped in her now paralyzed, suffering body is as foreign to Maggie as turning into stone. Frankie understands that, but as many would do if they were in his shoes, he seeks advice. He goes to his priest: FATHER HORVAK: FRANKIE: FATHER HORVAK:

…You step aside, Frankie. You leave her with God. She’s not asking for God’s help. She’s asking for mine. Frankie, I’ve seen you at Mass almost every day for 23 years. … Forget about God or heaven and hell. If you do this thing, you’ll be lost. Somewhere so deep …you’ll never find yourself again.

Fr. Horvak has good intentions; ones widely supported by Deontological ethicists, who focus on moral duty, including Catholic moral theologians.

1.3.indd 65

12/9/2011 6:39:50 PM


Seeing the Light

However, they don’t negate the visceral impact of Maggie’s plight. Acceding to her request would honor her spirit, strength of will, and joyous personality—all muted by her condition. She is now heavily sedated, so she won’t try to kill herself again. Frankie offers Scrap an apology, “It wasn’t your fault. I was wrong to say that… I killed her.” Even the darkest hour has a sliver of light: “Because of you, Maggie got her shot. If she dies today, she could say, I think I did all right,” Scrap tells him. “Yeah,” Frankie replies. He is ready to act. Late at night he goes to her bedside and takes the necessary steps. He tells her what he’s going to do and kisses her goodnight, goodbye. He doesn’t hesitate. Plenty of others in similar circumstances would do the same. “Mercy killing” has credence in many quarters. Others would walk away, leaving Maggie in God’s hands, her life too sacred for any mortal to terminate. Others still would leave God out of the equation, but feel a line would be crossed for assisting a suicide, whatever the circumstances. These are wrenching life and death issues. They lie at the core of moral reasoning. We may empathize with Frankie carrying out Maggie’s request while wondering, what are the limits of what we can ask another to do? We may abhor the very idea of those with catastrophic injuries asking others to end it all. It’s a deeply personal decision, but affects us all. Even if we endorse Frankie’s decision to help Maggie die, questions arise: “What do I need in order to live my life as I see fit? How can I keep the flame alive? What would I do if I saw it flickering out? Is suicide okay? Do I have the right to ask someone else to help kill me?” The concepts of patient autonomy and self‐determination are at the heart of this debate. Utilitarian John Stuart Mill has strong views on individual rights to  liberty. He contends that not doing harm to others is the only justifiable restriction that should be placed on individual liberty. This suggests that euthanasia is permissible, so long as Maggie is rational (she appears to be) and no one else is harmed (her family’s indifference has been established and Frankie will grieve, but would not otherwise be harmed). Mill does not think individual liberty should be without bounds, however. He would not permit people to sell themselves into slavery, as they could no longer exercise their right to liberty. The question is whether suicide or euthanasia is allowable, or whether a self‐willed death is like slavery, limiting the ability to exercise liberty rights. Certainly we can’t act freely if we are dead. However, willing oneself dead in order to put an end to suffering is fundamentally different from slavery. Slavery is not a release from a deteriorating quality of life; indeed, it would worsen one’s life to be owned by another and used as a slave. Utilitarians would not think the society is better off to have a bedsore‐ridden quadriplegic sustained without their consent draining medical resources unless she were of great intrinsic value. Philosopher Brad Hooker argues that Utilitarians would find euthanasia permissible so long as it leads to the greatest

1.3.indd 66

12/9/2011 6:39:50 PM

1.3 Autonomy and Liberty 67 aggregate good. If her body had in it the cure for AIDS or she knew the location of a bomb set to go off at the United Nations, then she should be restrained from killing herself. That said, there’s still the issue of the moral permissibility of taking another person’s life. Frankie’s role in Maggie’s death is an ethical issue. It’s one thing to want to die because of pain and suffering. It’s another thing to terminate someone else’s life. His involvement is not an assisted suicide; it is active euthanasia. He is the one taking her life, not she. With suicide, the patient kills herself. With passive euthanasia—such as removal from a respirator or a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order—the patient dies from her underlying medical condition. But with active euthanasia, the patient’s life is terminated by the actions of another (here, that’d be Frankie).1 The moral ramifications are significant.2 At first Frankie flatly rejects her request. “No. Please don’t ask.” However, repeated attempts to bite off her tongue horrified Frankie. His intervention at that stage could provide a swift and more merciful death. That’s the path he took and we can only wonder if we would have done the same. She made choices. He made choices. And we are left to contemplate where lines should be drawn. In the next spotlighted film, District 9, issues of autonomy and liberty are raised on both the individual and social level.

SPOTLIGHT: District 9 Ever wonder what it would be like to have aliens stuck in your backyard due to a dysfunctional space ship? How about a million or two of them? Now picture them shoved into a ghetto at the edge of town, their numbers growing and no discernible way to make them go away, short of extermination. They aren’t like any people you’ve ever known and their habits are disgusting. You can’t ignore them, even if you’d like to. District 9 (2009) starts with just this scenario.


Note that whether the act of euthanasia (passive or active) is voluntary, involuntary, or nonvoluntary may also be a relevant concern. Voluntary = competent adult agrees with the decision; involuntary = the competent adult patient opposes the decision; and non-voluntary = the patient is not competent (either because he or she is a minor or is an adult who is in a coma, a persistent vegetative state, or otherwise incapable of letting his/her wishes be known). The question of whether the patient’s wishes were clear and convincing is key—as seen with Quinlan (1976) and Cruzan (1990).  2 This is an issue that has received considerable attention by bioethicists. See, for example, James Rachels’ argument in his 1975 article, “Active and Passive Euthanasia,” that there is no moral distinction between passive and active euthanasia (which he characterizes as a dispute between “killing and letting die”). Daniel Callahan takes issue with Rachels, arguing that there is a distinction and it is crucial—that passive euthanasia means the cessation of treatment or non‐intervention. The patient would only die if there were an underlying medical condition—not so, with active euthanasia, which necessarily results in the patient’s death. (See Callahan, 1989.)

1.3.indd 67

12/9/2011 6:39:50 PM


Seeing the Light

The aliens here are not the illegal aliens we read about in the newspapers and who have their own struggles with being herded about, arrested, or deported. No, these aliens are extraterrestrials, and revolting ones at that. Because of their rather striking resemblance to crustacean, they are called “prawns.” Think of them as big, ugly shrimp capable of walking, talking, and operating powerful weapons humans cannot use. Plus, they are larger and stronger than humans, who they generally fear. Shot in South Africa, where apartheid has left its mark, District 9 brings up as many disturbing and timely ethical issues as Million Dollar Baby. The movie raises two sets of ethical dilemma related to personal autonomy and liberty. One centers on the near‐incarceration and forced relocation of close to two million non‐humans who are unwanted, unwelcome, and unlikely to leave any time soon. The plight of these aliens is similar to that of oppressed minorities from Auschwitz to Arizona. The other level of the movie centers on our hero, Wikus Van De Merwe, who is pulled into the vortex of racism and human cruelty. Unforeseen events cause him to discover that his only allies are the very “aliens” he was trying to evict. Ironically, his diminishing right of self‐determination puts him in touch with his own humanity. His story has lessons for us all. A cheerful, excitable fellow, Wikus works for the Multi‐National United (MNU) head office in the Department of Alien Affairs. He is an intermediary between the humans and the aliens. “What we do in this department,” Wikus says, “is try to engage with the prawns on behalf of MNU and on behalf of humans.” Nothing in the opening segment prepares us for the way his life is about to change. Nothing will be the same again. We are told the backstory: The aliens (= “prawns”) came to earth in 1982. The space ship did not come to rest over Manhattan, Washington, or Chicago. It stopped over Johannesburg, South Africa. For three months no one could get in or out, so MNU agents cut their way into the ship. Thanks to video, the world watched as they discovered creatures clinging to life, barely able to scuttle away as the humans burst into the space ship. They were a dreadful sight— unhealthy, malnourished, and “aimless.” And their numbers alone posed some strategic problems. Given the international exposure, the South African government established an aid plan. They moved the aliens to an area below the spaceship, now permanently parked in the sky above the city. They were crammed into the camp, which eventually became “militarized.” It’s your basic containment protocol: Rack ‘em and stack ‘em. The situation deteriorated further “and before we knew it, it was a slum.” Caring for the creatures was not high on anyone’s list, but keeping them under strict controls was. They became the new underclass—even lower than the Nigerians (portrayed in the movie as an immoral, shifty bunch out for the quick buck and willing to do almost anything, including interspecies sex). The aliens

1.3.indd 68

12/9/2011 6:39:50 PM

1.3 Autonomy and Liberty 69 were treated with disrespect and disdain. No one had the slightest compunction to be honest or just in any dealings with them. The camp they lived in was called District 9 (thus the film’s title). It resembles other slums around the world with its overcrowding and abject poverty. The  aliens subsist in flimsy shacks with dirt floors and garbage piled in all directions. Their fondness for cat food is shown by the prevalence of empty cans tossed about. The general conditions are deplorable by even the most lenient standards. To make matters worse, a wall stretches around the camp, sending clear messages: “Keep out,” if you aren’t a prawn, and “Don’t leave,” if you are. One thing is certain: No one would want to live there if they didn’t have to. Wikus Van De Merwe is about to find that out, and the movie tells his story. The people of nearby Johannesburg view the aliens as unwanted guests, to be  kept out of sight as far as possible. On one hand, the South Africans are unhappy about the money spent to keep them protected from the aliens. On the other hand, “at least they’re keeping them separated from us” (= segregated and ghettoized). Omnipresent signs spell out the relative status of both factions, with the humans having the upper hand. The only power the aliens have has been acquired by brute force. The signs are reminders of an earlier time and place, that of segregation in the United States and apartheid in South Africa. Instead of “whites only” laws, we have “Humans only” and “Non‐humans prohibited.” Others are: “For Use by Humans Only: These public premises and the amenities thereof have been reserved for the exclusive use of humans. By Order Provincial Secretary,” “No non‐human loitering,” and “(Prawn icon) not welcome.” There’s something about fencing people in (or out) that symbolizes the loss of freedom. Let’s not forget the Berlin Wall, the Israeli wall in the West Bank, and the Great Wall of China. In the 21st Century there’s the 12‐foot‐high “stun lethal” electric fences at seven federal prisons in the USA (touch once → shock, touch twice → you’re dead). There’s also the 20‐foot‐high anti‐immigrant wall in Yuma, Arizona that is double‐ and triple‐layered: “To [the] right stands a steel wall, 20 feet high and reinforced by cement‐filled steel piping. To [the] left another tall fence of steel mesh. Ten yards beyond, a shorter cyclone fence is topped with jagged concertina wire” (Wood, 2008). The fences around District 9 make tangible the attitudes that made the ghettos possible in the first place. The segregation policies are reminders of racist laws, past and present (e.g., the forced relocation of Japanese in World War II and lately the detention of thousands of “unprivileged enemy combatants” in Iraq and Afghanistan). On both the domestic and international front are plenty of stand‐ins for District 9, underscoring the movie’s relevance. Like the insurgents and illegal aliens we can’t seem to get rid of no matter how hard we try, the aliens are a thorn in the side of most everyone. The irony is that, despite all the “stay out” signs, they can neither stay away nor get away. The spaceship is inoperable. The government has no realistic expectations that

1.3.indd 69

12/9/2011 6:39:50 PM


Seeing the Light

the million‐plus “prawns” will ever be able to return to their home planet. “The aliens are here to stay,” they conclude. The command module may have been damaged, but plenty of alien weaponry made it to earth and “where there’s weapons, there’s crime” we’re told. Tensions rose, riots followed, and the government enforced a curfew. Both black and white residents agreed that the aliens must go. “They are not even from this planet,” and, like the prawns they resemble, “they are bottom feeders.” Jacob Simpson (2009) points out, “Humanity, once curious about their existence, now has no use for them and keeps them alive in abysmal conditions because they covet the aliens’ powerful weaponry, which they have yet to procure. Inside District 9, human gangs rip off the aliens for food and try to steal their weapons.” Twenty years after their arrival public pressure was on to relocate the aliens and institute more intensive policing. To enforce this plan, the South African government turned to MNU. Wikus was to be the Field Officer overseeing the eviction procedure. Wikus is delighted with his new position as intermediary with the aliens and compares it to winning a contest. He is married to Tania, his “angel,” whose father is the Managing Director of MNU. Wikus had no idea that his father‐in‐ law would turn on him when things got tough and willingly sacrifice him in the bargain. Wikus and his assistants are to go from “house” to “house” in District 9 and give a 24‐hour eviction notice to the resident‐aliens. He carries along consent forms for them to sign, thus enabling the mass movement of the 1.8 million aliens to District 10, 200 km away. They couldn’t know that the new camp will be even more restrictive than the one that has been their “home” for 20 years. With the MNU “cowboys” along for protection, they make their way into District 9 armed with heavy ammunition. Wikus insists that, “The prawn doesn’t really understand the concept of ownership of property,” but that did not translate into agreeing to an eviction. Aliens questioning the policy faced a beating, or worse. In a macho moment, Wikus chooses not to wear any protective gear. “You don’t need that, man. Only sissies wear that. You don’t need that,” he says. As we soon see, he did need it, but it was too late to turn back the clock. After a confrontation with a prawn named Christopher Johnson, Wikus decides to search his shack. While trying to open a strange‐looking metal cylinder (big mistake!), he gets splashed in the face with alien fuel, a black, oil‐like substance. Shortly afterwards he is thrown into the air by an angry alien and burns his arm. Rather than go to the hospital, he bandages up his arm, making it impossible to see how rapidly it is changing shape. It is painfully obvious that things aren’t going according to plan. Before the day is out Wikus will become a human–alien transgenic organism and an outcast from his own people.

1.3.indd 70

12/9/2011 6:39:50 PM

1.3 Autonomy and Liberty 71 Wikus’ transformation into a prawn occurs in stages. First, he pukes his guts out and soon after is struck by an incredible hunger. Meanwhile, black goo is coming out of his nose. Once they get back to MNU headquarters, his fingernails start coming off. By the time he arrives home to a surprise party in his honor, he can barely function. After vomiting all over his congratulations‐on‐ your‐promotion cake, he collapses. Wikus is rushed to the hospital, but when the bandages are removed from his injured arm, we see that it has become a large claw. While wife Tania is left out of the loop, Wikus is carted off to a biomedical lab that puts Dr. Frankenstein’s quarters to shame. It is downright macabre, with the experiments in progress a  grisly testimony to the aliens’ abysmal moral status. Given Wikus is metamorphosing into a prawn, his value keeps rising. It’s not the sort of worth he aimed for, that much is obvious. We can also tell that Tania’s father is not an honorable fellow. He lies to Tania, telling her that Wikus is dead, and does nothing whatsoever to help his son‐in‐law. Let’s reflect on what’s going on here: The two levels (social and individual) of autonomy and liberty are starting to merge. On the social plane we have the oppression of the aliens, with their forced relocation to what Wikus later called a “concentration camp” (District 10). We also see the cavalier way the MNU security maims or kills them without the slightest provocation. On the individual plane we have Wikus, whose fall from government agent to prawn‐in‐hiding is heart‐wrenching to watch. That he feels pain when they cut into his claw shows the nerves have fused. Deducing that it’s “almost completely integrated,” they strap his arm into one of the alien weapons. Evidently the prawns’ advanced weaponry is “basically engineered in a biological manner,” making it inaccessible for human use until Wikus’ transformation. While he is horrified at his transformation, his handlers at MNU are delighted. They conclude that his DNA is in perfect balance between alien and human, making it an opportune time to harvest him. The urge for advanced biotechnology drives them and they have no reservations about cutting him up. However, Wikus is not about to go along with that plan and manages to escape. Wikus has become a person of interest—great interest. He offers the chance for humans to use the alien weapons and greatly expand their military capabilities. As such, “He became the most valuable business artifact on Earth.” MNU wants to capture Wikus alive, so he could be put to maximum use. “He was the only human who had successfully been combined with alien genetics and remained alive. But his real value was that he could operate alien weaponry,” we are told. Ironies being what they are, Wikus heads to “the one place he knew no one would come looking for him.” This is District 9, where he begs Christopher Johnson for help. It was his container of alien fuel that sent Wikus on the road to transgenesis. Though not overjoyed, Johnson let him stay. He can tell what’s

1.3.indd 71

12/9/2011 6:39:50 PM


Seeing the Light

happening and may be able to help return Wikus to human form. At last, a ray of hope! But first Johnson needs to get back to the Mother ship, and, for that to happen, he needs alien fuel. Meanwhile, the transformation from human to alien is accelerating. Wikus experiences each change with horror and angst. Like the character in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, his world crumbles and Wikus is alienated from friends, family, and colleagues. He comes to realize that Johnson, prawn or no prawn, is the only “friend” he has. They form an alliance and we watch as those hunting down Wikus show less humanity than the aliens they treat with such contempt. Together they break into the bio lab to retrieve the fluid, meeting resistance from the well‐ armed MNU security. The race is on as they try to survive attempts to take them out. Time and again, Wikus and Johnson affirm that “We stick together” and “I’m not leaving you.” Each risks all to save the other. Johnson makes it back to  the Mother ship after telling Wikus that “I’ll come back for you in three years. I  promise.” Wikus’ transformation to an alien is soon complete. His remaining hope is that in three years Johnson will return. Then Wikus can return to his former self and reconnect with his beloved angel, Tania. In the final scene we see the power of hope, and love: Tania holds up a metal flower she found on her doorstep and tells us that her friends make fun of her for thinking it’s from Wikus. The final image before credits roll is that of a prawn. Who else but Wikus? He is putting the finishing touches on a little flower he’s made out of metal; yet another offering for Tania. As we all know, adversity does wonders for creativity. And so it is that nerdy Wikus found his humanity by becoming an alien. The ending brings us back to autonomy and liberty. The prawn‐aliens had limited autonomy and very little liberty, both of which would be further curtailed in District 10. Jacob Simpson (2009) finds a meaningful message in the film, arguing that: District 9 uses the familiar theme of aliens to show an evil that resides in all of humanity. The aliens do not ride in as conquerors, blasting everything in their path, but rather as wearied souls lost from their homeland with nowhere else to go.  Human in everything except appearance and appetite, they are exploited, humiliated, and shamed.

The movie shows us that those held in the lowest esteem, like the alien‐ prawns and newly‐alien Wikus, do not deserve the inhumane treatment that they get. Their shrinking autonomy comes not from what they did (their actions), but from what they are (their very being). They are alien, different from you and me. Their loss of liberty does not come from inside—a deteriorating body, like Maggie’s. It comes from the outside—the hatred and fear of others.

1.3.indd 72

12/9/2011 6:39:50 PM

1.3 Autonomy and Liberty 73 In the next spotlighted film, we find a woman whose physical condition (pregnancy) is under the control of others and these others have stringent laws to govern what she can or can’t do about it.

SPOTLIGHT: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days Million Dollar Baby shows the struggle over the right of self‐determination. As we saw with Maggie’s worsening condition, she could not take her own life. So, if she has a right of patient autonomy to determine her own hour of death, then does anyone, including Frankie, have a “duty” to legitimize that right? Not easy, these life‐and‐death moral problems. A related ethical dilemma around autonomy and liberty surfaces when a pregnant woman wants the right of self‐determination to extend to abortion. The age of the fetus is central, as we saw in Roe v. Wade, with its reliance on the trimester system as the basis for any legal restrictions. Whether an abortion is legal or illegal, most people see second‐ and third‐term abortions to be morally problematic. The fetus has developed to a degree that its moral status can’t easily be dismissed. For that reason, only concerns like the health of the mother tend to be viewed as crucial to trump fetal rights to life once the pregnancy has advanced. This is true in countries in which abortion is legally permissible, and is equally true in countries in which abortion is illegal throughout all or some of a pregnancy and the penalties for participation severe. Set in Romania in 1987, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) focuses on Otilia Mihartescu, a college student in her mid‐20s, who agrees to accompany  her friend Gabriela Dragut to get an illegal abortion. At that time, “Romania was the only country where abortion was illegal under Communist rule, and  this prohibition was enforced with very invasive government action” (Associated Press, 1998). This is a high‐risk decision and nothing goes as planned. The meeting with the doctor, Mr. Bebe, is thrown off because Gabriela sends Otilia to meet him instead of going herself. She lied to Bebe about how far along she was—in the second trimester, complicating the abortion—and lied again that Otilia was her sister. Clearly things are off to a bad start. The doctor is furious about these complications and the fact that his explicit directions were not followed, thus increasing his risk. The abortion itself looked to be nightmarish. He planned to insert a metal probe without an anesthetic. He tells her to be absolutely still, as he won’t put it in twice. “Young lady this isn’t a game. We could go to prison for this.” She could have a lot of bleeding, he notes, and so they need a plastic sheet (she forgot one) or a plastic bag (she had a small one she could rip apart and spread). “You must not move under any circumstances,” but once she feels contractions things would likely be okay then. Or so he indicated.

1.3.indd 73

12/9/2011 6:39:50 PM


Seeing the Light

Otilia asks what to do if there are difficulties, could she call an ambulance. He says to avoid that, pointing out the risks. Upon inspecting Gabriela, he realizes that she’s four months pregnant, not three. It’s another offense over four months; they could get a murder charge for that. “It’s very dangerous,” he tells her. “But everything in this world has a price.” Bebe wants more money, because more risk = more money. Gabriela doesn’t have any more. Meanwhile, Otilia is upset about Gabriela’s lies that were deemed necessary to get his agreement. Bebe starts to leave. Tensions escalate and Otilia gets pulled into the bartering. Bebe proposes sex in exchange for lowering the cost of the abortion. Otilia makes the sacrifice—a price stretching the bonds of the friendship. The abortion proceeds without fanfare. Bebe puts on latex gloves, spreads gauze, pulls out a plastic tube, and wipes it off. He puts in the tube and tapes the end to her leg and reminds her not to move. Don’t cut the cord until the placenta has come out. Then turning to Otilia, he suggests she take the dead fetus, wrap it up “nicely,” take a bus to a high rise, go up to the 10th floor, and drop it down the garbage chute. After offering to come back later to check on Gabriela (she declines) he exits. The two friends are left to wait for the contractions and the dead fetus. After a tense exchange about the doctor and the many lies Gabriela told, Otilia temporarily leaves Gabriela alone in the hotel room with strict orders not to move. By the time Otilia returns, Gabriela has aborted the fetus and left it on a bloody towel in the bathroom. Otilia looks at it, and so do we. It is tiny, bloody, and obviously human. The air is thick with pathos. Otilia carefully wraps it up so she can dispose of it far from the hotel. She goes out into the dark, lonely city streets. Buses aren’t running and taxis aren’t to be found. Otilia moves along quickly, comes to a high rise, and quietly enters. Down the chute it goes. She makes her way back to the hotel, the streets bleak and empty except for her. Here’s another instance where self‐determination extends to the involvement of others. As with Maggie’s request that Frankie help her die, here Gabriela pushes the moral limits asking her friend to assist in her abortion—and bear considerable risk in doing so. We wonder if Otilia knew she’d have such a dire part to play when she agreed to come along. Arriving at the hotel, Otilia goes up to room 206, but no one is there. Gabriela is in the restaurant, about to eat. “I’m starving,” she announces. Otilia sits down; she has no appetite. There’s an abyss between the friends. Gabriela tells Otilia that they are never to talk about this (abortion) again. They don’t speak. There might as well be miles between them. The movie is an uncompromising look at the costs of illegal abortion. However we feel about the issue of abortion, there are grievous aspects for all concerned. We see all too clearly how murky are these waters. No one wins and everybody loses. The pregnant woman, her doctor, her friend, the friend’s friends are all are impacted by the ethical dilemma and its

1.3.indd 74

12/9/2011 6:39:50 PM

1.3 Autonomy and Liberty 75 consequences, its aftermath. It’s a most sobering movie and yet compelling at the same time. We see how wrenching are all the decisions that are made. It is no wonder it won the Palm d’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, along with many other awards. Sarah Lyall (2010) notes that a number of countries have strict antiabortion laws. Among them is Ireland, which, until 1992 had laws preventing women from leaving Ireland to obtain an abortion elsewhere. Andorra, Malta and San Marino ban abortion entirely, as do Nicaragua and El Salvador (Lyall, 2010; Pew Forum, 2008).3 The reality is that abortion is one of the most controversial issues we face. It pits the right of personal autonomy against the society’s interest in prenatal life. A key question is how far self‐determination and liberty rights extend when they directly impact the life of another. Gabriela’s predicament is played out regularly on a global scale. Is an end in sight? By its unflinching examination of this difficult issue, the movie shows us how vital it is to reach a resolution.

Short Takes: The Shawshank Redemption The overwhelming popularity of The Shawshank Redemption (1994) shows this movie connects with people. It has now surpassed The Godfather on the International Movie Database website as the most highly regarded movie (top of their list of 250, as of August 11, 2011). A movie has to touch people on different levels for that to happen, and The Shawshank Redemption does just that. It provides us with a model of human dignity in its hero, Andy Dufresne. We identify with the innocent man sentenced to life in prison. Although he suffers abuse at the hands of the guards as well as some fellow‐prisoners, he does not despair. Andy could have abandoned all hope; the decision is his. He holds onto it like a clove of garlic kept in reserve against vampires. At any moment, he can pull it out and drive back those would suck his life energy right out of him. This is one of the movie’s strengths. No matter how limited our autonomy and liberty, don’t give up. As long as there’s a shred of hope, don’t give up. Andy embodies this quality—one reason he’s an inspiration. All too many have been so beaten down by the system that any hope they once had has shriveled up. Many of his fellow inmates have internalized the oppression of their imprisonment, but Andy stands in stark contrast. For the first half of the movie, our protagonist, convicted of killing his wife and her lover, is not clearly innocent or guilty. He humorously points out that all the inmates in Shawshank are innocent. He chuckles, saying no more about his conviction. Only in the second half of the movie is his innocence made apparent. 3

1.3.indd 75

See Pew Forum (2008) for an overview of strict abortion laws around the world.

12/9/2011 6:39:50 PM


Seeing the Light

We see him grow over the years of his incarceration, until he becomes a symbol of inner strength and integrity. Oddly enough he is respected by guards as well as by inmates. Narrator Red tells Andy’s story with obvious affection and respect. We might ask how movie taps right into the vein of autonomy and liberty and hooks us in. Stu Kobak interviewed director Frank Darabont about the ways the film has both light and dark components. Kobak asked if Darabont would call Shawshank “a dark fairy tale” and was told, Actually, I think I would call it a very light fairy tale. I think it’s a very uplifting film… I mean it goes through darkness certainly. You can’t reach for the light without going through darkness. Even back when I first read it in 1982, I thought “My God, what an uplifting and moving and inspiring thesis on reaching for light.” For me, that’s what it was all about (Kobak, “Redeeming the Writer”).

The innocent felon, the dead wife, and lover set the stage, but what really hits us is the way in which Andy deals with the ongoing indignities of prison life. Initially aloof and quiet, Andy keeps his distance, as best as he can, from his fellow‐inmates. In time, however, he becomes their champion: Time and time again he works to transform their living conditions so they have moments of respite. We see this when he helps the guards with their taxes. In exchange, he asks that his fellow inmates be given a beer (“a bottle of suds”) as a break from working in the blazing sun. Another time, he endures solitary confinement after playing a record—an aria from Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”—over the loud speaker. The sheer beauty of Maria Callas’ voice carried over the prison causes everyone to freeze in their tracks and drop their jaws. For just a few minutes, they are transported to a place far away from the dreary, demeaning life at Shawshank. Andy’s service to others is legendary. Only once does his strength of will falter. This occurs when proof of his innocence falls on deaf ears. A new inmate says he’d heard the real killer confess to murdering Andy’s wife and her lover. Andy couldn’t wait to share the news with the warden. The warden, however, was too dependent on Andy’s high‐powered skills at accounting and money‐ laundering to let him leave. The movie audience empathizes with Andy and despises the corrupt warden and his goon‐like guards who beat prisoners to death with nightsticks or shoot them at the warden’s behest. Of course, the entire system then, as now, tolerates sexual abuse of the weaker by the stronger, or the few by the many. At times the prison seems like something out of a Tolstoy novel, as when Andy is tossed in the “hole” for a month of total darkness, or when he picks a squiggling maggot out of his food. This practice—solitary confinement—is now entrenched in the US prison system, giving the United States the dubious honor of having one of the highest

1.3.indd 76

12/9/2011 6:39:50 PM

1.3 Autonomy and Liberty 77 rates of solitary confinement in the world. As James Ridgeway and Jean Casella (2011) report, “By common estimate, more than 20,000 inmates are held in supermax prisons, which by definition isolate their prisoners.” They note that perhaps 50,000 to 80,000 more are in solitary confinement on any given day in other prisons and local jails across the US. We see such horrors being played out year after year of Andy’s life sentence. That he retains his humanity and helps others rediscover theirs speaks to the movie’s appeal and its ability to convey how self‐determination is a liberty right. Even in prison. Our next movie centers on a man who is struggling with another sort of prison—in his own mind—and the journalist who tried to help him on his way.

Outtakes: The Soloist Steve Lopez is a well‐regarded Los Angeles Times columnist who focuses on life in the city. One day his attention is sparked after he sees a homeless man carrying around a cello. This is Nathaniel Ayers, who is mentally ill and an erratic personality. His social skills are raw and imperfect, making it hard for him to function among others. We find out that he is a talented, Juilliard‐trained, musician, whose life didn’t take the path to success—at least not “success” as is commonly understood. The Soloist (2009) tells the story of Lopez’s attempts to help Ayers get off the streets and on his way as a musician. Whose perspective should win out in the face of a conflict? Lopez is fascinated by Ayers and makes it his mission to help him. He has no idea of the obstacles to get Ayers off the streets and into an apartment. He uses his connections to introduce Ayers to classical music circles, assuming that he’d be happy to have doors opened for him. Not so: Ayers balks at the opportunities that Lopez brings his way and retreats into his former self. Does he lack the rationality to be fully autonomous? Or is it that he simply does not want to be part of the world that Lopez inhabits? It’s clear we should watch our assumptions when venturing into other people’s lives. Lopez does not succeed in the ways he wanted. The movie is a fascinating study of good intentions gone awry and how we can be tripped up when we least expect it.

Outtakes: K-19: The Widowmaker Set in 1961, with the Cold War in full swing, K‐19: The Widowmaker (2002) tells the story of a near‐disaster on a nuclear submarine on its maiden voyage to test launch a missile. We soon see why the crew thought the submarine was cursed and called it a “widowmaker.” A malfunction of the cooling system caused the temperature to rise to dangerous levels. Failure not only equals death

1.3.indd 77

12/9/2011 6:39:50 PM


Seeing the Light

to all on board, it could lead to a nuclear war between the USA and Russia. That problems multiplied meant the time would come when individual sacrifice was required. Few would willingly volunteer to try to fix the coolant system given the high levels of radiation. Watching the heroism of those who make the sacrifice is gripping. The first two‐man team came out after 10‐minutes barely able to walk. They were burnt all over their bodies. Talk about a test of autonomy. At times no choice looks good and all involve risk. Would we—could we—face a blast of radiation to try to stop a nuclear meltdown? We watch the sailors take a deep sigh and proceed knowing they are doomed. Not all comply, as shown in one key scene. That’s the thing—we don’t know if we’ll step up to the plate or shrink back when the time comes. As shown here, and with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and Japan’s nuclear crisis of 2011, risking everything to save others requires strength of character and a powerful spine. Is it fate? Is there some grand scheme, with names set out in long columns stating when we’ll meet our maker? One of the early team‐members visibly sighed when told to suit up and step into the radiation steam room. In another hour his shift would have been over and another sailor would be standing there. Just a roll of the dice. “It must be fate,” he said. That’s one of the questions we are left to dwell upon. Our next movie also looks at fate and a man who tries to trick it.

Outtakes: Yogen (Premonition) Yogen (Premonition, 2004) focuses on a college professor, Hideki Satomi, who is cursed with premonitions. In the form of a page from the newspaper floating down from the sky, the grim fate of individuals or entire groups of people (in murders, subway accidents, landslides, and so on) is made vividly clear to him. He does not like getting to see future tragedies and tries to drive away this “talent.” Unfortunately, the first time his gift is revealed he’s in a phone booth, while his wife and daughter are in the car beside the road. His daughter Nana is trapped in her car seat (her dress is caught in the catch). His wife Ayaka leaves Nana to come across to Hideki, as a truck smashes into the car, causing it to burst into flames. Nana dies instantly. Their marriage is shattered. While the newspaper visions keep rolling in, Hideki realizes that passively “seeing” disasters of the near future will drive him crazy, so he tries to stop the premonitions. Meanwhile, Ayaka starts to get it that Hideki’s premonitions are not a bunch of hooey. They then join forces to work on changing the future. “You choose your own fate,” says the psychic to Hideki. Maybe so. If he can intervene, perhaps he can alter the future. When he gets a vision that Ayaka will

1.3.indd 78

12/9/2011 6:39:50 PM

1.3 Autonomy and Liberty 79 die in a subway crash at 5:30 p.m., he hightails it to the station and yanks her out of the jaws of death. He then tries to rewrite the past in hopes of saving his daughter. The theme might be called “Redo Déjà vu.” The movie delves into questions of fate and whether the particulars of our lives are fixed. Is life’s pathway unchangeable, set in stone? Is it “God’s will” or fate when “our number’s up”? Is life a package deal, with the beginning, middle, and end predetermined? Or, as Hideki attempts, can we reconfigure the key details of our lives? A great deal follows from the answers to these questions. When reflecting on personal autonomy and liberty, we usually affirm the free will needed to shape the direction of our lives. If everything were preset and merely a matter of fate, then there would be no free will. In that case the concept of autonomy would be hollow, empty. The movies in this chapter dramatically tackle these issues. All the central characters from Maggie, Frankie, Wikus, and Otilia to Andy and Hideki must deal with the repercussions of their decisions. It can be lonely and scary facing the choices. What these movies show us is that decisions have potentially long‐ranging significance. The spectrum ranges over personal choices around what can be done with one’s own body, whether we owe a duty to uphold others’ decisions around life and death (such as euthanasia and abortion), how to address perceived wrongs (such as incarceration, solitary confinement, life in prison, and execution) and what standards do we set for ourselves (such as risking one’s life to save others). Time is well spent to give these our attention.

Works Cited Associated Press (1998) “Summary of European Abortion Laws,” Ohio Right to Life (Pregnant Pause). (accessed August 12, 2011). Bouvia v. Superior Court of Los Angeles. 179 Cal. App 3d 1127 (1986). Callahan, Daniel (1989) “Killing and Allowing to Die.” The Hastings Center Report, Vol. 19, January/February. Christman, John (2009) “Autonomy in Moral and Political Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.‐moral/ (accessed August 12, 2011). Cobbs v. Grant. 8 Cal. 3d 229, 502 P.2d 1, 104 Cal. Rptr. 505 (1972). Cruzan v. Director, MDH. 497 U.S. 261 (1990). html/88‐1503.ZS.html (accessed August 12, 2011). Dador, Denise (2011) “Designing Organs for Medical Transplantation.” KABC news, May 30, 2011. health&id=8161045(accessed August 12, 2011). Hooker, Brad, “Rule Utilitarianism and Euthanasia.” In H. LaFollette (ed.) Ethics in Practice, pp. 42–52. Oxford: Blackwell. (accessed August 12, 2011). In re Quinlan. 70 N.J. 10, 335 A.2d 647 (N.J. 1976).

1.3.indd 79

12/9/2011 6:39:50 PM


Seeing the Light

Kafka, Franz, Metamorphosis.‐h/5200‐h. htm (accessed August 12, 2011). Kobak, Stu, “Redeeming the Writer: A Conversation with Frank Darabont.” Shawshank Redemption Official Site. (accessed August 12, 2011). Lyall, Sarah (2010) “European Court Rules Against Irish Abortion Law” The New York Times, December 17, 2010. O’Hehir, Andrew, “Is Apartheid Acceptable —For Giant Bugs?”, August 12, 2009. feature/2009/08/12/blomkamp (accessed August 12, 2011). Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (2008) “Abortion Laws Around the World.” http://‐Laws‐Around‐the‐World.aspx#latinamerica (accessed August 12, 2011). Rachels, James (1975), “Active and Passive Euthanasia.” The New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 292, January 9, 1975, 78–80, pecorip/scccweb/etexts/deathanddying_text/Active%20and%20Passive%20 Euthanasia.pdf (accessed August 12, 2011). Ridgeway, James and Casella, Jean (2011) “Cruel and Usual: U.S. Solitary Confinement.” Al‐Jazeera, March 19, 2011. features/2011/03/201137125936219469.html (accessed August 12, 2011). Roe v. Wade , 410 U.S. 113 (1973). Schloendorff v. Society of New York Hospital. 211 N.Y. 125, 105 N.E. 92 (1914). http:// (accessed August 12, 2011). Simpson, Jacob (2009) District 9 (Film Review). Journal of Religion and Film, Vol. 13, No. 2 (accessed August 12, 2011).

Online Resources Baum, Seth D. (2009) “Film review: District 9.” Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol. 20 Issue 2, December. (accessed August 12, 2011). Center for Cognitive Ethics and Liberty. (accessed August 12, 2011). Eisenberg, Daniel, “Real Tragedy of Million Dollar Baby.” ci/a/48944411.html and life.asp (accessed August 12, 2011). Philosophy Talk: “Dignity and the End of Life,” June 8, 2004: Ken Taylor, John Perry and Margaret Battin discuss dignity at the end of life, physician‐assisted suicide and active euthanasia. The website includes related resources. pastShows/DignityandtheEndofLife.htm (accessed August 12, 2011). Radoilska, Lubomira and Fistein, Elizabeth (2010) “Intellectual Disabilities and Personal Autonomy.” intellectual_disabilities_autonomy.pdf (accessed August 12, 2011). Voorhoeve, Alex (2009) “The limits of autonomy.” The Philosophers’ Magazine, issue 46, August 17, 2009. (accessed August 12, 2011).

1.3.indd 80

12/9/2011 6:39:50 PM

1.3 Autonomy and Liberty 81

Discussion Questions 1. Neill Blomkamp (2009), director of District 9 said, “What I wanted to convey about Johannesburg, … is that it’s almost this burnt, nuclear wasteland, at least in winter. … there’s this constant sense of an urban prison, with razor wire and electric fences and armed guards everywhere. It’s a very oppressive‐feeling city.” How do movies show different kinds of oppression? Can you cite examples? 2. Both Million Dollar Baby and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days explore the limits of self‐determination. Given the social and legal realities, was it right of Maggie and Gabriela to ask their friends to help terminate a life? 3. District 9, K‐19: Widowmaker, and Premonition show fate having the upper hand when disaster strikes. Call it the destiny of being at the wrong time and place. And yet there are choices. Can we have it both ways—fate and free will? 4. Maggie is a prisoner of her failing body, Andy is trapped in Shawshank and Nathaniel (The Soloist) rejects the scripted life Steve offered. What can we learn about choice and responsibility from films like these that show the character(s) facing such constrictions on what they can and cannot do? 5. Frankie terminated Maggie’s life by a lethal injection (= active killing)—not an assisted suicide. Clearly the actions are distinct—are they morally distinct as well? 6. We see the tragedy of illegal abortion in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. According to Denise Dador (2011), “Scientists at Cornell University are developing artificial wombs in which embryos can grow outside of a woman’s body.” Could this be a solution—transplant unwanted fetuses into artificial wombs for a later adoption?

1.3.indd 81

12/9/2011 6:39:51 PM


Courage and Inner Strength

SPOTLIGHT: The Sea Inside SPOTLIGHT: The Hurt Locker, The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) Short Takes: Die Hard Outtakes: Dirty Pretty Things, Thunderheart




There’s enough bang in there to blow us all to Jesus. If I’m gonna die, I want to die comfortable. —The Hurt Locker

(quoting the adult John Connor) Thank you, Sarah, for your courage through the dark years. I can’t help you with what you must soon face, except to say that the future is not set. You must be stronger than you imagine you can be. You must survive, or I will never exist. —The Terminator

(to the giant toad) Hello. I am Princess Moanna, and I am not afraid of you. —Pan’s Labyrinth

It’s 2004 and the Iraq War is dragging on. Sergeant First Class Matt Thompson is getting ready to investigate what might be a bomb. The small robot (“the bot”) has popped a wheel and is stuck. Slowly but surely, Thompson makes his way along the busy, dusty Baghdad street. A herd of goats moves through and residents dart in and out, peering out the windows, watching. Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

1.4.indd 82

12/9/2011 6:38:32 PM

1.4 Courage and Inner Strength 83 Thompson is the leader of a three‐member crew, an elite bomb disposal unit for the Army. The Iraq war is in full swing and the air is full of tension, with death just around the corner, waiting for its next victim. Thompson is all business, attending to the details before he moves out. He looks like an astronaut stepping out on the moon and walks like the Pillsbury Doughboy, barely able to lumber along. Each step could be his last. Everything seems in order, so he starts to return, while his two teammates, Sergeant J.T. Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge, stand guard. Their eyes dart from side to side, following the movements of the people coming in and out of doorways, wary of the slightest movement. Their hyperconcern is not without reason: A man near the butcher shop sets off a bomb with his cell phone and a “thumbs‐up” sign. Thompson runs, arms flailing, but can’t avoid the blast. His head injuries are too great—another life lost to war. This is The Hurt Locker (2009), winner of the 2009 Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director. It is a study in courage. We say of those who show courage that, “He or she has —”. We fill in the blank with such terms as, “balls,” “guts,” “ganas,” “cojones,” “a spine.” We also speak of courage as a way of being in the world, as being “fearless,” “brave,” “heroic.” Too little, you’re weak, cowardly, wimpy, a ninny. Too much, you’re reckless, foolhardy, rash, a daredevil. Courage avoids such extremes, as shown in the character traits of those standing up for what is right, risking their lives to save others, and making sacrifices on an order few can fathom. They gives us a sense of the state of mind and emotional wherewithal present in the courageous person. Aristotle’s approach is especially helpful. He locates courage as the mean between two extremes. At one end is cowardice. It is characterized by paralysis in the face of fear, with the coward lacking in self‐confidence. Cowardice can cause us to run for cover, leaving others at risk. Aristotle sees cowardice as a deficiency: The character traits needed to be courageous are in short supply. That’s why we say cowards have no backbone or are spineless, and view the coward with disgust or pity. At the other end is recklessness. Reckless people barrel forward without thinking things through or keeping their wits about them. They take unnecessary risks. Aristotle calls such people rash and says, [T]he man who exceeds in confidence about what really is terrible is rash. The rash man, however, is also thought to be boastful and only a pretender to courage; at all events, as the brave man is with regard to what is terrible, so the rash man wishes to appear; and so he imitates him in situations where he can” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 3, Chapter 7).

Things can easily spin out of control when people are reckless. Such people are viewed with alarm. Daredevils may amuse us, but are best kept at a distance.

1.4.indd 83

12/9/2011 6:38:32 PM


Seeing the Light

The mean between cowardice and recklessness is courage, says Aristotle. Courageous people don’t wither under pressure or fall apart out of fear or anxiety. Nor do they overreact by pushing forward when holding back is the wiser course. In the battle of good vs. evil, it takes courage to act. As Aristotle puts it: Courage is a mean with respect to things that inspire confidence or fear, …and it chooses or endures things because it is noble to do so, or because it is base not to do so. But to die to escape from poverty or love or anything painful is not the mark of a brave man, but rather of a coward; for it is softness to fly from what is troublesome, and such a man endures death not because it is noble but to fly from evil (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 3, Chapter 7).

Courage requires us to be clear in our minds about what’s right, what’s good and just. Action must be taken with little or no notice, even though the personal cost may be high. This means that overcoming fear is an aspect of courage. Aristotle says: Now we fear all evils, e.g. disgrace, poverty, disease, friendlessness, death, but the brave man is not thought to be concerned with all; for to fear some things is even right and noble, and it is base not to fear them— e.g. disgrace; he who fears this is good and modest, and he who does not is shameless (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 3, Chapter 6).

For some, being stoic is a key trait to courage, for instance by keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of life’s adversities. Stoics seek a life in which “impulses are rational, moderate, and held in check” (Rubarth, 2009). They want to stay on an even keel emotionally, so “impulses” and reactions are proportionate to the value gained. When it comes to acts of bravery, our reactions should be relative to the situation at hand. They should be neither indifferent (= too passive) nor hot‐ tempered (= too aggressive.) Anger may be occasionally justified, but blowing your top at the slightest offense is not the mark of courageous person. Ethicist Nancy Sherman (2010) looks at stoicism with respect to soldiers and interrogators at the Abu Ghraib prison and at Guantanamo Bay. She asserts that the ancient Stoics sought to arm the soul against vulnerability. “The ultimate Stoic aim,” she says, “is to insulate not against sensitivity to moral compromise, but quite the opposite, against the pulls and tugs that threaten to make individuals susceptible to moral compromise in the first place.” She adds, “Moral compromise is the evil, and Stoic therapy teaches to be ever‐vigilant against it” (p. 129). By this theory, waffling or uncertainty in moral decision‐making is the last thing a Stoic wants to do. However, some courageous acts do involve moral uncertainty, as we can’t always weigh risks and benefits. Consequently, acts of bravery may not always get high grades from the discerning Stoic.

1.4.indd 84

12/9/2011 6:38:33 PM

1.4 Courage and Inner Strength 85 There are a number of ways that courage is presented in film. We see it with soldiers in war, whose courageous acts on the front lines are often born of patriotism, as with our first movie, The Hurt Locker. Other acts of courage are in response to external threats like the cyborg‐stalker in The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. There is also the courage required to fight the monsters close at hand. Pan’s Labyrinth offers insights into the courage required for that battle. Let’s start with The Hurt Locker.

SPOTLIGHT: The Hurt Locker We first meet Sergeant First Class William James when he’s arriving to replace Sergeant Thompson, killed in the line of duty. Watching the team dismantle the different types of bombs planted along the street, underground, in vehicles, and in ordinary objects like wagons, we see how dangerous is their work. The job never gets easier and the risks never loosen up. All day, every day, they exist on the edge of the abyss. One slip, one tiny slip, and bam! They’re finished. That is the daily terror they face. Sergeant James takes it in stride. He approaches dismantling bombs with an intensity and ease that comes from doing the same task over and over again. His teammates, Sanborn and Eldridge, view him with awe and horror. The awe comes from watching James work with virtually no sign of fear. The horror comes when he ignores protocol and takes chances that put him and others at greater risk. James acts as if the proper equipment and protective clothing were for sissies and not real men. When he yanks off his helmet and protective jacket and tosses them aside, Eldridge is astonished. James glances at the bomb he’s about to dismantle, “There’s enough bang in there to blow us all to Jesus. If I’m gonna die, I want to die comfortable.” Dying comfortable. If his number is up, at least he can be comfortable. Sanborn and Eldridge see that James has a quality they simply lack. Both count the days until their rotation is over and they can go home. Each day in Iraq is a trial to be endured. They are painfully aware of that this is not their calling, but accept it as a job to be done. We are shown the different perspectives on the dangers they face. Sanborn acknowledges reservations that James shrugs off: SANBORN:

Another two inches, shrapnel zings by; slices my throat—I bleed out like a pig in the sand. Nobody’ll give a shit. I mean my parents—they care—but they don’t count, man. Who else? I don’t even have a son. JAMES: Well, you’re gonna have plenty of time for that, amigo. SANBORN: Naw, man. I’m done. I want a son. I want a little boy, Will. I mean, how do you do it, you know? Take the risk? JAMES: I don’t know. I guess I don’t think about it.

1.4.indd 85

12/9/2011 6:38:33 PM


Seeing the Light SANBORN:


But you realize every time you suit up, every time we go out, it’s life or death. You roll the dice, and you deal with it. You recognize that don’t you? Yea… Yea, I do. But I don’t know why.

We can place the soldiers in the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) like push pins on the chart of courage. At one end is Eldridge who periodically talks with Dr. Cambridge, the Army shrink, to deal with his fear of death. He asks, “Got a question about that song, Be All You Can Be. What if all I can be is dead on the side of an Iraqi road? … This is war, people die all the time. Why not me?” Dr. Cambridge offers a word of advice, “You got to change the record in your head. You gotta start thinking about other things. Okay, Stop obsessing… Right now. What are you thinking about?” Eldridge answers, “This is what I’m thinking about, doc. Here’s Thompson, okay. He’s dead, he’s alive. Here’s Thompson. He’s dead, he’s alive. He’s dead. He’s alive.” Eldridge is floored by James’ ability to stroll up to a car thought to have explosives wired into it, ready to blow. “My team leader is inspiring,” he tells Dr. Cambridge. “He’s going to get me killed, almost died yesterday. At least I’ll be killed in the line of duty, proud and strong.” His preoccupation with death plays like a broken record, and one he can’t silence. In his Production Notes, scriptwriter Mark Boal compares the three characters. He remarks that James is the catalyst for much of the film’s conflict: His solitary focus is on the bomb. That’s where he gets his engagement and his sense of being alive. He’s most at home when he’s working on a bomb and most out of place when he’s just with other people. So in a sense, the price of his heroism is his isolation, or loneliness, and his inability to connect with other people who are close to him. His heroism is a flight from intimacy (2009, pp. 116–17).

Perhaps James cannot do his job without distancing himself from those he cares most about, including his wife and son. Boal thinks that James’ heroism is a flight from intimacy. But it could be that he has to make that sacrifice—surrender all hope of intimacy—in order to risk blowing himself up every time he dismantles a bomb or IED. Some acts of courage require not that we try to escape loving relationships, but that we protect the beloved by pulling away, like an animal does when death is imminent. That’s the heart of self‐sacrifice: The willingness to become a kind of celibate in order to belly up to death time and time again. James has done that so many times that he gets a rush, one not easily replaced. Boal thinks of Sanborn as the film’s Everyman, who is “a smart, capable, reliable, charismatic guy who has never encountered a whirlwind like James before. There’s an alpha male component to his personality that runs up pretty hard against James… so you have these two versions of masculinity dueling each other” (p. 117). Boal sees Eldridge, the third member of the team, as one

1.4.indd 86

12/9/2011 6:38:33 PM

1.4 Courage and Inner Strength 87 “who tries but ultimately fails to find solace in either Sanborn’s stoicism or in James’ indifference to danger.” He adds, “There’s a frankness and earnestness to him that allows him to wear his fear on his sleeve.” Life is fragile. One minute we’re here, the next we’re gone. Kaput! Thompson didn’t live long enough to reflect on that reality. And if we stop to dwell on it facing the daily dangers of war would be difficult. Eldridge is not quite paralyzed by fear, since he performs his duties with the unit every day. And yet he struggles. It’s the monkey on his back and it just won’t let go. Although Eldridge does what is required of his job, he does the math: When that day is over, he’s that much closer to getting out of there. Thompson and Sanborn are not eaten up by the fears that gnaw at Eldridge. Both Thompson, who died at the movie’s beginning, and Sanborn are just left of center. They follow the rules, use the equipment issued to them, take the appropriate precautions, and approach their work with the tense vigilance of someone sent out to dismantle a bomb. They are nervous, but not overcome by it. And, like Eldridge, they are counting the days until they are released. Every day they do their job, they show a kind of courage that only those facing similar high‐stakes risks can understand. Just right of center is James. He is fearless, drawn to risks that require courage, and heady with the exhilaration his work brings. The opening quote of the movie, “War is a drug” could be James’ theme song. He can’t get enough of the risks this work demands and, as we see later, he occasionally puts others at risk too. On one hand, the recklessness allows him to do what others could not, as we see in this exchange: COLONEL REED:

You the guy in the flaming car, Sergeant James? Afternoon, sir. Uh, yes, sir. COLONEL REED: Well, that’s just hot shit. You’re a wild man, you know that? … What’s the best way to… go about disarming one of these things? JAMES: The way you don’t die, sir. COLONEL REED: That’s a good one. That’s spoken like a wild man. That’s good. JAMES:

On the other hand, this wild man has lived with danger so intensely so long, that it provides a satisfaction unattainable by other means. It has become an addiction. An ordinary life, shopping for groceries, changing the baby’s diapers, cleaning leaves out of the gutters at the edge of the roof, doesn’t compare to the rush and the sense of accomplishment James got in Iraq. Trying to explain this to his young son shortly before he heads back to the war zone, he says, As you get older… some of the things you love might not seem so special any more. Like your Jack‐in‐a‐Box. Maybe you’ll realize it’s just a piece of tin and a stuffed animal. And the older you get, the fewer things you really love. And by the time you get to my age, maybe it’s only one or two things. With me, I think it’s one.

1.4.indd 87

12/9/2011 6:38:33 PM


Seeing the Light

When thinking about the Bomb Squad and the bravery it demands, whether you’re counting down (like Eldridge and Sanborn) or signing up for more (like James), we shouldn’t overlook times of discord. Being on the same team doesn’t mean having the same state of mind. Two scenes show this most clearly. The first is when Sanborn tells Eldridge how they could kill James and make it look like an accident. Knock him out and cover it up. The second time occurs later, when James leads the team into a dangerous alleyway in search of a terrorist. Eldridge is hit, ending his tour, and leaving him furious at James. Too much risk, too little gained. In the first case, Sanborn’s dark side emerged. Any stoicism he had shriveled up to the size of a pea after proposing a major breach of ethics. No self‐respecting Stoic would abide by such a stark moral compromise. But, of course, being stoic around the clock is not an easy task. Nevertheless, moral contradiction is no less damaging than logical contradiction and, thus, we should aspire to do all we can to avoid it. In the second case, James’ intuitions about where terrorists might be lurking led him to act rashly, sending Sanborn and Eldridge into the dark, chasing ghosts. From their perspective, James was out of line and was acting on a hunch, not evidence. The two incidents show how quickly things can shift and those normally stable and clear‐headed can sail over an edge. They also show how easy it is to get with the program, fall in line, and foolishly accede to others. Keeping hold of our moral compass is crucial if we seek the mean between cowardice and recklessness. This reaches expression in the next movie and its sequel, as we’ll shortly see.

SPOTLIGHT: The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day both involve time travel. In the former, a cyborg comes back from the future (2029 AD) for exactly one purpose. It will do everything in its mind‐boggling power to kill Sarah Connor so that she won’t get pregnant. Because it is a highly advanced machine, with human flesh over a metal endoskeleton and the strength of a body builder on PCP, it is going to be hard to stop. Plus, it is driven. Those in the future know what Sarah doesn’t, namely, that her son John will lead the resistance against the machines that were responsible for a nuclear holocaust. The first movie tells the story of Sarah Connor and the two who came back in time—the cyborg T‐101 programmed to kill her and the man, Kyle Reese, who wants to protect her. In the second movie, Sarah is locked up in a mental hospital, her son John a teenager with two foster‐parents he can barely stand: now two cyborgs come back in time. There’s a new, more vicious cyborg (T‐1000) out to kill John, and a protective cyborg (T‐800, based on the T‐101 of the first film), out to guard him.

1.4.indd 88

12/9/2011 6:38:33 PM

1.4 Courage and Inner Strength 89 We start with Sarah a waitress at Big Jeff’s burgers in Los Angeles. She lives with roommate Ginger and reptile Pugsley. A news report that another Sarah Connor was killed signals her life is about to change. At the apartment, she and Ginger are doing their hair, having fun. Cut to the police discussing the murder of Sarah Connor #2. Back to Sarah—Ginger’s boyfriend Matt arrives as she heads out to a movie. She doesn’t know that the police are trying to reach her. Sarah is at a pizza parlor when news of the second Sarah’s death comes on the TV. She is spooked! The phone is out of order, but the phone book lists her as Sarah Connor #3. She heads into a nightclub and calls the police. You guessed it—busy. The Terminator kills Matt while Ginger is making snacks. She’s toast. Bad timing being what it is, Sarah gets the answering machine in time to disclose her whereabouts. The T‐101 now knows she’s at the Tech Noir nightclub. Sarah reaches the police and is told to stay put. Meanwhile, Reese has been trailing her. He’s not just any man from the future sent back by John Connor; he is to become John’s father in the short time he has with her. He’s there at Tech Noir when the Terminator arrives on the scene. What follows is one of the longest, nail‐biting chase scenes on film. The seemingly indestructible cyborg that “will not stop until you are dead” is determined to kill Sarah. She and Kyle must use all their resources to outwit the much more powerful Terminator. In the process, Sarah ceases to be the giggly, naive waitress we met at the film’s beginning. She becomes a powerful warrior and hero, assuming the tasks necessary to survive such a formidable opponent. In so doing, she comes to terms with her role in a dystopian future with one man, her son, as the leader against the machines. Sarah seems an unlikely candidate to be the mother of the savior of the human race. It is not a role she welcomes but she will come to accept it as a sort of calling. The last two scenes indicate Sarah’s strengths: while being chased by the Terminator on a motorcycle, Sarah’s at the wheel of the car as Reese throws pipe bombs out the window. At one point Reese is hit and Sarah carries on unaided. After the Terminator takes over a tanker truck filled with gasoline, Kyle revives enough to shove one of the bombs into the truck’s tailpipe. The explosion sends flames rising to the sky. Sarah and Reese reunite, victorious. They are ecstatic that the Terminator is finally “dead.” Not so. This thing does not ever seem to die. Its metal frame rises from the fire and the chase is back on. With Sarah dragging the injured Kyle, they make it into a factory. The Terminator’s skeletal frame comes staggering after them, step by metal step. Reese dies trying to blow up the cyborg with the last of six homemade bombs. Sarah is now on her own, her leg wounded from the explosion. She crawls away, with what’s left of the Terminator (its head and torso) crawling after her. She refuses to give up—no longer the girl who worked at Big Jeff’s—and crushes its skull in a steel press. Her victorious declaration, “You’re terminated, you fucker” is the only eulogy it gets. Sarah’s inner strength and courage demonstrates just how far she has come.

1.4.indd 89

12/9/2011 6:38:33 PM


Seeing the Light

We have seen her evolve from wimp to warrior. The sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) has the extra‐special effects, with the liquid metal T‐1000 and all, but the primal fear in the first stands as the classic. Not only is the monster more monstrous, Sarah of the second film has lost her innocence. She is a buffed‐up bundle of energy, living on standby mode, ready to fight off terminators at a moment’s notice. From her demeanor, she could bite the head off a rat without flinching. The transformation of Sarah from waitress to hero shows us that courage is not something we’re born with. It’s something that is developed as part of our character, like a virtue. The movie ends with the pregnant Sarah on her way to Mexico, a gun on her lap and a German shepherd in the back seat. She dictates as she drives, making tapes for her son‐to‐be. She is already thinking ahead. T2 continues the saga of machines sending yet another cyborg back to the present to kill John. This time there is no human to protect her. Kyle is gone and in his place is a cyborg sent to guard her son. This Terminator is modeled after the earlier cyborg T-101. With John instructing his guardian‐terminator not to kill anyone (it aims low instead), the three work together to stop the liquid metal T‐1000 before it stops them. Philosopher Jason T. Eberl looks at their reasoning and that of Utilitarian and Kantian ethicists in opposing indiscriminate killing (2009, p. 207). We go into these ethical theories in Unit 2. There we see that Utilitarians seek to maximize good or happiness and minimize harm or unhappiness for the greatest number of people. Indiscriminate killing surely has no benefits for the society. Similarly, the Kantians would not be happy with those who would kill just anybody, as Kantians categorically assert that people should never been used merely as a means to an end—they should be treated with dignity and respect. Indiscriminate killing fails on both grounds. Those whose moral reasoning is guided by optimizing consequences for the majority of the people would definitely favor eliminating the T‐1000 cyborg at the earliest opportunity. They would also give Sarah a nod for her attempts to reshape the future. This occurs when she tries to terminate Miles Dyson, whose work made the cyborg possible in the first place. If she can kill him, then, with luck on our side, there would be no cyborgs or things like Skynet that empowered intelligent machines to control nuclear weapons (and thus start World War III). Sarah doesn’t think twice about her mission to kill Dyson. However, John intervenes, insisting that Sarah’s goal is unacceptable. Instead of killing Dyson, they should try reasoning with him, and make him part of the solution rather than part of the problem. By this view, Sarah was acting rashly in going after Dyson. It would not be a courageous act to kill him in order to prevent the cyborgs’ development and the rise of Skynet. This is an interesting philosophical question for us to look at. Assume that you knew cyborgs would be developed with the ability to team up to start a nuclear holocaust and you may have even seen a cyborg killing people

1.4.indd 90

12/9/2011 6:38:33 PM

1.4 Courage and Inner Strength 91 for no good reason. Would we call you rash if you tried to eliminate the engineer who developed the cyborg? Would we call you courageous? Well, we might say it is courageous if Dyson had malevolent reasons for creating cyborgs, such as to use them in a military takeover or to exterminate groups of people. We might call it rash, however, if Dyson’s intentions were to develop robots and cyborgs to do hazardous work like cleaning up toxic spills or handling nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. By this reasoning, we need to know Dyson’s intentions before labeling Sarah courageous, rash, or cowardly. Meanwhile, Sarah heeds John’s request to back away from her plan to kill Dyson. They succeed in recruiting Dyson to the cause of preventing the eventual emergence of killer cyborgs. They all sit down together to figure out a way to break into Dyson’s corporation, Cyberdyne, which would enable them to destroy the chip that will help turn the cyborg into a killing machine by 2029 AD. At considerable risk they break into the lab, but are caught in the act. In a grand gesture of self‐sacrifice, Dyson blows up the lab, sacrificing himself to do so. Both movies are studies in courage and show us different ways it reaches expression. From Kyle to Sarah and John to Dyson, we see acts of courage in extraordinarily demanding circumstances. Given the bulky T‐101’s popularity, many consider the guardian‐terminator of T2 to be courageous. It is an intelligent machine, after all. However, it lacks moral circuitry. There’s not an ethical wire in its endoskeleton and morality was not programmed into its neural chip. The fact that it avoids killing people is not because it acquired some ethics while protecting John Connor. It is thanks to John’s own moral code and his ordering the Terminator to follow his lead and avoid harming other humans. In order to be courageous, we must be able to feel fear, reflect on our values, and choose a course of action consistent with those values. We saw that in The Hurt Locker with Sanborn and Eldridge—and, when he’s not being reckless, James. And Sarah, Kyle, John, and Dyson can all do this, but neither the Terminator nor the T‐1000 can do so. As Kyle tells Sarah shortly after they first meet, the Terminator cannot not feel pain, but he can. He knows suffering, fear, and grief— all missing from the Terminator’s neural network. In T2 the Terminator asks John why his eyes got wet. John explains what tears are and how people can feel sad. At  the end of T2, just before his assisted “suicide,” the Terminator tells John, “I know now why you cry,” adding, “But it is something I can never do.” In our next movie, the hero is a child—she can definitely feel sad, but doesn’t let it stop her from acting courageously.

SPOTLIGHT: El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) The screen is black. We hear humming and then rhythmic breathing, panting, like someone has been running and stopped to get her breath. Words appear on the screen telling us that it is 1944 and the Spanish Civil War is over, but the

1.4.indd 91

12/9/2011 6:38:33 PM


Seeing the Light

fight against fascism goes on, with rebels hiding in the mountains. Military posts are established to stamp out the resistance. We now see the source of the panting. It’s a little girl. Her nose is bloody and her face looks distressed. There’s red blood on her hands, we don’t know why. Yet. Her face fills the screen and the anguish overwhelms us. Reality is not what it’s cut out to be. There’s so much pain and suffering. Wouldn’t it be nice to leave this for a magical realm, one free of death and disease? The tug‐a‐war between fantasy and reality is about to begin. We shift to a parallel universe. In voice over we are drawn into the mythic realm: A long time ago in the Underground Realm where there were no lies or pain there lived a princess who dreamt of the human world. Much like Gautama (the Buddha) venturing outside the walls where he had been safe and sound only to discover pain and suffering, the princess escaped her keepers one day. In the glaring sun she lost her memory and forgot where she came from. She felt cold, sickness, pain, and eventually died. Her father, the King, always knew her soul would return (maybe in another body and at another place and time, but she’d surely return). And so he kept the faith and waited for her. This story sets the stage of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Ofelia and her mother Carmen are arriving at what looks like a Spanish castle, or fortress. It’s no country cottage, that’s for sure. Whatever sorrows they knew, the life ahead with her new stepfather, Captain Vidal, would make the past look like paradise. He is cold‐hearted and cruel and, if there were any good qualities to this man, they were drained out of him long before Ofelia arrived on the scene. As a story of good versus evil, Pan’s Labyrinth is a unique and engrossing movie. It tells the story of Ofelia and her alter ego, Princess Moanna. This is accomplished by moving between the real world—that of war and rebellion, birth and death—and the mythic realm of fairy tales. Being trapped in the house of a violent man was nothing Ofelia asked for. Dealing with the move to her new husband’s fortress and a problematic late‐term pregnancy was all Carmen could handle. She was too fragile. Even worse, she was resigned to the compromise she made in marrying Captain Vidal. Ofelia could not count on her for help. However, Ofelia is an enterprising and imaginative child. Her curiosity and independence will serve her well. She also has a lot of personal power, which the despicable captain quickly figures out. Ofelia’s first contact with the mythic realm is in the form of a carved stone. It looks like an eye, so of course Ofelia wastes no time looking around. She finds an ancient stone statue with a hole where the right eye should be. After setting the eye in place, out of the open mouth of the statue came a praying mantis. This insect will soon be part of Ofelia’s new world. She and her mother go on to the “castle,” but not without the insect following along. Masking his displeasure with their “late” arrival, a smiling Captain welcomes them. He has a doctor and a wheelchair beside him. The fact

1.4.indd 92

12/9/2011 6:38:33 PM

1.4 Courage and Inner Strength 93 Carmen can walk perfectly well doesn’t faze him. This woman is going to be confined. Next he “greets” Ofelia. She extends her left hand, since her right one is holding her books. Grabbing her hand, he squeezes it until it hurts. It’s not okay that Ofelia violated proper etiquette. It was the first of many rules she’d break. Ofelia is effectively a prisoner in Captain Vidal’s house, since she is not free to leave. Her treatment becomes more oppressive as the story unfolds. Being a child has its own set of limitations, and thus it is no wonder Ofelia retreated into the mythic realm. Mind you, this realm is much closer to the Brothers Grimm than Disney. Her travails with Captain Vidal push Ofelia further into this other dimension. The tragic events that ensue force her to draw from an inner strength that most children have no need to call upon so early in life. The Captain is as cold as a dead fish, and Ofelia sees it. What has her mother done, marrying him? And what can a mere child do about it? He is not like the father she lost, that much she knows. She can see what her mother cannot, and Vidal sees that she has a stubborn streak in her. It will be impossible to keep her under his thumb. Their relationship starts off on a bad foot and gets worse. Her mother asks, “The captain has been so good to us… Please, Ofelia, call him father. It’s just a word, Ofelia.” But Ofelia knows it’s not “just a word,” and there is no way under the sun she’ll call him “father.” At each juncture he views Ofelia’s childish ways as misbehavior and an affront to his authority. He does not take well to her disobedience. Nor does Carmen, who wishes her daughter would try harder not to make waves. As a result, when Ofelia returns from encountering the giant toad, Carmen is distraught that she’s covered in mud and her fancy dinner dress is in tatters. We can tell that Ofelia is pleased to know this has made her stepfather upset. Carmen may want to avoid making waves, but Ofelia is not so inclined. As time goes by, life with Vidal only gets worse. We see his priorities when Dr. Ferreiro is told, “If you have to choose, save the baby.” Ofelia says to the fetus, “Things out here aren’t too good.” This is quite the understatement. Carmen’s death in childbirth means all bets are off in terms of Vidal’s relationship with Ofelia. With Carmen out of the picture, he ratchets up the abuse. We can’t blame Ofelia for turning to the mythic world and taking up the tasks to establish her royalty. Janice Hocker Rushing and Thomas S. Frentz (1995) observe that, “Often the hero must endure captivity or enslavement as a prelude to self‐awareness” (p. 77). We watch Captain Vidal rule the household with the fascist methods he uses on his soldiers. It’s hard to fault Ofelia for retreating into the imagination and keeping her everyday reality with her stepfather at as much distance as she can. By drawing from a wellspring of hope, Ofelia might avoid despair. Ofelia has an ally. This is Vidal’s housekeeper Mercedes, who helps Ofelia keep perspective and demonstrates her own acts of courage. In time, Mercedes

1.4.indd 93

12/9/2011 6:38:33 PM


Seeing the Light

takes Ofelia into her confidence and enlists her assistance with the rebels hiding out in the nearby woods. Mercedes is like a lion lying in wait in the grass, planning through each step before making her move to take supplies to the rebels. Her willpower leaves an impression on Ofelia. She helps Ofelia grasp the importance of not giving up, of fighting for what is right and just. And then there’s the fairy tale realm, the parallel world Ofelia discovers after putting the stone “eye” in place. Late one night, an insect/fairy appears before Ofelia as she lies in bed with her sick mother. Ofelia shows no fear in following the fairy away from the house and into the labyrinth that lies in the ruins of the ancient garden. There she meets a beast that looks like a cross between a tree, a pile of dried mud, and a big‐horn sheep. It is El Fauno, the Faun, Pan, of Greek mythology, and it is surely the most unusual creature Ofelia has come across. He tells her that she is really Princess Moanna. Of course we know that in fairy tales everything comes in threes. She must prove her royalty by performing three tasks before the full moon. She then can be reunited with her parents, the king and queen. She doesn’t hesitate to agree to his terms. The tasks don’t seem too onerous on the surface, but do require considerable skill and risk on Ofelia’s part. The three tasks are: (1) Crawl in the opening of the old fig tree and go into the underworld to feed the repulsive, giant toad three stones and retrieve the magic key from the toad, (2) Go to the den of the ghostly “Pale Man” (who gets angry when anyone eats from his table of delectable treats) and bring back the golden dagger. Finally, (3) take her baby brother down into the labyrinth (where the Faun plans to use the dagger to draw a few drops of the infant’s blood). As she moves through each task, Ofelia gets stronger and more self‐reliant. This is most apparent when she runs to the labyrinth, with her baby brother clasped in her arms and the sadistic Captain Vidal racing after her, gun in hand. Meanwhile the Faun is in the labyrinth waiting for her to hand the baby to him. We can be sure that Ofelia will do all she can to shield her brother from harm. She doesn’t waver in refusing to hand the baby to the Faun, even if it costs her the chance for immortality. The two worlds—reality and fantasy—come crashing together. Wherever she turns, someone wants her baby brother. She does all she can to protect him, including giving him to the captain, who then shoots her. That he got his just deserts is not something she gets to see, but we do. We also see that, in giving her life (the blood of an innocent) she can be reunited with the king and queen. The three tasks are now complete. Let’s stop for a second to digest all this. Think about it : We talk about someone being powerful in terms of inner strength. Being physically fit is admirable in its own way, as any of us who has ever bought a gym membership and slugged it out three or four times a week is all too aware. However, this isn’t the path to power. The power that matters is soul power. Using Thich

1.4.indd 94

12/9/2011 6:38:33 PM

1.4 Courage and Inner Strength 95 Nhat Hanh’s The Art of Power as the base, we can set out five aspects of personal power that are particularly noteworthy. These are: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

Self‐confidence—trusting oneself. Self‐possession—keeping a positive frame of mind. Attentiveness—being fully present to what’s happening now. Concentration—staying focused on the task at hand. Insight—awareness of impact on self and others.

Let’s see how Ofelia measures up. First is self‐confidence. This is the inner strength required to trust oneself and not to give in to outside forces. In contrast to Carmen’s compromise in marrying Vidal, Ofelia stands up for herself and doesn’t waffle when the pressure’s on. She also retains a positive frame of mind (2) and is self‐possessed. This is the inner dignity and self respect needed to proceed in the face of others’ doubts. Ofelia may have whispered warnings to her brother (as a fetus), but she didn’t give up. As for attentiveness (3) and concentration (4), Ofelia gets high marks here as well. She doesn’t mope around for the past they left behind, nor does she fantasize about what life will be like when she’s grown up. She may go in and out of the mythic realm, but she doesn’t leave her present. Rather, the mythic realm empowers her to face that present and conquer it. That’s where the concentration comes in. When she’s ready to take on the final task (bring baby to the labyrinth), she goes into Vidal’s chambers, fetches the baby and runs to the labyrinth. Here’s where insight comes in (5). Ofelia never loses sight of her goal. Sure it’d be great to rejoin the King and Queen—but not if it means shedding the blood of the baby. She puts his life before her own, knowing that what she does now will have lasting impact. Ofelia might have concluded that she didn’t have a chance against Vidal. He was bigger, meaner, and had assistants at his beck and call who were nearly as heartless as he. But she didn’t. She knew despair, yes, but she did not give up. She drew upon an inner strength and never doubted her own insights as to Captain Vidal’s true character. She had the self‐confidence to stick to her decisions, even those involving great risk. She kept a positive outlook, trusting that if she stayed on task she would meet the deadline (the full moon). She was most attentive, even though she was subjected to an increasing number of restrictions and indignities. And though she may have gotten her pretty green dress all muddy, she took great care of the Book of Crossroads that the Faun entrusted her with. As she makes her way Ofelia becomes stronger and more self‐assured. She suffers no illusions about the captain, who dropped all pretense of caring for her. When the time comes to seize the baby and run to safety, she doesn’t hesitate. And she never put her own life above her brother’s, even though that choice required the greatest of sacrifices.

1.4.indd 95

12/9/2011 6:38:33 PM


Seeing the Light

Short Takes: Die Hard When New York cop John McClane arrived in Los Angeles before Christmas to see his estranged wife and children, he had no idea that he’d end up stopping 12 terrorists. Led by a particularly unsavory fellow named Hans Gruber, they had taken over Nakatomi Plaza and were holding 30 hostages, one of which was John’s wife Holly Gennero. The movie’s popularity testifies to its being a classic of the genre. As far as action films go, Die Hard (1988) is hard to beat. While the terrorists use the 30th floor as their base, John hunkers down on the 33 rd floor, moving down to see what Hans has up his sleeve and then pulling back to keep hidden. Each time he ventures out to take on a terrorist or two is dicey enough, but gets complicated by what’s happening with those outside the building. There we find a sympathetic “buddy” cop, Sergeant Al Powell, and an unsympathetic supervisor from the LAPD, and a host of police trying unsuccessfully to stop the terrorists. Things get messier when the FBI arrives on the scene and takes over the operation. Basically, except for Al, the head honchos from the LAPD and the FBI are too full of themselves to take John seriously. The end result is that they are out there, he’s inside, and they’re no help. He’s on his own to stop Hans and his well‐armed crew. It’s a crafty cat and mouse game, with John the cat, with limited resources other than his own cleverness, and Hans and his band of terrorists the well‐ armed mice. The determination to stop them from accomplishing their goals and harming the hostages is like liquid nitrogen flowing through John’s veins. The fact his wife is among the hostages is not incidental, but it’s obvious that John would not have changed anything if she’d not been one of the captives. Meanwhile, police buddy Al isn’t about to leave and offers ongoing support via his walkie‐talkie. Just as the Lone Ranger had Tonto, and Batman had Robin, John McClane has Al Powell. Al offers support and values clarification. He is an important figure, as John shows when he’s not sure he’s going to make it out alive. He calls Al and asks for a favor. Will Al find his wife Holly and tell her something? JOHN:

Tell her it took me awhile to figure out what a jerk I’d been.But, that when things started to pan out for her I should have been more supportive and I should have been behind her more. Oh, shit, man. Tell her that, that she’s the best thing that ever happened to a bum like me. She’s heard me say, “I love you” a thousand times. She never heard me say, “I’m sorry.” I want you to tell her that. Tell her John said that he was sorry.

This scene helps us see this much: Developing one’s inner strength and being courageous need not be at the cost of emotions or showing that we care. Becoming hardened or heartless is not what courage is about. The Terminator’s

1.4.indd 96

12/9/2011 6:38:33 PM

1.4 Courage and Inner Strength 97 human flesh over metal endoskeleton is not the model here. Inner strength rests on vulnerability, on being willing to acknowledge our connection to others. John’s, “Oh shit, man” (= “Ah shucks”) before asking Al to tell Holly he was sorry, indicates this is new territory for him, almost an embarrassment, but not so much he can’t proceed and ask Al for help with Holly. John McClane’s journey in Die Hard is not about a show of courage in the face of a dozen terrorists with enough artillery to equip a small army. He easily drew upon his years of experience as a New York cop to think of their next move and how to throw them off their guard. That he could do this with impressive skill and his success in eliminating them one by one shows he could outwit even highly skilled criminals. His test was to find that part of himself that could let others in, let others see him as a person and not just as a cop. That was his labyrinth. That he found the way into this territory makes his story all the more compelling.

Outtakes: Dirty Pretty Things Okwe is one of the many illegal immigrants working at a London hotel in Dirty Pretty Things (2002). He juggles two jobs, one at the hotel front desk and the other as a taxi driver. To save money, he sleeps on a couch in tiny flat rented by Senay, a beautiful young Turkish woman who works days at a sweatshop and nights at the hotel. Given their illegal status, they are both ripe for exploitation, which is what we find. The hotel is not your typical B&B—it’s is a site for drugs and prostitution, and worse. One day Okwe is advised to check out a problem in one of the rooms. As he sticks his hand in to fish out what has jammed up the toilet, out comes a heart, a human heart. What in the world is this? That question rattles Okwe’s brain. He’s about to call the police when hotel manager Señor Juan (alias “Sneaky”) stops him in his tracks. If he calls the police, Sneaky will hand in Okwe and he’d be deported to Nigeria, where a worse fate would await him. Okwe is caught in Sneaky’s net. Thus begins his journey into a corrupt underworld, the black market in human organs. The buyers are wealthy people with an intermediary who comes to Señor Juan to pick up an organ. The sellers (“donors”) are illegal immigrants. They receive falsified documents (passports) in exchange for having a kidney removed in one of the hotel rooms. The more Okwe learns, the more appalled he gets. Being a man of integrity as well as a doctor in his native land, Okwe can hardly stand by and not try to help the ones whose organs have been harvested. He is also trying to figure out what he can do to stop Sneaky from his profit‐ making organ business. Whether the appropriate response is an “eye for an eye” brings up key issues for discussion. The movie is most timely, given the global traffic in organs. Not only does it exploit the vulnerable, it can result in physical problems and social stigmatization.

1.4.indd 97

12/9/2011 6:38:33 PM


Seeing the Light

Nancy Scheper‐Hughes (1998) has interviewed kidney sellers around the world. A 27‐year old man who sold a kidney in Moldova compared it to being a prostitute and then added, “Actually, we are worse than prostitutes because we have sold something we can never get back.” Okwe saw that; which is why he wanted so badly to protect Senay from Señor Juan ’s willingness to butcher her to make money at her expense.

Outtakes: Thunderheart Ray Levoi, biracial (“mixed blood”—Sioux father) FBI agent, Walter Crow Horse, reservation cop, and Maggie Eagle Bear (Sioux school teacher) form an unusual alliance in Thunderheart (1992). Set on the Sioux reservation (similar to Pine Ridge), Levoi is asked to work with seasoned agent, Frank Coutelle, solely because of his ethnicity. The idea is that things would go smoother if Coutelle had help with “one of their own.” The goal is to stifle the members of “ARM,” the Indian resistance movement (a play on “AIM,” American Indian Movement, co‐founded by John Trudell and Dennis Banks). As it turns out Coutelle is dirty. He’s in cahoots with Jack Milton and his vicious gang of goons who want control over the reservation so they can profit from the minerals there. Ray doesn’t figure this out until the second half of the movie, but things seem fishy right from the start, so he’s not surprised to discover that Coutelle can’t be trusted. The trouble is that Ray is socially inept, defensive, and confused about the feelings that keep surfacing as his connection with his Sioux heritage starts to take root. Ray isn’t too swift in his dealings with the Indians he comes into contact with. He is frequently a butt of their jokes for his ongoing denial that he is not just another white guy. We watch him become more spiritually and politically aware. His allegiance to his boss and employer then begins to disintegrate. Once he sees the corruption, exploitation, and abuse of the tribal members, something snaps. And when those trying to exert their control over the reservation start beating up and killing those who get in their way, Ray realizes that he’s been supporting the wrong team. Meanwhile, his growing personal power impresses Crow Horse, the tribal cop, and Grandpa Sam Reaches, the tribal chief. Ray is pressured to toe the party line with Coutelle and his sidekicks. When it goes from verbal pressure to threats, Ray realizes how dangerous things have become. After Maggie is killed, Ray finds the strength, courage, and resolve to join Walter in standing up— literally taking a stand—against Coutelle and Milton. We watch Ray undergo a transformation from a racist, insecure and defensive FBI agent who is uncomfortable with everyone, including himself, to a man who realizes that some things are worth standing up for—or against. Ray had to find that which was good in himself before he could really

1.4.indd 98

12/9/2011 6:38:33 PM

1.4 Courage and Inner Strength 99 appreciate anyone else. Moreover, seeing others fighting injustice, even at personal risk, jolted Ray into reassessing his own life.

Works Cited Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. (accessed August 12, 2011). Awards Daily. “Pan’s Labyrinth: A Story that Needed Guillermo Del Toro.” http://‐labyrinth‐a‐story‐that‐needed‐guillermo‐del‐toro/ (accessed August 12, 2011). Boal, Mark (2009) The Hurt Locker: The Shooting Script. New York: Newmarket Press. Capone (2006) “Capone Chats with Guillermo del Toro.” Ain’t it Cool News, December 27, 2006. (accessed August 12, 2011). Eberl, Jason T. (2009) “What’s So Bad About Being Terminated?” In Richard Brown and Kevin S. Decker, eds. Terminator and Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell. Hanh, Thich Nhat (2007) The Art of Power. New York: Harper One Publishing. Mosaic Movie Connect Group (2009) “Top Gun: Arrogance, Recklessness, and Rules.” Faith & Film, August 6, 2009. 2009/08/top‐gun‐arrogance‐receklessness‐and.html (accessed August 12, 2011). Rubarth, Scott (2009) “Stoic Philosophy of Mind.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, July 28, 2009. (accessed August 12, 2011). Rushing, Janice Hocker and Frentz, Thomas S. (1995) Projecting the Shadow: The Cyborg Hero in American Film. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Scheper‐Hughes, Nancy (2003) “Keeping an Eye on the Global Traffic in Human Organs.” The Lancet, Vol. 361, 10 May 2003, 1645–48. Sherman, Nancy (2010) The Untold Story: Inside The Hearts, Minds, and Souls of Our Soldiers. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Online Resources BBC (2004) “In Our Time: Heroism.” Radio 4, May 6, 2004. Host Melvyn Bragg and guests Angie Hobbs, Anthony Grayling, and Paul Cartledge discuss what defines a hero and the role they had in classical Greek society. programmes/p004y282 (accessed August 12, 2011). Burgoyne, Robert (2010) “The Hurt Locker: Abstraction and Embodiment in the War Film” (blog). University of Minnesota Press, March 17, 2010. http://www.‐locker‐abstraction‐and‐embodiment.html (accessed August 12, 2011). Eveleth, Lois M. (2006) “Heroism as Moral Paradox.” [email protected] Regina, October 1, 2006. staff_pub (accessed August 12, 2011). Haselager, William F.G. (2005) “Robotics, Philosophy and the Problems of Autonomy.” Pragmatics & Cognition 13:3. PragCogHaselager05.pdf (accessed August 12, 2011).

1.4.indd 99

12/9/2011 6:38:33 PM


Seeing the Light

In Character (2009) “Grit.” (accessed August 12, 2011). “Courage.” (accessed August 12, 2011). Marino, Gordon (2010) “Boxing Lessons.” The New York Times, September 15, 2010.‐lessons/ (accessed August 12, 2011). Philosophy Talk. “Ethics in Sport,” February 8, 2005: Ken Taylor, John Perry, and Myles Brand discuss the effect of ethics on sports. Included are related resources. (accessed August 12, 2011). Thomson, Iain (2005) “Deconstructing the Hero.” In Jeff McLaughlin, ed., Comics as Philosophy. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. ~ithomson/Hero.pdf (accessed August 12, 2011).

Discussion Questions 1. Aristotle asserts that courage is shown by the strength of moral character over time, and not in a single action. Looking at the movies here, what do you see? 2. Pan’s Labyrinth director Del Toro (2006) says, “For every character in the movie, there is a moment of choice. The movie is based on the crossroads, the labyrinth, right turns, left turns, choosing where you go.” Do you think this is true in general— that characters always have some “moment of choice”? Cite some examples from other films that do or don’t show this. 3. What makes a movie about heroism “a classic,” in terms of showcasing heroic qualities? 4. In what ways do movies offer a reflection of the utopian and/or dystopian elements of our society, our values and beliefs, and way of life? 5. Commenting on the mixed reactions to the last ten minutes of Pan’s Labyrinth’s ending, director del Toro says it reveals your belief system: “People say it’s all in her head or it’s all real.” What do you think? 6. How is individual empowerment portrayed on screen? Does it differ for males or females?

1.4.indd 100

12/9/2011 6:38:34 PM

Unit 2

Ethical Theory

Part II.indd 101

12/9/2011 6:44:03 PM

Part II.indd 102

12/9/2011 6:44:03 PM


Introduction to Unit 2


Freedom without a life is not freedom. A life without freedom is not a life. —The Sea Inside

Thanks to movies, we gain a greater appreciation of the ways morality can impact, even define, our lives. From villains to heroes, sidekicks to wise elders, the vulnerable to the powerful, we see how an idea, decision, or action can have an effect. Swallow the blue pill or the red one? Entire movies rest on such decisions. The moral journey calls us to consider the options, make decisions, and take or restrain from action. That we may need to justify our decisions comes with the territory and, so, it is imperative to give careful thought to what we do. Being held accountable for our words and actions is one aspect of our moral reasoning. Such reasoning is shaped by intentions, principles and values, past deeds, and the influence of others. Movies offer a compelling way to study ethics. The rewards are tangible. We  learn more about the different ethical theories, gain more insight into movies, and become more adept at applying those insights into our own ethical decision‐making. Movies function like case studies by presenting ethical dilemmas within specific and engaging contexts. They allow us to see different perspectives and gauge the wisdom of one choice or another. There is a richness that makes movies so useful in reflecting on the moral dimension of our lives. They bring concepts, ideas, and philosophical problems to light in a way Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

2.0.indd 103

12/9/2011 6:39:43 PM


Seeing the Light

unlike any other medium. They offer a window into human nature and help us gain a greater sense of purpose in our lives. The key tools we acquire from studying ethics are both conceptual and practical. The one path, the conceptual, is called Metaethics; the other, the pragmatic and experiential, is called Normative Ethics. In Metaethics, we look at ethical theory and such concepts as moral agency, rationality, intentions, goals, and consequences. Its focus is more abstract and detached. Our attention is on the frameworks, the models providing us with a set of concepts that give the theory meaning. In Normative Ethics, we look at ethical decision‐making on a case‐by‐case basis. Our goal is to determine the right thing to do, so we can assess the morality of group or individual behavior. The focus is more practical and personal. Here we jump into the stream of morality, weigh the options, and put our moral reasoning skills to work. In a nutshell: When comparing theoretical models and contrasting their principles, we are doing Metaethics. When applying an ethical theory to moral decisions and judgments, we are doing Normative Ethics. Both approaches are valuable.

Moral Agency Moral agency has to do with competence, responsibility and accountability. We should be capable of moral decision‐making so we can be held accountable for the actions we take. The two major factors of moral agency are free will (volition) and rationality (competence). To be held responsible for our actions and intentions, we must be free to decide and act, and not be under compulsion, coercion, or duress. Examples of those claiming to lack the volition to be a moral agent include: Robert Alton Harris (murderer, blamed it on prenatal abuse due to fetal alcohol syndrome), Lorena Bobbitt (chopped off husband’s penis, supposedly from an “irresistible impulse”), and Dan White (murderer of Harvey Milk, argued the “Twinkie defense”—an addiction to sugary junk food). Some also think the “battered women’s syndrome” shows a lack of free will, because of long‐term physical and mental abuse. The second aspect of moral agency is the rational component—knowledge of good and evil. To be held responsible for our actions and intentions, we must be able to tell right from wrong. This excludes children, juvenile offenders, the mentally impaired, and others with cognitive impediments. Age and mental capacity are usually weighed in when assessing accountability, which can be tricky. For instance, mentally‐impaired rapist/murderer Bobby Wayne Woods, with an IQ of around 70, was executed in Texas in December 2009. Was he sufficiently competent to be a moral agent? Secondly, 12‐year‐old

2.0.indd 104

12/9/2011 6:39:43 PM

2.0 Introduction to Unit 2 105 Lionel Tate beat and stomped to death a 6‐year old girl in 1999. He became the youngest person to receive a sentence of life in prison. An Appeals Court overturned his sentence in 2004, holding that Tate did not clearly understand the charges (questioning his competence). He pled guilty to a lesser charge and got 10 years’ probation. A host of moral questions arise around competence, so we always need to look at the particulars before assessing moral agency. There are many concerns we face as a society and in our individual lives. The nightly news reminds us of the breadth of the issue. In some cases (e.g., world hunger or tsunami relief efforts) moral dilemmas lead people to work together to address problems or make changes by pushing through laws or policies. We may then become politically or socially involved. Movies are an ideal vehicle for looking at the range of contemporary moral problems. What if someone asked to buy one of your kidneys? Would you sell one (assuming you have two in good working order)? What about getting pregnant to create a donor for your sick child? Should we allow “medical tourism,” when people go to other countries to buy organs or get cheaper healthcare? Such cases can be morally perplexing. This unit is made up of seven chapters, each presenting a specific theory that is applied to movies. Each one helps us put moral problems in a context, frame the questions, and arrive at answers. As you read through each model, consider the options and remember that no one theory may suit all needs. A person may be an Ethical Egoist with her own health care needs while a Utilitarian about organ sales, and have Rawls’ justice‐centered approach to employment practices. Becoming familiar with the major ethical theories not only strengthens our own moral reasoning, it gives us the tools to help others as well.

Applying the Theories We’ll start with a brief summary of each theory and then apply it to the winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film of 2004, The Sea Inside. This Spanish film tells the story of Ramon Sampedro, a poet who broke his neck in a diving accident as a young man. He ended up a quadriplegic in the care of his family. Their lives are intricately bound together. We enter Ramon’s story as he decides that his life is no longer worth living. Ramon is determined to end his life, to “die with dignity.” His family and priest are opposed, but he finds allies in two women who are drawn to him. It is a gripping story of life and death and an unflinching look at the moral dilemmas that arise. For Ramon, “The person who really loves me will be the one who helps me die.” Let’s start an overview of the different areas of ethics and how they help us with Ramon’s situation.

2.0.indd 105

12/9/2011 6:39:43 PM


Seeing the Light

Teleological Ethics Teleological Ethicists focus on the ends, the goals, rather than the means. They seek to maximize desired goods or benefits and minimize harms or disadvantages. The subject could be an individual, a group or culture, a community or society, as we will see. Teleological ethicists fall into different camps because of the shape that directive can take. We’ll look at three of them: Ethical Egoists, Cultural Relativists, and Utilitarians. Chapter 2.1: Ethical Egoism The Ethical Egoist seeks to maximize self‐interest. All ethical decision‐making is a quest for the greatest benefit or least harm for that individual. This theory is at the extreme end of the Consequentialist spectrum, because of its narrow focus. Ethical Egoists put consequences above intentions or moral obligations, with the goal of furthering their own interests. Everyone else’s interests recede and have little, if any, weight in moral reasoning—unless doing so would be advantageous!! Any attention to the welfare of others—any altruistic act—is on the chance that it will be of some benefit. Applying the model An Ethical Egoist would support Ramon’s decision to do what he thinks best to maximize his happiness and self‐interest. The question is whether assisted suicide would meet that goal. Would getting someone to help him die bring him the most good or happiness? On the one hand, his death would mean the end of opportunities; on the other hand, it would be a release from his mental anguish. Ramon insists that he’ll never get what he really wants without his mobility. Given he has not wavered in his request, an Ethical Egoist would likely say Ramon’s wishes should be honored. Chapter 2.2: Cultural Relativism Cultural Relativism is an ethical theory that foregrounds the values and interests of the culture, group, or organization which one is affiliated. This means there is no universal truth or absolute. What is right and good is relative to the group itself. That “group” could be a culture, an ethnic or religious group, a subculture, a bunch of activists or political allies, and so on. With Cultural Relativism the group’s interests are to be maximized, even if the individual is at the losing end of that value system. In other words, the group’s best interests may entail a disadvantage to the individual members— even personal sacrifices. Classical cultural relativists hold, notes C.E. Harris Jr., that moral attitudes and beliefs vary across cultures and in the same culture over time (premarital sex, animal rights, etc.). In contrast, some ethical relativists believe in cross-cultural universals; that different cultures may agree that certain acts are wrong (incest,

2.0.indd 106

12/9/2011 6:39:43 PM

2.0 Introduction to Unit 2 107 cannibalism, etc.) and yet disagree about other acts being right or wrong (adultery, the death penalty, etc.). Obviously, those folks are not hard‐core relativists, but are nonetheless Cultural Relativists in their general worldview. Applying the model Ramon Sampedro is at least nominally Catholic, insofar as the local priest goes to the farmhouse to confront Ramon about his desire to end his life. He does not welcome the encounter and does not show any strongly held religious views. Nevertheless, his family members and to some degree Ramon himself are linked to their religious faith. The problem for Ramon is that the Catholic Church has strong views about euthanasia. These are counter to his wishes. Since he is conscious and capable of some quality of life, there would be a strong prohibition against assisted suicide in Ramon’s case. More likely, they would recommend he see that his life is in God’s hands and its end should rest there, rather than at the discretion of Ramon or his companions. Chapter 2.3: Utilitarianism Utilitarianism is an ethical system that seeks to maximize good for the greatest number of people. The emphasis, then, is on what serves the majority over the individual. The focus is on the consequences, not the intention or moral principle behind the act. The Utilitarian seeks to put society’s interests above individual interests. One method is to do a cost–benefit assessment and then select the option with the highest ratio of costs over benefits, measured in terms of consequences. The means to the end are not as significant as the ends. Arriving at decisions must take that into account. This model may take several forms. Act Utilitarianism Choose that act that will result in the best or least harmful consequences for the greatest number directly affected by the specific act in question. In this case, the focus is maximizing good or happiness for the greatest number in that particular case. In other words, the cost–benefit assessment of the particular case will determine the decision. The decision is not then viewed as a precedent. Applying the model An Act Utilitarian would permit Ramon to end to his life. He has no wife and no dependents. Although his immediate family opposes his decision to end his life, the cost considerations outweigh the benefits of forcing him to stay alive against his will. If he no longer wants to live, he could make everyone around him miserable. As his brother indicated, he and the rest of the family have made sacrifices in order to care for Ramon. We can see that Ramon has been a burden, even though it is clear that Ramon is a central figure in the family. Given all the particulars of this case, the decision to allow his death is permissible from an Act Utilitarian perspective.

2.0.indd 107

12/9/2011 6:39:43 PM


Seeing the Light

Rule Utilitarianism Choose that act that will result in best or least harmful consequences for the greatest number, thinking in terms of everyone’s acting in accord with particular moral rules (vs. individuals so acting, as in Act Utilitarianism). Here we are trying to maximize good or happiness, seeing this particular case as a precedent, thus generalizing to all such similar cases. The three most famous Utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and G. E. Moore, all recommended we follow a Principle of Utility. Act so as to maximize ________ and minimize _________ for the greatest number of people. For Bentham, maximize pleasure/minimize pain; for Mill, maximize happiness/minimize unhappiness (in terms of social benefits); and for Moore, maximize good/minimize evil. They did not seek to make the benefit universal, but aimed for the most for the most. Maximize the good for the majority. Applying the model A Rule Utilitarian would be concerned about the wisdom of making voluntary active euthanasia a precedent. Should we allow competent quadriplegics like Ramon to be able to have their lives terminated? So long as the individual in question has no overriding productive value to the society (say if Ramon was a great scientist on the verge of an important discovery), the society is not going to lose much by the person’s death. It certainly should not be expected to pay costs to sustain his life without some significant societal gain. We would need to show that there are no overriding family or societal factors to consider when weighing the costs versus the benefits. In the case of Ramon, it is questionable if his artistic gifts outweigh the burden on his family and on the society, particularly when he insists his life has no meaning. A Rule Utilitarian would likely endorse Ramon’s having the right to withdraw medical treatment— including food and water—and, thus, be allowed to die.

Deontological Ethics Whereas Teleological Ethics puts the emphasis on ends or goals, Deontological Ethics emphasizes duties or intentions. Moral obligations should be our guide— not desired consequences. It approaches ethical decision‐making in terms of a moral code or sense of duty to oneself and to others. The intentions informing that act are fundamentally important. As a result, the focus moves toward individual rights, rather than societal benefits. Chapter 2.4: Kantian Ethics Immanuel Kant is the most famous Deontological ethicist. He identifies human dignity with the capacity for rationality. This would exclude minors/children and incompetent or mentally disabled adults. His theory centers on two principles. They are called imperatives because they are moral commands and are thought to apply to all rational adults (= moral agents). For that reason, they are categorical imperatives. They do not admit of

2.0.indd 108

12/9/2011 6:39:44 PM

2.0 Introduction to Unit 2 109 exceptions; thus aren’t meant to be hypothetical commands. Think universal and unconditional. Kant prescribes both principles for all moral agents. 1.

The Categorical Imperative: Act in such a way that you would will it to become a universal law. We should universalize our ethical decision‐making by asking ourselves, “What if everyone did this?” If everyone so acting would be morally unacceptable, then that act should be prohibited. And note the target is everyone—not just the majority. 2. The Humanitarian Principle (aka Second Formulation of the Categorical Imperative): Never treat people merely as a means, but always as an end in themselves. We should treat others with dignity and respect, and not use them merely as a means to an end. Ethicist Lewis Vaughn points out that, “It tells us that we should do something in all situations, regardless of our wants and needs” (2010, p. 101). And without exception. Universalize all ethical decision-making. Philosopher Hilary Putnam (1983) interprets Kant in terms of agreement. When thinking of making a maxim into a universal law, think of the action in question as “one to which others can be imagined as consenting.” As a result, “What is bad about lying is that it violates the fundamental premise of a society based on mutual consent.” It treats others in a way they wouldn’t conceivably consent to be treated (p. 194). For Kant moral agents (rational adults) have equal moral status. No one is “worth” more than another. So you can’t choose to use someone merely as a means and think that’s morally permissible. If we show them respect and treat them with dignity, we won’t break Kant’s Humanitarian Principle. Applying the model A Kantian would likely deny Ramon’s request. Given that the Humanitarian Principle asserts the inherent individual dignity of every person, it would be wrong to help terminate Ramon’s life. That would treat Ramon as a means to an end—that of lightening the burden his care places upon his family. Individual dignity trumps all other considerations. We ought to try to change Ramon’s state of mind. Moreover, to allow euthanasia of the disabled to become a universal law would make Kant roll over in his grave! Chapter 2.5: Rawls’ Justice Theory John Rawls is a Kantian who focuses on justice and social institutions. He seeks to address injustice and prejudice by setting out guidelines that minimize personal biases in order to level the playing field. As with Kant, his emphasis is on moral obligation. The difference here is that Rawls shifts the focus to social justice (see his A Theory of Justice, 1971).

2.0.indd 109

12/9/2011 6:39:44 PM


Seeing the Light

Rawls thought that we should set aside our individual attachments and identifications. We could then arrive at a social contract that would diminish or even eliminate prejudice and other forms of injustice. Rawls’ three principles are: 1.

The Principle of Equal Liberty: Each person should have an equal right to the most extensive system of basic liberties compatible with a similar liberty for others (p. 53). The goal here is an equal system of liberty—unless a specific inequality would result in greater advantages for all. 2. The Principle of Equality of Fair Opportunity: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all (p. 53). The goal here is having offices and positions open to all under conditions of equality. 3. The Difference Principle: Social and economic institutions are to be arranged to maximally benefit the worst off. The goal here is to help those with undeserved inequalities, such as less favorable social positions. Rawls seeks to “redress the bias of contingencies” in the direction of equality (p. 86). Applying the model Rawls would agree with Kant that Ramon Sampedro should be treated with dignity and his life seen as having inherent value. Rather than aiding him in an assisted suicide, we should see if we could help him find meaning in his life. Ideally, Ramon should see that his life is of value in itself; not because he can be of some use or has a name for himself as a poet. Right now his life centers on a few people, his immediate family. Even though he is a poet, his is a solitary life, and one in which his desire for death becomes a driving compulsion. Furthermore, having access to the most basic system of liberties requires that a person be alive. Dead people have no liberties, and can exercise no rights. He may seek death, but does he know what he seeks? Is this “informed consent”? Ramon needs help in living, not help in dying. By Rawls’ ethics, we should not abandon him. Rather, we should do all we can to see that Ramon and all other persons with disabilities have institutional structures in place to address their needs, including those that relate to his despair and sense that his life is without meaning.

Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics Aristotle takes a different approach from either Utilitarians or Deontological ethicists like Kant. He looks at the person (the moral agent) and what it takes to

2.0.indd 110

12/9/2011 6:39:44 PM

2.0 Introduction to Unit 2 111 achieve a life of excellence in terms of moral character. The focus is not on consequences or on moral obligations per se. Rather, it is on finding purpose in our lives and that, Aristotle believes, comes from developing virtues and avoiding or minimizing vices. Some see his Virtue Theory as a form of Teleological Ethics, but his focus on moral character is significant enough for us to see the theory as distinct. I take that route. Aristotle’s approach offers us a new set of tools for studying movies. He takes moral reasoning into living a meaningful life. Putnam (1983) notes that, “Aristotle is centrally concerned with connection between happiness and character and with the vicissitudes that can shape character” (p. 197). These virtues or character traits are the key to the good life, he contends. Aristotle divides character traits into two categories—intellectual virtues and moral virtues. Both help us develop a sense of purpose and meaning. Aristotle’s five intellectual virtues are: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

artistic knowledge and creativity; analytical and logical knowledge (about universal and necessary things); practical wisdom (about what we ought to do); philosophical wisdom (about ultimate things/the cosmos); understanding and comprehension (enabling us to make judgments).

More attention has been given to Aristotle’s moral virtues, probably due to their role in developing moral character. A meaningful life, according to Aristotle, is one that results in eudaimonia (= contentment, well‐being, flourishing, serenity). To achieve such contentment and well‐being, Aristotle prescribes a life of moderation. Think of it like healthy eating—neither anorexia nor binging is the route to good health. Aim for the mean and avoid the extremes. Not too little, not too much. Try to balance moral and intellectual virtues. In so doing, we may not be perfect, but we’ll be on our way to excellence of character. This is the way to virtue and a fulfilling life. Of course, there may be times when being angry, even violent, is the right response, as when someone has committed an injustice, done something despicable, or harmed another. Generally, however, Aristotle recommends the middle path. Many character dispositions or moral traits fall along a spectrum of deficient → mean → excessive. In such cases Aristotle would suggest we seek the mean, as we see in Table  2.1—amended from the list set out in J. A. K. Thomson’s translation of Nicomachean Ethics (Aristotle, 2004, pp. 285–86). Chapter 2.6: Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics Think of a desirable moral quality. Now think of its two extremes, one with the quality in short supply and the other with it in excess. Neither extreme would ordinarily help cultivate moral character. If you lose control and go off the deep end, you’ll have some mopping up to do.

2.0.indd 111

12/9/2011 6:39:44 PM


Seeing the Light

Table 2.1 Aristotle’s Moral Virtues. Focus Fears vs. confidence Pleasures vs. pain Getting vs. spending (minor) Getting vs. spending (major) Greatness of soul: honor vs. dishonor (minor) Greatness of soul: honor vs. dishonor (major) Anger Self expression Conversation Social conduct Shame (quasi-virtue) Indignation

Too little: Moral deficiency

Moral virtue: The mean state

Too much: Moral excess

Cowardly Unfeeling Stingy

Courage Self control Generosity

Reckless (rash) Self indulgent Wasteful


Stately (Noble)


Self deprecating

Pride (Ambition)

Self promoting




Callous (Cold fish) Apathetic Humorless Surly (“Chip on shoulder”) Shameless Malicious

Even tempered Truthful Witty Good-natured

Hot‐headed Boastful Buffoon Fawning (“Leech”) Shy (bashful) Envious

Modest Righteous indignation

Applying the model Aristotle would look at Ramon Sampedro and applaud his talents as a poet. He would appreciate that he is witty, and able to speak up for himself. For example, he is clear with his family and his few visitors what he would like to happen, and why. Similarly, Ramon has no trouble articulating his stand when the priest arrives to convince (= coerce) Ramon to the Catholic view that suicide is morally unacceptable. From the priest’s perspective, Ramon should make the best of it and quit complaining. Ramon’s indignation at the priest’s failure to really listen to what he had to say would likely impress Aristotle. He would conclude that Ramon is neither pretentious nor self‐deprecating. However, Ramon’s desire to end his life may be morally problematic. Aristotle states that to seek death in order to escape from poverty, or the pangs of love, or from pain or sorrow, is not the act of a courageous man, but rather of a coward. “It is weakness to fly from troubles, and the suicide does not endure death because it is noble to do so, but to escape evil,” says Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, 116a, 13–17). He would not likely see any nobility in Ramon’s wanting to die. For Aristotle, suicide is an act of injustice because it is the voluntary infliction of bodily harm not in retaliation and therefore contrary to the law, as Joanna Patsioti notes (1998).

2.0.indd 112

12/9/2011 6:39:44 PM

2.0 Introduction to Unit 2 113 Aristotle sees life as a fundamental good. The person who possesses virtue and happiness will “lose the greatest goods” upon death. In Ramon’s case, however many virtues he possesses, he does not possess happiness. For him, life is no longer the greatest good. Aristotle would likely advise Ramon to try to refocus and see that happiness is within his reach. In any case, death is not the answer. Chapter 2.7: Feminist Ethics This ethical theory does not see duty or consequences as the central force of ethical decision‐making. Nor does it deal in universalities or abstractions. Instead, it sees ethics as something that happens in a social and political context. This means relationships should be in the foreground when assessing values, intentions, and actions. For Feminist ethicists, as bioethicist Rosemarie Tong points out, “All feminist approaches to ethics are filtered through the lens of gender” (1997, p. 37). As a result, we can’t ignore the way political structures and the relative moral status of individuals and groups impact ethical decision‐making. Feminist ethicists fall along a spectrum. Some are more care‐focused and seek to change the moral weight given to justice over care; others more power‐ focused in their approach to ethical dilemmas. The former looks more at relationships vs. rules; the latter attends more to patterns of subordination (sexism, classism, ethnocentricism, heterosexism, etc.). Feminist ethicists include Rosemarie Tong, Nel Noddings, Rita Manning, Mary Anne Warren, Alison Jaggar, and Carol Gilligan. Gilligan’s early work made it clear that an emphasis on principles such as justice was insufficient. Relationships need to be brought into the equation. Manning’s Two Elements to an Ethic of Care set out the priorities as follows: 1.

A disposition to care: Manning thinks humans are disposed to care about one another, rather than isolate themselves or their values from others. As a result, we are called to attend to others’ needs. In this regard, an ethic of care is contextual, and assumes caring is a goal, an ideal. And if we want to think in terms of obligations, we should see the act of caring for others as a central value. 2. The obligation to care for : Manning thinks caring‐for demands action, and not just intention. This means we should respond to the needs of others in some appropriate way. Feminist ethics can also be expanded to address the needs of communities. Of fundamental importance is the view that relationships need to be factored into moral reasoning. That means we need to pay attention to diverse perspectives, so that those historically at the margins are bought on to the playing field of ethics. They suggest we listen to the voices of both care and justice when confronted with ethical choices. Manning argues that even in a just world, human needs include more than needs for physical sustenance; thus the

2.0.indd 113

12/9/2011 6:39:44 PM


Seeing the Light

emphasis on caring for one another. And in being more open to diverse perspectives, to Gilligan’s “different voices,” those historically at the margins will be brought onto the playing field of ethics. In addition to the role of relationships, Feminist ethicists examine moral status and moral agency. Mary Anne Warren questions the notion that moral status rests on but one defining characteristic. For Kant, that is moral agency (being a rational person) and for Utilitarian Peter Singer, that is sentience. She thinks this will narrow the playing field, to the detriment of other qualities. Warren recommends that we add a few more principles: 1.

Moral agents have full and equal basic moral rights, including the rights to life and liberty. 2. Within the limits of their own capacities, human beings capable of sentience but not of moral agency have the same moral rights as do moral agents. 3. To the extent that it is feasible and morally permissible, moral agents give a fair hearing to others’ reasons for ascribing to certain entities either a stronger or weaker moral status than we think appropriate. Applying the model A Feminist ethicist looking at Ramon’s case would not think it obvious that his request should be granted. The fact that he has fewer opportunities helps explain his despair and doubts about his quality of life. Furthermore, the near‐solitude living upstairs in his family’s farmhouse has inherent limits, regardless of how many poems he writes. His desire to die seems more important than all the love surrounding him; it just isn’t enough for him. But does that mean his life is devoid of value and potential? Is death really the answer when things have tanked? Could boredom be behind his depression? Are there alternatives to suicide that might address his dissatisfaction with life? How does a caring person explore this and still honor Ramon’s autonomy? His suffering is more mental than physical, since his physical needs are pretty much met. Before endorsing the Dr. Death route, a caring ethicist would first want to exhaust other avenues. If we can address his needs, he may find his life has meaning. We should start there and hope to avoid more drastic measures. On the other hand, Ramon established his competence. He has a consistent value system and doesn’t waver in his request for assisted suicide. By Warren’s expanded notion, it would be hard to deny Ramon full moral status. If so, his right of self‐determination should be recognized. This would allow him to make decisions regarding his medical treatment, including the right to withdraw treatment. Ramon would, therefore, have the right to cease all medication, food, and hydration.

2.0.indd 114

12/9/2011 6:39:44 PM

2.0 Introduction to Unit 2 115 He could, thus, effectively starve himself to death and no one else would have to participate in his death (by terminating his life). However, Ramon has always had that option and has not pursued it. He wants at least one other person to help him die. It is questionable whether the right of self‐determination extends to the inclusion of others—for that that may violate their value system. For this reason, looking at the relational aspects come into play. Hopefully, this overview and application of theories has been helpful. Let us go now to the chapters, where these are all dealt with in much greater detail.

Works Cited Aristotle (2004) Nicomachean Ethics. Hugh Tredennick, editor, J. A. K. Thomson, translator. London: Penguin Classics. Aristotle, Poetics. The Internet Classics Archive, poetics.html (accessed August 16, 2011). Harris, C.E. Jr. (2007) Applying Moral Theory, Belmont, CA: Thomson-Wadsworth. Manning, Rita C. (1992) Speaking From the Heart. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. Patsioti, Joanna G. (1998) “Aristotelian Perspectives on Social Ethics.” The Paideia Project Online, (accessed August 16, 2011). Putnam, Hilary (1983) “Taking Rules Seriously—A Response to Martha Nussbaum.” New Literary History, Vol. 15, No. 1, Literature and/as Moral Philosophy, Autumn, 193–200. Rawls, John (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Tong, Rosemarie (1997) Feminist Approaches to Ethics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Vaughn, Lewis (2010) Doing Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues, 2nd edition. New York: W.W. Norton. Warren, Mary Anne (1997) Moral Status. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Online Resources Big Questions Online: (accessed August 16, 2011). In Character (2006) “Justice.” (accessed August 16, 2011). Gowan, Chris (2008) “Moral Relativism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http// (accessed October 24, 2011). The Paideia Project Online: Essays on theoretical ethics. MainTEth.htm (accessed August 16, 2011).

2.0.indd 115

12/9/2011 6:39:44 PM


Seeing the Light

Discussion Questions 1. What ethical theory most helps us understand The Sea Inside? 2. How do the various theories help us frame our own perceptions and moral decision‐ making? 3. How do the theories help us get a handle on moral conflicts? 4. As we see with Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside, religion doesn’t always provide the answers sought. But it does in The Unmistaken Child and Powwow Highway. How can movies give us insight into the intersection of religion and morality?

2.0.indd 116

12/9/2011 6:39:44 PM


Ethical Egoism

SPOTLIGHT: What About Bob?, The Proposal Short Takes: Clueless, The Social Network Outtakes: The Purple Rose of Cairo, Solitary Man, Ghost Town

Gimme, gimme, gimme, I need, I need… —What About Bob? MARGARET TATE: ANDREW PAXTON:

Why didn’t you tell me you’re some kind of Alaskan Kennedy? We were in the middle of talking about you… for the last three years. —The Proposal

Me, me, me, gimme, gimme, gimme. Ever wonder what it’d be like to be trapped in your own most needy, pathetic self—a prisoner of your own self‐centeredness? For most of us it’s a parallel universe that we enter, but do not dwell in for an extended period of time. For some people, however, it’s their daily reality. Remember that great comedy, What About Bob (1991)? It centers on the most endearing leech in the world and the pompous psychiatrist driven over the edge by Bob. The movie is a classic for its ability to deliver insight with levity, as  Ethical Egoism is explored in the portrayal of each character and the interchange between them. The way it plays out can teach us why Ethical Egoism is a dead‐end road. The film presents two studies in self‐involvement. On one hand we have the needy desperado who will do anything not to be alone with himself and his

Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

2.1.indd 117

12/9/2011 6:39:37 PM


Seeing the Light

problems. On the other hand there’s the uptight doctor who is wrapped up in his own success. They both traverse the spectrum of “me, me, me.” The one, the patient Bob, is oblivious to the fact that his psychiatrist couldn’t care less about him. Bob wants to make a life for himself, to find himself, to live in the world without fear. The reaction of others does not deter him; he will not be stopped. His psychiatrist, Dr. Leo Marvin, is also undeterred by the  response of others. In his case, it’s his bloated self‐image that others find  repugnant, with the exception of his adoring patient, Bob. For Bob, Dr. Marvin is a godsend. Dr. Marvin ‘s best selling pop psychology book Baby Steps is one of the two essential possessions in Bob’s life. The other is Gill the goldfish that he carries around in a plastic bag. Although Bob’s gratitude does not escape Leo’s attention, Bob is the last person he wants trailing him around. Ironically, it is Bob, not Leo Marvin, who helps others address their own weaknesses, fears and inner demons. The patient, not the doctor, is the agent of change. Where Dr. Marvin ‘s narcissism is unattractive; Bob’s is endearing. When his own family seems to prefer the company of his all‐too‐human patient, Leo Marvin is unwilling to figure out why that’s the case. He is amazingly unreflective. He offers advice to others, but is unwilling to look at himself. When he does, it is only out of self‐interest, not introspection. That alone is a marker for Ethical Egoism. We need a sense of direction, so we build for the future we would like to have. “What exactly am I doing with my life?” “Do I like what I see when I peer into my soul?” If we see our lives in terms of a moving train, many of us would hop off and wait at the station or leap to another car—any car. At times the urge is to change direction and try something different. Even if we think we’re doing just fine, a moral inventory is invaluable for getting a wider perspective. Dr. Marvin is resistant to such introspection. It is vital to look within. Am I honest with myself? Is there a gulf between how I see myself and how others see me? Do I live with integrity and treat others with the respect I’d like to receive? Am I unpretentious, humble? Do I take myself too seriously? Not seriously enough? Am I grounded—neither blown about by the winds of change nor conforming to the attitude du jour? How easy is it to throw me off balance? Am I receptive, open‐minded, flexible? Dr. Marvin wouldn’t score high on this exam. The very fact that he is pushed to the brink by a patient who can barely step outside shows how easily he’s displaced. In that regard, Ethical Egoism is fundamentally unstable. If we were to take an ethical X‐ray picture of ourselves, we’d like to find we are structurally sound. The image of the ethical jellyfish is not very attractive. Neither are those who think they know it all. You know the type: They think they are invulnerable, flawless. Such people do have spines, but they are brittle, unbending, and susceptible to being brought down with a well‐placed blow. Narcissists can do no wrong, because their way is the only way.

2.1.indd 118

12/9/2011 6:39:37 PM

2.1 Ethical Egoism 119 We see this with Dr. Marvin. Brittle to the breaking point, he is brought down by one persistent, clinging vine that just wouldn’t let go. For any Ethical Egoists in the audience, the movie may elicit more than a little self‐reflective laughter. Let’s see how this happens by getting an overview of the theory and then turning to our spotlight films and short takes.

The Ethical Framework: Ethical Egoism Of the different types of Consequentialist theories, Ethical Egoism is probably the most extreme. In contrast to those who would prioritize social benefits as the driving force in ethical decision‐making, Ethical Egoists put individual benefits at the center of their moral universe. Choosing what would bring the most good or least evil for the greatest number of people is not on their road map. Their worldview is much more narrow, shrunken. They would advise us to see our own interests as primary and choose that option that will bring the most benefit or least harm to us personally. Like other Consequentialists, they see moral reasoning in terms of end goals over intentions or means. But what stands out here is that the needs or interests of others are of moral significance only if addressing those needs results in some personal gain. The interests of others are irrelevant unless there’s a payoff for me. In other words, helping other people is conditional: I will help you if it is advantageous for me to do so. These are the guys who butter you up and make you feel special. Only later do you discover that they were using you to meet your sister or borrow your copy of Donnie Darko for the weekend. Ethical Egoists may or may not be psychological egoists. Psychological egoists think people always choose what is in their own best interests. It’s not a question of ought, it’s a question of is. They consider it human nature for people to put themselves first. This is the way the world is and they are just describing what they see. Ethical egoists do not necessarily agree with this position. Their focus is on moral guidelines—Normative Ethics—and not descriptive claims about human nature. It doesn’t matter if humans are innately self‐centered. What matters is how moral principle guides decision‐making. For Ethical Egoists the motto should be “Me before thee,” where my goal is to maximize my own gains. I should seek the best overall consequences for myself, even if others might be disadvantaged or harmed. Of course, if your suffering causes me pain or sorrow, it’s not in my best interests to allow it. Similarly, if cruelty to or neglect of animals causes me distress, I might then favor some degree of animal rights. Ethical Egoists wouldn’t normally support random or unnecessary harm to others, humans or animals. That Dr. Marvin became increasingly murderous toward Bob Riley was indicative of his mental instability as much as his egotistical ways.

2.1.indd 119

12/9/2011 6:39:37 PM


Seeing the Light

Ethical Egoists are not tied up in subjectivist knots. They don’t think emotions should rule. In their view, we ought to rationally calculate the best overall net benefits. Examine the evidence, weigh the pros and cons, and then decide. It’s not a matter of what feels good or what our gut instinct tells us to do; it’s what we arrive at after assessing the options. Philosopher Lewis Vaughn asserts that this view underlies the economic system of capitalism (2010, p. 77). Capitalists argue that economic self‐interest will result in a better, more prosperous society and, thus, capitalists who extol the virtues of competition are right in line with this branch of ethics. However, those who would follow the dictates of self‐interest tend to favor short‐term gains over long‐term risks. Therefore, as we will see in this chapter, even the most ardent Ethical Egoist walks in a field lined with booby traps. Ethicist Lawrence M. Hinman points out three types of Ethical Egoism: (1)  Personal Egoism (the more common form), (2) Individual Egoism, and (3) Universal Egoism. The first can be categorized as, “I am going to act in my own self‐interest and everything else is irrelevant.” The second is more global, “Everyone ought to act in my self‐interest;” thus positing the value of my self interest as one that all should subscribe to. The last generalizes the first as a value each person should hold: “Everyone ought to act in his or her self‐interest” (1994, p. 137). If Universal Egoism were the order of the day, we’d be battling one another at every turn. On the other hand, in competitions (such as spelling bees, professional and amateur sports, chess matches, and academic decathlons), we not only expect others to be looking out for their own interests, we want that in order to consider the competition fair and worthy undertaking. In other words, a “win” means little if the parties involved aren’t giving it their best. Jesse Kalin points out the importance of Universal Egoism as an underlying value in competitive games (Hinman, p. 138). Few would contest that, even if we think such an ethical theory to be short sighted if applied to other arenas, such as capitalism and the economy. One pothole along the road of Ethical Egoism is the viability of this theory. If  there are only a few Ethical Egoists running around, it might not be so problematic. But if they are a significant minority (much less a greater number), then resolving conflicts may require brute force. Think of it this way: Suppose three people, Martha, Ned, and Omar all disagree about the best way to resolve a particular moral dilemma. Each one of them argues for what would most benefit them individually with no one showing the slightest interest in the impact on others. Unless there is some kind of “pecking order” to indicate whose interests should prevail, things might get pretty bloody in the battle that ensues. Ethical Egoists would think it rational and proper to do what is required for their own survival and well‐being. Think it through carefully and choose the option with the best overall consequences. The balance tends to shift toward short‐term gains, with more focus placed on the future than the present.

2.1.indd 120

12/9/2011 6:39:38 PM

2.1 Ethical Egoism 121 Objectives and end results carry more weight than obligations or intentions. Their modus operandi is to first weigh the potential risks and benefits and choose that act that results in the most favorable consequences for the one making the decision. Douglas Birsch (2002) notes three arguments in favor of Ethical Egoism. They are: 1.

the theory fits people’s natural inclinations to promote their own interests and maximize their benefits; 2. the theory respects the individual, and every individual has an equal right to pursue his/her benefit and not be devalued or obligated to serve others; 3. the theory gives good and bad a clear content (i.e., good = benefits and bad = harms to the individual) (pp. 50–51). For some, these arguments may be convincing. However, none of the claims are self‐evidently true or uncontroversial. They all stand on shaky ground. One contrast with Ethical Egoism is altruism. The altruistic person sees helping others as inherently worthwhile, even if it doesn’t directly benefit them to do so. Sure, I miss my lunch meeting if I stop to help the bicyclist who crashed into a palm tree, but it is the right thing to do—particularly if I’m the only one around. What About Bob?, The Proposal, and Clueless present us with altruistic acts on the part of some of the characters, but there are many more examples of Ethical Egoism. The movies show us with insight and humor how the theory has many shortcomings and few virtues. Let’s see how by turning first to What About Bob?

SPOTLIGHT: What About Bob? When we first meet Bob Riley, he can barely function beyond the confines of his apartment. The world is a terrifying place. Fearful of stepping outside his door, he recites a mantra to himself while massaging his head: “I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful, I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful, I feel …” He’s a solitary man from all appearances; his only company is his pet goldfish. This fact underscores his neediness. With a “Wish me luck Gil,” Bob heads out the door. His previous psychiatrist, Dr. Cantwell, was driven to the brink by Bob and, thus, eagerly passed him off to Dr. Leo Marvin. Having just published Baby Steps, Dr. Marvin is positively brimming with glee. His self‐absorption blocks any suspicion that he is about to meet his match. He is sucked in by his colleague’s comment that the patient “just needs someone brilliant” and, laying it on thick, he tells Leo that he’s destined for a Nobel Prize. And so it is that Bob enters his life.

2.1.indd 121

12/9/2011 6:39:38 PM


Seeing the Light

Bob is a mess. He’s so afraid of death and disease that he tries to avert them by faking cardiac arrests and Tourette’s syndrome (hollering out swearwords at the top of his lungs). Dr. Marvin is unimpressed. When he asks Bob about his marriage, Bob replies that there are two types of people, those who like the singer Neil Diamond and those who don’t. His wife does, he doesn’t. Concluding that Bob’s wife left him, not he her, Leo gives Bob a copy of his book and says he’ll be taking a month’s vacation. And, no, he won’t say where. Desperate that his psychiatrist will be unreachable, Bob is fixated on finding out the vacation spot. By faking suicide, he gets the address from the unwitting Betty at Leo’s phone service. Bob’s neediness knows no bounds—he takes off to Lake Winnipesaukee in search of Dr Marvin. The fact he is unwanted is irrelevant. As far as he’s concerned, Leo is the answer to his prayers. Bob is an Ethical Egoist in embryonic form. Unable to function independently, he lets no social formalities stand in his way. He will suffer all sorts of indignities, including outright rejection, to achieve his goal. His mantra may be “I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful,” but his reality is “Gimme, gimme, gimme, I need, I need.” He gloms onto Dr. Marvin as soon as he spots him at Lake Winnipesaukee. Leo, however, wants nothing to do with Bob and resents the intrusion. Not even Bob’s “suicide” threats carry weight with Leo. His callousness toward Bob is all too apparent. We see this when Betty phones in the middle of the night, concerned about Bob’s suicidal claims. Leo’s wife Faye says sympathetically, “How horrible.” In contrast, Leo could care less. “Oh well, let’s not let it spoil our vacation.” One scene testifying to Leo’s egoism focuses on his 15 minutes of fame. Thanks to his best‐seller, he is going to be interviewed for the TV show, Good Morning America. This is clearly a very big deal and a cause for celebration by his family and by Bob, who has become Leo’s “human Krazy Glue.” Find Dr. Marvin and Bob won’t be far away! But Leo’s not about to let Bob get in the way of his success. Leo’s anxiety level ratchets up to the max as he strikes one pose after the other getting ready for the big moment. Like Estelle in Sartre’s play No Exit, Leo wants to control how others see him. His sense of perspective shrinks as his self‐involvement swells. He fails to see that we can’t freeze‐frame our life or manipulate others’ perceptions. The Ethical Egoist may try to direct other people’s gaze toward them, but cannot control what they see. This inherent limitation usually escapes the egoist’s attention. This may cause us to ask if Ethical Egoists are cold‐hearted and ruthless. The answer is no, not necessarily. Putting your own interests first doesn’t mean others don’t matter—they just don’t matter enough to knock the ego off its pedestal. Lack of compassion is not necessarily an attribute of an Ethical Egoist. It is in Leo’s case, but not in Bob’s. Bob may have his self‐interests driving his actions, but that doesn’t stop him from taking pleasure in others. Writer Ayn Rand is a well‐known proponent of Ethical Egoism. In her view, “First, properly defined, selfishness rejects the sacrificial ethics of the West’s

2.1.indd 122

12/9/2011 6:39:38 PM

2.1 Ethical Egoism 123 Judaic‐Christian heritage on the grounds that it is right for man to live his own life; and… second, selfishness is a proper virtue to pursue” (Moseley, 2005). There are two points she’s making here, as Moseley notes: The first point is that the Judeo‐Christian emphasis on personal sacrifice over selfish interests should be tossed out. This is because it’s morally preferable to live as we see fit than to sacrifice our interests for those of others. Rand contends that this preference has the force of a “right.” This leads to the second point, that this morally grounded right establishes selfishness as a “proper virtue.” Let us think about this. Does it mean anything goes? If selfishness trumps sacrifice, is the sky the limit? Well, apparently not. Not all selfish behavior is morally permissible, Moseley observes. That which gets the stamp of approval requires a rational component. Rand rejects irrational selfishness, asserting, “the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self‐interest.” For Rand it’s irrational not to pursue one’s own interests (Moseley, 2005). By this view it is understandable why both Bob and Leo are pursuing their own interests, even if it may cause problems for others. As philosopher Douglas Birsch notes, Ethical Egoists don’t have to see others as moral equals. They may be partial to some, such as family and friends. However, a pure egoist would only give those people special treatment if it were advantageous to do so. Bob, for example, benefits from his connection to the Marvins. Ingratiating himself to them is certainly in his own self‐interest and his life is better because of them. On the other hand, Dr. Marvin is more arrogant and self‐centered than Bob. For him, Bob is expendable. In contrast, Bob sees Dr. Marvin as his savior and his ticket out of his own neurotic self. He isn’t going to let any reluctance on the doctor’s part get in the way. Bob is the monkey Dr. Marvin simply cannot get off his back. As far as he’s concerned, Bob is a parasite, a leech, a giant bloodsucker. Once they are both at Lake Winnipesaukee it’s a battle of wits, with Bob outwitting Leo every time. From all appearances, there’s no contest. As Leo exclaims, “He’s not gone, that’s the whole point. He’s never gone.” And, given Leo’s knack for alienating others, Bob has many helpers. The Gutmans, outbid by Dr. Marvin on the house of their dreams, are willing accomplices. Leo’s own wife and children are charmed by Bob and readily accept him. They become his allies. However needy or egotistical he may be, Bob’s very vulnerability makes him approachable and likable, as we see when he is “forced” to spend the night at their house because of a rainstorm. In comparison to Bob, everyone else seems stronger. One consequence is that Bob helps liberate the Marvins’ teenage daughter Anna and son Ziggy. Ziggy is scared of diving, scared of death, and scared of life. He tells his father that he may be “mourning for [his] lost childhood” and answers the question, “Why won’t you dive?” with “With all the horror that’s going on in the world, what difference does it make?” Ziggy reaches out to Bob and lets Bob into his fragile world. Gradually that world is transformed.

2.1.indd 123

12/9/2011 6:39:38 PM


Seeing the Light

Bob willingly accepts the help and friendship of Dr. Marvin’s family, and we find him getting stronger along the way. Not so Dr. Marvin, whose neurosis is getting the upper hand. He becomes a basket‐case trying to extract Bob from his life. No one else sees Bob as the bloodsucking leech that Leo believes him to be. No one agrees with Leo’s view that Bob is crazy. Ironically, it is Leo who is losing grip on reality, not Bob. This is like the Buddhist tale about a monk and the demon who crashes the monk’s solitude. The pesky little demon jumps up and down, causing a complete ruckus until the monk loses it and goes berserk. Like the monk in the fable, Leo lacks the humor, detachment, and selflessness to take a devilish irritant like Bob in his stride. Leo demonstrates how easily Ethical Egoists can be knocked off balance. The sad truth is that we’re all capable of becoming like Bob—needy and dependent, driving others out of their minds as we hang onto them, unclear and unformed, seeking acceptance. Similarly, we can all fall prey to the Leo that lurks inside of us and take ourselves too seriously, overly invested in a particular image of ourselves. It’s hard to watch What About Bob? and admit a resemblance to Leo Marvin. He’s not exactly an attractive personality, with his inflated ego, controlling manner, lack of resilience, and inability to take things in his stride. Every time he overreacts to Bob, his emotional stability gets more precarious. His increasing tension and volatility, however understandable or familiar, becomes more off‐putting. He’s Bob Riley’s alter ego. Where Bob is friendly, unassuming, and clings to his newfound “family,” Leo is stiff, pretentious, and alienated from those around him. As Bob says, “It’s a combustible relationship—Is it just you and me, or is it you and everybody?” Leo doesn’t ever accept responsibility for the way things are unraveling around him. Having to give up the spotlight to Bob infuriates Leo. As the story unfolds, Bob becomes more trusting of others and less self‐centered. This occurs in conjunction with his moving in with the Marvins. Bob’s growing empathy for others makes it easier to function independently. We see this when Bob gets out the handkerchief he uses to wipe germs off doorknobs or elsewhere. He hesitates for a second, looks at the handkerchief, and then sets it aside. Though a small gesture, it tells us that Bob is farther along than when we first met him. One of Bob’s more endearing traits is his effusive praise of Dr. Marvin. He tells Ziggy, “Your father is the most incredible psychiatrist. I sure hope you appreciate him.” And he asks Anna, “So what’s it like, being the daughter of a famous analyst—is it great?” Leo responds to Bob’s praise with chagrin. Bob, however, is impervious to any attempt to put distance between them. Leo’s rejection simply does not register. In any case, Bob makes for an appealing underdog, foibles and all. Bob gradually transforms from the pathetic “leech” he once was. Although he’s still making sure his needs are met, he’s no longer centered on self.

2.1.indd 124

12/9/2011 6:39:38 PM

2.1 Ethical Egoism 125 He  offers tips to Anna so she won’t over‐analyze everything and observes that, “I treat people like telephones… [telling himself] Bob, this one is just temporarily out of order, just break the connection.” She welcomes his advice and sees it as heartfelt. He helps Ziggy break through his morbid fear of death by suggesting he switch to a different fear, such as Tourette’s syndrome. And all along he credits Dr. Marvin. When the TV producer asks Leo how Baby Steps works on a patient like Bob, Bob answers, “Mashed potatoes and gravy, I couldn’t be happier about baby steps.” To Leo, Bob’s just a “boob,” but not to everyone else. Leo can’t understand why no one else sees Bob as a “textbook narcissist.” He asks in frustration, “What is the matter with all of you, don’t you understand this man is crazy, for all you know this man could be a mass murderer?” Faye sums up the view of the rest of the family—Bob is a sweet person and “perfectly harmless.” There’s a kind of magnanimity about Bob in spite of his neediness. Leo’s rejection bounces right off of him, as we see after Leo tied bombs around Bob’s neck: “Yeah that’s it, you’re saying I’m all tied up inside, and these phony bombs mean, if I don’t untie myself, inside the emotional knots, I’m going to explode. Yeah, it’s so simple, it’s so brilliant. Okay Dr. M, I get it, baby step, untie your knots.” Bob’s egotistical qualities may not seem so charming if we have a “Bob” in our own lives. And yet it’s hard to empathize with Leo. Bob may be maddening, but his very humanity is touching; he is much easier to love. Leo is too full of himself and too mean spirited. He’s too aloof, dismissive, and uncaring to draw people to him. Both Bob and Leo are manipulative at times, with each trying to maximize his own self‐interest. Their focus is on what they need and what it takes to reach that goal. What About Bob? shows how, in taking that path, we could end up like Dr. Marvin, babbling away to ourselves. If we expand our world and let others in, we will have a more fulfilling life—and see the benefits in leaving behind Ethical Egoism. Our next film shows that as well. In The Proposal, we see a woman so driven by her own narrow image of success she loses sight of all but her own wants and desires. She, too, has much to learn.

SPOTLIGHT: The Proposal What About Bob? shows how Ethical Egoism is morally bankrupt. The maxim, “Always Look Out for Number One” is like a flashlight with fading batteries, as The Proposal (2009) also demonstrates. The movie centers on Margaret Tate, a 30ish woman obsessed with work and oblivious to others, unless they are useful to her. She is a female version of Leo Marvin.

2.1.indd 125

12/9/2011 6:39:38 PM


Seeing the Light

Like Leo, her professional life swallows up everything else. She is driven by a quest for success, spending every waking moment on her job as book editor at a big publishing firm. The result is that Margaret neglects her personal life. This includes her legal status as a Canadian citizen working in the US. Sure enough, immigration officials get wind of the fact that she hasn’t filed the appropriate papers and Margaret faces deportation. This was not what she wanted to hear and they aren’t sympathetic to her “oops, I forgot” routine. Margaret has to act fast or she’ll be sent back to Canada. The solution hits like a lightning bolt: As fast as you can say “wedding bells,” Margaret declares that she and her assistant Andrew Paxton are engaged to get married. This announcement astonishes Andrew. The skeptical immigration agent, Mr. Gilbertson, isn’t fooled. He tells them that he’ll question each of them in three days’ time, and their answers better match. He obviously has seen this ruse before and doesn’t take kindly to those who try to buffalo him. Events are now set in motion. Margaret and Andrew head off to Sitka, Alaska to attend his grandmother’s 90th birthday party. They have only the weekend to swap personal details and learn enough about each other to pass muster with immigration. As her trustworthy secretary, Andrew knows a wealth of information about Margaret, whose egotistic behavior has shielded her from more than a superficial knowledge of her “fiancé,” Andrew. The imbalance is made apparent once Margaret discovers his family is wealthy. When she indignantly asks, “Why didn’t you tell me you’re some kind of Alaskan Kennedy?” Andrew responds, “We were in the middle of talking about you … for the last three years.” It will be a steep learning curve for her. Andrew has a ways to go as well. He isn’t being forced to marry Margaret. No one took a hammer to him. He did the math and agreed to the deception on two conditions. First, he would be promoted to editor and, second, his book would be published. He justifies this with, “I’m looking at a 250,000 dollar fine and 5 years in jail, that changes things.” She initially refuses, but Andrew’s trump card is, “Then I quit and you’re screwed. Bye bye, Margaret.” And so it is that Andrew makes his own moral compromise. Neither his nor Margaret’s hands are spotless; neither are innocent victims. Both use the marriage card to their own advantage, putting self‐interest above all else. One difference is that Margaret initiated it and has the more pressing need. However, Andrew stands to gain as well, and shouldn’t be self‐righteous. Both Margaret and Andrew will have to examine their own failings before they can develop their inner strength and moral character. One complication is that Andrew’s family has to be informed of their engagement. His grandmother may be old but her memory is sharp. Given Andrew’s comments over the years, she asks Margaret, “Do you prefer [to be called] Margaret or Satan’s Mistress?” Nevertheless, Margaret is welcomed with open arms by his mother and grandmother. It’s Andrew’s chip‐on‐the‐shoulder

2.1.indd 126

12/9/2011 6:39:38 PM

2.1 Ethical Egoism 127 father who thinks it fishy and has every intention of blocking the marriage. He will find an ally in Mr. Gilbertson, the suspicious immigration officer. This is the situation (= quicksand) in which Margaret and Andrew find themselves due to Margaret’s self‐serving lie. Andrew is put on the spot, but Margaret is not discouraged. She doesn’t want to be deported and considers a shotgun wedding with an American citizen the only way out. That this is a loveless business arrangement doesn’t initially bother her. Let’s take a moment to compare What About Bob? with The Proposal. Margaret and Dr. Leo Marvin are neck‐and‐neck in the Ethical Egoism Olympics. They are fixated on themselves and waste no time on self‐reflection. Other people are treated as stepping‐stones on the path to success. Both can be hard‐hearted—a fact that does not escape those around them. In this respect, Margaret has even more people who despise her than does Leo. This we see at her workplace, where employees send email alerts as she comes into the room. For example, “The witch is on her broom” lets them know she’s on the move. Her co‐workers show her no more affection than the Gutmans showed for Leo. Like Leo, Margaret has alienated herself to a degree that will be hard to surmount. Margaret has a lot to learn and we follow her progress after she arrives in Sitka. There she discovers that Andrew’s family members won’t take kindly to her marry‐now‐divorce‐later plan. That they would actually care about her and treat her with affection comes as a complete surprise. That’s one of the problems with Ethical Egoism. If we only focus on ourselves, our world shrinks. It thus comes as a surprise when others genuinely care about us. How can they love us, when we are just using them? Margaret did not plan on that. Andrew’s family showered her with attention, and affection. They more they reached out to her, the smaller she felt. By the time of the wedding, pangs of guilt were floating to the surface. Sure, she stood to benefit, but they stood to lose and would be hurt by her actions. Her selfish desire to avoid deportation by using Andrew and his entire family was painfully disastrous. Margaret came to see what a cad she had been; the human costs of her self‐centeredness smacked her in the face. No longer was Margaret the same woman who launched her marry‐now‐pay‐ later plan. No longer did she seem allergic to “the whole spectrum of human emotion,” as Andrew said. Margaret finally realized that there is more to her life than herself. As she changed, her relationship with Andrew changed too. Margaret saw the error of her ways right before the wedding was to take place. She could either proceed and seal the business deal or back out and blow it wide open. She now had the integrity to opt for the latter. With friends and family gathered together to hear the wedding vows, Margaret’s conscience shines through. Showing neither humor nor self‐pity she owns up to the deception and calls off the wedding. After extending her sincere apologies, she makes a fast exit, leaving chaos in her wake. Meanwhile, Andrew’s face betrays his love for her. His family sees that as well, and they all scramble to get the two back together. Eventually he makes it back

2.1.indd 127

12/9/2011 6:39:38 PM


Seeing the Light

to the office, where she is preparing for deportation. His office mates surround them as he reaches out to her. His proposal says it all: ANDREW:

Three days ago, I loathed you. I used to dream about you getting hit by a cab. Then we had our little adventure up in Alaska and things started to change. Things changed when we kissed. And when you told me about your tattoo. Even when you checked me out when we were naked. But I didn’t realize any of this, until I was standing alone  … in a barn … wifeless. Now, you could imagine my disappointment when it suddenly dawned on me that the woman I love is about to be kicked out of the country. So Margaret, marry me, because I’d like to date you.

Margaret started out like Leo Marvin, but ends up a changed woman. In seeing the consequences of her egoistical behavior, Margaret realized what a mess she’d made of her life. She saw how thick were the walls she built that kept  her in and others out. That Andrew’s family welcomed her with such generosity of spirit revealed how empty her life had been. That’s the thing about Ethical Egoism: Self‐interest can push through one decision after the other, elevating self over all others. But what do you have at the end of the day? Your own high opinion of yourself? Margaret’s battle‐cry at the start of her journey was taken from the Book of Leo Marvin. Fortunately she found the acceptance and love of others a catalyst to change. And so we see that, by opening up one’s world and letting others in, even the most vehement Ethical Egoist can be transformed.

Short Takes: Clueless Clueless (1995) is often mentioned in the same breath as Jane Austen’s novel Emma (see, e.g., Jeffrey Gantz, 1996). Cher Horowitz lives in style—literally. Her middle name might be “Indulgence,” given her lack of restraint when making sure her every desire is attended to. Mel, her attorney‐father, wants her to succeed and expects her to get high grades. Her brother‐by‐ marriage (no genetic ties), Josh, initially views Cher with amused scorn. When we first meet Cher she is scheming how to manipulate her teachers into raising her mediocre grades. In comparison, Josh comes across as a serious scholar. Mel thinks Josh should show more interest in money and social stature, scoffing at Josh’s idea to go into Environmental Law. “What for? Do you want to have a miserable, frustrating life?” Cher echoes Mel’s view, highlighting their differences. From Cher’s perspective, Josh is on the fast track to Dullsville— while for Josh, Cher is frittering away her life as a mall rat, as we see:

2.1.indd 128

12/9/2011 6:39:38 PM

2.1 Ethical Egoism 129 CHER:

Oh, Josh will have that [a miserable, frustrating life] no matter what he does. At least he knows what he’s doing. And he’s in a good college. I’d like to see you have a little bit of direction. CHER: I have direction. JOSH: Yeah, towards the mall. MEL:

Driving the stake in further, Josh says celebrity Marky Mark (= Mark Wahlberg in his modeling days) might participate in planting a tree for the cause. Cher snorts at that, pointing out that she does good deeds too, such as donating castaway clothes to charity. She appears pathetically self‐centered in Josh’s eyes. Cleaning out her closet gets no Generosity Award from him! Let’s stand back for a second and look at the ethical issues. If an otherwise egotistical person is willing to contribute leftovers and used clothes to help others, shouldn’t that count? What sort of proof is required to demonstrate a charitable heart? How much altruism do we expect of one another? Is there a minimum? A pure Ethical Egoist would say no; we can’t expect any freebies when it comes to others cutting us some slack. Clearly, Josh and Cher have different moral standards. By his ethical system, tossing leftovers (clothes or anything else) into a bag and giving it away to someone in need doesn’t cut it. Other than the effort to take the clothes out of the closet and pass them on, no more is required. Little time or effort is expended under Cher’s model of generosity. On the contrary, Josh thinks we ought to do something—plant a tree, organize people to work together to help others, and so on. Cher is volunteering to give away something she once used and wants no more. This is a relatively passive effort. Josh is volunteering his time and energy, a more active form of altruism. Meanwhile, we see the contrast between Josh and Cher as they throw darts at one another: CHER:

And as soon as I get my license I fully intend to brake for animals, and I have contributed many hours helping two lonely teachers find romance. JOSH: Which I’ll bet serves your interest more than theirs. You know, if I ever saw you do something that wasn’t 90 percent selfish, I’d die of shock. CHER: Oh, that’d be reason enough for me.

Cher decides to go outside of her immediate family to get a reality check. Here’s where we are reminded that others play a role in our moral development and in helping us see how we’re progressing. Of course, the result may not be what we want to hear, but the feedback of either friend or stranger can be instrumental in any self‐assessment. We may not like what others see (and think!) of us. We may think they lack sufficient evidence to draw a solid conclusion. However, it’s hard to dismiss others’ feedback, particularly when it is consistent and extends over time. For example, a number of those around Leo were in sync

2.1.indd 129

12/9/2011 6:39:38 PM


Seeing the Light

in thinking that he comes up short on the altruism scale. Cher also finds this when she polls her friend Dionne: CHER: DIONNE:

Would you call me selfish? No. Not to your face.

At this point, the foundation is in place for the plot to take off. Cher’s scheme to improve her report card ends up being the path to redemption and transformation. It’s interesting to compare her with Bob Riley and Leo Marvin. Bob starts out as a parasitic patient who has trouble with even the smallest baby steps to empowerment. Cher has the self‐confidence of Bob’s egotistical doctor, Leo Marvin, but, like Bob, it is through turning her attention away from herself and toward others that change comes. Ethical Egoists need others far more than they realize or would admit. Nevertheless, What About Bob?, The Proposal, and Clueless show us the shortcomings of any system of morality that seeks to maximize self‐interest and downgrade the needs of others.

Outtakes: The Social Network Mark Zuckerberg is a computer whiz. He’s one of those brainy guys who can hack into just about anything for a laugh. And he does like a good laugh, as we see in The Social Network (2010), a dramatic telling of the rise to wealth and infamy of the billionaire founder of the phenomenally successful social network tool, Facebook. However much his computer wizardry places him in the next century, Zuckerberg is a Neanderthal when it comes to his moral and social skills. Although he has no apparent appreciation of the potential harms of the Internet, Zuckerberg’s technical virtuosity leaves his peers agog. However, it also gets him into hot water on both the institutional and personal fronts. In the first case, his willingness to post photos of college‐age women along with their attractiveness‐rating by college‐age men resulted in academic discipline at Harvard. In the second case, his public humiliation of a woman he was dating became the wound that wouldn’t heal. Whether the portrayal bears any resemblance to reality is a separate issue from the ethical concerns that unfold. Even if the similarities are few, the irony should not escape us. The character Mark Zuckerberg is a poster boy for “Greed is Good.” Unfortunately, the next poster, “Ruthless Brings Regrets” warrants as much attention—and that’s exactly what is done in the movie. It’s virtually impossible to watch someone so lacking in ethics and rudimentary social skills without fear of it rubbing off. Brian D. Johnson (2010) summarized it this way:

2.1.indd 130

12/9/2011 6:39:38 PM

2.1 Ethical Egoism 131 This non‐fiction fable, which Fincher cynically dubbed “the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies,” could be called The Sociopath Network. Its tale of a geek who got even with Harvard’s elite is an anti‐romance, a portrait of ambition fuelled by envy and insecurity. Boy loses the girl in the first scene, and that Rosebud moment comes back to poke him in the last scene, as the Friend King faces his computer, alone and friendless.

There are no heroes here, and the only one in the entire movie who comes across as untainted by greed and resentment is his ex‐girlfriend Erica Albright. Erica saw all too clearly how Zuckerberg was capable of using his analytical skills to act in despicable ways. This he showed by making nasty, if not defamatory, comments about her on the Internet. She is painfully aware that this is a forum open to all and has an infinite memory. Even though his cruel schoolboy prank (the kindest way to characterize his action) brought a few yucks from fellow male students, it had no lasting benefits and a very long shadow. All the money in the world didn’t change that fact. And this is the ethical truth we all have had to face: Some things can’t be taken back. Mean‐spirited words or deeds that erupt out of a reservoir of anger or hurt can take flight and never be reined in again. Like a card‐carrying Ethical Egoist, his decision‐making was fueled by his obsession, as well as an apparent willingness to co‐opt others’ ideas or modify them for his own purposes. The collection of people who feel betrayed or used by Zuckerberg form a sort of Greek chorus. Their laments thread through the narrative. The resolution around who is owed what due to his various transgressions finally appears in the last moments of the movie. The payoffs are plastered on the screen just before the credits roll. Other than the show of regrets for smearing Erica, Zuckerberg comes and goes without any discernable moral evolution. Bob Riley he’s not. And there’s no reversal of fortune for him, no time when we see him go, “Oh man, did I blow it!” Except for trying to make amends to Erica (no hope there), the rest of his moral universe is in disarray. This leaves the audience without a catharsis—just the sticky goo of ethical malfeasance stuck to us as we leave the theatre.

Outtakes: The Purple Rose of Cairo Cecilia is in an awfully unhappy marriage. Her husband Monk beats her when he gets drunk, which occurs quite regularly. In addition, he uses the money that she makes in tips at her waitress job in order to gamble. Given such a home life, it’s not surprising Cecilia should spend her spare time at the cinema watching movies. It’s the escape nothing else in her life allows. And so it is that Cecilia finds herself returning to see—once again—one movie that she finds especially

2.1.indd 131

12/9/2011 6:39:38 PM


Seeing the Light

captivating. It’s called The Purple Rose of Cairo. We are also watching The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), a clever movie by Woody Allen. As she’s sitting there in the dark of the theatre with her eyes glued to the screen, one of the characters, Tom Baxter, stops in mid sentence and gazes out at the audience. He looks straight at Cecilia and seems bemused. Hadn’t he seen her before? He walks out of the movie and into her life. He is delighted to make her acquaintance and is solicitous in ways her husband hasn’t been in years, if ever. Now, here is her ideal man. She is giddy with excitement. As you might imagine, the other characters on the theatre screen are not at all pleased that Tom Baxter has walked off the set. Chaos reigns. This is not going to look good with their agents. They simply can’t afford getting a bad rap because of Baxter’s delinquency. Tom Baxter, however, is unperturbed. He is enamored with Cecilia and has no interest in stepping back into the movie. Baxter’s attitude does not go down well with Gil Shepherd, the actor who plays Tom Baxter. He is little short of furious when he learns that his character walked off the screen to join Cecilia. And that’s not all. The other Tom Baxters all over the country are bailing out of the movie as well. This is worse than Shepherd’s worst nightmare—his career could be past history. Drastic measures are in order and Shepherd has no time to waste. He is not about to ruin his acting career just as it was taking off. As a result, he hatches a plan to put an end to these shenanigans. So what if Tom Baxter is in love with Cecilia? So what if he wants to run off with her and live happily ever after? Big deal! Gil’s career is all‐important and Tom Baxter better shape up. Gil’s main concern is with maximizing his own interests so he can continue to be a successful actor. If that means screwing with Cecilia’s mind and heart, so be it. The film tells how he who is only looking out for Number One can leave others emotionally bruised. Shepherd wins, Baxter loses, and Ethical Egoism rules.

Outtakes: Solitary Man People who use others and always have an excuse for their shortcomings are not generally attractive types. And yet many of us have them in our lives. They show up late to lunch, they miss their grandson’s birthday party, they sleep with your best friend (or worse, your son or daughter), and on and on, and on. We cut them slack, too much slack, until we can’t take them any more. That’s the situation of Ben Kalmen, the “solitary man” in the 2009 movie of the same name. He is a womanizer who is used to conquests. Sending over drinks with a twinkle in his eye seemingly worked for decades. He once had money—lots of it—but his dishonesty and slipperiness caught up with him. Much of what he once had, including a wife and family, now eludes his grasp. His previously successful come‐ons are now worn out recitations that fool fewer and fewer of his targets. He’s a man whose life is unraveling before his (and our) eyes.

2.1.indd 132

12/9/2011 6:39:38 PM

2.1 Ethical Egoism 133 Ben’s fall is avoidable, but predictable. And, though not very heart‐wrenching because of his moral failings, it is nonetheless painful to watch. His is deserved misfortune, even though we do pity him for having kissed away a lifetime of opportunity. On the other hand, there is a glimmer of hope. Ben shows some humility in working at a diner after what was left of his wealth trickled away. He takes a few baby steps towards making amends. Ben will have a steep climb out of the hole he’s now in. And there are lessons he should have learned long ago. It’s a sad tale, but one that shows us that even the sorriest of egoists can turn things around. It will take a lot of work, but there is ground for hope. Our last movie of the chapter is Ghost Town. It’s another study in the corrosive effects of self‐interest trumping other values.

Outtakes: Ghost Town Bertram Pincus doesn’t care much about anyone else. He’s got a successful practice as a dentist and can’t be bothered by the gestures of his colleague or his patients. They reach out to him, but he pushes them away, the very picture of arrogance. His attention is focused only on himself. But, as we know, things can change in the blink of an eye. And so it is for Pincus. One day he “dies” but is revived after some minutes. He’s back to his old self, with one giant exception— he can see ghosts and, even stranger, they see him seeing them. It appears that all sorts of dead people with unfinished business are stuck in this world and want Pincus’ help. They think he can solve their problems and they can then move on. His newfound “talent” hits the ghost‐network like wildfire, resulting in dead souls chasing him down the sidewalk. Each day more of them come racing toward him, eager for his assistance. It appears that the only way to lift this curse is if he can help his recently deceased friend Frank, who has his own unfinished business. To accomplish this, Pincus will have to give up his egotistical ways. That journey forms the core of Ghost Town (2008). It’s a light‐hearted look at Ethical Egoism. It shows how even the jerkiest blokes can redeem themselves and escape the self‐serving reality they’ve made of their lives.

Works Cited Birsch, Douglas (2002) Ethical Insights, A Brief Introduction. Boston, MA: McGraw‐Hill. Gantz, Jeffrey (1996) “Ageless Austen.” Boston Phoenix, January 25, 1996. http:// (accessed August 16, 2011). Hinman, Lawrence M. (1994) Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

2.1.indd 133

12/9/2011 6:39:38 PM


Seeing the Light

Johnson, Brian D. (2010) “Horrifically Good Movies.” MacLean’s magazine, December  17, 2010.‐good‐ movies/ (accessed August 16, 2011). Moseley, Alexander (2005) “Egoism.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http:// (accessed August 16, 2011). Vaughn, Lewis (2010) Doing Ethics, 2nd edition. New York: W.W. Norton.

Online Resources Big Questions Online. “General Ethics.”>General Ethics (accessed August 16, 2011). “Conscience, virtue, integrity and medical ethics,” Editorial. Journal of Medical Ethics. December 1984, Volume 10(4): 171–2, 190. articles/PMC1375093/ (accessed August 16, 2011). In Character (2006) “Justice.” (accessed August 16, 2011). The Paideia Project Online: Essays on theoretical ethics. MainTEth.htm (accessed August 16, 2011). PhilPapers. “Altruism and Psychological Egoism.” altruism‐and‐psychological‐egoism/ (accessed August 16, 2011). Rachels, James (1974) “Two Arguments Against Ethical Egoism.” Philosophia Vol. 4 (Nos. 2–3), 297–314. Available online through Springerlink. Shaver, Robert. “Egoism.” On psychological, ethical, and rational egoism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (accessed August 16, 2011).

Discussion Questions 1. What’s wrong with being an Ethical Egoist? How do egotistical characters like Leo, Margaret, and Zuckerberg fail the “moral exemplar” test? 2. Are Ethical Egoists always oblivious to their effect on others? What is the dynamic between the egoist and those around them? 3. What are the similarities between Mark Zuckerberg (The Social Network), Leo (What About Bob?) and Margaret (The Proposal)? What lessons did Margaret learn that could be shared with the two guys? 4. Ethical Egoists focus on themselves, with few qualms about using others. Do we see from these movies how to fight back, so the egoist will be forced to change his or her selfish ways? 5. Blogger Jay Brown thinks Bob and Leo are the same person. He cites as evidence a reference in the movie to George Stark—a Stephen King character whose pen‐ name comes to life and wants to kill the writer. This suggests a (possibly murderous) tension exists between Ethical Egoists and their shadow side. Do you see evidence of such a tug‐of‐war in our movies here?

2.1.indd 134

12/9/2011 6:39:38 PM


Cultural Relativism

SPOTLIGHT: Witness, Gran Torino, Mutluluk (Bliss) Short Takes: Boyz N the Hood, The Godfather Outtakes: The Namesake ELI LAPP: JOHN BOOK:

It’s not our way. It’s my way. —Witness

John Book is a man who has seen too much not to get jaded. As a police detective dealing with violent crime, he is used to looking at death and destruction. Little has thrown him off course until he becomes entangled with a crime involving the Amish community of Pennsylvania. We see how their lives intersect in Witness (1985). A young widow, Rachel Lapp, and her boy Samuel are on a train trip to Baltimore. During the three‐hour layover in the Philadelphia station Samuel has to go to the men’s room. There he becomes the only witness to the brutal murder of an undercover officer. One assailant puts a jacket over the victim’s head, while the other slashes his throat. Samuel’s quick actions help him avoid detection. The police are all over the case. Rachel and Samuel accompany John Book to the station and, while passing time, the boy gazes at photographs in a display case. Shaking, he points at a photo of narcotics officer, James McFee. As it turns out, McFee is as dirty as Mississippi mud—part of a ring producing methamphetamine. Unfortunately, Book doesn’t know that his superior, Paul Schaefer is in cahoots with McFee. Things are definitely going to get nasty.

Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

2.2.indd 135

12/9/2011 6:39:21 PM


Seeing the Light

John realizes that the boy is in great danger. There is no way Samuel is going to live to testify against such powerful interests unless he can be closely guarded. Thus begins the journey into the Amish community, with Book going undercover. The contrast in values between the big city detective and rural, faith‐driven Amish people is unmistakable. This is one of those times when cultural relativism helps us understand the range of perspectives in moral reasoning. Thanks to this theory, we get a broader view of the issues. Let’s start by looking at the ethical framework and then turn to our three spotlight movies Witness, Gran Torino, and Bliss. Contrasting values come to the fore, including those of the Amish (vs. Philadelphia cops), those of the Hmong (vs. a Korean War veteran), and those of modern Turks (vs. the Turkish “honor” culture of old).

The Ethical Framework: Cultural Relativism The kernel of cultural relativism is the word “relative.” Ethical beliefs and codes are not universal. They are particular to a culture or particular group linked by religion, nationality, tradition, or the like. This theory is a narrow form of Teleological Ethics, which focuses on consequences, with the end‐goal to maximize good or benefit to ________ (fill in the blank). The blank here is not individual self‐interest, as we saw with Ethical Egoism. It is a group or community bound by a specific culture. From one society to the next we see a diverse range of norms and values. They include what is permissible to do to our own bodies (abortion, euthanasia, drug/substance abuse, smoking, drinking, obesity, anorexia, etc.), to another person’s body (pornography, sex trades, prostitution, hazing, incest, rape, etc.), in response to perceived wrongs (honor killings, capital punishment, incarceration, indefinite detention, solitary confinement, torture, etc.), and in the name of society (compulsory schooling, taxation, surveillance, random drug testing, profiling of travelers, etc.). Around the globe, practices endorsed by one group may be at odds with or prohibited by another. The identification with our own culture can shape our worldview. Think, for instance, of the portrayal of religious prophets in terms of race, nationality, and culture. Painter and iconographer, Fr. John Giuliani explored this idea in his paintings of the Navajo Christ and the Hopi Virgin Mary and Child. “Traditional iconography gives witness to the human face of the Sacred,” he says. “This icon, celebrates the soul of the Native American as the original spiritual presence on this continent, and as a prophetic sign,” he adds. In his view, it celebrates the reconciliation of the Native and Christian spiritual vision. It also speaks to the power of ethnicity in shaping our thoughts and ideas. This is not a new concept. Ethicist James Fieser (2000) discusses the influence of culture and points to ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes, who says,

2.2.indd 136

12/9/2011 6:39:21 PM

2.2 Cultural Relativism 137 “Ethiopians say that their gods are flat‐nosed and dark, Thracians that theirs are blue‐eyed and red‐haired.” He is zeroing‐in on religion, but the implications extend to ethics as well. Greek historian Herodotus observed that, “Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best” (Fieser, 2000, p. 3). By saying “without exception,” Herodotus asserts that relativism rules; that we all put our own culture and religion first (p. 3). The “diversity thesis” is that moral beliefs vary from culture to culture and even in the same culture over a period of time (Harris, 2007, p. 21) There is no shortage of examples. Think of differences with respect to dating and courtship, marriage, adultery, infanticide, sex selection, male and female circumcision, use of drugs like peyote for religious ceremonies, caring for elders, and so on. Such differences are often rooted in traditions, attitudes, and beliefs that are part of a culture. Plenty of people believe in ethical relativism, at least to some degree. They look around and see moral beliefs that are culturally bound and people who validate their ethical guidelines in terms of a community, culture, or even subculture. We see this with gang‐bangers who feel duty‐bound to follow the relativistic ethics of their homeboys. Loyalty is definitely on their moral map! Boyz N the Hood and Gran Torino show that’s the case. In these two films, gang members look no farther than their homies to decide what is morally acceptable. Here the subculture outflanks the culture itself. For instance, the gang’s ethical code of retribution for harms done to their members trumps proscriptions set down by their own culture—which has already drawn boundaries between its values and that of the dominant society. Some view moral relativism with skepticism and criticize its potential for harm, contending that women and children are particularly vulnerable to the dark side of cultures—as shown in both Gran Torino and Bliss. The question is how to deal with such tensions. Can we find a middle path, accepting diversity without turning a blind eye to abusive practices? Chandran Kukathas argues for protecting cultural rights “as long as individuals have the right to leave or ‘opt out’” (2004, p. 17). As we’ll see with the movie Bliss, attempts to “opt out” of cultural traditions inflicting unnecessary harm may not be easy, but are vital. Even with its limitations, many people subscribe to cultural relativism. They do see moral beliefs that are culturally bound and do see people who validate ethical guidelines by an affiliation with a group. That’s not as far‐fetched as you might think. We need only look at cult members who follow the relativistic values of their leader, as with David Koresh and his Protestant sect called the “Branch Davidians.” The members had to go no farther than their compound (near Waco, Texas) to decide what was morally acceptable. We also see relativism tied to religious practices, even contentious ones. Consider the brouhaha over Muslim women wearing headscarves, the niqab (veil covering the face except for the eyes) or the burqa (covering the entire

2.2.indd 137

12/9/2011 6:39:21 PM


Seeing the Light

body, blocking the eyes with a mesh screen). France and parts of Germany have banned Muslim headscarves in schools. On April 11, 2011 France banned the niqab and burqa (The Guardian, 2001). Philosopher Martha Nussbaum (2010) protests these trends. She advocates a basic premise that, “All human beings are equal bearers of human dignity.” For her, “Giving equal respect to conscience requires tailoring worldly conditions so as to protect both freedom of belief and freedom of expression and practice.” English professor Feisel G. Mohamed’s response is that, “The burqa is not religious headwear; it is a physical barrier to engagement in public life adopted in a deep spirit of misogyny” (2010). In his view, “It seems farcical to create a scorecard of permissible and impermissible religious garb.” He argues, “The kind of women’s fashion favored by the Taliban might legitimately be outlawed as an instrument of gender apartheid,” though doing so may cause more divisiveness that it cures. The burqa debate reveals how issues related to culture, society, and religion tap into different values and points of view. Arriving at a resolution can be difficult. Such differences can contribute to discord, including ethnic conflicts. As a result, it is important to try to find ways to bridge the gaps. Alison Renteln, an expert in the cultural defense in law, thinks of traditional culture as a way of life and contrasts it with society. Culture is an abstraction (= invisible), whereas society is the collection of individuals in the community (= visible). In Renteln’s view, culture isn’t as malleable as we might think, given that many of its core aspects endure over time (Renteln, 2004, pp. 10–11). This is shown in Witness, where aspects of Amish culture are in glaring contrast with those of police detective John Book. We see a clash of cultures when a man who lives with violence on a daily basis goes undercover in the nonviolent Amish community. Their values have deep roots in religion and tradition, contributing to the obstacles Book faces.

SPOTLIGHT: Witness After the Amish boy, Samuel, implicates narcotics officer James McFee, detective John Book goes to his superior Paul Schaefer. He does not realize that Schaefer is in on McFee’s dirty dealings. McFee corners Book in a parking garage and their gun battle results in John taking a bullet in his shoulder. Knowing this is bad news, he calls his partner to tell him to pull files and watch his back. He then tells his sister to divulge nothing—a promise she couldn’t keep. Though seriously injured, John manages to drive Rachel and Samuel back to their farm. He knows they are in jeopardy. Telling Rachel that there won’t be a trial after all, John tries to leave but crashes into a pole. With a gunshot wound, going to a doctor would involve a

2.2.indd 138

12/9/2011 6:39:21 PM

2.2 Cultural Relativism 139 report that would reveal John’s—and Samuel’s—location. There’s no way he can leave without endangering Samuel. And so, John enters this very different world of the Amish. To avoid detection, he stays at the farm, far from the violent, contemporary society that is his daily reality. His car hidden away in the barn, John is left with Rachel to nurse him back to health. It is soon obvious how different is the Amish community from the greater society, first with the elders arriving to check out this unwelcome interruption in their lives. Rachel’s father‐in‐law, Eli Lapp, is told that the elders will decide what should be done with John. The idea that a group of elders, or anyone else, has the power to approve or disapprove what is done in our own homes may be surprising. But the elders are greatly respected and act as a governing body. The Amish are but one tight‐knit group that puts the interests of the community above that of any one individual member. Cultural relativists subsume their own self‐interests, even at personal cost, to the good of the community or group. Eli shows this by acknowledging that the elders are to be reckoned with in determining the next steps. The chain of command is this: Amish elders → Eli (father‐in‐law) → Rachel. If her husband were still alive he would likely be in Eli’s place (or next in line). As far as the elders are concerned, John’s well‐being is not the only consideration. Nevertheless, the fact that John risked his life to protect Rachel and Samuel did not go unnoticed. The contrasting cultures and differing values jump out at us. Samuel calls him “Mr. Book,” John tells him to call him “John.” Samuel touches John’s gun, leading John to take out the bullets and hand the gun to Samuel, as if to teach gun safety. Rachel is outraged. She tells John that, while in their house, he must respect their ways. Eli points out that guns are for killing people; which goes against Amish beliefs. Samuel says he’d kill a “bad man,” leading Eli to ask how he can be sure who are the bad men. “What you take into your hands you take into your heart.” Rachel offers John some of her dead husband’s clothes so he can pass for Amish. He helps with the chores at the farm and we see that, in terms of both lifestyle and values, these worlds are at polar extremes. Life on the Amish farm is demanding but satisfying in ways that John recognizes. The hard work is offset by the benefits of working together, sharing common goals and values. People depend on others every step of the way. Their life couldn’t be more different that what John was used to. Theirs is a community‐centered world devoid of telephones, televisions and the like. John crosses a line when he dances with Rachel, to music from his car radio. What was Rachel thinking? Eli warns her that she risks being shunned—ostracized. With such an interconnected group as the Amish, this would be a severe punishment, and condemnation. There are aspects of the outside world that are simply not welcome in this insular society.

2.2.indd 139

12/9/2011 6:39:21 PM


Seeing the Light

Meanwhile, knowledge of John’s location is getting harder to protect. Back at the station, Schaefer takes John’s partner Carter aside. “We’re like the Amish, we’re a cult too, a club with our own rules.” John has broken the rules, “as you’re breaking them now.” Schafer pressures him to disclose John’s whereabouts. Carter’s silence is an act of courage; he knows “the club” is capable of quick, definitive action against “traitors.” Concurrently, John and Rachel’s relationship is heating up. They are at a crossroad. “If we’d made love last night I’d have to stay, or you’d have to leave,” he says. That much is undeniable. A trip to town reveals how little time John has before Schaefer and McFee close in on him. After a tourist rubs an ice cream cone on an Amish man’s face, John loses it and blows his cover. Due to their pacifism, Amish don’t fight back, but that value didn’t register on John. His macho side explodes like a volcano and leaves a bloody mess he can’t erase. John connects the dots. He can’t stay there any longer. As Eli says, “he’s going back to his world.” The incident with the tourist caught the attention of the local police. Not good! Cut to the evening and the arrival of McFee, his partner Fergie, and supervisor Schaefer. They are well armed. John and his Amish protectors are grossly outmatched in the weapons department, but they have other strengths to draw from. Learning his way around farm equipment was useful in ways John didn’t foresee. Fergie realizes too late not to enter a corn silo. McFee makes his last bad decision and is dispensed with. And when Schafer targets Rachel, Eli signals Samuel to ring the bell. The Amish being very community‐minded, any call for help brings everyone out. And they run, not walk, when the bell tolls. Schafer’s “club” may have firepower, but they don’t have all the Amish in the vicinity ready and willing to support their members. These two worlds crossed for a moment in time and that time has come to an end. However bittersweet, this is the reality John faces. After saying goodbye to Samuel, he turns to Rachel. She is wearing her Amish hat, showing where her allegiances lie. She turns away and then they look at one another. They know this is it. Some gulfs cannot be easily bridged.

SPOTLIGHT: Gran Torino Walt Kowalski is a widower whose prize possession is his 1972 Gran Torino. A retired Ford factory worker and war veteran, Walt spends his time drinking beer on his porch with dog Daisy at his feet. He occasionally mows his lawn and keeps his garage with its many carpentry tools spick and span. He is a loner with a lot of time on his hands. But, like John Book, he gets a front‐row view of a very different culture. Walt is estranged from his two sons and revolted by his snotty grandchildren. They have little interest in Walt, other than wanting to get their hands on his

2.2.indd 140

12/9/2011 6:39:21 PM

2.2 Cultural Relativism 141 money and car. They are counting the days until he dies, as shown by their bored, disrespectful behavior at their mother’s/grandmother’s funeral and other encounters. Walt is disgusted by what he sees. Meanwhile, he has occasion to help his Hmong neighbors. They shower him with flowers and food. Although he initially wants nothing to do with these “gooks” or their gifts, he is nonetheless touched by their gesture. He gets drawn into their world. These are people he previously viewed through a racist lens as immigrants ruining the neighborhood. With astounding frequency, Walt spits out racist invectives. His use of stereotypes makes for a self‐parody, as we see with an exchange with teenager Sue Lor, his Hmong neighbor: SUE: WALT: SUE:

There’s a ton of food. Yeah, well just keep your hands off my dog. No worries, we only eat cats.

Walt and Sue are from different worlds with different traditions and values. And yet they respect one another and bridge the cultural divide between them. We see this when Walt goes to a party at the Lor house and gets his first lesson in Hmong customs: SUE:

All the people in this house are very traditional. Number one: never touch a Hmong person on the head. Not even a child. The Hmong people believe that the soul resides on the head, so don’t do that. WALT: Well… Sounds dumb, but fine. SUE: Yeah, and a lot of Hmong people consider looking someone in the eye to be very rude! That’s why they look away when you look at them. WALT: Yeah. Anything else? SUE: Yeah… some Hmong people tend to smile or grin, when they’re yelled at. It’s a cultural thing, it expresses embarrassment or insecurity. It’s not that they’re laughing at you or anything.

Walt gets pulled into his neighbors’ world and farther from his own family. The values of the former resonate much more than the materialistic values of his kin. After Sue’s brother Thao is pressured by his cousin and fellow homies to steal Walt’s snazzy Gran Torino car, he is caught in the act. Walt decides to knock Thao into shape. Their relationship evolves and pretty soon Walt finds a sense of purpose he hadn’t had in years. At one point Thao asks Walt, “What was it like to kill someone?” “You don’t want to know,” Walt tells him. They’re an odd pair—the Korean War vet who has seen too much and the young man who thinks of revenge killing with nervous excitement. The last thing Walt wants for “Toad” is for him to experience such horrors.

2.2.indd 141

12/9/2011 6:39:21 PM


Seeing the Light

Walt could initially be characterized as a moral absolutist—one who adheres to the view that values are universal and not context‐dependent. Philosopher Terence McConnell (1981) points out that, by this view, moral rules hold without exception. As a result, certain actions are always wrong, regardless of the consequences; such killing an innocent person. Absolutism poses difficulties in extreme situations where an otherwise heinous act (e.g., killing or torturing an innocent person) is morally acceptable because failure to do so will lead to disastrous consequences (e.g., the loss of hundreds of lives) (McConnell, 1981, pp. 286–7). Such “hard cases” arise in ethical dilemmas around gang violence, as Walt discovers. Meanwhile, look at the cultural relativism bubbling beneath the surface with the gang‐bangers, the Hmong immigrants, Walter Kowalski, and his materialistic relatives. The clash of values is palpable. All’s going along pretty well, except for the lawless cousin breathing down Thao’s neck. Walt decides to intervene. Being tough as nails is second nature to him and he doesn’t hesitate to stand up for what’s right. His snarling, gun‐toting style may be impressive, but one elderly war veteran can’t stop four or five Hmong gang‐bangers. When they retaliate with a brutal attack on Sue, Walt is stricken with guilt, anger, and grief. He thought he could stop those punks in their tracks and didn’t realize their loyalties to one another were stronger than his powers to persuade. His next move requires a sacrifice few would willingly make. It’s a stand with life‐changing consequences, so he prepares accordingly. As a study in cultural conflicts and bridging differences through respect and openness, the movie has a lot going for it.

SPOTLIGHT: Mutluluk (Bliss) We see the girl’s body in the distance. It is face down and the clothes suggest another time and place. The sight of sheep herded into a circle and the open space beyond indicate this is far from a city. We assume the girl is dead; nothing indicates otherwise. An elderly shepherd spots her and comes over. He picks her up and throws her over his shoulder like a bag of horse feed. He carries her into the village. As he walks, we hear the voices clucking away, knowing that the news is spreading quickly. The movie is Mutluluk (2007), Turkish for “bliss.” We don’t yet have any idea when the bliss will come, but are drawn into the drama of her arrival. As it turns out this is Meryem, and she’s alive, though unwanted. We discern that she has been raped and is now an object of scorn. The harm is impossible to overlook. They assume she brought it upon herself and, therefore, has shamed the village. She is repeatedly asked who did this to her. She refuses to say. We don’t know why, and nothing she does prepares us for the truth revealed at the movie’s end.

2.2.indd 142

12/9/2011 6:39:21 PM

2.2 Cultural Relativism 143 Meryem’s silence is a sort of death sentence. Surely anyone who is innocent would name the perp. However, her lips are sealed and no one can extract the truth from her. The solution is about as harsh as you can get: The sinner must be killed. Her stepmother brings a rope and indicates that hanging herself— suicide—is the honorable thing to do. Meryem unwinds the rope and ties it to the dusty beam in the shed, climbs up, and places her head through the noose. Then she stops. She takes the rope off her neck and steps down. This young woman is not going to make it easy for them. Her father is beside himself and pleads for her life. Unmoved, the town “ruler,” the heartless Ali Rizza, will have nothing to do with leniency. Meryem has dishonored the village and the custom is written in stone. She must die. This is one of those cultural traditions that is toxic—nothing short of putrid. The problem is how to kill her without running afoul of the military or government officials. After all, this is not the 1600 s. It’s the present day, things have changed, and most parts of Turkey adhere to more enlightened views. However, this out‐of‐the‐way burg shows the vestiges of a patriarchal culture where punishment is swift and unforgiving. Women’s lower moral status made them more vulnerable than the perpetrator to harsh recriminations. Ali Rizza doesn’t budge an inch. He delegates to Cemel, a young soldier back from service, the job of taking Meryem to Istanbul. There, as tradition demands, Cemel is to kill her and dispose of the body. He can then return to the village and life will go on. Even in the most repressive society, strict orders do not always lead to the desired results. What seems straightforward and in line with custom and tradition is not always simple to put into effect. This may be especially true with ethical decision‐making. Woody Allen once remarked that sex was messy—if done right. We could add that many activities that are done right are very messy indeed. Order and tidiness may help us keep our closets in shape, but are not always prescriptions for a well‐lived life. Cemel takes Meryem to Istanbul to carry out the death penalty only to encounter friends and acquaintances who think it absolutely medieval. What planet is he from to agree to such a thing? Does he even know that Meryem did anything wrong, that she’s guilty of a crime? What evidence is there? The raised eyebrows and comments jolt Cemel and undermine his certainty that she deserves to die. By the time he leads Meryem up the concrete stairs in Istanbul and tells her to jump, things are beginning to unravel. She can’t do it, so she removes her headscarf to cover her eyes. She puts on the blindfold, climbs over the side and is perched, ready to jump or fall to her death. Cemel yanks her back. He is no longer her executioner. Having failed to enact the sentence that Ali Rizza set down, Cemel joins Meryem in the land of the sinners. Here’s the deal: Don’t thumb your nose at the ruling elder. Any rebellion is tantamount to treason. There’s no going back home after that. They were now vagabonds who must try to survive and avoid being caught. Thus begins their journey together.

2.2.indd 143

12/9/2011 6:39:21 PM


Seeing the Light

It leads to discovery and self‐discovery, as well as a relationship that deepens to love. Of course we know that eventually Ali Rizza will come after them like the Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb. When that happens, however, we see traditions and customs that are long overdue for the dustbin of history. Bliss shows how Meryem and Cemel develop their moral character as well as their relationship. They find a way to put customs, traditions, and ethics into perspective. As Alison Renteln shows us in her work on the cultural defense, some customs and traditions should be respected and differences tolerated. Others should be put under the microscope of human rights. We can then decide what to expunge and what to retain. Renteln recommends an “evolving definition of diversity.” However, those committing “culture‐based crimes” should not necessarily be let off the hook. “Judge on a case‐by‐case basis,” she says (Willing, 2004). Scrutinize any egregious violation of human rights (as with the women “sinners” facing a death sentence in Bliss and The Stoning of Soraya M.). To do so, look at the larger social context. Cultural relativism has its strengths (e.g., the power of community as we saw in Witness and Grand Torino), but also its weaknesses (e.g., Ali Rizzi ruling with an iron fist in Bliss). We are creatures of our own society, traditions, religion, and culture, and have the imprints to show for it. All the same, we are not impervious to change. Cultures do evolve and restrictive practices do undergo transformation or get left behind. A culture need not have a stranglehold on its members. As Bliss shows, the very members of a culture with morally‐suspect practices can play a central role in effecting change. We see this truth in our next spotlight movie, even though it takes places in a very different place, with different sets of dilemmas. This is Boyz N the Hood (1991).

Short Takes: Boyz N the Hood It’s 1984 and we meet three young men, Tre, Ricky, and Doughboy who live in a tough, poor and mostly black neighborhood called South Central in Los Angeles. Tre has come to live with his father after his mother gets fed up with his behavior problems. Furious Styles, his father, is a strict disciplinarian and has strong views about what Tre needs in order to be a man. Ricky is an athlete with a future and the apple of his mother’s eye. Doughboy is one of those kids who don’t seem to have a chance to go straight and, wherever he turns, things screw up. Caught shoplifting he ends up in jail. Seven years go by (we jump forward to 1991) and the boys are now teenagers. Doughboy is out of prison and hanging out with his pals. His life is pretty aimless, with far more time on his hands than is good for him. Drugs and gangs are a daily reality. The battles between the gangs have taken their

2.2.indd 144

12/9/2011 6:39:21 PM

2.2 Cultural Relativism 145 toll. Retaliation upon retaliation is the name of the game. It’s frontier justice through a distorting lens. It’s a wonder anyone makes it out of childhood in this gritty inner city. Boyz N the Hood shows the paths of the three friends. Tre is doing well in school and seems on track for college. His father is very much involved in his life. Ricky is on track for an athletic scholarship and is being recruited by USC. He just needs a good enough score on the SAT. Doughboy doesn’t impress anyone and his future is about as dim as his present. He’s one of those guys who falls through the cracks. When Ricky becomes another victim of gang violence and is murdered by the Crips, Doughboy vows revenge. Tre hankers to join in the bloodbath and gets hold of his father’s gun. He thereby risks becoming another statistic. The movie shows us the racial inequalities the three friends are up against. The drugs and alcohol, poverty, and gang violence are all obstacles to be overcome. Furious, whose name is particularly apt, has a lot to say about the inequities he sees. He wonders, “Why is it that there is a gun shop on almost every corner in this community?” He answers, “I’ll tell you why. For the same reason that there is a liquor store on almost every corner in the black community. Why? They want us to kill ourselves.” From his perspective, it’s a miracle any black person makes it out of the ghetto. The ultimate test for Tre and Doughboy is what to do about Ricky’s death. Should Tre follow his gut and join Doughboy in a shoot‐em‐up? Should he go down the “eye for an eye” route and kiss his own future goodbye? How far does loyalty go? The subculture of gangs is caught up in their group identity in ways that parallel the Turkish village in Bliss. Customs and traditions wield a power that is hard to shake off. As much as Meryem and Cemel were snared by antiquated and misogynist values, Tre and Doughboy are trapped by the gang mentality that surrounds them. Director John Singleton became the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for both directing and an original screenplay. In a 2011 interview he said the movie was a cinematic version of rap “sounding the alarm about an untenable situation for people living in a particular part of Los Angeles.” He added, “I couldn’t rhyme. I wasn’t a rapper. So I made this movie,” Singleton says (Swanson, 2011).

Short Takes: The Godfather The Godfather (1972) may be 40 or so years old, but its power has not diminished. Like Boyz N the Hood, The Godfather shows the seductive quality of guns and the way that violence generates more violence. One action can quickly set in motion a reaction, with vengeance and retribution an ever‐present reality.

2.2.indd 145

12/9/2011 6:39:22 PM


Seeing the Light

There’s also the family thing: with gangs carving out territory and demanding allegiance in Boyz N the Hood, the connections between gang members get as tight as family. This underlies the need for revenge when one of the members is struck down. In The Godfather five crime families are carving out their territory. The movie follows one of those families, the Corleones, in the years just after World War II. Vito Corleone is the aging Godfather who has no moral qualms about the family’s ties to politicians and gambling, where “no one gets hurt.” He demands loyalty and is known to keep his promises. When he meets resistance, he has a most effective means of persuasion. He makes an offer they can’t refuse. This is vividly brought home when media mogul, Jack Woltz refuses to give Corleone’s godson Johnny Fontane the starring role in a movie. Corleone’s “son” and lawyer Tom Hagen pays Woltz a visit and makes little headway. When ordered to leave, Tom thanks Woltz for the nice dinner and asks for a ride to the airport to return to New York. He gives no hint of the horror awaiting Woltz; namely, to awaken in his luxurious bed to discover blood on his pajamas. It gets worse. At the foot of the bed is the bloody head of Woltz’s prize horse. Fontane gets the part. Drugs are another matter, however. Here’s where people can get hurt. Attempts to get the godfather to come on board to the big money‐maker (hard drugs like heroin) are rebuffed. As we know by now, the gangster underworld is not about making nice. Corleone’s refusal costs him. He is shot multiple times and left for dead. He survives, but just barely. Thus begins the transition of his youngest son, Michael, to become head of the family. Like the world of Tre, Doughboy, and Ricky, with its gang values, the world of Michael Corleone is defined by loyalties and enforced by violence. The violence is not within the “letter of the law,” its acceptability is relative to the subculture of which it is a part. Guns, guns, and more guns are readily available. We never hear it said, “Shit, darn it, I can’t get revenge tonight; I’m completely out of bullets and left my gun over at Sammy’s.” Access to guns never seems to be an issue. Nor is the will to use them, with few exceptions, such as Tre reversing his decision to join Doughboy in avenging Ricky’s death. With the Corleones, in contrast, decisions seem to be irreversible. This we see with Tessio’s request for leniency when revealed to be a traitor. Tom politely rejects Tessio’s plea, as if discussing a business arrangement. “Can you get me off the hook, Tom? For old times’ sake?” Tom shakes his head, “Can’t do it, Sally.” Nothing personal. The axe is about to fall, but, hey, no hard feelings. That’s what we see in these two films and especially in The Godfather. It is just business. Any betrayal, any double‐cross, any lack of loyalty to the family (or the gang, in Boyz N the Hood) results in swift and certain punishment. It’s as

2.2.indd 146

12/9/2011 6:39:22 PM

2.2 Cultural Relativism 147 predictable as the chimes of Big Ben. The rules, expectations, and moral codes are spelled out without any room for confusion. Remember that scene in The Godfather when Sonny (Santino) voices his opinion about dealing drugs? After Vito Corleone turns down Sollozzo’s offer to come into the drug trade, he rakes Sonny over the coals. Sonny voiced a different opinion from that of the Godfather in front of people who weren’t family members. Any dissension within the family should not be disclosed to others. Both the channels of authority and the various roles are well defined—and Sonny is not going to change that. In the world of gangs (Boyz N the Hood) and mobsters (The Godfather), men and women enjoy each other’s company but appear to have no business relationships. Power falls into categories. Each thing has its place. Women have power and influence within families, but not “the family,” the crime family. It’s a male world—one that is closed to women. This is apparent when Kay confronts Michael, seeking some answers. He turns to her and says, “This one time I’ll let you ask me about my affairs.” She asks, “Is it true? Is it?” Michael doesn’t blink, lying through his teeth, “No.” Kay is relieved. This is what she wanted to hear. That she next sees Michael being honored as the new Godfather makes her aware that it doesn’t all add up. Both The Godfather and Boyz N the Hood take us into a subculture built on loyalty to a “family.” It demands obedience and sacrifice, and the willingness to subvert one’s own will to that of the group. Those who dare to challenge the Godfather (like Sonny) or refuse a “request” from the Godfather (like Woltz) come to regret their noncompliance. In our next outtake, we see an individual who straddles two worlds. That world of his family is rooted in a culture and tradition that he wants little to do with. He prefers to fit in with his contemporaries, until a family crisis (as with Michael Corleone) pulled him in another direction.

Outtakes: The Namesake We all know someone who thinks they must have been adopted, so different do they feel from their family. Gogol in The Namesake (2006) is such a person. His father and mother are transplanted East Indians, whereas Gogol is about as Western as they come. “Disdain” may be too strong a word for his view of his parent’s traditional ways, but “discomfort” is not. Gogol turns away from his immigrant‐parents’ values and lifestyle. He dresses Western, has a Western girlfriend, and reacts to his parents like they were “primitive” natives. Their ways are an embarrassment to Gogol, as are his father’s attempts to discuss Gogol’s name. His name epitomizes his dislikes about his parents’ customs and how he differs from his American friends. Scenes show us that Gogol would like to trade himself in for a Western model.

2.2.indd 147

12/9/2011 6:39:22 PM


Seeing the Light

Gogol is on a crash course with life. By distancing himself from his family’s customs and Indian traditions, he ends up defining himself in the negative, as a “not‐this“ and “not‐that.” Gogol is “not like his parents,” “not into Indian food and clothes,” “not about to follow his father’s career path,” and “not interested in those dark women with a dot on their foreheads.” He has even rejected his name (thus is “not‐Gogol”), calling himself Nikhil. He is “not East Indian” other than by birth. Like Jennifer in Pleasantville who insisted she was related to her brother “only on my parents’ side,” Gogol is East Indian only on his parents’ side. The unexpected death of his father sets in motion a journey of identity for Gogol/Nikhil. And the movie tells the tale. Its insights into the intersection of cultural identity and personal identity merit our attention as we try to understand the various factors in constructing one’s sense of “self.” Furthermore, it’s worth noting that—like many other movies based on novels—it’s best not to think the one is a mirror image of the other. Movies are movies and not “just” words on a page. The power of images, of music, of the way the lines are delivered can bring about a divergence that leaves the novel far behind. One is not necessarily better than the other—but they are different and the medium of movies stands in a realm of its own.

Works Cited Birsch, Douglas (2002) Ethical Insights, 2nd edition. Boston: McGraw‐Hill. Franzen, Jonathan (2010) A Reporter at Large, “Emptying the Skies.” The New Yorker, July 26, 2010. Fieser, James (2000) Moral Philosophy Through the Ages. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield. Giuliani, Fr. John, “Native American Themed Art Work.” http://www.bridgebuilding. com/catalog/jg1.html (accessed August 20, 2011). The Guardian (2011) “France Begins Ban on Niqab and Burqa.” April 11, 2011.‐begins‐burqa‐niqab‐ ban (accessed August 20, 2011). Harris, C.E., Jr. (2007) Applying Moral Theories. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. McConnell, Terrance C. (1981) “Moral Absolutism and the Problem of Hard Cases.” The Journal of Religious Ethics, 9(2), Fall 1981, pp. 286–297. http://libres.uncg. edu/ir/uncg/f/T_McConnell_MoralAbsolutism_1981.pdf (accessed August 20, 2011). Mohamed, Feisal G. (2010) “The Burqa and the Body Electric.” The New York Times, July 28, 2010. Nussbaum, Martha (2010) “Veiled Threats?” The New York Times, July 11, 2010. Renteln, Alison (2010) Cultural Defense. New York: Oxford University Press. Swanson, Tim (2011) “20 years later, ‘Boyz N the Hood’ still powerful.” The Los Angeles Times, July 26, 2011 la‐et‐boyz‐anniv‐20110726,0,5172888.story (accessed September 11, 2011). Willing, Richard (2004) “Courts Asked to Consider Culture.” USA Today, May 25, 2004.

2.2.indd 148

12/9/2011 6:39:22 PM

2.2 Cultural Relativism 149

Online Resources BBC “BBC Ethics Guide: Honour Crimes.” A discussion of murdering those accused of bringing shame upon their families or communities. honourcrimes/ (accessed August 20, 2011). “In Our Time: Relativism.” Radio 4, January 19, 2006. Host Melvyn Bragg, Barry Smith, Jonathan Rée, and Kathleen Lennon discuss controversies surrounding relativism, including culturally specific practices such as female infanticide. http:// (accessed August 20, 2011). Carnegie Council (2005) “This Forest Is Ours.” The story of a Cultural Conflict. The Kenyan government views the Mukogodo forest as a strategic national resource. The indigenous Yiaaku view the Mukogodo as a cultural heritage tied to their tribe’s life. April 22, 2005. dialogue/2_12/section_1/5140.html (accessed August 20, 2011). Ethics Web. Eric Pettifor looks at an ethical dilemma on a reburial controversy, 1995. (accessed August 20, 2011). Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. “Of Headhunters and Soldiers: Separating Cultural and Ethical Relativism.” Renato Rosaldo discusses cultural versus ethical relativism. (accessed August 20, 2011). Medline Plus. “Domestic Violence.” domesticviolence.html (accessed August 20, 2011). Swoyer, Chris. “Relativism.” A 2003 overview by of a family of views on relativism (last modified October 2010). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato. (accessed August 20, 2011). Urban Institute. (accessed August 20, 2011).

Discussion Questions 1. What can be gained or lost in presenting race conflicts? Can movies help resolve racial tensions in our society? 2. How do movies portray relationships of power? Do you think cultural relativism can explain how power takes root? 3. In what ways do screen images of families (real or symbolic) reflect societal attitudes around race, class, and gender? Discuss the portrayal of the family in any of the films here. 4. English professor Michele Wallace says she’s uneasy about the portrayal of single black mothers in Boyz N the Hood. We never find out what Tre’s mother does for a living, whether Doughboy’s mother works, is on welfare or what. Is she right to be concerned? 5. As Gran Torino shows, crimes against women and children can be tools of vengeance between warring males. As Bliss shows, women are sometimes punished or placed in a lower moral status after being victims of rape. How do movies give us insight into the interface between (pick one: sex and morality, or oppression and violence? 6. As we saw in this chapter with films like The Namesake, culture is not always a welcome part of our identity. How do movies help us decide what parts of our cultural roots we should hang onto and what parts we should discard?

2.2.indd 149

12/9/2011 6:39:22 PM



SPOTLIGHT: The Sea Inside SPOTLIGHT: Outbreak, Minority Report Short Takes: The Manchurian Candidate, Torchwood: Children of Earth, and Secrecy Outtakes: The Star Chamber, and Inception

Oh my God! It’s our African friend. It’s back. We have to be very careful now. We wiped out a whole camp to keep this bug secret. Lock it up. Shelve it. You know about this, I know about this, nobody else. —Outbreak (Director National Secrecy Archives): There is a deep well of evil in the human soul and you dip back into it in extreme conditions, and what secrecy allowed was for them to dip [back into that well]. —Secrecy


Perhaps you remember that scene in Outbreak (1995) when the sleazy Major General McClintock orders the firebombing of African village in which a highly contagious Ebola‐like virus has killed off many of the inhabitants. Almost 30 years later, the virus has mutated and is now airborne. It has been brought into the USA on a cargo ship by an infected monkey which was sold to a pet store. At that point residents of the town of Cedar Creek, California, must contend with the disease as it quickly spreads from one person to the next. McClintock is ready to take extreme measures here too. He institutes a quarantine, uses the Army’s resources to corral the residents, and then sets the stage to firebomb the area. Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

2.3.indd 150

12/9/2011 6:38:47 PM

2.3 Utilitarianism 151 By now we’ve come to see that McClintock is quite the despicable figure. However, not all would oppose his reasoning, given the potential for a widespread epidemic. On the other hand, there is an alternative in the serum he has kept hidden away, but it wouldn’t be a good career move for him to reveal it. As it turns out, McClintock has some skeletons in his closet and he has a lot to lose by the truth coming out. Part of the reason the film works so well is that our hero, Colonel Sam Daniels, is doing all he can to find a cure and stop the clock (and deal with McClintock along the way!).

The Ethical Framework: Utilitarianism The ethical theory McClintock subscribes to is called Utilitarianism. The guiding force behind this view is to do a risk/benefit assessment when faced with an ethical dilemma, treating the end or goal as the most important part of the equation. Good intentions and the means taken to achieve those ends are of lesser importance. As a result, Utilitarians fall within Consequentialism. Here’s how this works: If the Hillside Strangler rang the doorbell and inquired if there was anyone home he could get his hands on, a Consequentialist would have no qualms about concealing the fact that the entire family was in the living room watching TV. The goal to protect one’s family is more important to Consequentialists than the moral duty to be honest. No problem! Consequentialists wouldn’t blink an eye about lies used in the service of such goals as saving lives. As philosopher Wayne Yuen (2009) puts it, “Killing, lying, even nuclear war could be morally permissible acts, so long as the consequences are more favorable than other alternatives” (p. 162). Most prominent among the Consequentialists are Utilitarians. The three superstars are: Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and G. E. Moore. All subscribe to a “Principle of Utility” that we ought to choose that act that would result in the greatest pleasure/happiness/good for the greatest number of people. Bentham suggested we maximize pleasure, Mill favored happiness (= social benefit), and Moore favored maximizing good. All three emphasized the benefits to society over the individual, as the goal was to help the most while harming the least. There’s no expectation to benefit 100 percent of the people. That individual rights may suffer a bit here or there, so be it. If we could improve the society so that most people would benefit, then we should do so. One criticism of Utilitarianism is that choosing utility may result in injustice and the disregarding of individual rights. That’s probably the most worrisome concern of maximizing the happiness or good of the majority. Indeed, a Utilitarian approach to crime would seem to tolerate, if not endorse, stiff sentencing guidelines and even the death penalty so long as it could be demonstrated that such measures deter crime and remove potentially dangerous

2.3.indd 151

12/9/2011 6:38:47 PM


Seeing the Light

people from the general population. But, as you know, occasionally an innocent person is incarcerated or even executed. What then? Mill tries to balance the quest for social benefits while retaining a just society and upholding individual rights. This is not always easy, as we see with the death penalty. Mill thinks the society, as a whole, is better off if laws and policies are fair‐minded and just. Thus, moral decision‐making should proceed by optimizing social benefits, without introducing any chaos or lawlessness. He  sought to maximize benefits—the common good—for as many people as possible. Mill’s goal was to offer an ethical theory, Utilitarianism. In his autobiography he wrote, “The deep‐rooted selfishness which forms the general character of the existing state of the society is so deeply rooted, only because the whole course of existing institutions tends to foster it” (as quoted by Anderson, 2000, p. 24). The problem Mill saw was that interest in the common good is weak because we are not accustomed to think about it. In his view, most dwell “from morning till night on things which lead only to personal advantage,” rather than the good of the society (Anderson, p. 24). Basically, Utilitarians want the most for the most: Try to maximize good/ happiness/social benefit for the majority of the people. Weigh pros and cons and do a cost–benefit assessment. They then settle upon a decision. Such decision‐ making tends to focus on the short term. It’s easier to predict consequences for the foreseeable future than for long‐term planning. You can’t please everyone, a minority may be used for the good of the majority (“most of the people”). The scope of that “most” differs for Act Utilitarians and Rule Utilitarians. Act Utilitarians want the most good or least harm for the greatest number of people directly affected by the decision. Rule Utilitarians try to maximize good and minimize harm for the greatest number of people, so they tend to look at societal benefits, not just those, such as family members, who are most impacted. Foremost of contemporary Utilitarians is Peter Singer. He has had considerable impact, however controversial may be his views. We need only look to the outcry over the euthanasia of severely disabled infants. Singer argues that, without extrinsic reasons for keeping the baby alive (e.g., strong feelings on the part of the parents), neonatal euthanasia should be permitted (Singer, 1993). However, Singer does not think that anything goes, arguing that respect for individual freedom can be carried too far. He argues, John Stuart Mill thought that the state should never interfere with the individual except to prevent harm to others. The individual’s own good, Mill thought, is not a proper reason for state intervention. But Mill may have had too high an opinion of the rationality of a human being. It may occasionally be right to prevent people from making choices that are obviously not rationally based and that we can be sure they will later regret (1993, p. 200).

Singer is not alone in thinking that people shouldn’t have the freedom to do anything they wish as long as no one else is harmed. Think about drug users: They may “only” harm themselves, but restricting substance abuse may lower

2.3.indd 152

12/9/2011 6:38:47 PM

2.3 Utilitarianism 153 the risks to others and cut down on the number of abusers. In favoring some restrictions, Singer thinks Mill’s views are too extreme. Movies have certainly presented such concerns. Think, for example, of films like The Conversation (1974), Enemy of the State (1998), and The End of Violence (1997). All three explore the zealous use of surveillance and how technology can be used to track others, as well as function as an effective tool in the hands of corrupt officials or governments. This is also true of Outbreak.

SPOTLIGHT: Outbreak Colonel Sam Daniels works on infectious diseases—really bad ones, like Ebola and Marburg. Following an outbreak of the Motaba virus in Zaire, it is carried into the USA. The host is an infected monkey smuggled aboard a tanker and subsequently sold to a pet store in Cedar Creek, California. When people start dying, Sam and his ex‐wife Robbie (who works for the Centers for Disease Control and whom Sam still loves) are in a race against time to try to find a cure and stop the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, things are looking bad in Cedar Creek, with people dropping like flies. They were scared, very scared, and, when the town was quarantined, the Army came in with heavy machinery to stop the residents from escaping the town limits and spreading the virus further. As it turns out, this is the same virus that caused Major General McClintock to authorize bombing of the African village in Zaire 25 years ago. Sam doesn’t know that McClintock and his sidekick, Army surgeon Brigadier General Billy Ford, had kept secret all those years the fact that they developed a serum called E‐1101 that was capable of curing the disease. McClintock is basically evil and about as cold‐hearted as you could get. The fact he knows the serum exists and stays silent makes him an accessory to the deaths of all those people. Judging by what we see of him, he has few redeeming qualities. It’s an extreme Utilitarianism that allows the bombing of Zaire villages and an American city without remorse. Having the serum and not sharing it is positively diabolical. Our hero, Sam, looks awfully good in comparison. We see how committed he is to help stop its spread, even at considerable risk to himself. He opposes the ruthless way the military, under McClintock’s direction, treats the residents of Cedar Creek. The soldiers don’t question the shoot‐to‐kill order intended to keep residents within the town’s borders. In addition, they do little to allay the fears on the part of the townspeople. On the other hand, Sam isn’t averse to using others for the greater good. One scene reveals this most clearly: Sam is searching for the infected monkey that carried the virus in from Zaire. Having been released in the woods, it’s now on the loose. Sam and Robbie realize that it’s the key to developing a serum to counter the virus. They need to find the monkey—and there’s no time to spare. Sam bursts in on a live TV show to ask the public for help.

2.3.indd 153

12/9/2011 6:38:47 PM


Seeing the Light

As luck would have it, a woman watching the show realizes that her daughter has been drawing the monkey and acting like it’s her new best friend. The monkey, whom the girl calls “Betsy,” is in a wooded area behind the house. This is clearly a cause for optimism. The next step is to nab Betsy. Life never being as simple as we’d like it, Sam is faced with an ethical dilemma: How much risk to the child is acceptable? The monkey is sufficiently comfortable with the girl to come up to her for a piece of fruit. Sam’s moral quandary is whether to expose the child to an infected monkey. He would be risking her life in order to—hopefully, but not certainly —shoot the monkey with a tranquilizer gun and rush it back to the lab. Here’s where weighing costs and benefits gets tricky. From a strict Utilitarian perspective, it is acceptable to sacrifice a child to catch the infected monkey and use it to find a cure. The one for the many. If it meant she would have to die in order for the monkey to be caught, so be it. By the Principle of Utility, Sam should choose that act that would result in the greatest good or happiness for the greatest number of people. Finding a cure would surely turn things around and help put an end to the spread of the virus. There is no doubt that using the girl to lure in the monkey and hopefully capture it would get the Utilitarian stamp of approval. It is interesting that Sam never seems to question this decision. It’s not obvious that he would have taken this step had it been someone else close to him, such as ex‐wife Robbie, being put at risk to trap the infected monkey. It seems as if the child, however, was deemed expendable. Meanwhile, McClintock is losing patience and is ready for the next step. Monkey or no monkey, serum or no serum, he orders the bombing of Cedar Creek.1 The pilots proceed with their cargo, heading to Cedar Creek. Time is short and Sam is not happy that his argument against bombing the town has fallen on deaf ears. A counter‐offensive is required. He decides to go around McClintock and deal direct. With his trusty underling Major Salt at his side Sam intercepts the bombers. His goal is try to persuade the pilots to turn back and not bomb Cedar Creek. He appeals to their rationality and autonomy: “If you think I’m lying, drop the bomb. If you think I’m crazy, drop the bomb. But don’t drop the bomb just because you’re following orders!” His bluff is a bit problematic (what if they do think he’s lying or crazy”?). However, his point about not just following orders is important advice. Colonel Daniels is not purely Deontological or Utilitarian in his ethical decision‐ making. When he put the child at risk to capture the “host” (Betsy the monkey), he showed a Utilitarian state of mind. She was used merely as a means to help 1

The scenes here with the bombing are reminiscent of Andromeda Strain (1971) and Contagion (2011), which also deal with scientists trying to stop a deadly virus—clearly a topic that is good for understanding the virtues of Utilitarianism.

2.3.indd 154

12/9/2011 6:38:47 PM

2.3 Utilitarianism 155 prevent the spread of the Motaba virus. When he found out that McClintock had lied about the serum E‐1101, he reacted like a Deontological ethicist, disgusted with McClintock’s dishonesty and his failure to step forward when sick people could be helped. And when he and Major Salt take off after the pilots, trying to stop them from dropping the bomb, he urges them to act as rational moral agents. Don’t follow orders, think about what you’re doing and take responsibility. Do the right thing and do not drop the bomb on innocent civilians, Sam begs. However, he plays a bit of “chicken” when he put a lot of trust in their assessment of his moral and mental acuity. Fortunately, they are persuaded and Cedar Creek is spared. McClintock and Billy Ford’s moral shortcomings catch up with them, and the host monkey does its part to save the day. It doesn’t always work out for the best, as we know from real life. Some lives aren’t saved, some corrupt and dishonest leaders are never caught, and medical advances often take longer and at a much higher price than in Outbreak. Nevertheless, Outbreak and our next movie, Minority Report, convey the importance of addressing the moral conflicts and ethical dilemmas that we face. The not‐too‐far‐in‐the‐future film Minority Report explores the ways in which technology can serve Utilitarian goals around crime prevention. It also illustrates the ways in which individual liberties can be put in jeopardy, about which Mill himself would second as a concern. Let’s see how this is done.

SPOTLIGHT: Minority Report Just think about it: Wouldn’t it be great if we could stop crimes before they happened? Sounds like a recipe for a Utopia. The trouble is, how can we be sure those crimes are really going to take place? Maybe we can’t, but if we were right most of the time, surely that would be desirable. After all, a lot of people favor the death penalty, even though not everyone convicted of a crime is guilty. The question is, how many mistakes can we live with? Utilitarians would say that a few sacrifices are acceptable if the social benefits are generally satisfactory. That’s the issue underlying Minority Report (2002). Minority Report is a futuristic tale about a government worker, John Anderton, who is the chief of a crime‐prevention unit in Washington, D.C. in the year 2054. The unit relies upon three particularly intuitive people—Agatha (the most skilled), Arthur, and Dashiell. They are called “precogs” because of their uncanny ability to see into the future. Of particular interest is their perception of evil intentions. For example, they may “see” a would‐be strangler who is stalking (or thinking about stalking!) a young woman heading home late at night or “see” a scheming assistant manager plotting the murder of the company’s accountant to get access to the petty cash, and so on.

2.3.indd 155

12/9/2011 6:38:47 PM


Seeing the Light

To minimize interference with the work of the precogs, they are kept in a well‐insulated chamber in a semi‐conscious state, sort of like fetuses in amniotic fluid. Their brains are wired into the computer system, so their visions can be projected on to a large screen for Chief Anderton to study. Once the precogs agree that a crime is about to be committed, Anderton orchestrates his team (precrime cops) to get right on it. In the rare case when the precogs do not agree, there is a “minority report.” When that occurs, the unit is guided by the precogs’ majority report. The precrime unit uses whatever means necessary to nab the soon‐to‐be perpetrator, stick a “halo” on his head to neutralize him and cart him off. This effectively stops the crime‐in‐planning right then and there. The suspect is no longer a threat and there’s another “criminal” pulled out of circulation. The political mucky‐mucks and the grateful citizens view the precrime unit most favorably, thanks to the dramatic reduction of the city’s crime rate. Of course, the means to their success effectively eliminates due process. Instead of a “trial,” we have the precogs’ judgment that this person is about to commit that crime and, thus, must be stopped. No one seems to care that people are convicted on the strength of their thoughts and desires, rather than explicit acts. It’s the thought that can kill you. The equation is this: “To think bad thoughts will necessarily and probably lead to evil deeds.” Supposing a wish to do harm did lead to actually doing someone harm, then such precrime cops keep the society safe. The problem is that thoughts and actions are not one and the same. This gives rise to questions about the connection between belief and conduct. As we see, the precrime unit assumes the one (belief/thought) leads to the other (conduct/action); otherwise, they could not justifiably arrest someone on the basis of thoughts or beliefs. This assumption is not universally held. As the Canada Supreme Court ruled, “The proper place to draw the line is generally between belief and conduct. The freedom to hold beliefs is generally broader than the freedom to act on them.” In other words, the freedom to adhere to beliefs should be respected. “Acting on those beliefs, however, is a different matter” (Canada Supreme Court, 2001). This distinction was drawn earlier in a California case about the Unification Church’s conduct: The court also ruled on the belief/conduct distinction and, similarly, held that conduct can be proscribed without violating any religious (or other) beliefs (see Molko v. Holy Spirit Association, 1988). In Minority Report, the precrime unit has not kept that difference in mind. Quite the opposite. There is no attempt whatsoever to distinguish thoughts or beliefs from actions or conduct. Under the guidance of Director Lamar Burgess and with the seeming endorsement of the city’s echelon of movers and shakers, the goal of lowering crime rates justifies even questionable means to reach the desired consequence. This is simple Utilitarianism at work. We want to clean up the streets and make them safe for our citizens, and we’ll do what it takes to get there. Unfortunately, the road to that utopian ideal has dystopian potholes.

2.3.indd 156

12/9/2011 6:38:47 PM

2.3 Utilitarianism 157 One such problem is shown when Chief Anderton himself goes from top dog to a wanted man. As it turns out Director Burgess is not as virtuous as he seemed. He is sort of like Major General McClintock in Outbreak. Like McClintock, Burgess has some malfeasance in his background. In his case, his goals were deemed more important than his commitment to integrity and justice. He appeared to have no qualms about eliminating obstacles to his success, including the human ones. He and McClintock are cut from the same cloth in their fundamental disregard of others. The action then centers on Anderton and precog Agatha (the most talented of the three), who have to evade capture so the truth can come out. Once it does, the game is up for Burgess and for the precrime unit itself. The affair exposes the dubious reasoning that an effective way to stop crime was to stop those who think bad thoughts. Before we go any further, let’s ask ourselves: Sure this is a futuristic tale, but isn’t it a bit far‐fetched? How much truth is there to the portrayal of key figures in the military and law enforcement willing to sacrifice a minority to maximize societal well‐being and peace of mind? We may pooh‐pooh the notion that films like Minority Report and Outbreak deserve to be taken seriously; that they are merely dystopian figments of a filmmaker’s imagination. Well, yes and no. They are dramatic movies, not documentaries. But they tap into the sort of Utilitarian rationale that has legitimized abuse and torture. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek (2007) speaks to this phenomenon in the treatment of high‐profile detainees in the war on terror, saying, For the first time in a great many years, torture was normalized—presented as something acceptable. The ethical consequences of it should worry us all. … It is as if not only the terrorists themselves, but also the fight against them, now has to proceed in a gray zone of legality. We thus have de facto “legal” and “illegal” criminals: those who are to be treated with legal procedures (using lawyers and the like), and those who are outside legality, subject to military tribunals or seemingly endless incarceration.

According to a Harper’s Index feature in March 2010, 54 percent of Americans think torture is “sometimes” or “often” justified to gain information from terror suspects (p. 11). Torture, by this majority view, is thought to be a means to a worthwhile end. This “gray zone,” as Zizek notes, includes military tribunals and seemingly endless incarceration (= indefinite detentions). This is not that far from the dystopian vision of Minority Report, with the precrime unit swooping in on suspected precriminals and taking them off to their “endless incarceration.” Minority Report shows that this is a fool’s errand, or worse. Too many innocent people like John Anderton are swept up and carried away, never heard from again. The film serves as a dramatic testimony against, not an endorsement of, an over‐zealous Utilitarianism.

2.3.indd 157

12/9/2011 6:38:47 PM


Seeing the Light

With our next movie we are introduced to someone who was used as a means to an end. He comes to realize that he and others were unwittingly used in an experiment with diabolical consequences. These subjects did not consent, much less give informed consent. Their experience of the dark side of Teleological Ethics makes for gripping drama, as well as providing valuable insights into moral reasoning run amok.

Short Takes: The Manchurian Candidate Both versions of The Manchurian Candidate (1962, 2004) focus on two characters, Ben Marco and Raymond Shaw. They were subjects of a military experiment in mind control. The original version centered on the Korean War, the sequel on the Gulf War, with both exploring the perils of brainwashing. It is hard to think of a bright side to brainwashing; its use in The Manchurian Candidate is chilling. With simple cues (such as a command or a visual image like that of a playing card) Marco and Shaw were programmed to follow orders. These weren’t innocuous orders like helping with the yard work—they were malevolent orders, like assassinating political opponents and terminating those in the way of achieving that goal. Some think human killing machines could be useful, particularly if they can avoid suspicion. If they could be used politically or to acquire powerful positions all the better. Just think of candidates who unerringly follow orders without a second thought. It’s a Machiavellian dream come true. Greil Marcus (2002) remarks how many times this film has been cited to explain certain incidents. For example, a Chinese magazine as well as a Syrian defense minister wondered if Monica Lewinsky had been sent to Washington “on a mission to entrap the president and destabilize the government” (p. 12). He cites another example: when President Clinton needed to think he often played a (card) game of Solitaire. This is reminiscent of Raymond Shaw being ordered to play Solitaire, which would then act as the first trigger before receiving an order. Playing the card game starts the ball rolling. Both movies are unsettling. As Marcus writes, “You sense… that this movie you’re watching, a movie that promised no more than an evening’s good time, can go anywhere, in any direction—you sense that there’s no way to predict what’s going to happen next, how it’s going to happen, why it’s going to happen” (p. 27). Marcus notes that the 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate was yanked out of circulation after JFK’s assassination, given the movie involves assassinating a presidential candidate. It was not re‐released until 1988. Since the movie was made there have been a host of political assassinations or attempted assassinations (John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, George Wallace, Harvey Milk, and Gerald Ford). The assassins or near‐assassins are individuals (Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, James Earl

2.3.indd 158

12/9/2011 6:38:47 PM

2.3 Utilitarianism 159 Ray, Elijah Muhammed, Sirhan Sirhan, Arthur Bremer, Dan White, Squeaky Fromme) who come across as pawns in someone else’s game. For Marcus, they could have stepped right out of The Manchurian Candidate. We see how prescient the movie is and how it is still mind‐bending. That there are governments and shady groups of all sort inclined to use trained killers is pretty much a well‐known fact. The Manchurian Candidate is as relevant now as in 1962. Consider the use of political assassins to take out perceived threats to the status quo. There are surely Utilitarian benefits to maximize the number of enemies killed in an attempt to make the world a safer or more politically safer place. That mistakes happen is deemed morally acceptable. By the Principle of Utility, if we can maximize happiness or good for the greatest number of people by using brainwashing or other forms of distancing soldiers or assassins from the targets, then Manchurian‐style techniques aren’t without their value. The movie raises important concerns for us to think about. In his book on the film, Marcus judges The Manchurian Candidate to be a piece of the folklore of the United States (p. 14). We can see why.

Short Takes: Torchwood: Children of Earth A BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) mini‐series deserves mention for its exploration of Utilitarian decision‐making gone awry. Torchwood: Children of Earth (2009) shows how mistakes of the past can bubble up like mutant frogs in toxic waters and how regrets simply can’t change a thing. The series is set in England in the present. One day, out of the blue and without warning all the children of the world stop in their tracks, frozen in place. In a few minutes, they resume normalcy, but the next day it happens again. This time they open their mouths and say in unison, “We, we are coming.” As it turns out the “we” that are coming and are using children as their voice boxes, are an alien species vastly more powerful than humans. These aliens aren’t friendly either. They are heartless, ruthless, and without the slightest concern for the humans whose children they want to use like a recreational drug. A summit of key leaders and military honchos reveals that this is not the first time the aliens have paid us a visit and taken children. We learn that in 1965 they successfully persuaded the British to hand over 12 children. This deal was made in secret—no transparency there! That earlier decision has come back to bite us in the butt when the aliens return for lots more children. They now want 10 percent of the children of the earth. The failure to do so, claims the “456” (= the aliens) will lead to mass extermination. To drive home their point, they release a virus to demonstrate how quickly they can kill a building full of people.

2.3.indd 159

12/9/2011 6:38:47 PM


Seeing the Light

We all know the refrain, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” and wonder if it applies to alien species. The problem is that having once cut a deal and surrendered children in the past, it’s hard to draw a line in the sand now. This is exacerbated by the aliens’ superior strength and abilities. So what should be done? Should they hand over a tenth of the children to these druggie aliens? Things are looking pretty dire. Here’s where Torchwood comes in. Torchwood is a group of covert operatives whose job is to thwart paranormal interference with life on earth. Hopefully, they can foil the plan and send the extraterrestrial dopers into a black hole. In the meantime, officials have been cowed into a trade‐off—Torchwood is working on the side to prevent this. Representatives from various nations agree to a Utilitarian “bargain” and try to make it tolerable to the general public. Although Torchwood: Children of Earth is fictional (“just a movie”!) there are vital lessons to be learned. The behind‐the‐scenes negotiating is part of the movie’s strength, by showing how slimy people can be when they can avoid the consequences. For instance, British Prime Minister Brian Green wants the public not to worry about handing over the children, so he offers up a pack of lies. Staring right into the camera, he says all the children will be getting a vaccine. To convince them that this is safe, he informs his Permanent Secretary to the Home Office (who is horrified) that his two daughters will be among those sacrificed to the aliens. As Torchwood shows, where the lines are drawn is part of the problem. Torchwood: Children of Earth shows that a decision made in secrecy and justified on Utilitarian grounds could be used as a precedent, a rather monstrous precedent at that. That’s one reason transparency is preferable to secrecy. Utilitarians would say that acting for the benefit of the society is for the best and if a few must be sacrificed to accomplish that goal, no problem. However, if sacrificing the few results in long‐term servitude to commitments, policies, or procedures that tear at the very fabric of a society and brings about grave consequences, then we need to rethink the options. Weighing the pros and cons and the long‐term effects may lead to paralysis, as Michael S. Russo (2000) suggests: “Therefore if we are to be able to make useful moral decisions, we need to have some clear and concrete rules that can be appealed to in various circumstances.” Clearly, this would have been beneficial when the aliens set out their demands back in 1965.

Short Takes: Secrecy We don’t have to be fans of The X Files or Dr Who to worry about conspiracies or misinformation campaigns. As they say, it’s not paranoia if conspiracies really do exist. As both Outbreak and Minority Report show with regard to the government and The Island shows with regard to private industry, the cloak of secrecy can

2.3.indd 160

12/9/2011 6:38:48 PM

2.3 Utilitarianism 161 shield wrongdoing as much as protect. The documentary Secrecy (2009) examines this issue and whether the government has the “privilege” to decide what can be kept secret. On the surface, the society may be better off with strict controls about what can be divulged, e.g., to the media, particularly with regard to global conflicts and terrorism. The concept of “state secrets” is traced back to a 1952 case, United States v. Reynolds. The case involved a B‐29 falling out of the sky on October 6, 1948, killing nine people. Among them were three civilians (Robert Reynolds was one) testing electronic equipment. The widows wanted to know what happened, but the government did not wish to disclose documents, claiming that they were confidential. The Supreme Court was persuaded that there’s a place for “state secrets” and for restricting access to certain kinds of information. Reynolds was presented as a top‐secret mission so secret that even the Supreme Court justices were not permitted to view the government’s evidence. The Court ruled that, “the government may withhold information for reasons of national security even when that information is vital to the plaintiff ’s case.” Evidently the government has used this privilege over 600 times to block the distribution of information on the grounds of national security. This includes recent cases, such as Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. However, invoking a “state secrets” privilege could result in someone being convicted and given the death penalty without any other evidence than the assertion of wrongdoing (e.g., of terrorist activity or affiliation with known terrorists). The movie traces the history of governmental secrecy from the Manhattan Project’s development of the atom bomb up to the Iraq War. It makes the case for more transparency and less secrecy, without eliminating it as an option. In short, we need to exercise much more caution in using the “state secrets” privilege than has been the case. The historical tidbits are interesting. “Secrecy is the word to remember,” says a sign at Los Alamos, where the atom bomb was developed. We learn that Vice President Truman didn’t find out about the Manhattan project and the creation of the atomic bomb until he became president. The core motivation about secrecy is control and power, says Thomas Blanton, Director of the National Secrecy Archive. The secrecy system boomed, not only then (when the atom bomb was being developed), but also in the years that followed. So, what’s wrong with secrecy? One answer has to do with compartmentalizing secrecy privileges, as shown in knowledge obtained prior to 9/11. Steven Aftergood of the Government Secrecy Project notes that what the CIA learned was not shared with the FBI agents in the field, thus hampering the ability to connect the dots around terrorist activity. Aftergood points out that secrecy isn’t new. “The act of secrecy,” he argues, “is a primordial gesture—the first thing Adam and Eve did after eating from the tree of knowledge is to cover their nakedness.” A Utilitarian would look at the issue of secrecy and ask, “Does secrecy bring about the

2.3.indd 161

12/9/2011 6:38:48 PM


Seeing the Light

maximum amount of good or social benefit for the greatest number of people? Does it bring about the least harm?” To answer these questions, we need to consider the social context. If we are in a democracy with an informed public and we want citizens protected from global harms yet able to make informed decisions, then how much access to information is called for? The movie makes a case for knowledge over ignorance and for access to information over secrecy. The argument is basically Rule Utilitarian: We should want our decisions to act as a precedent for others to follow. This means that we should want intelligence agencies and other countries to subscribe to the Rule of Law, to follow the Geneva Conventions, and to allow citizens access to information in all but the most extreme cases. The implication is that state secrets privileges and government immunity could result in people—even our own citizens—tried and put to death without ever knowing the evidence against them. This scenario violates Mill’s notion of liberty. It could also lead to a tyrannical form of government that does not have the best interests of the majority in mind. In the short term, secrecy may be appealing but in the long run the society is not better off. In addition, a small, tightly controlled group could, with enough power and secrecy rights, assassinate foreigners and citizens alike without others having the right to challenge their actions. They could eliminate all their “enemies” on the basis of “evidence” they need never provide. Their goals may not be in accord with the values of the majority or seek the greatest social benefit. Among those interviewed is Lieutenant Commander Charles Swift [Navy], attorney for Salim Ahmed Hamdan in the US Supreme Court case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. He raises three points: 1. 2.

If you can be the executioner without telling anyone about it… what’s left? If I can decide the reasons you will be held in jail for the rest of your life and I alone get to know them and I don’t have to tell anyone, what’s left? 3. When laid bare, their argument is, there is no limit on presidential power. The president gets to decide his power and no one else. Swift points out that, “When things are secret, we don’t have to be responsible. We can live our lives without taking responsibility for our country… [But] we are all responsible. We get the country we deserve, because we chose it.” The movie helps us see why this is the case.

Outtakes: Star Chamber Judge Hardin, the hero of Star Chamber (1983), is disgusted that there are guilty‐seeming criminals who escape punishment due to legal slip‐ups. Falling under the influence of his smarmy colleague and ex‐teacher, Hardin joins a

2.3.indd 162

12/9/2011 6:38:48 PM

2.3 Utilitarianism 163 “Star Chamber.” This is a group of judges who gather at regular intervals to mete out punishment after “trying” a suspect. Initially Hardin thinks this is just what the doctor ordered. He’s sick of defendants going free due to such technicalities as invalid warrants, improper searches, and the like. Hardin thus finds the Star Chamber a refreshing change. Any number of armchair Utilitarians would be glad that the creeps get what’s coming to them when a hit man takes them out with little or no warning. This is an ad hoc death penalty put into motion to make up for the seeming shortcomings of a legal system that puts proper procedure over just deserts. However, there is a fly in the ointment. Two petty criminals thought to be serial murderers of young boys turn out to be innocent. Unquestionably so. Unfortunately, the Star Chamber has already issued its edict and the wheels of “justice” have been set in motion. There’s no mechanism for an appeal. What’s Hardin supposed to do now? He calls an urgent meeting, but the judges in the Star Chamber want nothing to do with a reversal. They subscribe to the Utilitarian view that mistakes do happen, but overall their deliberations and resulting punishment are defensible. However, a self‐respecting Utilitarian would criticize the underhanded nature of the Star Chamber. They would say that the society would be better off with a process that reviews such “failures” of the justice system and is done openly, not in secrecy, as here. As the documentary Secrecy recommends, we have a lot to gain from more transparency. Hardin makes it his mission to stop the two thugs from being killed and to expose the Star Chamber. Doing so, however commendable, is fraught with danger. Changing such institutions is not easy.

Outtakes: Inception In the quest to maximize good or happiness for the greatest number of people is the sky the limit? Is anything permissible, so long as there’s no permanent harm to others? It’s not always clear where a Utililitarian would draw the line. The movie Inception (2010) puts that to the test in presenting the story of a man, Dom Cobb, whose expertise is manipulating dreams. Cobb makes a living out of extracting—stealing—ideas from other people’s dreams, committing a form of “corporate espionage,” as Warner Brothers (2010) calls it. He is highly regarded for his talents. This leads to a greater challenge; namely to implant an idea, rather than steal one. This means the “victim” (= implant recipient) would awaken and erroneously believe that he’s just had this great idea! He wouldn’t know that Cobb implanted this clever idea the night before while mucking about his mind. It may seem a stretch for a movie about dreams to be an action film, but Inception (2010) is certainly that. Here, a master at stealing ideas from dreams is asked, “If you can steal an idea, why can’t you plant one there instead?” It would be hard to resist such a

2.3.indd 163

12/9/2011 6:38:48 PM


Seeing the Light

temptation. Challenges being what they are, Cobb whips together a skilled team in no time. If they succeed, the opportunities are endless and very rewarding. Corporations could obtain competitors’ ideas before they get into production. And by implanting a bad idea they could steer them in another direction. Cobb’s work isn’t for the weak‐willed. It may not sound risky to enter another person’s dream state and help yourself to an idea or switch out good ideas for bad or useless ones. But, as Inception shows, it’s actually rather perilous and not a career move to be undertaken casually. If Cobb and his team fail, things could get very dicey and cause the team members to end up in a dream purgatory with their brains turned to mush. From a Utilitarian perspective, dream extraction and implantation would seem to have more pros than cons. Just think of the potential uses for dream surveillance: Theoretically at least, we could access vital information from political enemies, terrorists, serial killers, or others who might wreak havoc, simply by snooping in their dreams. The prospect of governments and institutions having more data at their fingertips surely has its upside. However, the fact that individuals or corporations (especially morally suspect ones) could become richer or acquire a wider global reach may not satisfy the Principle of Utility. This would need to be addressed, for instance by imposing taxes or surcharges that would be designated for worthwhile causes or social change. Any intrusion into personal privacy could be offset by societal benefits. That team members could get their minds scrambled due to some slip‐up might be regrettable, but the risk might be worth it should idea extraction or implantation be channeled for the good of the society. On the other hand, let’s not forget Mill’s principle of individual liberty. He thinks individuals should have unrestricted liberty so long as no one else is harmed. With Inception, we must consider the one doing the dream extraction/ implantation, as well as the subject whose dreams are being manipulated. In the case of dream workers, Mill would allow individuals to choose to participate if they don’t forsake their own autonomy and don’t harm others. Both sets of concerns would have to be settled before Mill could condone this. As we recall, Mill would not find it morally permissible for people to sell themselves into slavery. The question is whether this dream work is akin to slavery. If they enter dreams within dreams and get stuck in some kind of dream limbo, have they been stripped of their liberty rights? Have they lost their rationality and, with that, their freedom? And what about the person whose dream is invaded? Here’s where the issues of rationality and self‐determination come in. If someone else is stealing my ideas or sticking an alien idea into my mind, surely my rationality is under siege! How can “I” be exercising free will if my ideas are at the mercy of these interlopers? The ethical issues then get quite interesting. The movie introduces more complexity. Mazes and labyrinths are but one way we can get lost in dreams and the movie shows how Cobb and the team are

2.3.indd 164

12/9/2011 6:38:48 PM

2.3 Utilitarianism 165 constantly being confronted with that fact. The dreams they enter offer no down time, for they are treacherous places to navigate. One complication is that memories can mess with dreams. This is an ongoing problem Cobb struggles with. He barely got going on dream implantation when memories of his ex‐wife and children threatened to pull him into a quagmire. This raises more ethical questions for Utilitarians. If we assume memories can be threaded through dreams, does dream surveillance or manipulation require us to purge errant memories that pop up? In the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, both Joel and ex‐girlfriend Clementine sought to erase memories of the other. However, once Joel saw this was more problematic than he imagined, he wanted to halt the procedure. Here’s the problem: Cobb had no way to selectively erase memories. However, his memories were not harmless distractions. They interfered with his work, so Cobb’s team members were unknowingly put at risk. He knew he was obsessed with his family and that his memories were like sirens. And just as sirens lured sailors to their deaths, Cobb risked a fate akin to drowning when his sirens showed up when he was implanting dreams in someone else’s mind! It gets worse. Cobb knew his memories imposed risks in the dream work but hid this fact from his teammates. He put them in harm’s way by failing to disclose that memories cut into his attention span like a knife. Subsequently, things got awfully precarious there in dreamland. Inception leaves us to sort through all the ethical dilemmas that arise.

Works Cited Anderson, Susan Leigh (2000) On Mill. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. California Board of Equalization. 493 U.S. 378, 389 (1990). Canada Supreme Court (2001) Ruling, as quoted by Joe Woodward, “Belief and Conduct in Canada.” Liberty magazine, Nov/Dec 2001. index.php?id=591 (accessed August 23, 2011). Falzon, Christopher (2002) Philosophy Goes to the Movies. London: Routledge. Harper’s Index in Harper’s magazine, March 2010. Jackson, Julius (1993) A Guided Tour of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing. Marcus, Greil (2002) The Manchurian Candidate. London: BFI Publishing. Mill, John Stuart (1989) Autobiography. London: Penguin Classics. Molko v. Holy Spirit Association (1988) 46 Cal.3d 1092, 762 P.2d 46; 252 Cal.Rptr. 122 [S.F. No. 25038. Supreme Court of California. October 17, 1988. Russo, Michael S. (2000) “Utilitarianism in a Nutshell.” achive/russo_utilitarianism1.pdf (accessed August 23, 2011). Singer, Peter (1993) Practical Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. United States v. Reynolds, 345 U.S. 1 (1953)‐1959/ 1952/1952_21 (accessed August 23, 2011).

2.3.indd 165

12/9/2011 6:38:48 PM


Seeing the Light

Yuen, Wayne (2009) “What’s so Terrible About Judgment Day?” In Richard Brown and Kevin S. Decker, eds., Terminator and Philosophy: I’ll Be Back, Therefore I Am. New York: Wiley‐Blackwell. Warner Brothers Pictures (2010) “Inception: Storyline.” International Movie Database (accessed August 23, 2011). Zizek, Slavoj, “Knight of the Living Dead.” The New York Times, March 24, 2007. (accessed August 23, 2011).

Online Resources BBC (2006) “In Our Time: Mill” Radio 4, May 16, 2006. Host Melvyn Bragg, A. C. Grayling, Janet Radcliffe Richards, and Alan Ryan discuss Mill’s politics and social theory. (accessed August 23, 2011). Ethics Updates. “Utilitarianism.” Lawrence M. Hinman’s lectures on Utilitarianism, and list of resources. (accessed August 23, 2011). (accessed August 23, 2011). Utilitarianism Resources. (accessed August 23, 2011). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “John Stuart Mill.” Fred Wilson sets out Mill’s theory and a list of resources, 10 July 2007. (accessed August 23, 2011). “Mill’s Moral and Political Philosophy.” David Brink on Mill’s ethical theory and political philosophy, October 9, 2007.‐ moral‐political/ (accessed August 23, 2011).

Discussion Questions 1. Set out the advantages of trying to maximize the good or social benefit for the greatest number of people, citing movie examples. 2. Set out the disadvantages of focusing on societal benefit over individual rights, citing movie examples. 3. One “problem” for Utilitarians is that all kinds of questionable acts, including gross injustice and premeditated murder, appear to be justifiable on utilitarian grounds, given the right circumstances (Falzon, 2002, p. 105). Do such acts occur in this batch of movies? How might a Utilitarian respond? 4. Where do we see bad moral decisions in this chapter’s films? Which ones jump out at you? 5. What do you think of the treatment of the precogs (Minority Report) and the sort of life they have been assigned? Show how Act Utilitarianism would assess the precogs’ situation. 6. Surveying movies, we see many shady or corrupt governmental officials and military leaders. What are the most glaring examples? Should we take this as a call to (political or other) action?

2.3.indd 166

12/9/2011 6:38:48 PM


Kantian Ethics

SPOTLIGHT: Alien, The Truman Show, School of Rock Short Takes: The Official Story, Cautiva, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring Outtakes: Shattered Glass


Ripley, when I give an order I expect to be obeyed. Even if it’s against the law? DALLAS: You’re goddamn right. —Alien (The director’s cut) RIPLEY:


If his was more than just a vague ambition, if he was absolutely determined to discover the truth, there’s no way we could prevent him. —The Truman Show

Remember Alien (1979, director’s cut 2003)? It’s a nail‐biter of a take‐off on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, except here there’s one survivor and the “murderer” is an alien organism, not a homicidal maniac. Unlike those big‐eyed, large headed aliens common in Sci‐Fi films or lovable ones like “ET,” this alien is the stuff of nightmares. With a mouthful of teeth that would put Jaws to shame, it has been called a “phallic monster” on the one hand, and “vaginal teeth,” on the other.1 Freudians, Marxists, and Jungians all have a field day deciding what to make of it. There are also the religious and mythological


See, for example, Kavanagh (1990), Newton (1990), and Creed (1990).

Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

2.4.indd 167

12/9/2011 6:38:40 PM


Seeing the Light

interpretations; such as thinking of the alien as a primitive being like the Hindu goddess Kali, ready to devour the all‐too‐vulnerable humans. The alien was brought onto the space ship after crew members made unwarranted assumptions they would live (but not for long) to regret. More bad decisions followed, with horrifying consequences. Director Ridley Scott speaks of the alien as a creature with three metamorphoses, or stages: From the egg, it becomes a “face‐hugger,” after attaching itself to Kane. Then comes the “chest burster” stage, when it saws its way out of Kane in a “male birth.” By the third, the mature stage, it is a fully‐formed adult vastly stronger that its human adversaries. Only in the first two stages did the crew stand much of a chance of eliminating it. Besides its scare‐quotient, the movie has a lead character modeling Kantian ethics. However, moral reasoning that elevates principle is not always well received, as Alien shows. A number of decisions on the ship led to conflict over what criteria should count. We will see how this goes down. Kant puts a high priority on rationality and a mode of thinking that is categorical and logical; thus avoiding contradiction. All rational people are seen as moral equals. Keep in mind that Kant was referring to those who are competent and function as moral agents. Two qualities are essential—rationality and free will (volition). This would include all but one on the ship; namely Ash, the android Science Officer. The corporation did not disclose to the crew that one of their colleagues was not human. Neither were they told that the “value system” programmed into Ash did not have their best interests at heart. They had to deal with that deception while, at the same time, fighting for their lives. The movie explores the moral issues that arise. Alien opens with an image of a space ship, the Nostromo,2 returning to Earth with its crew in hypersleep. They are awakened by “Mother” the ship’s computer, supposedly because of a distress call from a distant planet LV‐426. No one seems pleased to be diverted from heading back to Earth. After all, theirs is a commercial towing vehicle and not a rescue ship. Right off we are hit with an ethical dilemma: How much do we owe strangers when it inconveniences us? The answer isn’t obvious. As result, not all seven members of the crew felt obligated to be Good Samaritans. But thinking they had received an SOS call, they grudgingly went in for a closer look. The Captain, Executive Officer, and Navigator head off to investigate the distress call. Ash, the Science Officer, monitors their progress as they enter terrain that looks both primordial and inhospitable. We can’t see any more than they can, so 2 The title of a novel by Joseph Conrad, whose works tackle such themes as trust and betrayal, and greed run amok. Script writer Walter Hill says, “I called the ship Nostromo from Conrad,” but insists there was “no particular metaphoric idea” in doing so (Valaquen, 2011). Nevertheless the ghost of Conrad haunts the film.

2.4.indd 168

12/9/2011 6:38:40 PM

2.4 Kantian Ethics 169 neither they nor the viewing audience grasp what is about to be unleashed. They make their way into a steamy enclosure, which turns out to be a breeding ground for alien life forms. Seeing rows of large waist‐high leathery pods containing fetuses, Kane can’t resist going closer. When one of the pods opens up and reveals a pulsating placenta, his curiosity overrides any sense of caution. He peers in. Faster than you can say, “Bad idea,” an octopus‐like organism springs straight up and attaches itself to Kane’s head. We later learn that it sent tentacles down Kane’s throat so he could be used to gestate the next stage of the organism. The fact that Kane ignored warning signs, such as electrical charges protecting the leathery pods, doesn’t make him any less pitiable as the first victim. Dallas and Lambert haul him back to the ship against protocol. Against the strong protests of Ellen Ripley, second in command, Ash lets them in back on the ship. Kane is placed in quarantine. The crew has no idea how ugly things will become before it is over. Alien takes us along as they try to stay alive and overcome this tenacious, powerful organism that gets loose on the ship. To provide a framework for examining the ethical issues raised here, it’s hard to beat Kant’s Deontological Ethics.

The Ethical Framework: Kantian Ethics We’re barely into the story and it’s already obvious that Ripley has a spine of steel and the Kantian Ethics to match. For Deontological ethicists like Kant, moral duty is like a beacon that lights the way in ethical decision‐making. He puts a great deal of importance on intentions and the autonomy of the subject. For Kant, rational adults are moral agents and their intentions and moral obligations drive their ethical decision‐making. The consequences are insignificant next to the cognitive aspects. Philosopher William Ian Miller argues that all this stuff about intentions should be more closely examined. He says, Here’s the thing. It is psychologically and culturally variable when and how we decide to fix what somebody’s intention was. We look at a whole range of things, … Fixing intention is a complicated thing. The person isn’t a good judge of  his own intentions. And third parties can be bad judges, though not subject to the same biases. So we have to make some social judgment as to how to judge intention and when that judgment should be made (Sommers, 2009, p. 228).

Critics find Kant too brittle and unbending with his two moral commands that we are to follow no matter what. As we may remember from the unit’s introduction, these are: The Categorical Imperative: Choose that act that you would will to become a universal law. In other words, pick the moral option that you would want every

2.4.indd 169

12/9/2011 6:38:41 PM


Seeing the Light

rational person to follow. For Kant, that excuses children and incompetent adults from the equation, but the rest of us should try to universalize moral decision‐making. Philosopher Hilary Putnam (1983) contends that Kant was thinking in social more than individual terms here. Specifically, “the fundamental principle is that the maxim of one’s action should be one to which others can be imagined as consenting.” Presumably, other (rational) moral agents would concur with the decision; thus, the idea of it being a universal one. Ripley’s behavior is in sync with Kant’s policy, that everyone should will ethical decisions to be a universal law. For her, the Categorical Imperative is the way to go. Therefore, the rule prohibiting Kane from reentering the ship with a parasite on his face was for the good of all, regardless of the consequences. As Ripley tells Ash, who called the alien “a tough little son of a bitch,” by breaking quarantine “you risk everybody’s life.” Ash admits that maybe he did risk everybody’s life in letting Kane on board, but it was a risk he was willing to take! In Ripley’s view, the standard operating procedures are there for good reason and ought to be respected. Following protocol is the right thing to do. The Humanitarian Principle: This is Kant’s second moral command: Always treat others as an end in themselves, never merely as a means. In other words, individual dignity should be given weight. Treat people with respect and do not use them merely for your own purposes. These two maxims (= principles) are the core of Kant’s theory and have had wide‐ranging impact. Each principle acts as a generalization meant to guide us. Philosopher Onora O’Neill (1980) suggests, “Given any intention, we can formulate the corresponding maxim by deleting references to particular times, places, and persons.” She adds: When we want to work out whether an act we propose to do is right or wrong, according to Kant, we should look at our maxims and not at how much misery or happiness the act is likely to produce, and whether it does better at increasing happiness than other available acts. …Check that the act we have in mind will not use anyone as a mere means, and, if possible, that it will treat other persons as ends in themselves.

Ethical decision‐making should not focus on ends or consequences. Do not use people “as a mere means” without their implicit consent. Of course, people are used all the time; as when they help us accomplish a task. Kant would object if people were used only as a tool, objectified, or exploited without their humanity and subjectivity being recognized. O’Neill (1980) explains: A person is used as a means only when it is “in a way to which the other could not in principle consent.” If we would not willingly allow ourselves to be used in this or that way, then we’re being used as a means

2.4.indd 170

12/9/2011 6:38:41 PM

2.4 Kantian Ethics 171 only. Ash, for example, has no qualms about using the rest of the crew as a means to his being able to get the alien creature back to earth for the bioweapons division. Kant’s theory is a useful tool for reflecting on the moral lessons in movies. We’ll spotlight the Sci‐fi classic Alien and the movies, The Truman Show and School of Rock, where honesty takes center stage. Whereas Alien (1979) is a classic, the director’s cut (2003) is to be recommended for the extra detail.

SPOTLIGHT: Alien Ripley is a Kantian from start to finish. She treats others with respect and uses no one as a means, even for her own survival. This includes the cat Jonesy, whom she rescues at some risk to herself. She universalizes her decision‐making and expects others to act similarly under such trying circumstances. Honest and respectful, never a bully or showing favorites, she keeps her cool as the rest of the crew falls victim to the alien’s destructive power. Thomas B. Byers (1990) comments on Ripley being the least self‐absorbed of the crew members, noting that she has a sense of the collective good and shows altruism in dealing with the events (p. 42). You might wonder why Ripley’s stance is not indicative of a Utilitarian viewpoint. Think about it: She neither calculates risks vs. benefits nor tabulates the costs when trying to do what is right. She acts from a sense of duty—following protocol intended to keep her crew alive. She listens to others, but is not afraid to state her own recommendations, always seeking to do the best. Who knows, the alien might have contained the cure for cancer or had other value for humanity! When drawing her line in the sand, Ripley could not have known if the decision would lead to disaster or good fortune. She didn’t know of the risks or benefits that would be incurred. All she knew was that this protocol made good sense and ought to be followed. The fact Ash and Dallas oppose her reasoning does not negate its value. Doing what is right means taking a stand that you’d be willing for all to follow. From the beginning, Ripley takes a strong ethical stance. Her commitment to her professional duties and moral obligations is a bedrock character trait. We see this when Kane was carried back to the Nostromo with the alien on his head. Ripley was adamant about following procedures: “If we let it in the ship could be infected. You know the quarantine procedure—24 hours for decontamination … Listen to me. If we break quarantine, we could all die.” Lambert screeches for Ripley to “open the goddamn hatch,” but Ripley says “No.” Trying to follow protocol may have seemed cold‐hearted at the time, but was wise in retrospect. It wasn’t a popular decision. To refuse to let him back on meant Kane would die out on LV‐426. True, he ignored warning signs, but it’s easy to sympathize.

2.4.indd 171

12/9/2011 6:38:41 PM


Seeing the Light

If I were in his shoes and had an alien creature attached to my head, I would surely want my colleagues to stand by me. Get this thing off! I would want to be helped, not shunned. Ironically, when Kane does die and his body is about to be ejected into outer space, Dallas asks, “Anybody want to say anything?” They are all silent—their dread about what lay in store for them overrode any grief about his death. They had reason to fear what was running amok on the ship. They struggled to outwit the alien creature. Ripley eventually found out why neither “Mother” nor Ash were helpful. The truth about the mission was revealed in Special Order 937 for “Science Officer eyes only”: that they had been rerouted to LV‐426 so they could obtain the alien life form. Philosopher Christopher Falzon (2002) notes that, for Kant, “persons are essentially rational agents, capable of deciding for themselves the shape and goals of their existence.” He adds that, This capacity for rational self‐determination makes persons uniquely valuable… since persons have their own rationally determined goals and projects, we should treat them with these goals in view and not merely as the instruments or means for the realization of our own projects. In short we should never treat them as “mere things” (p. 75).

For Ash, the rest of the crew are on the level of “mere things,” and the main concern is to bring the alien organism back to earth. The order was, “Priority One: Insure return of organism for analysis.” The worst was yet to come: “All other considerations secondary. Crew expendable.” If this does not violate the Humanitarian Principle, nothing does. Kant would be rolling in his grave—such betrayal is unconscionable. By the time Special Order 937 comes to light, three members of the crew were already dead. The first was Kane, who gestated the alien and “gave birth” to it in one of the more gruesome moments in the movie. This was when the creature used its tiny sharp teeth to burst out of Kane’s body and race across the room. This scene does not escape the attention of commentators. Barbara Creed (1990) says, “The primal scene is represented as violent, monstrous (the union is between human and alien),” and adds, “From this forbidden union, the monstrous creature is born. But man, not woman, is the ‘mother’” (p. 130). Brett, one of the ship’s mechanics, is the second victim. He’s one of those people who worry—perhaps justifiably—that he won’t get his “fair share.” Commentators often see him and Parker, the other technician, as comparable to labor (versus management), symbolizing a Marxist quest for leveling the playing field economically. For Thomas B. Byers (1990), both Alien and Blade Runner “warn us against a capitalist future gone wrong, where [human] feelings and bonds are so severely truncated that a quite literal dehumanization has become perhaps the greatest danger” (p. 39).

2.4.indd 172

12/9/2011 6:38:41 PM

2.4 Kantian Ethics 173 Brett’s plan, demonstrated with gusto, is to zap the alien with a cattle prod. After Jones the cat takes off, Brett goes after it, cattle prod in hand. In a nice riff on “Pay attention to all warnings,” he comes upon a discarded skin the alien had shed like a snake. He tosses it aside, paying it no heed. Big mistake. The next warning comes when Jones is hissing to beat the band. Brett stops saying “Here kitty, kitty,” when he sees that Jones’ attention is elsewhere. Glancing up just in time to see a 7‐foot high drooling alien, Brett’s jaw falls open in terror. His cattle prod would have been useless even had he been quick enough to react. Captain Dallas is the third victim. He dies using a flamethrower, hoping to trap the alien in the air ducts and then turn it into toast. The director’s cut revealed that Brett and Dallas were to become receptacles for gestating more aliens; a fate that Ripley discovers later. By now the crew sees the value of orchestrated teamwork. Only four of the crew remain‐—three humans and one yet‐to‐be‐outed android. They may have the alien outnumbered, but it is outsmarting them. Their next moves needed to be carefully set out. There’s a reason Kant put so much emphasis on rationality and the value of employing critical thinking skills. We see their importance after Dallas dies and the remaining humans are battling for their lives. At this point the Utilitarian‐leaning Lambert suggests they escape on the shuttle and blow up the ship. This would require that they draw straws, as there’s only room for three, not four. Her proposal is summarily rejected. Let’s look at the exchange: RIPLEY: LAMBERT: RIPLEY: LAMBERT:


Unless somebody has got a better idea, we’ll proceed with Dallas’ plan [to corner and terminate the alien]. What? And end up like the others? Are you out of your mind? You got a better idea? Yes. I say that we abandon this ship. We get the shuttle and just get the hell out of here. We take our chances and just hope that somebody will pick us up. Lambert. The shuttle won’t take four. Well then, why don’t we draw straws and see if…

Lambert’s plan is based on the Principle of Utility: There are four of them still alive. The shuttle (ironically called the Narcissus in the script, a further link to Conrad!) has only room for three. This means that one of them would have to be sacrificed for the good of the majority. That it could be any of them bestows an air of fairness, or randomness anyway. Presumably, all would stand an equal chance to be on the shuttle or to be left behind. You’re either lucky enough to make the cut or have to battle it out with the creature. Her suggestion is the picture of simplicity. Obviously, the one with the short straw won’t be happy, but the proposal maximizes happiness (and survival!) for the majority, the 75 percent.

2.4.indd 173

12/9/2011 6:38:41 PM


Seeing the Light

Both an Act Utilitarian and a Rule Utilitarian would likely endorse Lambert’s plan. In the case of the former (Act Utilitarians), we look at maximizing the happiness or good for the greatest number of people affected in this particular case. One would be unhappy, but three would be pleased that they could get on the shuttle and get the hell out of there. Rule Utilitarians would agree as well. Clearly it’s unfortunate for one to be used as a means for the survival of the majority. This could be stated as a rule (“Aim to save as many as you can and then get as far away from the alien as possible”) or precedent (“Others similarly situated in battles against murderous forces with limited options should try to rescue as many as possible”). In either case Lambert’s plan would get an “A‐okay” from Utilitarians, however ghoulish it may sound. Remember that three of the crew (= 43 percent) already had been killed. And don’t forget, the organism is growing bigger and bigger. The fact it can’t be reasoned with only makes things worse. If one person must die to save the others, at least three (= 43 percent of the original crew, or 75 percent of the survivors) can escape and hopefully make it home. Lambert’s argument falls on deaf ears. No one wants that, as we can see by what then transpires: PARKER:

I’m not drawin’ any straws. I’m for killin’ that goddamn thing right now. Okay. Well, let’s talk about killing it. We know it’s using the airshafts. Will you listen to me, Parker? Shut up! PARKER: Let’s hear it. RIPLEY: It’s using the airshafts. That’s the only way. We’ll move in pairs. We’ll go step‐by‐step and cut off every bulkhead and every vent until we have it cornered, and then we’ll blow it the fuck out into space. Is that acceptable to you? PARKER: If it means killing it, yeah. RIPLEY: Obviously it means killing it. But we have to stick together. RIPLEY:

In spite of the calamitous situation, they still had hope, and enough optimism to continue to fight it out together. Sacrifice no one. With well‐organized teamwork they might be able to terminate the alien and head back to Earth. No one was deemed expendable, a means to their end‐goal. We already saw Ripley’s Kantian bent. We now also see that Parker, who opposes Lambert’s idea, and Ash, who is noncommittal, align themselves with Ripley to stick with Dallas’s plan. Had they known that Ash was not human and his allegiance was to the Company, not to his human colleagues, the decision would have been easier. He could have been left behind on LV‐426. No problem! However, they had not yet figured out that Ash was not their ally. Things get worse. Ripley learns about Special Order 937 and Ash’s complicity in selling‐out the crew. The tension between Ripley and Ash erupts. What happens next is the ghastly “rape” scene of Ash assaulting Ripley. By now it’s obvious that

2.4.indd 174

12/9/2011 6:38:41 PM

2.4 Kantian Ethics 175 Ash is not human. His “blood” is a milky white goo that contrasts with Ripley’s very‐red nosebleed. His super‐human strength makes for a vicious attack on Ripley. After yanking out some of her hair, he throws her across the room and rolls up a porno magazine. Much has been written about this scene, for instance by Newton (1990, p. 85). Holding her down, Ash rams the magazine down her throat in some sort of phallic horror show. Only with great effort can Parker and Lambert save Ripley and, in the process, wrestle down Ash and decapitate him. That’s when Ash, or more precisely, Ash’s head, affirms the Company’s intentions (“Bring back life form. Priority One. All other priorities are rescinded.”). He tells them that their chances of survival are slim and that there is nothing they can do about it. Their disgust with him is abundantly clear. With Ash’s “death,” we’re left with Parker, Lambert, Ripley, and the cat. Ripley assumes leadership and they move into high gear. With apparently little effort, the alien kills Parker and Lambert in quick succession. Lambert encounters the creature first, but is paralyzed by fear. All she does is shriek. Parker tries to use his weapon, but Lambert makes this impossible—she is frozen in place. After killing Parker, the alien turns to Lambert and plucks her into the air up by its claw. Ripley is on her own. She makes her way to the shuttle, thinking she can head home. It was inevitable that Ripley had to face down the creature, but no one guessed it would be in her underwear. In this final showdown she shows incredible self‐ control and determination. Not for one second does the creature get the upper hand. She may not have had the physical power, but Ripley had the wits to hold her own. We’re on the edge of our seats as she manages to climb into a space suit conveniently stored within reach. She dons a helmet and grabs a harpoon gun, ready for battle. All the while, her adversary is lurking nearby. Judith Newton zeroes in on this scene. Using a sharp feminist blade she argues that, “The alien, fond of womb‐like and vagina‐like space is distinctly phallic and it attacks Ripley like a fantasy rapist, while she is undressing. … [It] is a potent expression of male terror at female sexuality and at castrating females in general” (1990, p. 85). Perhaps so—the alien does seem transfixed by Ripley! With all the others dead, Ripley is alone in the shuttle with her opponent. But the alien has met its match. Ripley, with her strength of will and mental acuity, isn’t about to let some alien organism take her down. She blasts it into outer space. Ever the rational one, she takes the time to fill out the ship’s log, noting the loss of the rest of the crew. With her cat tucked in beside her, she can go into hypersleep and return to Earth. In the sequel, Aliens (1986), Ripley is tricked into returning to the planet LV‐426 to face an alien creature terrorizing a human colony. Ripley accompanies a platoon of Marines to the planet. They are battle‐ready and (overly) confident that they will prevail. Ripley alone knows what they’re getting themselves into and the deathtrap that lies ahead.

2.4.indd 175

12/9/2011 6:38:41 PM


Seeing the Light

Aliens is more action‐film than its predecessor, but tells a similar tale of heroism in the face of overwhelming odds. It also demonstrates how easy it is to lull ourselves into thinking we can let down our guard. We must be wary of those who would betray us and never lose sight of what we value the highest. We should also work together toward our common goals, always seeing others as ends in themselves—never as means only. For Ripley, Kant was right to hold such a principle. She shows in both movies that moral duties—our intentions— are primary. They drive her character and keep her true to her purpose and respectful of those around her. She holds herself to the highest standards and expects others to do the same. If we see the two movies metaphorically, the alien is not out there. It’s in here. To overcome such an alien, methods other than overpowering weaponry may be required. We can’t just butt our heads up against this creature devoid of conscience, remorse, or morality and expect to prevail. We must step back and reconsider what we are doing—and who we are becoming. Alien and Aliens show how easily we can become like this monster, because it comes inside us, takes hold, and emerges, more powerful. Those who wish to battle such a creature must follow Ripley’s advice, as she tried to give to the Marines. That is to look carefully at what we are dealing with. We need to be aware that all the weaponry in the world can’t protect us from the alien taking hold to make us serve its ends, just as a parasite uses its host.

SPOTLIGHT: The Truman Show Kant gave a lot of thought to moral duty. He saw honesty to be one of the highest duties. To be dishonest would never be justified, no matter the cost. Many people would second Kant’s position, particularly since the price of lying, or being lied to, can be devastating. We can see the importance of honesty when liars get caught in the act. Rebuilding trust is not a simple task, as we see in our next two movies, The Truman Show (1998) and School of Rock (2003). The Truman Show centers on Truman Burbank, who, unbeknownst to him, has grown up as the star of a reality show not unlike those now commonly found on TV. The show’s audience is global in its scope. They follow the details of his life with great interest. It’s definitely a reality show that no one can resist. The only glitch is that it’s being produced without Truman’s knowledge or consent. When he finally suspects that something is very wrong, he has trouble putting the pieces together. The truth is almost unbelievable, so grand is the deception. His world, his “father,” “mother,” and “wife” are all in on the lie. Everywhere he turns are participants in the conspiracy to keep the truth from Truman. And that is that he’s been deceived since he was an infant. He simply has no idea, and no way could he have an idea, that he is the victim of such an elaborate scam.

2.4.indd 176

12/9/2011 6:38:41 PM

2.4 Kantian Ethics 177 Here’s when epistemology comes in. This is the area of philosophy that zeroes‐in on what separates justified belief from opinion—what we can say we know. Some call this “theory of knowledge,” though it’s often really theories of knowledge. Given Truman was the victim of a grand deception he must have wondered if there was anything he could be sure about. This concern is one that philosophers have wrestled with for centuries. It’s hard to picture being in Truman’s position; the confusion and creep‐ factor would be overwhelming. Truman is a victim of a kind of media experiment. Producer “Christof” shows no scruples. He has so much arrogance that regret is not on his radar. Moreover, he and the countless number of actors paid to fool Truman are locked together in a lie. Deception has been the modus operandi all of Truman’s life. A betrayal starts with a relationship in which the underlying trust is broken. Truman didn’t know of Christof’s existence before discovering video cameras recording his every waking moment. There is nothing about Truman to suggest he is anything less than an upstanding member of the community. When the truth comes out, it’s hard to see Christof as anything other than a slimeball. Every step of the way he fails to recognize Truman’s dignity, his humanity. Christof makes meatballs of both of Kant’s categorical imperatives. There’s no way what he does to Truman should be made into a universal law. He certainly fails to treat Truman as an end in himself and not merely as a means. On the contrary, Truman is his primary means to a most successful end. He has built a house of cards to great success, Christof ’s success. Consequently, when it comes tumbling down at the moment the victim reaches the edge of his “world” and finds a little door, Truman hasn’t the slightest reluctance to open it and step out into freedom. Who can blame him? It is surely the case that any number of people nowadays would enjoy being the star of a 24‐hour reality show. An individual might happily choose to make that his or her life’s work; after all, fame is its own reward. The difference with Truman is that he never got to choose. It was a fate imposed upon him, and that makes all the difference. Kimberly A. Blessing (2005) examines Christof from the standpoint of René Descartes’ metaphysics. She says, One can’t help identifying the character of Christof with Descartes’s deceiving demon, both of them master tricksters. Whereas Descartes’s malicious demon deceives for the sake of deceiving, Christof deceives for the something greater— television ratings! … Everyone, including [Truman’s] adoring television‐viewing audience, is complicit in the lie (pp. 5–6).

Descartes dealt with his nasty little demon by running a test. His goal was to see if there was anything about which he could be certain, anything he could say was actually true. It’s a quest for certainty and for truth. That’s how he arrived

2.4.indd 177

12/9/2011 6:38:41 PM


Seeing the Light

at the one thing he thought beyond all doubt; namely, that any time there are doubts, there must be someone having those doubts. Thus, Descartes knew one thing if he knew anything and that was, “I think, therefore I am.” Truman wasn’t so lucky. His demon, Christof, as Blessing indicates, is all about TV ratings—not the human costs. Truman is just collateral damage as the star of the biggest TV show in the world. No problem that this man has spent his life in a reality show, oblivious to the deception. Had he had a swollen ego, Truman might have relished the glory of being a superstar. That was not the case. If there was anything to be relished for Truman, it was the moment he thumbed his nose at Christof. At that point he walked out of the set and into an unknown future. This is one that he will produce and direct by himself. Commentator Burton Porter (2009) notes that The Truman Show predated and may have inspired all those reality shows we are now bombarded with. He argues that viewers are more comfortable with people living ordinary lives than as heroes. For Porter, Actual life shown live makes good television. Instead of seeking escape through the exotic and adventurous, viewers are captivated by the banal and ordinary. Heroes can generate a sense of inferiority whereas everyday lives are accessible and make people feel comfortable with themselves (p. 54).

It’s interesting: Both movies—Alien and The Truman Show—have deception at their core. In the first, the crew has no idea about Special Order 937 or the corporation’s view of them as expendable. They were given no choice when the plan was put into effect or later, when problems began to multiply. In the second, Truman has no idea about Christof’s lifelong movie or that he is being marketed to an international audience. He was also given no choice when the  plan was put into effect or at any point later on. Deception + betrayal = disillusionment. Our next movie also involves deception. This time it’s not a big lie that traps its “star”—it’s about a man who fakes who he is for his own profit, without a second thought about the effect on others.

SPOTLIGHT: School of Rock Do you know any mooches? These are people who take advantage of our goodwill. Mooches can go for years, even decades, without being busted. But ever so often, the jig is up and the lovable mooch gets his or her comeuppance. School of Rock (2003) is the story of such a derelict musician, Dewey Finn. He has been mooching off his roommate and substitute teacher Ned Schneebly for some time. It’s about to change. One day when Finn is alone in the apartment doing little of value the phone rings. It’s for Schneebly. The principal at an elite elementary school is looking

2.4.indd 178

12/9/2011 6:38:41 PM

2.4 Kantian Ethics 179 for an emergency sub and hoped Schneebly was available. With dollar signs forming before his eyes, Finn makes his move and, pretending to be Schneebly, he takes the job. The fact that Finn has no teaching experience doesn’t deter him. Students, being pretty much tolerant with subs, cut Finn a lot of slack. He doesn’t do well at all; in fact he’s pretty terrible. He decides to take some risks and brings in music. Given that he knows more about being a rock musician than teaching, it seems like a winner. After a rocky start, Finn gets the class working together to prepare for a battle of the bands. The real Schneebly is not (yet) told what Finn’s doing and so events take their course—a collision course. Finn is able to carry off the charade and the children are on board. They enjoy this substitute teacher and get drawn into his enthusiasm about learning music and being a band. They agree not to tell their parents or anyone else that they are gearing up for a battle of the bands instead of learning traditional subjects. We know it cannot last and sure enough the real Ned Schneebly finally finds out. The *&% hits the fan and Finn’s deception is out in the open. His multiple apologies don’t cut it. Nor can Finn mop up the mess he made at the elementary school. He is tripped up by his own failings. Depression washes over him and he goes to bed, pathetic. However, the children recognize both the charade and the fact that Finn inspired them. He wasn’t just one big scam. They also show what happens when inspiration comes together with commitment and practice. The students rally together and show up at Finn’s door. Whatever his faults, and there are many, his enthusiasm for music and his encouragement of each and every member of the class have touched them. They call him back to his higher self and remind him of all the truisms he had taught them. They also showed what could happen when we have a dream and put our minds and talents toward reaching it. But Dewey Finn needed to own up to his deception, take responsibility for the harm done, and make amends. Well, Kant would say that there were two big issues with Finn’s dishonesty. Both have to do with the two great principles, the Categorical Imperative and the Humanitarian Principle. Finn failed at both of them—first, by passing himself off as Ned so he could get the job. Lies were stacked on one another like pancakes. Finn knew what he was doing. He was in full possession of his mental capacity. No one had hit him on the head with a shovel. His lie—correction, lies—were not innocent or accidental. Could they be universalized? Should everyone be permitted to lie about their identity and pass themselves off as others? Is it morally acceptable to pretend to have the right credentials to be trusted with children in a classroom? Surely not. What Finn did in misrepresenting himself was a clear violation of the Categorical Imperative. Finn also fails the next test. If we look at his actions and apply the Humanitarian Principle, there’s no doubt that he falls short. He used his roommate for his own benefit. He needed money. Pretending to be Ned would be a quick way to

2.4.indd 179

12/9/2011 6:38:41 PM


Seeing the Light

pay the rent and involved just a lie or two. That this might end up hurting Ned either personally or professionally did not appear to cross his mind for a millisecond! In fact, he didn’t hesitate in setting the deceit in motion. He did not treat Ned with respect. He used him. The long and short is this: Finn flunks the Kantian tests. But he did take steps to turn things around. Kant would be glad to see this. Finn apologized to the principal, the parents, the children, and Ned. When the children came en masse to his house to implore him to carry on with the battle of the bands and not give up, he rallied and threw himself into the big showdown against the other (victorious) band. More importantly, he celebrated the fact that the children achieved something very precious. And so it was that Finn found a way to live with integrity. Though no longer able to be a classroom teacher, he could refocus his priorities and work with Ned on an after‐school music program. Finn’s life turned around. Helping others is rewarding and Finn came to see that. Though he came up short on the Kantian Scale when he lied and misrepresented who he was, Finn learned from his moral failure and took steps to completely change his life.

Short Takes: La Historia Oficial (The Official Story) and Cautiva (Captive) The Argentinian movie The Official Story won the Academy Award for best foreign film in 1985. It is still a powerful study of the devastating consequences of lies and deception. The movie centers on a well‐to‐do high school history teacher, Alicia. When the film opens, she appears happily married to Roberto, a lawyer. They have a five‐year old (adopted) daughter, Gaby. Alicia has no idea about the circumstances of the child’s birth or the adoption and it is this ignorance that lays the groundwork for all that follows. Unforeseen events change her entire world. Good friend Ana returns from Europe after years away. Alicia discovers to her horror that Ana had been thrown in prison and tortured, and that’s why she left so suddenly way back when. She tells Alicia about pregnant women being among the prisoners and of their babies being taken away. This plants a seed of doubt in Alicia. Roberto had organized the adoption and Alicia was in the dark about it. Now she doesn’t know what to think. When a student asks just whose history is being told in the history books they are studying, Alicia’s seed of doubt finds fertile soil. The political awareness of her students prods her to look deeper—and into the corruption and brutality in the military coup of 1976–83. During that period thousands of protestors and innocent people vanished in a repressive reign of terror. It was a brutal, ugly era of Argentina’s history.

2.4.indd 180

12/9/2011 6:38:41 PM

2.4 Kantian Ethics 181 Alicia is forced to look into the bloody coup in which “Los Desaparecidos,” those who “disappeared,” were imprisoned, or killed. This is not an easy quest, because it leads her closer to the truth about her husband and child. At the same time, Roberto is doing all he can to conceal the facts around Gaby’s birth and his role in the ugly past. This is a past that tore apart Argentina, leaving a long and bloody legacy. The more Alicia learns, the farther she gets from the oblivious but happy teacher and mother she once was. She is transformed by the truth that comes to light, and the world she had known begins to crumble. Her sense of her own identity is shaken as her daily reality falls apart. Her marriage takes a major hit, as do her connections with many of those around her. She is determined to find out the truth. She seeks out the grandmothers and aunts protesting on the streets and demanding to know what happened to all those young people who disappeared. Alicia’s newfound allegiance with them repels her husband. The crack in their relationship widens and, eventually, becomes an abyss that neither can bridge. The knowledge she gains about Roberto’s participation in the junta weighs upon her. She has a sick feeling that he crossed a moral boundary to get Gaby. Roberto’s response to her curiosity indicates that all is not right. Having once thought of her husband as a good man, Alicia now struggles not to see him as a monster. The contrast between Alicia and Roberto drives the moral force of the movie. Alicia wants to get at the truth, no matter how unsettling it may be. Whatever happened as a result of the coup, she wants to know. Roberto wants nothing to do with this. Why can’t she just let it be? The ethical dilemmas multiply: Should we let things be, or dig deeper and risk destroying the status quo? Should we open up doors that were sealed shut years ago? The child doesn’t know any other family than this family and no other parents than these parents. What good can come in rooting out the truth? What possible benefit could there be in Gaby learning that she was born in prison—that her biological mother was one of “Los Desaparecidos”? What is to be gained in bringing the sordid past to light? Does the truth compensate for all the harm that comes? Well, let’s see if there is any good in sifting through the sewage of the past. We may not have any connection to military juntas or shady adoptions, but we can all relate to lies that get buried in containers stamped with happy faces. We can all relate to the heart‐wrenching puzzle over what to do when someone has been deceiving you for days, weeks, months, even years. It’s a wasp’s nest, that’s for sure. And yet living in the dark certainly has its downside. We can safely assume that any digging could turn over ground that is painful to examine or cause fissures in long‐standing relationships. Some people would stop right there. They would rather live and die in ignorance (or denial) than proceed into territory that could disrupt their lives or shatter their well‐insulated self‐image. Leaders and institutions face similar dilemmas. Do we really want to investigate the fallout from juntas or corrupt governments or learn about mass killings in

2.4.indd 181

12/9/2011 6:38:41 PM


Seeing the Light

the past? Can we benefit from acknowledging acts of cruelty, abuse, or barbarism that took place years ago? What is the point of dragging the details out for a public viewing? These are significant ethical questions. The answers we arrive at lays bare our value system and how we want to live. It also tells us how much we owe victims and their families. This is true even if they are long gone and cannot directly benefit from any truths coming to light. There’s more: What if the victims aren’t long gone, but they would rather not know the sordid facts—what then? Should we let bygones be bygones? Should we let sleeping dogs lie and dying dogs die? The Official Story tackles these issues head‐on and does so in a moving and thought‐provoking way. Cautiva (2008) offers a slightly different perspective on the same issue raised in The Official Story. The movie centers on a teenage girl, Cristina, who is taken out of school in Buenos Aires. She is brought to a judge’s chambers, where she learns that she’s the victim of lifelong deception. Blood tests confirm that all is not what it seems, that the foundation of Cristina’s world is riddled with cracks. The retired police officer “father” is not her real (genetic) father. She is actually the daughter of a couple of “Los Desaparecidos” in Argentina, much like Gaby in The Official Story. She was the victim of a web of lies and now the lamentable circumstances of her birth are being disclosed. She is traumatized to have all this set out. Why are they doing this to her? She doesn’t want it; it feels like the truth is being shoved down her throat. Is this the most ethical way to proceed, divulging a truth that is certain to have a heavy toll? We think an outpouring of the truth may be the best medicine when lies have been the norm. It sounds reasonable. In the abstract this may seem completely justified; that people deserve to be told the truth when they were innocent victims. Cautiva shows that we can’t ignore the context and the emotional repercussions it can have. The truth is important to bring to light, as both movies show. And exploring the ethics of doing so is crucial. The question is how much truth should be divulged, who should be assigned the role of mediator, and how in the world should it be delivered.

Short Takes: Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring Jean de Florette (1986) and Manon des Sources (Manon of the Spring, 1986) are companion pieces centering on honesty versus deception. Kant saw honesty to be essential, regardless of the consequences. He would strongly oppose anyone choosing to lie rather than tell the truth, even if it would be greatly beneficial to do so. The first of these movies focuses upon Jean Cadoret, a wealthy hunchback, who moves his family—wife Aimee and daughter Manon—to the French countryside to start a farm on land he has inherited. He is charmed by the area and undertakes with gusto his new venture to raise rabbits. Being both humble and unassuming, he reaches out to the townspeople. Jean cannot imagine that

2.4.indd 182

12/9/2011 6:38:41 PM

2.4 Kantian Ethics 183 anyone in the community would double‐cross him. He assumes others are as honest as he, though it is a mistake that eventually shortens his life. With a wife and beautiful daughter, Manon (the focus of the second film), Cadoret approaches his work with the dedication of a scholar. He reads books, takes notes, and seeks the advice of those he thinks wiser than himself. Unfortunately, his neighbors, Cesar Soubeyran and his dolt of a nephew, Ugolin, conspire to block Jean’s access to water and block a crucial spring with cement. Their goal is to force Jean to give up and return to the city whence he came, so that Soubeyran can then acquire the land from Jean. Or so he hopes. Their evil hearts cause them to show no remorse when Jean and his family have to carry buckets of water from a distance and pray for rains to help their crops. Their criminal act shows a callousness that defies the imagination. At first Jean’s efforts meet with great success and his rabbits are healthy and plump. As the summer heat comes in and his crops wilt, the rabbits suffer and die. Jean, Aimee, and Manon, go back and forth lugging water, but the garden just can’t take the blazing sun. In a desperate move, Jean wills his land to Cesar Soubeyran and then tries various techniques to find water on the land. In using dynamite to gain access to underground water, Jean is injured by the explosion and dies soon after. Manon follows Ugolin and Cesar to the spring they had blocked and, unbeknownst to them, sees what they had done. She realizes that this is what led to her father’s death. In Manon of the Spring, the two evildoers get their just deserts. The movie focuses on Jean’s daughter Manon, now an adult. She is a stunning beauty and Ugolin is obsessed with her; his desire is palpable. Manon, however, finds him revolting and cannot stand the sight of him. Not only does he physically repulse her, his connection to the death of her father is unforgivable. As events unfold, the truth does come out. And that’s not all. The world is smaller than we think, as we see when Soubeyran finds out that he is Manon’s grandfather. How ironic and tragic that the very family he drove to ruin turned out to be his blood relatives. And to think he and Ugolin treated Jean, Aimee, and Manon so heartlessly. The disrespect involved in standing by as the Cadoret family needlessly struggled to save their farm would make Kant shake his head in disgust. The Cadorets were used as means only; yet, in the long run, the cost to Soubeyran was much greater than the benefit of acquiring the land. Manon’s determination to avenge her father is accomplished, but never in a way that takes away from her moral goodness.

Outtakes: Shattered Glass Stephen Glass is a journalist who made his mark at the New Republic newspaper. He churns out one article after the other and impresses his colleagues time and time again. This guy has talent! And so young too! His snappy writing style and

2.4.indd 183

12/9/2011 6:38:41 PM


Seeing the Light

newsworthy content is so striking that his fabricating details doesn’t seem possible. About as likable and charming as you could wish for and not at all like the snake‐oil salesman that he is in actuality, Stephen just doesn’t seem like someone who has moral integrity like Swiss cheese. And yet he does. Based on a true story, Shattered Glass (2003) is a fascinating study of a professional who looks and acts the part so well that it is hard to believe he’s a fake. He has created an identity from a pack of lies. He’s been inauthentic so thoroughly and so long that he almost has himself fooled. Kant would look at Stephen and say this is a fellow who is living a contradiction, given the extent of his pretense. Examining his panache in whipping up articles filled with phantom “details” makes for a fascinating study of dishonesty in action. But the movie is also good for studying the determination of Forbes’ reporter Adam Penenberg and Stephen’s suspicious boss, editor Chuck Lane. They had the integrity and moral character to sniff out the inconsistencies in Stephen’s stories—and stories about his stories. Their professional ethics demanded of them that they look more carefully and see if their doubts had any merit. Both follow the breadcrumbs until Stephen’s immorality is brought to light. The story of the liar and the two men who brought him down make for an interesting study in honesty, and dishonesty.

Works Cited Blessing, Kimberly A. (2005) “Deceit and Doubt: The Search for Truth in The Truman Show and Descartes’s Meditations.” In Kimberly A. Blessing and Paul J. Tudico, eds. Movies and the Meaning of Life. Peru, IL: Open Court. Byers, Thomas B. (1990) “Commodity Futures.” In Annette Kuhn, ed. Alien Zone. New York: Verso. Creed, Barbara (1990) “Alien and the Monstrous‐Feminine.” In Annette Kuhn, ed. Alien Zone. New York: Verso. Falzon, Christopher (2002) Philosophy Goes to the Movies. London: Routledge. Kavanagh, James (1990) “Feminism, Humanism, and Science in Alien.” In Annette Kuhn, ed. Alien Zone. New York: Verso. Miller, William Ian (2009) “Interview.” In Tammler Sommers, A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain. San Francisco, CA: Believer Books, 2009. Newton, Judith (1990) “Feminism and Anxiety in Alien.” In Annette Kuhn, ed. Alien Zone. New York: Verso. O’Neill, Onora (1980) “A Simplified Account of Kant’s Ethics.” In Tom Regan, ed. Matters of Life and Death. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Porter, Burton (2009) Philosophy Through Film, 2nd edition. Cornwall‐on‐Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing. Putnam, Hilary (1983) “Taking Rules Seriously—A Response to Martha Nussbaum.” New Literary History, Vol. 15, No. 1, Literature and/as Moral Philosophy, 193–200. Valaquen (2011) “Dispelling the Alien Critique.” http://alienseries.blogspot. com/2011/08/dispelling‐alien‐critique.html (accessed August 27, 2011).

2.4.indd 184

12/9/2011 6:38:41 PM

2.4 Kantian Ethics 185

Online Resources Ethics Updates. “Kant and Kantian Ethics” index.asp (accessed August 23, 2011). Kant on the Web. (accessed August 23, 2011). Kant Studies Online: A free online journal promising articles on all aspects of Kant’s works. (accessed August 23, 2011). Wood, Allen. “Essays on Kant.” A collection of essays on Kant and Kantian ethics. (accessed August 23, 2011).

Discussion Questions 1. What can we learn about being human from Ash (the android) and the alien creature in Alien? 2. When truth finally comes to light it may be necessary to rebuild your life on firmer foundation. What advice would (pick one) Truman, Dewey (School of Rock), Alicia (The Official Story), and Manon have to share about the best steps to take? 3. As we know from the Humanitarian Principle, people ought never be used merely as a means. Where do we see this principle being violated in these or other movies you studied here? 4. As they say, the truth hurts. Are we morally obliged to share with victims truths that they may or may not appreciate learning? What are the pros and cons of telling children like Gaby (The Official Story) and Cristina (Cautiva) the truth about being children of “Los Desaparecidos”? 5. Are all lies on the same level? Would Kant agree with you? What would he think of the types of lies and deception in this collection of movies? 6. Set out two or three different interpretations of the alien creature. Think of the big drooling monster as metaphor of something else. What else might it be seen to represent? 7. As we know and these movies show, it can be tricky to divulge truths long since buried. What is the best way to proceed in bringing lies and deception to light? Is disclosing the truth always morally desirable?

2.4.indd 185

12/9/2011 6:38:42 PM


Rawls’ Justice Theory

SPOTLIGHT: The Sea Inside SPOTLIGHT: Taken, My Cousin Vinny, The Accused and The Brave One Short Takes: Michael Clayton, John Q, and Stand and Deliver Outtakes: El Secreto de Sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes), Food, Inc., and Darwin’s Nightmare


Those scores would have never been questioned if my kids did not have Spanish surnames and come from barrio schools. You know that. —Stand and Deliver

What do you think of all those movies about revenge? Or about vigilantes—you know, when someone decides the law is too corrupt, too nuanced, or too slow to avenge a wrong. We see it all the time. In Taken (2008) Kim, a pretty 17‐year‐ old girl who lives with her mother and wealthy stepfather, gets invited to go to Paris with her girlfriend Amanda, also cute and sexy. Kim’s father, Bryan Mills, happens to be a retired CIA agent with high‐level security skills. He reluctantly agrees that Kim can go to Paris, but voices concerns for her safety and asks her to phone him every evening and let him know the address where she’s staying. Alas and alack, the girls get spotted at the de Gaulle airport by an attractive but shady character who makes nice and suggests they share a cab to the city. As they whiz along, he invites them to a party that evening, which sounds like a blast. Things go downhill from there, as four men who are evidently members of an Albanian prostitution and sex trafficking ring arrive that evening, ready to take them off to a most unpleasant future. Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

2.5.indd 186

12/9/2011 6:42:43 PM

2.5 Rawls’ Justice Theory 187 The place where they’re staying is amazingly roomy and shaped like a courtyard (a “U” shape). Kim is in one wing, Amanda the other. Kim watches in horror as the men take Amanda, kicking and screaming. This is when having a cell phone is convenient. Kim just happened to be talking to her father when she witnessed Amanda’s abduction. You can imagine Bryan’s reaction when he hears what’s happening to his daughter. Ballistic! Bryan tells Kim that she’s going to be taken, so listen carefully. He advises her to go to a nearby bedroom, leave the phone on (crucial), get under the bed, and scream into the phone as much information as she can. Once the kidnappers nab her and he gets them on the phone, he lets them know that he has no money, but does have “a very particular set of skills.” Leaving it to them to visualize those skills in action, Bryan tells them that his life’s mission will be to track them down. A safer alternative: Release her, he won’t pursue them, and that will be the end of it. You guessed it; they released neither Kim nor Amanda. The chase is on. The movie was a surprise hit—or no surprise, if you consider the appeal of a father rising up against those who would harm his child. We can identify with both. We can relate to the daughter feeling vulnerable, but with the satisfaction in knowing her father will do anything—anything—to rescue her. We can also relate to the protective, caring father, knowing he will be there through thick and thin. Of course Bryan eventually finds Kim, with many despicable men facing his wrath along the way. We cheer as he draws on a lifetime of experience and physical talents that would make the Special Forces beam with pride. Kim doesn’t seem particularly astute, but she isn’t a total wimp either. And so it is that she is finally rescued and the villains get their “just deserts.” Our question is, “What are just deserts?” We speak of the concept as a combination of just and what is deserved, what someone has coming to them. A thief may justly deserve a punishment proportional to the severity of the offense. A charitable person may justly deserve to be praised or rewarded. How can we be sure when justice has been served? Or that it is appropriately lenient or punitive? Given the attention to this issue, the fact that justice and revenge are common themes in movies should not be surprising. Philosopher William Ian Miller surmised, “Name any movies you really like, and I bet 80 percent of them will have revenge lurking somewhere, giving it its edge” (Sommers, 2009, p. 231). Miller’s observation may call up images of Dirty Harry or Michael Corleone. However, men aren’t the only ones thinking about revenge or justice. For example, 14‐year old Mattie Ross believes justice was seriously lacking after the murder of her father and she took steps to right that wrong in True Grit (2010). Women also turn to revenge for transgressions against them, particularly if they think justice is out of reach. Remember Enough (2002), where a battered woman decides enough is enough and plots her revenge? With her abusive husband pursuing her and their young daughter, she decides that the only way out is to kill the perp. Then there’s Erica Bain prowling the subways to knock

2.5.indd 187

12/9/2011 6:42:44 PM


Seeing the Light

off creeps in The Brave One (2007) And let’s not forget the Swedish thriller Man Som Hata Kvinno (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, 2009) The literal translation of the Swedish title is “Men who hate women,” which is not incidental, given the film’s focus. Here Lisbeth Salander gets pay back for a brutal rape by turning the tables. It’s one of the more startling revenge scenes on film. In all three movies the perpetrators differ, but the victims are similar. They are young, beautiful, physically fit women who are tough as nails. And they’re not going to take it any more. They see law enforcement as basically useless, pretty much sexist, and undependable. We can’t count on help coming. If we want justice we have to proceed on our own. Such revenge scenarios are rooted in a frustration that spills over into rage. As Aristotle indicates, such extremes lead to nothing good. Once ignited, rage can be explosive and so it’s not surprising that an act of revenge should result. It’s easy to equate revenge with justice, but ethicists think it prudent to take a step or two back and ratchet down the emotions. Hands‐on reactions to perceived wrongs would rarely be thought morally permissible. Vengeance has deep social roots. “The right to take revenge on the other for an evil deed, an expression of the lex talionis (= the law of retaliation), is as old as humankind.” (Sievers and Mersky, 2006, p. 242) Sievers and Mersky point out that seeking retribution used to be a risky proposition: “As expressed in countless ancient myths, the taking of retribution leads to illness, death, ‘natural’ catastrophes or other instances of bad luck. By contrast, in modern times the social reaction to revenge has often been ambivalent” (p. 242). Philosopher of Law John Rawls devoted himself to the study of justice and fairness. His focus extends from individuals to institutions. His insights help us better understand the role of justice in moral reasoning and why revenge shouldn’t be condoned.

The Ethical Framework: Rawls’ “Justice As Fairness” Rawls wouldn’t think much of “just deserts.” As a Deontologist, Rawls emphasizes moral duty and intentions over objectives or ends. To allow the likely consequences to guide decision‐making is wrong‐headed. He would cringe at the idea of revenge being equated with justice. Rawls focuses on individual rights and institutional policies. His influential work, A Theory of Justice (1971) draws from Kantian ethics to address injustice. With his motto “justice as fairness,” Rawls asks: What do we owe one another as fellow humans? What am I obliged to do for you, if you are needy, a victim of prejudice, or down on your luck? Should we protest when institutions like colleges, hospitals, and corporations have discriminatory policies? How should we structure them to try to prevent inequities?

2.5.indd 188

12/9/2011 6:42:44 PM

2.5 Rawls’ Justice Theory 189 Get a sense of how society and its institutions function and then tackle injustice. Take steps to ensure that laws, regulations, policies and procedures are fair. Set aside individual attachments and identification to reduce possible bias. Justice demands that personal interests be shelved when crafting a vision of social justice. Starting with the assumption that we’re dealing with rational moral agents, Rawls seeks to minimize prejudice by adopting a “veil of ignorance.” Set aside personal traits such nationality, gender, religion, and race in order to lessen attachments and affiliations that might interfere with fair decision‐making. Clear the deck. Approach ethical dilemmas with as few attachments as possible. We then stand a better chance at arriving at a just policy without being swayed by special interests. Rawls wants to ensure some objectivity and detachment on the part of the decision‐maker and thinks a “veil of ignorance” is the way to go. Not all agree. Karen Sihra [2004] of the Ontario (Canada) Institute for Studies in Education contends that, “Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ proposes that we willingly leave our subjectivities behind in an effort to determine the ‘best reasons’. In effect, however, [it] requires dehumanization, a disengagement that (…) is oppressive.” As a result, seek a balance between bias and uncaring disinterest. Rawls thinks the path to justice should be free of self‐interest or any other impediments to fair‐mindedness. He sets out three principles to guide us:

Rawls’ three principles (justice as fairness) 1. Principle of Equal Liberty: Each person should have an equal right to the most extensive system of liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all. → Universalize human rights. 2. Principle of Equality of Fair Opportunity: People with similar abilities/skills should have equal access to offices and positions under conditions of equality of fair opportunity. → Provide equal opportunities. 3. Difference Principle: Social and economic institutions are to be arranged to maximally benefit those who are the worst off. → Favor those who are most disadvantaged. This third (Difference) principle could spur societal change, indicates philosopher Jan Edward Garrett (2002). There could, for instance, be projects giving some persons more power, income, and status, than others (e.g., paying accountants and upper‐level managers more than assembly‐line operatives). Garrett notes the following conditions would have to be met: 1.

2.5.indd 189

The project will make life better for the people who are now worst off, for example, by raising the living standards of everyone in the community and

12/9/2011 6:42:44 PM


Seeing the Light

empowering the least advantaged persons to the extent consistent with their well‐being. 2. Access to the privileged positions is not blocked by discrimination according to irrelevant criteria. Justice comes in different sizes and shapes. Garrett notes the three major kinds: (1) Distributive justice, (2) Retributive justice, and (3) Compensatory justice. Distributive justice is about allocating rewards and burdens (e.g., Social Security and Medicare). Retributive justice deals with punishment for breaking a rule or law (e.g., a speeding ticket), while Compensatory justice looks at restitution for suffering a harm (e.g., food poisoning from tainted eggs). In some cases, as in a class action lawsuit, both punitive and compensatory damages could be awarded. Revenge is a twisted attempt at retributive justice using the rationale, “an eye for an eye.” The idea is that the perpetrator should suffer a similar loss (physically or emotionally) to that of the victim. Whereas few movies focus on distributive or compensatory justice, many look at retribution and revenge. Taken is one such movie. Bryan Mills told the sex trafficking kidnappers that he’d kill them if harm came to his daughter. He did not say they’d be brought to trial or thrown in prison. He favored a simple exchange. They harm her → he kills them. So too with Enough and more indirectly, The Brave One. In the latter, revenge is taken to the level of vigilantism. Rawls would say that, in sidestepping the law,  the protagonist abandoned the justice system. This was fundamentally misguided. Taking the law into our own hands is not the solution. Let’s start with a movie that shows how the justice system really can work and, thus, would get a nod from Rawls. Then we’ll return to revenge scenarios, where justice is not at center stage.

SPOTLIGHT: My Cousin Vinny The American Bar Association rates My Cousin Vinny (1992) as #1 on their list of favorite films about the law, and no wonder. It’s a comedy with one example after the next of incorrect inferences drawn from spotty, shoddy, and incomplete pieces of evidence. It amply shows us the potential for the miscarriage of justice. It also shows us how a seemingly airtight case can be brought down by attending to detail and getting the facts straight. The movie opens with college‐aged Bill Gambini and Stan Rothenstein, New Yorkers who have been accepted at UCLA. They thought it’d be fun to take their convertible on the Southern route to California. Crossing the Beechum County, Alabama line, they stop at the Sac‐O‐Suds market to stock up on supplies. With his hands full, Billy shoves a can of tuna in his pocket to keep from dropping it. He inadvertently leaves without paying for it—leading to a few

2.5.indd 190

12/9/2011 6:42:44 PM

2.5 Rawls’ Justice Theory 191 chuckles but it doesn’t seem to warrant turning around. When a police officer pulls them over, they assume it’s about the tuna. They didn’t know that the cashier was killed after they left the store and that’s why they had been stopped. We watch one missed connection after another. The first is at the police station, when Sheriff Farley questions Bill about the murder at the Sac‐O‐Suds: SHERIFF FARLEY: BILL: SHERIFF FARLEY: BILL: SHERIFF FARLEY: BILL:


Do you know why you’re here? Yeah, sorry, it was a stupid thing to do. Have you been made aware of your rights? Yes. You’re willing to waive that right? Yes, I’m willing to cooperate fully. I’ll sign a statement, whatever, that makes this easier. But I want you to know, Stan, he had nothing to do with it. Did he help you plan it? No. I mean it wasn’t planned out. It just, like, you, know, it just happened. Did Stan try to stop you at any time? No. I mean he was… why, is that a big deal? Aidin’ and abettin’.

Sheriff Farley then questions Stan: STAN:

Accessory? I didn’t help. I didn’t plan it. You didn’t try to stop it. STAN: I didn’t know it was happening. I found out later, in the car. SHERIFF FARLEY: Why didn’t you get out, call the police then? STAN: He’s my friend. SHERIFF FARLEY: Well…your friend has put you in a lot of trouble. STAN: What’s going to happen to Bill? SHERIFF FARLEY: Nothing. Unless he’s convicted. Of course if he is, we’re going to run enough electricity through him to light up Birmingham. SHERIFF FARLEY:

In both interviews, no one actually states what crime was committed. Unwarranted assumptions go unchallenged, leading Sheriff Farley to infer that Bill has confessed to the murder and that Stan did nothing to stop it. With his one phone call Bill rings up his mother. She reminds him of cousin Vincent Gambini and how families help each other. Although it took Vinny six attempts to pass the bar exam, he is game to defend them. He brings along his girlfriend Mona Lisa Vito, an unemployed hairdresser whose near‐encyclopedic knowledge of American automobiles will be pivotal to the defense. Vinny makes mistakes aplenty—so much so that Stan hires the public defender (who is a disaster in court) and Bill thinks of following suit. Vinny asks for a second chance:

2.5.indd 191

12/9/2011 6:42:44 PM


Seeing the Light


Look, maybe I could have handled the preliminary a little better, okay? I admit it. But what’s most important is winning the case. I could do it. I really could. Let me tell you how, okay? The D.A.’s got to build a case. Building a case is like building a house. Each piece of evidence is just another building block. He wants to make a brick bunker of a building. He wants to use serious, solid-looking bricks, like, like these, right? [puts his hand on the wall] BILL: Right. VINNY: Let me show you something. [holds up a playing card, with the face toward Billy] He’s going to show you the bricks. He’ll show you they got straight sides. He’ll show you how they got the right shape. He’ll show them to you in a very special way, so that they appear to have everything a brick should have. But there’s one thing he’s not gonna show you. [turns the card, so that its edge is toward Billy] VINNY: When you look at the bricks from the right angle, they’re as thin as this playing card. His whole case is an illusion, a magic trick. It has to be an illusion, ‘cause you’re innocent.

Bill agrees to give him another chance. Vinny comes alive! He is clever, insightful, and compelling. He punches holes in one bad argument after the other. And after Mona Lisa’s “expert” testimony, it is obvious that these two college kids are only guilty of failing to pay for a can of tuna. Vinny makes a key point: the facts speak for themselves. As he notes, someone can present an argument that is simply irrelevant or sails off on a tangent. A  slippery use of words and phrases can steer the listener away from the truth. Smoke and mirrors. Remember Rawls’ first principle, that everyone should have an equal right to basic liberties? The system should be fair, not weighted toward one side or the other. We need to be on the watch for any chance of bias and minimize the risk of undermining the right to a fair trial. My Cousin Vinny humorously shows how easy it is to throw the system off‐course. Bill and Stan were initially worried that the Beechum County legal system would be stacked against them. In their view, people in Alabama were not just hicks, they were morally suspect. They probably sleep with their sister, opined Stan. That their own assumptions colored their assessment of the situation didn’t register on the two. For the system to be just, all must be treated with equal standing. That’s what Rawls was working for and why he proposed a “veil of ignorance” to keep bias at bay. We watch the prosecution’s case get slammed one witness at a time. The man who established the time of the murder was mistaken, as the time it takes to cook grits made clear. The woman who saw the suspects needed thicker glasses. The man who saw the getaway car was staring through trees, leaves, and very dirty screens. The prosecutor’s expert witness was not as versed in automotive particulars as the defense’s Mona Lisa Vito. And so on. Just as Vinny predicted,

2.5.indd 192

12/9/2011 6:42:44 PM

2.5 Rawls’ Justice Theory 193 the bricks holding the prosecution’s case in place came down, one by one. Justice prevailed, the boys were free, and both the judge and prosecuting attorney praised Vinny’s courtroom skills. Although things didn’t look so good at first, the system worked and justice was served. Rawls has no illusions about being able to get rid of all the injustice out there, but we should do all we can to ensure fairness. Let’s stop and look at Rawls’ view of punishment as set out “Two Concepts of Rules” (1955). There he examines two justifications of punishment—the retributive view and the Utilitarian view. Rawls says, ●

What we may call the retributive view is that punishment is justified on the grounds that wrongdoing merits punishment. … That a criminal should be punished follows from his guilt, and the severity of the appropriate punishment depends on the depravity of his act (p. 3). What we may call the utilitarian view holds that on the principle that bygones are bygones and that only future consequences are material to present decisions,… Wrongs committed in the past are, as such, not relevant considerations for deciding what to do. If punishment can be shown to promote effectively the interest of society it is justifiable, otherwise it is not (p. 4).

A contrast of judges with legislators shows key differences: “One can say, then, that the judge and the legislator stand in different positions and look in different directions: one to the past, the other to the future,” says Rawls (p. 5). The judge looks at the past and weighs punishment relative to the wrongdoing (the retributive view), while the ideal legislator looks to the future and weighs punishment relative to social benefits and maintaining order (Consequentialism). We must guard against misguided attempts at retribution. Rawls would thus say “Bad idea” to those who go down the path of revenge. Our next movies make that clear.

SPOTLIGHT: The Accused and The Brave One We may think we know who we are and, yet, adversity can reveal a side of ourselves that we never knew existed. Sometimes that other self is buried, but comes to the surface after a crisis. This other self may seem like a complete stranger. Sarah Tobias, gang‐rape survivor, shows us in The Accused (1988) what the just response is like. Before the assault she is spunky, trusting, and fearless. Afterwards she is angry, tough, pugnacious, and not one to suffer fools. Sarah may have lost her innocence because of the assault, but her identity is intact. From start to finish, she uses the system to bring her attackers to justice. She goes to the police and hospital, sees a rape counselor, and is assigned a prosecuting attorney to aggressively pursue the case.

2.5.indd 193

12/9/2011 6:42:44 PM


Seeing the Light

Unfortunately, her attorney, Kathryn Murphy, deems Sarah too flawed a witness to go to court. Here’s why: Sarah was dressed in a revealing outfit, danced seductively before the rape, had a few drinks, and smoked some pot. Thus, Kathryn settles for a plea deal. The three rapists got jail for “reckless endangerment.” Kathryn was used to winning cases and felt that Sarah wouldn’t sufficiently impress the jury. Sarah was furious, and devastated. In her opinion, her attorney has sold her out. This accusation catapults Kathryn to go after those onlookers who hooted with pleasure and goaded on the rapists. Thanks to the testimony of a witness who (anonymously) phoned for help, three onlookers are convicted of actively encouraging the rape. That then allowed for those serving time for “reckless endangerment” to be charged with “rape.” With one exception Sarah does not seek revenge against either the perpetrators or those goading on the rape She uses the legal channels, even when things aren’t going well, and takes matters into her own hands only when she is taunted and blocked in a parking lot by one of the onlookers. Sarah revs up her car and slams into his truck. However satisfying, the cost is a hospital stay. The attorney’s visit with the distraught Sarah is the catalyst to pursue the second case. And, though Sarah is upset, she does not give up on the legal system. Not true of Erica Bain in The Brave One (2007). She is a radio host who is beaten to a pulp and her fiancé David Kimani killed in Central Park by three dognappers hoping for a reward. Erica ends up in a days‐long coma, her life changed irrevocably. She decides to get a gun, but the 30‐day wait time for the license sets her back: “I won’t survive 30 days.” A “customer” follows her out the door to offer her an illegal alternative. A thousand dollars later, Erica now owns a 9 mm automatic. No one will assault her again and live to talk about it. A woman in the park offers advice: “There are plenty of ways to die. But, you have to figure how to live. Now, that’s hard.” True, but Erica is dancing with death right now. How to live in its aftermath is a distant concern. Erica’s situation is soon complicated. While in the back of a convenience store, a man enters and murders the cashier (= his wife). Erica could run, but doesn’t. After her cell phone goes off she is scared, even frantic. But she does have that thousand‐dollar gun. With shaking hands, she takes multiple shots, and gets one hit. This is her first kill. She has the presence of mind to take the surveillance tape before running from the store. We may wonder, “Doesn’t this show a guilty state of mind?” With an illegal gun and the store video, it might be hard to escape scrutiny. She seems oblivious to this as she goes home to take a shower and wash it off. Retreating further into herself, Erica becomes more isolated from those around her. Except for Police Detective Mercer, no one can cross the barriers she has erected. Grief hits Erica with a double whammy. It’s as if she’s on

2.5.indd 194

12/9/2011 6:42:44 PM

2.5 Rawls’ Justice Theory 195 autopilot. Like many violence survivors, she moves between the extremes. She is hyperaware as she walks down the street, flinching at the drop of a dime. And yet she puts herself at risk, going into that dark netherworld, where individual lives have little value. She walks the streets of the ghetto—at night, alone, as if invulnerable. In that underbelly of society, people are expendable, as replaceable as cheap watches. Erica enters it, armed and ready for what lies ahead. Carrying a gun gives Erica an intoxicating sense of power. She becomes hooked. Her two selves pull her in different directions. The old Erica paid heed to right and wrong; the new Erica sets traditional morality aside. She is filled with hatred. “Inside you there is this stranger,” she reflects, “one who has your arms, your legs, your eyes. A sleepless, restless stranger, who keeps walking, keeps eating, keeps living.” Although she insists that, “I just want to keep living. I don’t want to disappear,” the woman she once was is fading fast. Her new incarnation takes shape. “It is horrible to fear the place you once loved,” she says. “You look at the person you once were walking down the street and you wonder, will you, will you ever be her again?” Her answer? “No, not a chance.” The next kill is on the subway. It’s nighttime and two loud‐mouthed low‐lifes harass the riders, causing them to exit post haste. That leaves Erica reaching for her gun, feeling it. They move toward her and one caresses her throat with a knife. Erica puts her gun to use—he’s toast and so is his buddy. She walks down the street, thinking of the road not taken. She acknowledges to herself that she could have just waved the gun at them; she didn’t need to kill them. “Why don’t my hands shake?” she asks, realizing the answer. It may have been wise to use a different gun or try a knife so she didn’t leave a trail. Not doing so suggests that she is foolishly brazen or wants to be caught. The shooter is getting better, Detective Mercer observes, not yet realizing Erica’s role in the killings. Things get more bizarre. Erica approaches Mercer at the crime scene. She had cleaned up in a nearby bathroom and was looking awfully good for someone who just murdered two men. She suggests an interview for the radio show, but he walks away, his life isn’t that interesting. He’ll soon relent. Meanwhile, Erica goes home. Turns out she taped the deadly encounter with the subway goons, so she can listen to it over and over again. She’s not the least bit repelled by what she hears. Hold the phone here! What is she doing? Her she is—a petite woman in her 30s. She neither has a Black Belt nor is a sharpshooter for the FBI. And yet she’s roaming the streets in the dark, as reckless as can be. She is not only packing a gun, she’s taping her acts of revenge, audio trophies of her “bravery.” There’s a perversity at work here. The next day’s newspaper connects the dots: “Vigilante: Bloodbath on the Subway.” Mercer, starting to be a bit suspicious, seeks her out. “A lot of people don’t make it back,” he says. It’s not clear Erica wants to make it back.

2.5.indd 195

12/9/2011 6:42:44 PM


Seeing the Light

Mercer agrees to be interviewed. He acknowledges that he can’t nail some criminals, because, “I follow the law.” He cites the example of a mobster who has been untouchable, causing Erica to perk up and mentally put his name on her hit list. Her vigilantism is firmly secured. Erica sees no fault in becoming an avenger, something Rawls would never condone. Law professor Michael S. Moore (2011) says that, “Making victims feel good is no part of retributive justice, although the retributivist may regard it as a welcome side effect of punishment along with crime prevention.” He adds, “Retributive justice is achieved by punishing the guilty even if the victims of such guilty offenders all wish forgiveness and mercy upon their offenders.” For Detective Mercer “the subway killer” is no different from others who kill, regardless of the motive. He does not yet know Erica is the culprit. Before the interview ends, he asks how she pulled it together after the attack. She answers, “You don’t… You become someone else. A stranger.” They’ve made a connection, so he gives her his card and they share a little secret—they are both insomniacs. Pleased with her progress in purging New York of undesirables, Erica doesn’t question her flawed moral reasoning. But we can. Is this the kind of society we want, where ordinary citizens buy illegal guns and hit the streets, terminating those who manage to evade the system? Do they deserve a “brave one” label? Rawls would be aghast at her self‐assigned role as judge and executioner. But she’s on a roll, wandering the streets at night, trusty gun by her side. In Round Three, Erica makes eye contact with a man cruising for prostitutes. He suggests she be one of his “whores.” He’s already got one woman in the back seat. Erica hops in, confident. With her newfound skills, Erica rescues the woman and shoots the would‐be pimp. She’s now an accomplished marksman. The driver is dead. Erica hides behind a pillar as rescue vehicles arrive. The resemblance to Batman is noteworthy: She is furtive, a discreet avenger, stepping out at night to rid the city of riff‐raff. She’s been hollowed out by rage and grief. “There is no going back,” she says. “This thing, this stranger, she is all you are now.” Erica decides to do Mercer a favor and murder the mobster he couldn’t put away. Erica casts her net wider, becoming a self‐appointed hit‐man to take out those who have escaped punishment. The fact that Mercer couldn’t nail the mobster he found so despicable was all Erica needed to know. This sets up Round Four. But now she’s got a crowbar, instead of a gun. Recklessness has overtaken her mental faculties. There’s no way Rawls would tolerate her tucking her gun into her pants’ pocket for her nighttime vigils. He would be appalled. Rawls, like Kant before him, puts rationality in the foreground. For him, we should cut off any attachments that may prejudice our thinking. This is necessary to obtain justice. Good luck! Erica is unable to detach herself from what she suffered. Like Sarah in The Accused, Erica feels abandoned by the system. But, unlike Sarah, she turns her back on the channels open to her, judging them inadequate.

2.5.indd 196

12/9/2011 6:42:44 PM

2.5 Rawls’ Justice Theory 197 Erica takes matters into her own hands. She wants to monitor the streets, in search of the rejects crawling out from the underworld. As much as Batman’s desire to clean up Gotham City, Erica aims to clean up New York City. This is most clear in Round Five after the police picked up one of her assailants. With the suspect in the line‐up, she intentionally refuses to identify him. Forget the justice system; she wants vengeance. Let’s compare The Accused at this juncture. Sarah could certainly have used a gun and blasted away the rapists and bystanders. But she didn’t. She may be less educated than Erica, but she doesn’t give up on the legal system, even after hitting some potholes along the way. Erica, in contrast, turns her back on it. Erica creates another reality, one that is dark and dangerous. Her obsession swallows her whole. When she gets the chance to go after her assailants, she proceeds with the energy of a suicide bomber. She is remarkably successful, killing two of them. The third, however, fights back. Fortunately, Mercer arrives and could easily arrest him. But he knows too well that Erica wants revenge. Giving Rawls a metaphorical kick in the teeth, Mercer hands Erica his gun. She can finish the job. A quick cover‐up and he sends her on her way. At that point, he joined the club. He saw what her assailants had done to her and all the pain it caused. Maybe if she can settle the score her life will get back on track. “Just deserts” calls for an execution. Or so he seems to think, in throwing his professional ethics to the wind. No doubt plenty in the audience were happy to see the miscreants get what was coming to them. However, our satisfaction is at a price, too great a price. Rawls would advise Erica that revenge, no matter how enticing, is not the path to justice. There’s no way he’d call her “the brave one.”

Short Takes: Michael Clayton Rawls would lift his hat to Michael Clayton (2007) in giving voice to the innocent victims of a corrupt chemical corporation, U/North. Michael Clayton is a “fixer” for a big, successful law firm, Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen. His job is to smooth over problems, tie up loose ends, and clean up messes. Because of that, Clayton calls himself “the janitor,” a label that reflects his negative self‐ assessment. Being able to fix problems doesn’t make him any less a loser in his own mind. It doesn’t help that he has a gambling problem and a hefty debt from a failed business venture with his alcoholic brother. In addition, he’s been at the law firm for 17 years but failed to make partner. Basically, his life has veered off course. On top of that, his colleague and friend, Arthur Evans, a senior litigator at the firm, is cracking up. His increasingly bizarre behavior, such as stripping naked at a deposition, has alarmed his partners. It has also drawn the attention of Karen Crowder, chief legal counsel at U/North.

2.5.indd 197

12/9/2011 6:42:44 PM


Seeing the Light

Michael is sent to rein in Arthur. Like the newsman in Network yelling, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more,” Arthur lets loose a tirade against the firm’s years of dirty dealing on behalf of powerful corporations. “I had been coated in this patina of shit for the best part of my life,” he says in disgust. It’s not a pretty picture and is not something that Michael can just gloss over. Michael gets pulled into the class action suit that tied Arthur in knots and then became his chance at redemption. “Isn’t it what we wait for?” Arthur says to Michael. “To meet someone… and they’re, they’re like a lens and suddenly you’re looking through them and everything changes and nothing can ever be the same again.” Arthur had discovered the widespread harm caused by U/North’s toxic agricultural products. Its chemicals hurt farmers and their families, and the corporation used its wealth and power to squelch the plaintiffs. They employed high‐powered lawyers and wordsmiths to stop the class action suit in its tracks. A lot of money—and justice—lay in the balance. With the machinery of lies and deception set in motion, things got nasty pretty quickly. Arthur was determined to set things right. The price was his life, thanks to the hit men sent by the hard‐hearted, high‐strung Karen Crowder. She knew the value of keeping the opposition on the run and used all her resources to do so. Before they got to him, however, Arthur told Michael about U/North’s duplicity and implored him to speak for the victims. Arthur’s death was not in vain. With Crowder’s henchmen on his trail, Michael realizes that he has squandered his talents for far too long. It’s time to turn things around; so he takes up Arthur’s case. We watch his transformation as he is drawn into the fight for justice. For the first time in years Michael can look in the mirror without wondering what happened to the idealistic attorney he once was. Instead of mopping up the messes made by the firm’s wealthy clients, Michael sees that his talents could help those too powerless to fight back. According to Rawls’ third principle, institutions should be structured to maximally benefit the worst off. This applies to profit‐driven multinationals like U/ North. All those ordinary people, such as the small town farmers, who suffered losses caused by U/North’s toxic chemicals are those “maximally worst off.” They are the least advantaged members of the equation. Rawls would have us factor in their concerns and interests when coming to policy decisions. As Rawls sets out in his variation of the Categorical Imperative, we need to help vulnerable populations, give them long‐overdue assistance. Once Michael figures that out he begins to use legal finesse to finally do something he can be proud of. Unfortunately, it is at considerable risk. Not only are Crowder’s hired guns hot on his trail, the firm’s partners are not about to give up representing fat cats for some liberal cause. Michael has to contend with both obstacles. It’s sobering to watch Crowder and see the chief legal counsel of a huge corporation having so few qualms about taking the low road, ethically speaking.

2.5.indd 198

12/9/2011 6:42:44 PM

2.5 Rawls’ Justice Theory 199 However, the stakes are too high and she is too invested to get a moral grip. When she fails to get Michael killed, she hopes a $10 million payoff will buy his silence. It does not. The fact he taped their meeting was all he needed to bring her down. That took care of Crowder’s career while restoring Michael’s integrity at the same time. Also, the farmers’ suit against U/North begins to look up. The movie is both a thriller and a moral tale. The circular plot and Michael’s transformation under high‐stakes pressure offers us some important lessons. We see that justice extends beyond individuals wrestling with their conflicts. As Rawls points out, the way institutions and organizations are structured can have long‐reaching consequences. And how the lines of power are drawn can make all the difference. Fairness is fundamentally necessary for justice to be achieved. Arthur saw that U/North was intentionally unfair to the farmers. He went to his death trying to turn that around. Michael took the next steps. Both would make Rawls proud.

Short Takes: John Q John Q (2002) is also about the little guy battling corporate interests. Here, the little guy is a father whose son Mike needs a heart transplant but his insurance company won’t pay. His sense of desperation goes through the roof. Unlike in Michael Clayton, there are no attorneys coming to the rescue in John Q. John Quincy Archibald is a desperate man. His insurance won’t pay more than $20 K toward the surgery. Feelings of frustration rise to the surface like a fireball. John and his wife do all they can to get the money together. When they fall short, the hospital releases Mike. John’s wife says he didn’t do enough—they’re frantic. John begs the physician who recommended surgery for help. But the board made their decision and that’s that. John’s attempts get nowhere. The surgeon’s rejection sends John over the edge. He snaps, pulls a gun, locks the hospital doors, and takes over the Emergency Room. He now has hostages. The movie involves a long standoff and enough back‐and‐forth for John to rally our sympathies. The insurance company rep and hospital administrators act like they have ice water in their veins. They hold all the cards in determining what’s allowable and what’s not. Our hearts go out to this man and that child. And yet, the movie did not convince Americans that countries like Canada and many European nations are to be commended for having universal health care. Or that we should follow suit. Rawls’ second and third principles are directed at institutions and, although Rawls didn’t initially turn his attention to medical care, many have. And he did take it up later, realizing that this was an area with institutional injustices needing to be addressed (Ruger, 2008).

2.5.indd 199

12/9/2011 6:42:44 PM


Seeing the Light

Bioethicist Daniel Callahan (2009) thinks Americans are averse to socialized medicine, fearing it will unleash a flood of horrors. The biggest fear is that those with health insurance might have fewer options and higher costs if the system became more egalitarian. He says, “Arguments based on justice did not have much staying power,” adding: The thought that we might have to ration health care in the name of the common good—even to ensure that others get a fair share—is objectionable to most Americans, and our politicians have not dared to talk about it. It is the medical equivalent of not‐in‐my‐backyard. … Rationing is tolerable only in an emergency. We are a rich country, even during a recession; we can afford expensive wars abroad and McMansions. So why should we have to limit health care? (2009)

Jennifer Prah Ruger (2008) discusses Rawls’ theory of justice with respect to public health. She notes the views of ethicist Norman Daniels that, “Health care is a right because it provides equality of opportunity.” This account, he contends, adopts Rawls’ notion of a veil of ignorance in order to explain how people would choose allocations appropriate for each of life’s stages. Ruger would draw our attention to the barriers to health care reform—including costs, willingness to pay for others’ health care, and allocating resources. She would be concerned with paying for the heart transplant when his insurance has drawn limits. When allocating costly resources, should we prioritize need over ability to pay? And if need trumps all else, should we drop age restrictions, so both old and young have equal access? And what about social status? Should convicted felons have the same access to high‐cost medical care as law‐abiding citizens? Should we give preferential treatment to married over single people? And what about prognosis or general health considerations? Daniels would want us to address the issues raised by John Q in terms of equality of opportunity, something that resonates with Rawls’ principles. In John Q , the surgery hinges on the insurance company giving an “A‐okay.” The presumption is that with a heart transplant the boy will do fine. Of course, sometimes hearts arrive too late or the surgery has complications. Hospitals face daily dilemmas around life and death issues. Questions about the justice or injustice of who gets what must then be sorted out. Believing he can’t count on the system, John takes matters into his own hands. Desperation tends to bring out the worst in people and this is no exception. Like Bryan and Erica in the revenge films, John thinks he must resort to violence to achieve his ends. Waving his gun, holding hostages, and threatening others certainly put others on notice. And he surprised everyone by a plan to donate his own heart so the transplant could proceed without delay. Of course, this is the martyr’s path—a suicide mission. Should any doctor willingly participate? Hank Greely, then‐chairman of Stanford’s Biomedical Committee asked, “Does it somehow taint or pollute the

2.5.indd 200

12/9/2011 6:42:45 PM

2.5 Rawls’ Justice Theory 201 health care system that it’s participating in this self‐sacrificing act?” Bioethicist Arthur L. Caplan would likely say “Yes.” Commenting on a case where a prisoner wanted to donate his second (= last) kidney to save his daughter’s life, Caplan argued that, “You don’t ever want to kill a person to say you saved another life’’ (Nieves, 1998). Let’s step back and ask what might resolve John’s concerns so his son gets the treatment he needs. Rawls would want individuals to have an equal right to basic liberties, and let’s presume health care is such a liberty right. He would want the health care system to be structured so as to eliminate bias, beyond favoring the most disadvantaged, such as John and his son. Bioethicists John D. Arras and Elizabeth M. Fenton (2009) say we must have recourse to a fair political process. A right to health care may require the removal of financial barriers to ‘basic’ or ‘adequate’ health care, “but the most it can usually do toward this end is direct us to create public institutions within which problems of allocation amid scarcity can be fairly debated and resolved.” So should there be minimal coverage for all? That’s an issue we need to address. Passing health reform bills and raising the issue in the media have furthered this discussion, but it’ll be awhile before the dust settles. Meanwhile, all the John Q’s out there put a face on the medical crisis and humanize the debate.

Short Takes: Stand and Deliver Some movies that are based on real life draw us in and hold us tight. Stand and Deliver (1988) has that timeless quality. It centers on a high school math teacher, Jaime Escalante, who takes a job teaching at a school that got left behind when it came to funding, teacher involvement, and community interest. This is Garfield High School. The year is 1982. Garfield High is in a heavily‐Latino section of Los Angeles where gangs are more prevalent than Girl Scouts and Little League teams. The school could serve as a good location for a horror movie, with its run down facility and the broken‐down spirit in those frequenting the site. It’s one of those tragedies of public schooling. You know, where the richer areas get the tax dollars, alumni donations, better teachers, and parental involvement and the slummy, poorer areas get next to nothing. The resulting contrast is heartbreaking. It’s hard to imagine it if you haven’t seen it—restrooms without toilet paper, classrooms with broken windows, desks in disrepair, and graffiti as common on the outside walls as the teachers’ writing is on the chalkboards inside. Gangs stake out territory and are swift to show revenge for the various wrongs they perceive. Both males and females get swept into the violence that lies beneath the surface. The array of weapons ranges from razor blades to knives and guns tucked in school bags, purses, jackets, and pants. This makes for treacherous

2.5.indd 201

12/9/2011 6:42:45 PM


Seeing the Light

walks in the hallways before, during, and after school. As a result, Mr. Escalante arrives to one giant challenge when he gets out of his Volkswagen Bug and walks into the front office of Garfield. The hurdles are formidable, but Escalante (nicknamed “Kemo” by his students) takes it in stride. His enthusiasm for mathematics is matched by his belief that it was within the reach of virtually everyone. All that is required is attention and commitment. With the performance skills of a Vegas magician, Kemo soon has the students’ curiosity. His props alone fascinate them, as he chops apples into fractional parts and tells jokes and stories that captivate his rapt audience. Gang members with hairnets and badly carved tattoos come to see that the path Kemo offers is life‐changing. He teaches them math and the love of learning. He also teaches the value of an education. He often does it with humor, but he doesn’t flinch at breaking through the attitudes that get in the way. “Tough guys don’t do math. Tough guys fry chicken for a living,” he tells them. And he lets them know that he cares: CLAUDIA: KEMO:

You’re worried that we’ll screw up royally tomorrow aren’t you? Tomorrow’s another day. I’m worried you’re gonna screw up the rest of your lives.

Anyone who needs a dose of inspiration will find Stand and Deliver good medicine. And yet the movie goes beyond that, taking a detour into the territory of justice and injustice. This happens in the second half of the film. Kemo’s students—Tito, Angel, Pancho, Lupe, Molina, and more—sign up for the Calculus AP exam. They study before school, in class, and after school, plus on weekends. They prepare around the clock and off they go. When the scores come in, they aren’t believable. They are too high. Too many of these kids from the ghetto did too good on the exam, thus raising suspicions. Sorry, but no cigar. They nullify the results. If the students want to retake the exam, okay, but these results will not stand. The students are devastated. As we all know, false accusations cut like knives, and the scars they leave are slow to heal. Kemo hits the roof. His kids did not cheat, that much he knows. He had been working with them day and night; the very idea that they would cheat was untenable. We watch as he takes on the system, confronts the authorities, and fights the big fight for his students. Early on he had warned them about the insidious effects of racism: KEMO

2.5.indd 202

[to his students]: There will be no free rides, no excuses. You already have two strikes against you: your name and your complexion. Because of those two strikes, there are some people in this world who will assume that you know less than you do. Math is the great equalizer…

12/9/2011 6:42:45 PM

2.5 Rawls’ Justice Theory 203 When you go for a job, the person giving you that job will not want to hear your problems; ergo, neither do I. You’re going to work harder here than you’ve ever worked anywhere else. And the only thing I ask for you is ganas. Desire. …If you don’t have the ganas, I will give it to you because I’m an expert.

He didn’t realize then that he would need ganas to battle the educational testing system and the mentality lying at its base. The injustice of those in power believing there was no way in the world these kids from the Barrio could excel at mathematics was Kemo’s call to battle. We watch him tackle racial profiling and its insidious harms. Racial profiling is easy to erect, but it is hard to erase the marks it leaves. Vigilance is needed to avoid falling back on the buffer of prejudice when devising and employing policies and regulations. But, as Rawls would surely argue, racial profiling in assessing mathematics exams, screening passengers at airports, evaluating job applicants, and so on creates a systemic injustice. It has no place in a society having fairness as a goal.

Outtakes: El Secreto de Sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes) Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2009, the Argentine movie, The Secret in Their Eyes follows lawyer Benjamin Esposito. He is at the end of his career and looks back on his various cases. One stands out above all the rest. It involved the murder of Liliana Coloto, a young teacher and wife of Ricardo Morales. Ricardo is heartbroken to lose Liliana and becomes obsessed with her death. His pain touches Benjamin, who decides to look into the crime. Benjamin is struck by the viciousness of the murder. After considerable effort, he manages to figure out that the killer is Isidoro Gomez. But “justice” appeared no more within reach that the stars in the Milky Way. The system is so corrupt and the powers that be so shady that the killer gets out scot‐free. Gomez walks. You can imagine how Benjamin and Ricardo take this defeat. Time passes. It’s looking bad on the justice scale. But things take a bizarre turn, when Benjamin discovers that Ricardo has hidden Gomez at his farmhouse in a makeshift Death Row. Benjamin sneaks on to the property and sees it with his very own eyes. How should he respond? Granted, Gomez was spared the punishment he deserved and Ricardo’s “solution” is fitting. But at what cost? Ricardo’s life is in shambles in this strange, sick arrangement of locking away his prisoner far from the watchful eyes of any law enforcement agency. Gomez’s solitary confinement is Ricardo’s as well. No one else comes in or out. The “winner” and “loser” are in the same boat. Ricardo ends up in a master/slave relationship with his wife’s murderer, with no end in sight. It is a revenge theme writ large. We are left wondering what

2.5.indd 203

12/9/2011 6:42:45 PM


Seeing the Light

Benjamin should do. But, as we know from Kill Bill, “Revenge is never a straight line. It’s a forest. And like a forest it’s easy to lose your way… to get lost… to forget where you came in.” Rawls would second that opinion. He dedicated himself to finding ways for a more just system to be put in place. Mind you, if the justice system is in shambles, a simple overhaul may be out of reach. A determined opposition may block access to Rawls’ principles. When that occurs, it may be necessary to call on the international community in order to effect change. The movie raises important issues in this regard.

Outtakes: Food, Inc. and Darwin’s Nightmare As we know from our own lives, inertia tends to be sufficient to hold the status quo in place. That’s when a well‐made documentary can be a catalyst to change. And we know that some changes are long overdue. Two documentaries, Food, Inc. (2008) and Darwin’s Nightmare (2004) both examine our relationship with the food we eat and the ways in which our assumptions support some pretty unsavory practices. The first is set in the USA; the second in Tanzania, Africa. Both movies were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary and each one’s detailed examination is thought‐ provoking, disturbing, and a call to action. It’s hard to watch either movie without wondering how we came to have such large‐scale food production and distribution. Furthermore, the impact on small farmers (in the one case) and poor fisherman (in the second case) cries out for restitution. A common assumption most people subscribe to is that no one is harmed by the production and delivery of the fruits, vegetables, and meat that we eat. This is not the case, as the movies show. Just think of images of cows being dragged to slaughter, chickens dropping dead in their filthy, cramped and dark megacoops shown in Food, Inc. Think also of images of the remains of fish caught in such great numbers that the fisherman have nothing left for their families that we see in Darwin’s Nightmare. Both movies shatter illusions. Food, Inc. shows the inhumane treatment of animals, the health concerns that result from the care, feeding, and slaughter of the creatures that end up on our food tables, and the impact of multinationals that take draconian steps against farmers who fail to toe the line. With Darwin’s Nightmare, we see how wealthier countries take advantage of poorer ones, as with Russians trading guns for hundreds of tons of fish that are flown out day after day after day from Lake Victoria in Tanzania. Rawls’ Difference Principle comes to mind. He wants as few inequities in social institutions as humanly possible. Strive for equality of opportunity and access to office and positions and basic rights, and use the Difference Principle to balance the scales. Those who are most disadvantaged—as the small‐time

2.5.indd 204

12/9/2011 6:42:45 PM

2.5 Rawls’ Justice Theory 205 farmers up against the behemoth of agribusiness—stand little chance of survival without acquiescing to policies forced upon them. Many are driven to poverty fighting lawsuits against such companies as Monsanto that enforce strict controls over seeds they have patented. The lessons are clear. All other things being equal, Rawls would advise us to attend to those having the short end of the stick and provide them with more advantages. Those running family‐owned farms we saw in Food, Inc. or the fishermen in Darwin’s Nightmare would fall in Rawls’ category of the maximally worst off in the equation. Arriving at a more just system is vital.

Works Cited Arras, John D. and Fenton, Elizabeth M. (2009) “Bioethics and Human Rights: Access to Health‐Related Goods.” The Hastings Center Report, Sep/Oct 2009. Vol. 39, No. 5, 27–40. Callahan, Daniel (2002) “America’s Blind Spot.” Commonweal, October 9, 2009. Vol. 136, No. 17. Garrett, Jan Edward (2002) “John Rawls on Justice,” September 3, 2002. http:// (accessed September 2, 2011). Moore, Michael S. (2011) “Retributivism,” The Other Encyclopedia. pages/1958/Retributivism.html (accessed September 2, 2011). Nieves, Evelyn (1998) “Girl Awaits Father’s 2d Kidney, And Decision by Medical Ethicists.” The New York Times, December 5, 1998. Rawls, John (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Rawls, John (1955) “Two Concepts of Rules.” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 64, 3–32. (accessed September 2, 2011). Ruger, Jennifer Prah (2008) “Ethics in American Health 1: Ethical Approaches to Health Policy.” American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 98, No. 10, 1751–57. Sievers, Burkard and Mersky, Rose Redding (2006) “The Economy of Vengeance: Some Considerations on the Aetiology and Meaning of the Business of Revenge.”  Human Relations, Vol. 59(2), 249–59. economy_of_venegance.pdf (accessed September 2, 2011). Sihra, Karen (2004) “Review of: Freire, Paulo (1973/2003) Education as the Practice of Freedom.” In Education for Critical Consciousness. New York: Continuum. http:// (accessed September 2, 2011).

Online Resources Richardson, Henry S. (2005) “Rawls.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http:// (accessed September 2, 2011). Philosophy Talk. “John Rawls,” December 14, 2008. Ken Taylor, John Perry, and Joshua Cohen discuss John Rawls, his ideal state, and how the U.S. measures up. The website includes resources/links. JohnRawls.html (accessed September 2, 2011).

2.5.indd 205

12/9/2011 6:42:45 PM


Seeing the Light

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “Original Position.” Samuel Freeman (2008) on Rawls’ Theory of Justice. http://plato.‐position/ (accessed September 2, 2011). “John Rawls.” Leif Wenar (2008) gives an overview of Rawls’ life and work, with a discussion of aims and methods. (accessed September 2, 2011).

Discussion Questions 1. How might Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” help us address the health care disparities raised by John Q? 2. Bryan (Taken) and Erica (The Brave One) never had an “ah‐ha” experience showing a change of mind about being obsessed with revenge. But they did get the bad guys in the end; so what’s the problem? What advice Rawls might give them? 3. Drawing from any of the movies in this chapter, point out two or three key scenes that give us greater insight into justice (or injustice). 4. Looking at Michael Clayton, Food, Inc., and Darwin’s Nightmare, we see corporate interests on both the national and international scale—and they are behaving badly. Do Rawls’ principles give us the tools to effect changes? 5. How does Jaime Escalante (“Kemo”) model for his students how to confront prejudice and fight the racist attitudes behind it? What would Rawls say to him? 6. Columbiana (2011) lacks the “happy” ending of Taken. Here a young woman uses her physical prowess to get revenge for her parents’ murder by a drug cartel. One by one the gangsters are dispensed with. However, retaliation was not on her horizon, so when it struck she was devastated. How should we weigh retaliation when looking at justice and revenge?

2.5.indd 206

12/9/2011 6:42:45 PM


Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

SPOTLIGHT: The Insider, To Kill a Mockingbird Short Takes: Idiocracy, and Lethal Weapon 2 Outtakes: Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Taxi to the Dark Side WIGAND: RICHARD SCRUGGS:

Jail? Possibly, yes. That is one of the possible consequences of your testifying here today. That’s right… —The Insider

Ever wonder what you’d do if you found out that something was being hidden from the public that caused major health problems? What if your employer was part of the conspiracy of silence? Would you, could you be a whistleblower? How much risk would you take on? Most of us hope we could step up to the plate and do the right thing. It’s never as simple as we’d like to think. Doing “the right thing” may put others at risk. We’ve all seen that one! “Tell us where you hid the files or we’ll poison your dog and nab your kids on their way home from school!” You look at Wolfie with tears in your eyes and your stomach shrivels up, imagining your children being kidnapped. Those files don’t seem so important after all. Why should you be hero‐of‐the‐day and suffer the consequences? This is the dilemma faced by Dr. Jeffrey Wigand in the movie The Insider (1999). He is employed as a scientist at the tobacco company Brown and Williamson (B&W). Having been Vice President of Research and Development, Wigand has solid evidence that B&W was in league with other tobacco companies in developing a “nicotine delivery system”—the cigarette. Using ammonia to Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

2.6.indd 207

12/9/2011 6:42:37 PM


Seeing the Light

boost the impact and adding flavors to improve the “taste,” cigarettes were engineered to guarantee a ready public wanting their daily fix. B&W and other tobacco companies were creating physiologically addictive substances—drugs— with each pack of cigarette coming off their assembly line. Wigand realized what was happening and decided to blow the whistle. It’s clear that he had no idea what was in store for him. Nor did he picture the underhanded tricks the powerful corporate interests would pull to try to stop him. Misfortune rained down in ways he could not have foreseen. It’s a powerful tale of good vs. evil and how one man brought the truth to light. The classic film To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) also presents us with an ordinary man with the spine to stand up against injustice. Both films are remarkable examples of courage under fire. For such films one theory stands out, and that is Virtue Ethics. Let’s see how Aristotle gives us the tools to appreciate the moral messages of our movies here.

The Ethical Framework: Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics To look at what virtue is, Aristotle says, we have to look into the soul. In Chapter 5 of the Nicomachean Ethics, he states that the three kinds of things found in the soul are passions, faculties, and states of character. There are passions, such as fear, hatred, longing, joy, appetite, confidence, and feelings accompanying pleasure or pain. There are faculties for feeling those passions (of becoming angry, feeling pity, being in pain, and so on). There are states of character that connect us to our passions and how we stand in relationship to them—well if we react moderately and badly if we react too little or too much. For Aristotle, the extremes (e.g., rage and apathy) are undesirable states, so we should avoid them. Moderation is the way to go. Neither virtue nor vice is a passion, since we are not considered good or bad on the basis of our passions. Just because you are fearful or angry doesn’t make you a good or bad person. It’s how you respond, what you then do, not the mere fact of having a passion. That’s where rationality comes in. We feel anger (a passion) and are moved by our passions. What we do with that anger is a choice. We can overreact, underreact, or show self‐control. Aristotle sees it this way: I have passions and experience them thanks to my natural faculties. What I am then disposed to do is a matter of states of character. Those who are virtuous show they are good; they have excellence of character. It may seem old‐fashioned to talk in terms of virtues (good moral traits) and vices (bad ones). Nevertheless, these ideas help us live right. Aristotle helps us navigate the moral terrain by providing a framework to deal with the highs and lows and the obstacles we will face. He focuses on moral character and takes a distinctly different approach from Deontological (duty‐based) and Teleological (Consequentialist) ethicists. His is

2.6.indd 208

12/9/2011 6:42:37 PM

2.6 Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics 209 a people‐centered ethical theory. Aristotle wants us to look at the way individuals follow a path of virtue or vice in how they live. Compare his approach to that of Teleological ethicists, such as Utilitarians. They focus on consequences, objectives, ends, and goals, and not the means to those ends. A Utilitarian asks, “How can I achieve the best results for the most people?” Unlike Deontological ethicists they do not ask, “What duties to I have to others?” “What are my intentions?” Aristotle asks, “What kind of person do I want to be?“ Here’s where habit comes in. As Eric Reitan (2005) notes, “we develop the proper emotional dispositions through a process of habituation: we behave in an even‐tempered way until the emotions follow suit and become internalized.” A fully integrated human life, one that can express both reason and emotion, is possible only once moral virtue is achieved, he explains (p. 225). As you may recall, Utilitarians want the most for the most. They want us to maximize good/happiness/social benefit for the majority of the people. Act Utilitarians would advise Wigand to consider how each option will affect those most directly affected by the decision. Given the level of risk (= high cost to his family), an Act Utilitarian would tell Wigand to back off and forget about blowing the whistle. Rule Utilitarians throw a wider net. They think in terms of setting a precedent (a rule!). They’d say: (1) people might have more pleasure being addicted to cigarettes, (2) big tobacco does help the economy, (3) Mill’s concept of liberty would allow adults the right to smoke so long as no one else is harmed. However, (4) the health risks and costs to the society can’t be ignored, and (5) we shouldn’t make decisions without informed consent. Mill favors liberty, but not ignorance. Hiding the risks of tobacco from the public means people cannot freely exercise their liberty. This would seriously irk Mill. He’d advise Wigand to blow the whistle. Information about the addictive qualities of cigarettes has been kept from the public, so he should testify. People need to know. Deontological ethicists like Kant and Rawls focus on moral obligations, ethical duties, and intentions. Kant’s Categorical Imperative (see Chapter 2.4) and Rawls’ Principle of Equal Liberty (see Chapter 2.5) both clarify the obligations we owe one another. This contrasts with Teleological ethicists, whose eyes are on the prize, not the means used to get the prize. Kant would advise Wigand to be a role model for others. Do what he’d willingly have everyone else follow suit. That might be hard advice to take. Would Wigand really want others to put their families at risk? It is hard to turn this into a universal law. Consequently, he wouldn’t find it easy to be a Kantian. Here’s where Aristotle comes in. He looks at the path to a meaningful life and the intellectual and moral qualities needed to get there. Aristotle would tell Wigand to figure out what makes his life meaningful. Do what he must in order to live with himself. The challenge is to steer the middle course between the

2.6.indd 209

12/9/2011 6:42:37 PM


Seeing the Light

extremes. Wigand feels the weight on his shoulders. That he refuses to be silent adds to his psychic burdens. That said, he can’t overlook how his family is being affected by his being a whistleblower. He’s sorry to put them through any suffering, but knows he can make a difference by proceeding. The truth should be brought to light. Aristotle looks at individuals and what it takes to achieve a life of excellence, one that is a meaningful life. That’s why he emphasizes moral character and finding a sense of purpose. Any significance placed on consequences or moral obligations should be in the service of character development. For that reason, Aristotle turns to the intellectual and moral virtues. Through those virtues we find the key to the good life. From the introduction to this unit you know Aristotle’s intellectual virtues range from the aesthetic to the analytical to both practical and philosophical wisdom and the faculty of understanding and evaluation. His moral virtues also come into play. Those who seek a morally upstanding life, according to Aristotle, need to avoid the extremes and aim for the mean. Find that balance between passivity/ weakness and aggression/excess. That’s what should be our guide. Aristotle thinks a hero shows the wisdom to choose carefully. With each step the hero should get closer to being a moral exemplar (= a person others will look up to and respect). Let’s see how this applies to the movies here in this chapter, starting with The Insider.

SPOTLIGHT: The Insider We follow our conflicted hero, Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, from the moment he packs up and leaves the firm. He has key documents in hand and others in the trunk of his car. We can tell this is a stressful situation. The knowledge he has, the incriminating evidence against cigarette manufacturers, is potentially explosive. The company’s solution is to attack his credibility by launching a smear campaign against him. Maybe then the practices they kept tightly under wraps won’t then be exposed. His opponents have every reason to worry about Wigand. He’s not to be underestimated and he can’t be bought off. As Brown and Williamson’s chairman Thomas Sandefur acknowledged, “Jeffrey says exactly what’s on his mind. Most people consider what they’re saying… social skills… Jeffrey just charges right ahead.” This gives us an inkling of Wigand’s strength of character. Journalist and CBS TV show 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman and anchor Mike Wallace wanted him to be a consultant for a show on fire safety and cigarettes. At the time they didn’t realize that Wigand was sitting on a powder keg, but once Bergman met Wigand, he could see a bombshell in the making. By going on TV, Wigand could not only talk about fire safety, he

2.6.indd 210

12/9/2011 6:42:37 PM

2.6 Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics 211 could also divulge the perils of tobacco that corrupt companies had been hiding from the public. Small fish, big fish. Unfortunately, the big exposé didn’t happen as planned: CBS news was under the wing of CBS corporate. CBS’s ties to Brown and Williamson created a conflict of interest and threw the plans to air the show into a tailspin. Wigand then realizes that the risks he took to do the right thing appear to have been in vain. CBS legal counsel stopped the show from airing due to pressure from the top (eventually it ran, after the news of the story broke). For a while it looked like Wigand was going to snap. He was now teaching high school chemistry and was no longer a well‐paid scientist. His marriage was  in shambles. The death threat that his wife Liane received checking email  was the last straw. She took the children and hit the road. With only occasional visits with his two daughters, his life bore little resemblance to what it once was. His despair and frustration factor was unmistakable. Then things took another turn. Class action suits against big tobacco started popping up around the country. Wigand was asked to be a key witness against Brown and Williamson in a suit brought by Michael Moore, the Attorney General of the state of Mississippi. Would he walk the plank again? In one of the more powerful scenes of the movie, Wigand meets with Moore and his co‐counsel. They inform him that testifying has risks. He might even go to jail. Jail? The word reverberates inside Wigand’s skull. That was not on his agenda and he is visibly conflicted. The gag order in force against Wigand by the state of Kentucky (where he resides) explicitly prohibits divulging anything in the confidentiality agreement he signed with B&W. However, all was not lost, as there was no gag order against him in Mississippi. Not yet anyway. With no time to waste Wigand got cold feet. Who could blame him? He and his family had already suffered. Brown and Williamson pulled out all the stops to try to stop him. Could he take any more? Attorney Richard Scruggs commiserates, telling Wigand: In the Navy I flew A‐6’s off carriers… In combat, events have a duration of seconds, sometimes minutes… But what you’re going through goes on day in and day out. Whether you’re ready for it or not, week in, week out… Month after month after month.... You feel your whole family’s future’s compromised… held hostage…

Wigand is stuck on the horns of a dilemma. Whatever he does will have both personal and professional consequences. He wants to do right thing, but “right” for some is not always right for all. The clock is ticking. Either he should go to court and testify or walk away. Each choice has unforeseen risks. Wigand’s mind is churning, as noted in the script: “Jeffrey alone on the jetty, looking out to sea. Trying to decide, trying to untangle identity and consequence. A moment.”

2.6.indd 211

12/9/2011 6:42:37 PM


Seeing the Light

He tells Bergman and Scruggs that, “I can’t seem to find… the criteria to decide. It’s too big a decision to make without being resolved… in my own mind.” Wigand’s struggle wouldn’t surprise Aristotle. He knows that finding a suitable rule or ethical code to solve a moral dilemma isn’t necessarily easy. General principles don’t always clarify the right thing to do in a given situation. Finding a way to apply them to this case or that one may simply be harder than we might think. Think about the Categorical Imperative and trying to decide how to act in such a way that it would become a universal law. How can Wigand recommend an action for others to follow? People are leaving bullets in his mailbox, threatening his wife and children, having him trailed, and using their arsenal of legal resources to squash him like an ant. How do you universalize this decision‐making? This is an Aristotelian moment. Neither Consequentialist (Teleological) Ethics nor duty‐based (Deontological) Ethics offer Dr. Wigand an obvious way out of his dilemma. No ready solution comes to mind; his path is shrouded in fog. He knows he wants to bring the evidence to light, but he never thought it would be so hard to accomplish. What happens next shows us why Aristotle considers friendship intrinsic to happiness, to a meaningful life. Lowell Bergman reaches out to Wigand and conveys sympathy about being conflicted. His gesture cuts through Jeffrey’s isolation and helps him reconnect with his values. Aristotle sees three sorts of friends—those of utility (useful to achieve our goals), those of pleasure (useful for fun and frolic), and those of virtue (like‐ minded in seeking to be good and who wish us well). Friends of virtue help us stay on track and not give up. This Bergman does for him when he said, “Maybe things have changed.” The reality was that he had planned on testifying and then hesitated. But why? Were things any different today than yesterday? Things have already changed; nothing will be the same again. The equilibrium and the stability he once had can’t be restored. There is no turning back. His former life is in tatters. But he can go forward by staying true to the moral qualities, those virtues he holds dear. Aristotle would tell him, “Focus on what kind of person you want to be and what intellectual and moral traits are required to get there.” This should guide you. Wigand knows too much about the harms of tobacco to walk away. It is time to act and let the chips fall where they may. “Fuck it. Let’s go to court,” he announces. It is a decision that will unleash the furies against him. The days ahead will test him over and over again. He shows us that courage is not a momentary phenomenon. It is something that has to be lived, day in and day out. That’s the road to virtue. In fact, CBS anchor Mike Wallace asked him if he’d do it again. Would he be a whistleblower knowing the consequences he’d face? Wigand answers, “Yeah, there are times I wish I hadn’t done it. There are times I feel compelled to do it. If you asked me would I do it again? Do I think it’s worth it? Yeah, I think it’s worth it.” With that, he affirms his choice.

2.6.indd 212

12/9/2011 6:42:38 PM

2.6 Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics 213 Wigand is not making his decision into a universal law. He thinks it was worth it, yes, but his awareness of the risks and potential consequences would not be something Kant would care one iota about. For Kant, moral obligation should drive Wigand, and only that. Any consequences, adverse or otherwise, should not carry any influence whatsoever. Wigand isn’t about to go down that path. In the actual case involving Wigand and Brown and Williamson, William I. Campbell, President and CEO of Philip Morris spoke before the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment on April 14, 1994. He categorically denied that his company added nicotine or manipulated the level of nicotine in cigarettes or suppressed any research about the addictive qualities of smoking. Campbell argued that, “People can and do quit smoking,” and added that, “Smoking is not intoxicating” and “does not impair judgment.” Furthermore none of their research established that smoking is addictive1 (emphasis mine). As we know, the failure to establish strict causation between smoking and addiction (smoke → addicted) does not mean that there is not a causal link. In other words, Wigand’s contention that cigarettes are a “nicotine delivery system” was not debunked by Campbell’s speech to the House Subcommittee. His carefully constructed claims allowed for some slipping and sliding on what was known or not known about the harms of tobacco. As for the news coverage and particularly CBS, the real Lowell Bergman (2001) echoes the movie’s version of Bergman questioning the integrity of network news. He thought CBS “perceived certain liabilities about going forward” with the Wigand interview and points out that, The reality is that if you talk to a network news executive, they’ll tell you that they not only have to be worried about ratings but profits and that they don’t have an obligation anymore to follow what we used to call a fairness doctrine. Nor do they have to cover anything. They just need to put things on the air that look like they’re real and call it news. So you can have “Blind Dog Saves Drowning Man.” If you were to believe the world according to 20/20, it’s filled with child molesters and all kind of stuff. The phrase investigative journalism doesn’t mean what it used to mean (, 2001).

Utilitarians ask, “What is your goal?” and say, “Do what you’ve got to do to make that happen.” If that means using deception or a “misinformation campaign,” so be it. Always try to do what is best for the society as a whole. Deontologists ask, “What is your moral duty?” and tell us, “Be true to your moral obligations.” Even if “the truth hurts” or the repercussions cause problems, always try to stand up for individual rights and not lose sight of your moral duties. Aristotle is the one who would tell Wigand that he is right to focus 1

See “Testimony of William I. Campbell, President and Chief Executive Officer of Philip Morris USA Before the Subcommittee on Health and The Environment, House Energy and Commerce Committee, Prepared for Delivery on: April 14, 1994.”

2.6.indd 213

12/9/2011 6:42:38 PM


Seeing the Light

on moral character and to examine the direction and purpose of his life. He’d salute him for keeping that before him. This we also see in our next movie.

SPOTLIGHT: To Kill a Mockingbird Other movies similarly show us the importance of Virtue Ethics. One of the classics of film, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) offers a powerful example of both the intellectual and moral virtues. It’s a great vehicle to see Aristotle in action. With the hero’s daughter Scout the narrator, To Kill a Mockingbird tells the story of attorney Atticus Finch seeking justice in a racist society. He defends a black man, Tom Robinson, who is charged with the rape of Mayella Ewell, a white woman of dubious reputation. The movie is set in the 1930s in Monroeville, Alabama, where racial disparities fuel the outrage of the townspeople. The odds are stacked against Finch’s attempt to get Robinson a fair trial. The locals appear more inclined to lynch Robinson than to weigh the evidence against him. In a riveting scene, Finch explains to the jury why Robinson could not have beaten Mayella Ewell. Her bruises were on the left side of her face. Had he attacked her, he would have had to use his left arm, given that his right arm was crushed in a farm accident some time back. If the defendant were at fault, Mayella would have had injuries to the right side of her face, not the left. With his finely tuned deductive reasoning skills, Atticus set out an airtight argument. He demonstrated that Tom could not have caused the injuries to Mayella’s face. Therefore, only a jury impervious to the facts could convict him. This was such a jury. The unjust decision does not obscure the fact that Atticus is impressive in the courtroom. Not only do we see his logical finesse in action, we also see the range of his intellect and his “practical wisdom,” as Aristotle would call it. This is the ability to act prudently, weigh options and arrive at decisions that will enhance the quality of life. Finch excels at this and part of the power of the movie is watching him in the courtroom. Scout comments on the trial and how seriously Finch takes his role as a father. She observes that, “There just didn’t seem to be anyone or anything Atticus couldn’t explain. Though it wasn’t a talent that would arouse the admiration of any of our friends, Jem and I had to admit he was very good at that— but that was ‘all’ he was good at… we thought.” This underscores the importance of role models, which Aristotle would second. One of the ways we learn about moral development is through the guidance and examples of those around us. Atticus Finch is a charismatic figure. He carries himself with dignity and grace. When tensions boil up and a near mob tries to break Robinson out of jail in order to lynch him, Finch stands in their way. Their racism drives their actions. Only Finch’s determination to face them down causes them to back off. He is the town’s conscience, urging them not to succumb to their racist fury.

2.6.indd 214

12/9/2011 6:42:38 PM

2.6 Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics 215 Similarly, when the Tom Ewell, Mayella’s father, confronts Finch and spits in his face, Finch reacts with restraint. He is the picture of humility and self‐control. He knows things could blow up at a moment’s notice, given the racial tensions at work. His calm demeanor helps keep the lid on the passions erupting around him. With a fundamental belief in the workings of the law, he wants nothing to do with vigilantism. He has faith that others will give careful thought to important issues. He believes the evidence is sufficient to persuade anyone taking the time to listen. He trusts that people will look at the facts and do what is just. Whether the accused is black or white, the question should be guilt or innocence and not the color of his skin. This is in accord with Aristotle’s intellectual and moral virtues. Aristotle would condone Finch using his knowledge and moral reasoning to make the strongest case possible, and in assuming that his audience is rational enough to follow the reasoning. His hope that the jury might set aside their prejudices revealed an optimism that things could change for the better. There aren’t many examples of nobility of character that we could list off the top of our heads, but Atticus Finch is surely one. His commitment to fairness and using the legal system to achieve a just result brought adulation from the black community watching the trial from the balcony. They revered him for his courage to defend Robinson and put himself and his children in harm’s way. Those risks became actualized with the attack on his son Jem and yet it seems unlikely that Finch would have abdicated his position, no matter what kind of pressure was put upon him. He has a deep understanding of what justice entails. And because he hopes the next generation will overcome the mistaken notions of his own, Finch takes seriously the two key aspects of his life. This is his work as a lawyer and the education of his children. For this reason, he wants them to grasp the concepts of “truth,” “fairness,” and “justice.” Finch tells his son Jem, “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ‘em all away from you. That’s never possible.” Finch is also a man of highly developed moral strength. Aristotle’s moral virtues are as important as the intellectual virtues. They are instrumental in character development, for these moral traits shape the sort of person we become. Aristotle recommends that we seek the mean between the two extremes whenever we can reasonably do so. So, for instance, he’d tell us to be neither cowardly nor foolhardy, but to be courageous whenever possible. Similarly, Aristotle would tell us to be temperate and show self‐control. Be neither stingy (tight‐fisted) nor wasteful; rather, be generous. This discussion with his daughter Scout shows us the quality of Finch’s character: ATTICUS:

2.6.indd 215

There are some things that you’re not old enough to understand just yet. There’s been some high talk around town to the effect that I shouldn’t do much about defending this man.

12/9/2011 6:42:38 PM


Seeing the Light


If you shouldn’t be defending him, then why are you doing it? For a number of reasons. The main one is that if I didn’t, I couldn’t hold my head up in town. I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do somethin’ again. [he puts his arm around her] …You’re gonna hear some ugly talk about this in school. But I want you to promise me one thing: That you won’t get into fights over it, no matter what they say to you.

Aristotle would look at Atticus and be impressed at the range of admirable traits Atticus exhibits. He is honest, humble, sincere and unpretentious. He is good‐tempered and prone neither to outbursts nor to stifling his thoughts and feelings. Expecting others to be civil and open‐minded, Atticus treats others with respect and dignity, but stands his ground when others try to force his hand. His defense of Tom Robinson in the place (Alabama), at the time (1930s) showed remarkable courage, personal integrity, and commitment to justice. We see this in his closing statement at the trial, where he opens with his understated outrage: To begin with, this case should never have come to trial. The state has not produced one iota of medical evidence that the crime Tom Robinson is charged with ever took place… It has relied instead upon the testimony of two witnesses, whose evidence has not only been called into serious question on cross‐examination, but has been flatly contradicted by the defendant.

Atticus shows compassion for Mayella Ewell, but compassion should not be the servant of ignorance or deception. For Finch, “I have nothing but pity in my heart for the chief witness for the State. She is the victim of cruel poverty and ignorance. But my pity does not extend so far as to her putting a man’s life at stake.” And in a move of striking courage, he slices through the racist veneer that enveloped the trial and the town. Speaking of the claimant, Mayella, Finch says: “She’s committed no crime— she has merely broken a rigid and time‐honored code of our society, a code so severe that whoever breaks it is hounded from our midst as unfit to live with.” He calls it as it sees it: “She was white, and she tempted a Negro. She did something that, in our society, is unspeakable. She kissed a black man.” Finch puts it out there for the jury to see. He cuts through the pretense that any other “crime” was committed. For Atticus, we should not compromise our principles when it comes to justice and to overcoming prejudice. He appeals to the jury to do what is right and reject the prosecution’s case. With that, he calls them to reject the prosecution’s “evil assumption that all Negroes lie, all Negroes are basically immoral beings, all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women.” Finch calls on the jurors to rise above the racism that has tainted the proceedings. He asks them to do their duty and restore Robinson to his family and release him.

2.6.indd 216

12/9/2011 6:42:38 PM

2.6 Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics 217 The sheer eloquence of his plea still reverberates in film lore. He reminds them that justice is something to be maintained on a daily basis and never taken for granted. As he points out, “Now, gentlemen, in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system—that’s no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality!” That the jury followed their basest impulses and convicted Robinson does not lessen the power of Finch’s words. In 2003 the American Film Institute voted Finch the greatest film hero of all time (the worst villain award went to Hannibal Lecter of Silence of the Lambs). Whereas Finch used his knowledge and professional training to take the high road and see that justice is served, Lecter used his expertise in the service of evil, as we will see in Chapter 3.2 (Encountering Evil). Eric Reitan (2005) points out two of Aristotle’s recommendations for achieving your potential. First, don’t follow a script. Decide how you want to live your life. Cultivate your own understanding of yourself! Secondly, pursue goals that challenge you to develop your abilities (p. 219). Don’t aim too low, or we may not learn what we are capable of becoming. And don’t aim so high that it’s unrealistic to reach our goals. Instead, navigate between the extremes of deficiency and excess. Neither Wigand nor Finch follows anyone else’s script. They could not be coerced or deterred from seeking their goals. They pushed on, using their unique skills and insights to examine their choices, reflect on the right thing to do, and take action. With Wigand, the possible repercussions made him hesitate, but only one course of action ultimately seemed right. Speak the truth to the public about Big Tobacco. With Finch, we see how deeply committed he was to working for justice in a racist society. The path to happiness and self‐fulfillment involves building moral character, as The Insider and To Kill a Mockingbird both show us. Along the way, Wigand and Finch had to overcome adversity and stay true to what was most just, what was the right thing to do. For Aristotle, this usually involves finding the means between the two extremes. At times moderation doesn’t work, because the right response is an extreme. The best thing to do may be to pull back, withhold sympathy, or express outrage, anger, or grief. That’s where Aristotle’s practical wisdom comes in and helps us determine what we ought to do. And do note that there’s no Aristotlean mean on the scale of negative traits like shamelessness, envy, and spitefulness. There’s no middle ground of negativity. Traits such as being envious or spiteful are always wrong, as we saw when Bob Ewell lost it and spit in Finch’s face. No matter how you twist it around, that act was immoral. Aristotle gives a lot of thought toward achieving moral excellence. It’s not something that happens overnight or because of one good deed or a series of events. As ethicist Michael Boylan notes, “People who are known for one single action are not excellent” (2000, p. 52). Of course, a dramatic demonstration of

2.6.indd 217

12/9/2011 6:42:38 PM


Seeing the Light

some moral trait may well linger in the public memory. But that’s not enough for moral excellence. Both Jeffrey Wigand and Atticus Finch show courage, personal integrity, humility, sincerity and a strong sense of purpose. They are heroes. And there’s no reason to think Aristotle would not also think well of them.

Short Takes: Idiocracy As you recall from the Introduction to this Unit (Chapter 2.0), Aristotle emphasized intellectual virtues as well as moral virtues. This includes Creativity (artistic skill and creative thinking), Logical Knowledge (analytical skills and logical reasoning), Practical Wisdom (making sound judgments about conduct in life), Philosophical Wisdom (the ability to deal with the big questions and ultimate things), and Comprehension (the ability to evaluate and make judgments). You might think at first that Aristotle set the bar too high with these intellectual virtues, that he made a lot of assumptions when drawing up the list. Maybe so, but do you remember the comedy Idiocracy (2006)? It is a dystopian spoof that shows what happens when ignorance is the order of the day and pleasure rules, showing us why Aristotle’s intellectual virtues matter. It is a piece of dumb humor, but its barbs are not without substance. The movie centers on an Army librarian, Private Joe Bauers. He is considered the perfect subject for a Pentagon experiment on hibernation because he is remarkably ordinary, and expendable. The other subject of the experiment is Rita, a prostitute who cuts a deal, agreeing to participate as an alternative to prison. The experiment involves putting them in a time capsule for a year, but things go awry and the experiment is forgotten. Five hundred years go by before the time capsules are unearthed, and Joe and Rita wake up to a world that is bankrupt in terms of Aristotle’s intellectual virtues. Superficiality reigns. Joe finds himself surrounded by junk‐food hedonists. They have so few skills that the society and its institutions can barely function. It is so dumbed‐down that our average Joe comes off as a genius next to the dimwits he encounters. Their attitude floors him. They just don’t care! The intellectual virtues are not even on the map in this messed‐up future world. This is definitely a parallel world we want to avoid. Idiocracy pokes fun at those who forget moderation and wallow in excess. It shows the logical consequences of neglecting our minds. Aristotle preferred drama to comedy, but he might understand how a humorous satire can be an effective vehicle. Failing to nourish the mental and creative aspects of our lives is a big mistake, if this is the end result. We see how a mental black hole results in chaos, as well as a dysfunctional society. We also see that character development and finding a sense of purpose requires both moral virtues and intellectual ones. For Aristotle, it is crucial that moral

2.6.indd 218

12/9/2011 6:42:38 PM

2.6 Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics 219 fiber rests on more than what we do at one time or place. You don’t have to be perfect to be morally upstanding, but you do have to be pretty consistent over time in doing the right thing. The road to a meaningful life is created by decisions we make over the course of our lives. This we saw in the two heroes in The Insider and To Kill a Mockingbird. They also showed how moral development isn’t one‐dimensional. Idiocracy does so as well.

Short Takes: Lethal Weapon 2 LAPD officers Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh have been partners for years, through thick and thin as the saying goes. They’re buddies in all the ways that matter. Where there’s one, the other isn’t far away. Whether it’s car chases, fighting crime, stopping South African drug smugglers, overcoming crazed killers, fighting off murder attempts with staple guns, stopping a car with a trunk full of gold Krugerrands (coins), or protecting a federal witness Leo Getz, the two are more than a team. The one would do anything for the other, whatever the risk. In one of the greatest friendship scenes on film, Martin discovers that Roger hasn’t shown up at work. He was due hours ago and, given this is not at all the norm, Martin, with Getz in tow, heads over to Roger’s house. They kick in the door, and Martin yells for Roger. “I’m up here,” Roger answers, so they rush to the second floor. They find Roger on the toilet, looking most distressed. Evidently, he’s been sitting there for hours. Right after he sat down, fishing magazine in hand, he spotted the message on the toilet paper. A bomb? Why the toilet? Why didn’t they put the bomb in the oven? Well, they didn’t. Martin calls the bomb squad and near‐mayhem follows. Roger’s only hope is his cast iron bathtub. With a one second delay before the bomb detonates, Roger has to leap into the tub and cover himself with a bomb‐ proof blanket. Martin won’t leave him. He knows Roger has been sitting there for hours and, with numb legs, leaping into a tub is but a pipe dream. Martin and Roger don vests and get ready to count 1‐2‐3 and heave ho. But first they look into each other’s eyes. Martin does not say, “Hey Roger, thanks for being a good friend and by the way, please tell my wife and children how much I love them.” Not in the slightest! But remember in Die Hard what John McClane did when he thought he was going to die? John asked L.A. cop Al Powell to tell his wife Bonnie that he was sorry. She knows how much he loves her, but she never heard him say, “I’m sorry.” Roger and Martin look at each other, tears start to well up in their eyes. They know it’s entirely possible they’ll die when the bomb detonates. This may be it. Roger looks at Martin, full of feeling. Martin says, “I know,” acknowledging how much their friendship meant. Nothing more need be said. Theirs was not a

2.6.indd 219

12/9/2011 6:42:38 PM


Seeing the Light

friendship of pleasure. Theirs was not a friendship of utility, with the one helping the other achieve this or that goal. No, theirs was a friendship of virtue, with each bringing out the best in the other. It’s time to count 1‐2‐3 and hope for the best. Our last two movies are documentaries about the war on terror. Both show not only the human costs on all participants (soldier or enemy), but also the ways in which group (or, worse, mob) morality can draw in even those who initially seem capable of standing their ground and speaking up. Nevertheless, staying focused on doing the right thing is not easy, but our moral grounding depends upon it.

Outtakes: Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Taxi to the Dark Side It’s hard to look at global conflicts without a sinking feeling. Actions and reactions, steps and missteps before and after 9/11 fueled so many tensions that it’s no wonder the public conscience was put through the wringer. Fear cast a shadow over the land. The quest for terrorists became an obsession, as it became increasingly more difficult to tell a goatherd from a villain. Those assigned the mission to track down and capture enemies faced an enormous task. With the terms of engagement in flux, the playing field became like an ice rink. And the use of language reveals the moral quagmire: By calling the captives “detainees” instead of “prisoners” the rules of war and the Geneva Conventions could be avoided. And with enemies classified “unprivileged illegal combatants” the old ethical guidelines could be shelved. Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007) and Taxi To the Dark Side (2007 present nuanced and piercing studies of the war on terror. Both center on the ethical dilemmas faced by real people in real time. Making use of photographic images now carved into history, they dig beneath the surface. Included are interviews with soldiers who were aware of torture and abuse at American‐run detention facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. It’s not a pretty sight; yet it is important to examine. Aristotle would not have it any other way. We can only progress in character development—individual character as well as national character—if we are cognizant of our moral shortcomings and take steps to address them. With Aristotle it’s neither our intentions nor end goals that carry moral weight. It’s what we do on a day‐to‐day basis. Ghosts of Abu Ghraib focuses on the widely publicized abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Infamous as a torture site under Saddam Hussein, there were already ghosts inhabiting the place when the Americans set up shop. Thousands upon thousands of detainees were crammed into this prison. Interrogating these suspects took place under the most primitive and barbaric circumstances. Things happened. The soldiers were too small in number and too ill‐equipped to discern threats. The lack of a common language exacerbated the situation, as

2.6.indd 220

12/9/2011 6:42:38 PM

2.6 Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics 221 did cultural and religious differences. The soldiers had little oversight or guidance to ensure that applicable policies were clear. Expectations that they could get actionable intelligence from the mostly innocent civilians set the stage for abuse to surface. The various interviews indicate how moral barriers came down. “There were some awful scenes. It felt like you were descending into one of the rings of hell, and sadly it was our own creation,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin (D‐Ill.) commenting on the notorious photos from Abu Ghraib that led to a 2004 Congressional hearing over the atrocities. War hero Senator Daniel K. Inouye agreed: “I thought I would be hardened, but I am a bit sickened” (Brenner, 2010). The ethical spotlight on the participants reveals numerous flaws. The soldiers expressed discomfort and, at times, shame and guilt. Some expressed regrets; others tried to justify their actions. We see this in the following exchange. Scott Horton is a human rights attorney and Sabrina Harman and Ken Davis are soldiers who were stationed at the prison. SCOTT HORTON:

We have one clear case of someone who appears to have been tortured to death at Abu Ghraib. …He was kept in ice. He was a ghost detainee; investigations [linked his death to] Navy SEALs and also CIA personnel. There seems to have been a policy decision not to prosecute homicides that resulted from this highly abusive conduct. SABRINA HARMAN: [holding a large photo of herself smiling with a “thumbs up” gesture in front of the face of a recently deceased prisoner in a body bag] We came to the prison and we were told that a prisoner just died […] of a heart attack in the shower and that they weren’t going to come pick him up right away because they didn’t have any means and that he was in a body bag. … I didn’t know he was just murdered. I thought it’s just war— another dead guy. No big deal. KEN DAVIS: CIA put him on ice and they were going to try to get him out on a stretcher with I.V.’s to cover up a murder. But has any one been brought to trial for that? No. But [Charles] Graner and Sabrina were charged with those pictures. That to me is ridiculous. We won’t charge the murderer even though it was ruled a homicide but we’ll charge you for taking pictures and exposing that a murder happened here. I don’t understand.

Detainees were also affected, as we learn. “We listened as his soul cracked. The sound of his voice really twisted our minds and made our hearts stop. We later learned that this man was Manadel al‐Jamadi.” The images of his bruised and swollen body packed in ice were transmitted around the world, causing an international outcry. Ghosts of Abu Ghraib helps the viewer understand what happened and why we should care.

2.6.indd 221

12/9/2011 6:42:38 PM


Seeing the Light

Taxi to the Dark Side centers on the beating to death of a scrawny taxicab driver at Bagram prison in Afghanistan. One scrawny innocent taxicab driver named Dilawar. Director Alex Gibney details his death and puts a face on the brutality of war. We learn of 22‐year‐old Dilawar (no last name given) who made the mistake of driving his cab in the wrong place at the wrong time, ending up at Bagram. His death is proof that the chaotic structure and failure to communicate made for a dangerous combination. Evidently Dilawar was hung from the ceiling by his hands and, one after another, the interrogators coming into his cell beat his legs. In just a few days his hands were numb and his legs were “pulpified.” That he soon died should not have surprised anyone, though apparently it did. The movie avoids tunnel vision when assigning blame by pointing to guards and interrogators as well as the chain of command. Adam Liptak (2007) interviewed director Alex Gibney and asked about those with the power of authority to warp morality: At bottom, Mr. Gibney said, people do what they are told. “Everything in life,” he said, “goes back to the Milgram experiment.” In the early 1960s Dr. Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale, showed that many people were willing to deliver what they understood to be painful electric shocks to other human beings simply because they were told by a scientist that it was necessary.

Liptak said of the guards and interrogators interviewed for the movie that, “They are candid, reflective, troubled and sometimes broken, and their testimony is the beating heart of the film” (Liptak, 2007). Both documentaries present a crisis of character. For Aristotle, the viciousness of what they did, regardless of the role of higher‐ups and/or comrades egging them on, has come home to roost. They were swept up into something dark and awful. They emerged tainted, scarred, confused—yet still bear responsibility. Aristotle would say that unless they could argue that they were no longer rational adults, those who participated or were complicit should be held accountable. They were neither possessed nor lacking in mental faculties. Their failure to adhere to the moral and intellectual virtues caused a breakdown of character. They were set afloat. Both movies make the case that many, too many, soldiers, guards, and interrogators lost their sense of purpose and failed to act virtuously. On the other hand, not all sunk into the moral quagmire. Gibney shows soldiers, guards, and interrogators who stayed true to themselves and acted with civility and respect toward detainees. Some went even further, confronting those who crossed a line and, in some cases, risked everything to report abusive behavior. This took incredible courage. We can’t easily predict how a person will behave in extreme situations like war. Many cave under pressure and act in ways they later regret. But others go the extra mile and treat detainees and prisoners with decency and civility. Some face such adverse times with resolve, if not courage.

2.6.indd 222

12/9/2011 6:42:38 PM

2.6 Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics 223 Aristotle would praise Ghosts of Abu Ghraib whistleblower Army Specialist Joseph Darby. It took considerable courage to blow open the abuse at the prison. Darby was such a man. He was there at Abu Ghraib, not on a desert island far from the action. He was thus in a vulnerable position in bringing the abusive behavior to light. He and Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider both faced personal risks, including death threats to their families. Both persevered. The movie helps us understand why Darby took such risks and acted courageously. It is clear that Aristotle would praise him for doing so.

Works Cited Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. (accessed August 12, 2011). Boylan, Michael (2000) Basic Ethics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. Brenner, Samuel (2010) “I Am A Bit Sickened”: Examining Archetypes of Congressional War Crimes Oversight after My Lai and Abu Ghraib. 205 Military Law Review 1, Fall, 2010. (accessed September 5, 2011). Journalism Jobs (2001) “Interview with Lowell Bergman.” http://www.journalismjobs. com/interview_bergman.cfm (accessed September 5, 2011). Liptak, Adam (2007) “The Power of Authority: A Dark Tale.” The New York Times, December 30, 2007. Reitan, Eric (2005) “Pleasantville, Aristotle, and the Meaning of Life.” In Kimberly A. Blessing and Paul Tudico, eds., Movies and the Meaning of Life. Peru, IL: Open Court).

Online Resources BBC (2002). “In Our Time: Virtue.” Radio 4, February 28, 2002. Host Melvyn Bragg, Galen Strawson, Miranda Fricker, and Roger Crisp discuss the history of virtue, including Plato and Aristotle’s ideas. p005489r (accessed September 5, 2011). Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. “Ethics and Virtue.” Manuel Velasquiz, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer give an overview of Virtue Ethics, emphasizing ideals discovered through thoughtful reflection. Cases and further reading (links) are included. decision/ethicsandvirtue.html (accessed September 5, 2011). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “Aristotle’s Ethics.” Richard Kraut (2010) summarizes Aristotle’s view of ethics and provides references and links to Aristotle’s works. entries/aristotle‐ethics (accessed September 5, 2011). “Virtue Ethics.” Rosalind Husthouse (2007) discusses the nature of Virtue Ethics (pros and cons) and includes other resources.‐ virtue/ (accessed September 5, 2011).

2.6.indd 223

12/9/2011 6:42:38 PM


Seeing the Light

Discussion Questions 1. How do we become virtuous and learn to avoid vice in volatile situations (for instance, in our first four movies)? 2. Where do we see Aristotle’s three kinds of friendship? Cite examples drawing from this chapter’s movies and any others. (For instance, do The Hangover 1 and 2 show friendships of pleasure?) 3. Looking at a heroic figure in film, such as Jeffrey Wigand (The Insider) or Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), where can we see Aristotle’s moral and intellectual virtues? 4. How do we see moral character develop in the face of adversity? If we think of this in terms of stages or steps, what might they be? Track this with a heroic figure in film, such as Jeffrey Wigand or Atticus Finch. 5. How did the soldiers and guards lose their moral footing in the war on terror? What do Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Taxi to the Dark Side show us on that score? 6. Idiocracy is a bit over the top (or is it?), but it shows what happens when intellectual virtues are thrown to the wind. Select any one of Aristotle’s intellectual virtues and show where we see it in Idiocracy or any of the other movies in this chapter.

2.6.indd 224

12/9/2011 6:42:38 PM


Feminist Ethics

SPOTLIGHT: Pleasantville and The Island Short Takes: Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Secrets and Lies Outtakes: Salt


What’s outside of Pleasantville? There are some places that the road doesn’t go in a circle. There are some places where the road keeps going. —Pleasantville

Do you remember Kyle Reese, who came back from the future to protect Sarah Connor in The Terminator? She could not easily grasp his warning that a cyborg sent back in time, had not one moral fiber in its body, and its only purpose was to kill her. Reese was very clear about the inability to reason with such an entity: “Listen, and understand. That Terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.” This cyborg is not rational and can’t distinguish right from wrong. The fact that it has a human exterior tells us nothing about the machine lurking beneath the surface. As far as Reese is concerned, no more than the Terminator can feel pity or remorse for killing humans should we harbor any doubts about destroying it the first chance we get. In short, Terminators should not be given any moral status. The sooner we can take them out, the better. So let’s ask ourselves: Who, or what, should be accorded moral status? People? Humans? Sentient beings? Living creatures? All humans, most animals, and some plants? How can we decide? Let’s face it, we do draw lines and take sides Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

2.7.indd 225

12/9/2011 6:42:32 PM


Seeing the Light

when it comes to rights and responsibilities. Bioethicist Bonnie Steinbock (1978) points out just one way this occurs: “If rats invade our houses, carrying disease and biting our children, we cannot reason with them, hoping to persuade them of the injustice they do us. We can only attempt to get rid of them. And it is this that makes it reasonable for us to accord them a separate and not equal status” (quoted in Warren, 1997, p. 117). Feminist ethicists advise us to pay close heed to (1) moral agency and (2) relationships. First, they suggest we not think of moral agency as having but one defining characteristic. That doesn’t mean any specific criterion is without significance. The issue is whether we ought to narrow it down to only one trait. Secondly, Feminist ethicists think those who we care about and who are responsive to our caring gestures must be reckoned with. “Relationships determine the nature of ethical obligation” (Birsch, 2002, p. 162). For this reason, their theory is often referred to as Ethics of Care. Philosopher Mary Anne Warren considers relational properties important when developing a moral theory. These are properties involving more than one person/ entity—like being a brother, a naturalized citizen, or a best friend, all of which would not be possible if the entity in question were the only thing in existence. She sees relationships as relevant to moral status and to moral reasoning. Both concerns take ethics off its pedestal and into the context of our lives. This makes it less abstract/theoretical and more concrete/practical. It’s not that principles don’t matter; it’s just that other concerns may count more when plotting a moral course of action. Let’s start with the ethical framework and then apply it to our movies. Our spotlight movies are Pleasantville and The Island.

The Ethical Framework: Feminist Ethics Moral agency and personhood are often intertwined. Being “human” can generally be settled by one’s DNA code, which is handy for separating humans from everything else. We all know from The X Files that green “blood” or eyes that look like oil slicks are quick ways to spot an alien trying to pass as human. And let’s not forget that horrific scene in Alien when the Science Officer was revealed to be an android after he was beheaded. Seeing plastic tubing where its brain should be was all the evidence needed. However, the fact that androids and aliens aren’t human doesn’t mean they aren’t persons. Our question, and one that Feminist ethicists take up, is what exactly does that mean. Warren (1997) notes that, for Kant, the “moral law within” is what makes us persons and is why persons are the only things in the universe that can have moral worth and are the only entities we can have moral obligations toward (p. 96). That means animals, plants, or other entities that are not persons are off Kant’s list of entities with moral status. By this view, he’d agree with Steinbock that we owe nothing to rats, or for that matter, any pests, pets, or other nonpersons.

2.7.indd 226

12/9/2011 6:42:32 PM

2.7 Feminist Ethics 227 Warren argues that Kant’s Categorical Imperative—to act in such a way that it would become a universal law—has a distinct advantage over Utilitarian principles seeking to maximize good or social benefits for the greatest number of people. She thinks that Kant’s ethical theory “provides individual persons with stronger moral rights,” whereas Utilitarians permit sacrificing individual rights to the goal of maximizing utility (p. 101). On the surface this sounds appealing. Warren points out, however, that Kant grants full moral status only to rational moral agents; namely, adults of “sound mind” (= competent). Precluded are infants, young children, severely mentally disabled, or those suffering genetic abnormalities or injury/illness that permanently robs them of the capacity for moral agency. Obviously, animals and plants are off the list as well. Warren reminds us that Kant may require moral agents be rational (= persons), but he doesn’t require them to be human. This would allow moral rights and personhood to extraterrestrials, genetically engineered humans, and intelligent and self‐aware robots, androids, and cyborgs. The search for one criterion of moral agency is a fool’s errand, suggests Warren. Why are we trying to base moral agency on any one property? It doesn’t matter if that property is personhood/moral agency (as Kant holds), sentience (as Utilitarian Peter Singer holds), being subject‐of‐a‐life (as Tom Regan holds), or any other single trait. No one criterion is going to do it. A more expansive view of moral status may be order. Warren’s solution is to add a few principles: (1) moral agents have full and equal basic moral rights, including the right to life and liberty, (2) within the limits of their own capacities, humans capable of sentience but not of moral agency have the same moral rights as do moral agents, and (3) moral agents should give a fair hearing to others’ reasons for ascribing to certain entities either a stronger or weaker moral status than we may think appropriate. So should we grant the Terminator moral status? Given that it lacks both self‐awareness and can’t be reasoned with, the answer would be “No.” In addition, the Terminator is neither an autonomous nor a sentient being, as we saw when Reese said he felt pain, whereas the Terminator did not. The moral status of the android, Ash, in Alien is similarly suspect. However, both the evolved Terminator T-800 in T2 and Bishop, the later model android in Aliens, are closer to personhood, as they are more “self ” aware and can be reasoned with and show some moral sensitivity. Let’s face it: Even if the Terminator (cyborg) and Ash (android) met the personhood criteria, the fact they are programmed to see human life as expendable poses an insurmountable obstacle. If nothing else, Sarah Connor and the human crew in Alien have the right of self‐defense when the nonhumans want to kill them. Besides scrutinizing notions of moral agency, Feminist ethicists consider social considerations to be a factor of moral reasoning. As a result, they give more credence to relationships than to rules and principles. For Nel Noddings,

2.7.indd 227

12/9/2011 6:42:32 PM


Seeing the Light

we only have moral obligations to those beings we are capable of caring for and who can at least potentially be aware or responsive to our care. Other Feminist ethicists focus on the existential dimension and the conditions shaping our identity. Simone de Beauvoir thinks that we can remake ourselves; so that each one of us can project ourselves toward the person we would like to become. “The fact is that every concrete human being is always a singular, separate individual” (1949, p. xx). It’s a matter of realizing that we have choices and taking responsibility for the decisions we make. What distinguishes a Kantian, Utilitarian, Virtue ethicist, or Feminist ethicist has to do with ideas, not any physical characteristic. That said; some contend that females are more likely to subscribe to an ethical theory factoring in relationships than to one that focuses on abstract principles or universals. Nevertheless, gender is not a necessary condition for holding any one ethical theory. There is no more reason to think that only females can be Feminist ethicists than to think that Kantians have to be from Königsberg. As we all know, the not‐so‐good ole days were ones where there were many  expectations around how people would behave. It was a pretty brittle world—for everyone. In industrialized societies, men were expected to be the wage‐earners, women the mothers and housekeepers, and children quiet and well behaved. Within each category, roles were well defined, with restrictive if not prejudicial, attitudes keeping in place some rather oppressive policies and practices. It tended to be confining for everyone. Into this way of seeing the world came ethicists who thought race, class, and gender warranted a lot more attention than they had been receiving. For that reason, Nel Noddings, Rita Manning, and Carol Gilligan turned their attention to caring as a fundamental element of ethics. They reject the view that higher‐ level morality is centered on justice and the application of rules to particulars. That does not mean justice doesn’t matter—for it does—but the relational dimension must be factored in. Their view is people—especially women and girls—often integrate their personal attachments and relationships into their moral reasoning. For them, doing ethics is not like accounting, where you weigh the various factors and sum up the result. Feminist philosopher Alison Jaggar faults traditional ethics in five ways, as Rosemarie Tong notes (2009): ● ●

● ●

2.7.indd 228

It shows less concern for women’s as opposed to men’s issues and interests. It trivializes the moral issues arising in the so‐called private world where women care for children and elderly parents. It implies that, in general, women are not as morally mature or deep as men. It favors culturally masculine traits (independence, autonomy, intellect, culture, war, and death), over culturally feminine traits (interdependence, community, emotion, nature, peace, and life). It favors “male” moral reasoning (rules, rights, universality, and impartiality) over “female” moral reasoning (responsibilities, particularity, and partiality).

12/9/2011 6:42:32 PM

2.7 Feminist Ethics 229 In line with this view, philosopher Virginia Held holds that the central focus of Feminist Ethics is on the needs of others for whom we take responsibility. We shouldn’t rely on reason and rationalist deductions to the exclusion of moral emotions such as sympathy, empathy, and responsiveness. Held is not of the opinion that the more abstract the reasoning the better. In her view, Feminist ethicists see persons as relational rather than as self‐sufficient independent individuals found in the dominant moral theories (2006, pp. 48–50). We should note that Feminist Ethics and Virtue Ethics share some commonalities. Most significantly, each one recommends we pursue a life of virtue (vs. being vicious). Douglas Birsch points out that both reject moral equality while maintaining that some actions are objectively good or evil. Nevertheless, there are important differences. First, Noddings does not believe in a basic purpose shared by all human beings and, second, Feminist ethicists put much less emphasis on reason than does Aristotle (Birsch, 2002, pp. 166–67). Gilligan argues that sympathy, care, listening, and other aspects of our relationships with other people need to be given their due. And when it comes to justice vs. care, she says, men tend to favor the first and women the second. She opposes the justice and rules approach set out by Lawrence Kohlberg. His stages of moral judgment are, in her view, insufficient. To address the process of moral reasoning on the part of both males and females, we have to go beyond a rules‐ based (or justice‐based) approach. Kohlberg’s theory sees principled morality as the highest level we can reach and morality that is relationship‐focused is indicative of less developed minds. He sets out three stages (Boylan, 2000, p. 127): 1.

Preconventional morality, which is more egocentric, with the individual focused on his or her own needs. 2. Conventional morality, which is mutual/interpersonal at the lower end, and social/societal at the higher end. 3. Postconventional/Principled morality, which is social contract morality at the lower end and universal ethical‐principle‐driven morality at the highest level). Kohlberg’s range goes from the Neanderthal, self‐serving level of morality to the middle level, where relationships weigh in, to the higher‐level principled morality, with its universal moral commands and duties. For Kohlberg, only the more abstract, principled approach merits our praise, not a morality rooted in interpersonal dynamics. Gilligan reshapes Kohlberg’s moral stages. For Gilligan, gender should be on the moral map. In her view, females often pose ethical dilemmas and reach moral resolutions in fundamentally different ways from males. That is the gauntlet she has thrown into the moral arena. In her classic work The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir (1949) discusses the asymmetry in the way language is used regarding gender. She says:

2.7.indd 229

12/9/2011 6:42:32 PM


Seeing the Light

The terms masculine and feminine are used symmetrically only as a matter of form, as on legal papers. In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, … Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being (p. xxi).

That view was expressed over 60 years ago. Some feminists would say that times have changed and that there is now more reciprocity in gender roles. Others would say we still have a long way to go. It’s safe to conclude the case is not closed. In taking up the challenge of gender and moral agency, ethicist Michael Boylan questions the claim that gender is crucial. He considers men and boys as likely as women and girls to prioritize relationships and give them moral weight. “Many traditional groups emphasize interpersonal relationships and the obligations they entail above abstract principles of rights and justice,” says Boylan. He cites the example of teachers, religious groups, and police and soldiers (2000, pp. 128–29). Boylan suggests that care alone may not be sufficient to describe the “feminine voice.” There may not be a proper application of care in all relationship‐driven ethical decisions without some sort of objective criteria. He recommends that we view care in a context of oppression, so that “if a person forms a legitimate human relationship, then s/he will not seek to dominate or exploit the other” (p. 130). “How we can tell if a relationship is “authentic” or not?” asks Boylan. This deserves our consideration. Some relationships are destructive, dysfunctional, or downright abusive—hardly worth using as a model for ethical decision‐making. Surely Noddings and Gilligan were not thinking of those sorts of relationships when setting out their theory. Nevertheless, we might take into account either a set of objective criteria, as Boylan suggests, or a general notion of a healthy relationship in constructing an ethic of care. With that in mind, let us see how Feminist Ethics helps us better understand our spotlight movies Pleasantville and The Island. In both movies, the protagonists see their ethical interests within the context of their relationships, and take a broader view of the aspects of a moral life.

SPOTLIGHT: Pleasantville Lewis Carroll wrote in Through the Looking Glass, “He was part of my dream of course, but then I was part of his dream too.” These are the opening words in the script for Pleasantville (1996). Later movies like The Matrix and Inception have had a field day with dreams upon dreams. Many people would welcome the

2.7.indd 230

12/9/2011 6:42:32 PM

2.7 Feminist Ethics 231 chance to escape into another “reality.” Anyone who has ever had a daydream or two knows this much. Descartes might have been right to say, “I think therefore I am,” but if I want to be more than I am, then I have to do something! Thinking won’t change who I am, even though it might help me gain perspective on my character and how to improve my life, find happiness, develop my talents, and the like. We see the importance of doing and not just dreaming with our two protagonist‐siblings, David and Jennifer, in Pleasantville. When we first meet David, we find a teenager fixated on a 1950s‐era TV show, Pleasantville. He’s watched it so many times he can recite the lines. That is the “reality” he’d like to inhabit, whereas his sister Jennifer is a girl of the present. She is the flipside of an introvert like David. This girl is an extrovert with a capital “E.” She lays claim to being related to David “only on my parents’ side,” letting us know how not‐close they are. Their fight over the TV remote is interrupted by the unexpected appearance of a TV repairman. His van advertises, “We’ll Fix You For Good,” foreshadowing the parallel world that is about to open. David and Jennifer are transported to Pleasantville, where things are as boring as they are uptight and predictable. This is a fixed universe with strictly‐defined roles, such as fireman, police officer, judge, etc. for men and housewife, mother, teacher, and nurse for women. There is no escape—all roads “out” of Pleasantville go in circles. And, like the Kansas of Wizard of Oz, it is a black‐and‐white world—at least initially. David and Jennifer are as grey as everyone else. In time, those who come alive  (with passion, intellectual curiosity and so on) become “one of the coloreds.”  As their exterior reflects their inner transformation, they are no longer monochromatic. Being catapulted into a 1950s universe suits David just fine, but not Jennifer. She is not happy to be stuck in “Nerdville,” as she calls it, until she encounters Skip, soon to be her dreamboat boyfriend. We watch David and Jennifer adapt to their new personas, Bud and Mary Sue, as well as to their new parents, George and Betty Parker. George and Betty are virtual caricatures. George is a bit “aw shucks” and a creature of routine. He expects Betty to cook and wait on him, as if he were royalty. He appears helpless otherwise, suggesting he might starve to death if Betty did not stick a plate of food under his nose. However pathetic this seems from our reality, poor George is stuck in his reality. He has an awfully hard time adjusting to the changes set in motion. As we see, David and Jennifer are used to being moral agents with freedom of choice and the unpredictability that follows from that. In contrast, the residents of Pleasantville are used to a determined universe. You can imagine what happens when they are confronted with a radically different way of living in the world and interacting with others. David feels it important not to change anything in Pleasantville. He sees it as vulnerable to manipulation or alteration, and any

2.7.indd 231

12/9/2011 6:42:32 PM


Seeing the Light

change could ruin everything there. As it turns out, he is responsible for any number of changes, including helping others become more autonomous. Jennifer is an agent of change from the get‐go. First off, she is a mover and shaker and used to a leadership role. Secondly, she is a passionate, sexually active teenager, who sees no reason to change her ways in Pleasantville. Thirdly, she values her social life and the various relationships in ways that David does not (until later). Therefore, she is more attuned to her effect on others and sees how she can help others transform their lives. We see this with her question of her Geography teacher, “What’s outside of Pleasantville?” Her teacher replies, “I don’t understand” and then points out that the end of Main Street is just the beginning again. Next, Jennifer tells David that she has looked inside books in the library and discovered that they were empty. “This place gives me the creeps,” she tells him, because this world resists change, any change, no matter how small. Jennifer turns out to be a formidable force. An early move is to take Skip to Lover’s Lane, unleashing all sorts of change. This act pushes David to his limits: DAVID:

You can’t do this, Jennifer. I warned you… You don’t understand. You’re messing with their whole goddamn universe. JENNIFER: Well maybe it needs to be messed with David. … DAVID: You have no right to do this to them. JENNIFER: If I don’t who will? …They have a lot of potential. They just don’t know any better.

Jennifer sees herself as a catalyst to change, a liberator, who helps others feel more. Thanks to her they become sexually charged, but also more aware of themselves as sentient beings. Here’s where gender merits our attention. Both George and Betty have been constricted by expectations and norms around gender. In pushing gender limits, Jennifer shows signs of real care. For instance, when Betty asked what went on at Lovers’ Lane, Jennifer hesitates before asking her just how much she wants to know. This is a caring response. Jennifer could have declined to discuss such matters with Betty. On the other hand, she could have barreled ahead. Instead, she acted with sensitivity and concern. Betty asked her, so Jennifer responded. However, she showed restraint; gauging her answer in a way that showed she cared. It is soon obvious that Betty wants more from life than keeping the house orderly and serving up meals for the family. With Jennifer’s guidance, she enters the world of sense experience. In time, she breaks out of the mold that was holding her in place. Betty’s world expands accordingly. The problem is what to do about George. Betty is in a difficult position: She is happy to become “colored” and escape her black‐and‐white world, but wants to hide it from her husband. George is consequently seen as repressed and

2.7.indd 232

12/9/2011 6:42:32 PM

2.7 Feminist Ethics 233 repressive. This is made evident later when George joins up with the town bigots who are infuriated by women rejecting their assigned roles, teenagers listening to rock ‘n’ roll, and young people lining up outside the library, hungry for what books can offer them. The town bigots are invested in one way of thinking. They resort to fascist methods like wholesale book‐burning, violence, and intimidation, to prevent Pleasantville from changing. They fight long and hard to preserve its fixed rules and set standards of behavior. With a fury never before seen, they seek to squash the “coloreds” who have a new‐found pleasure with life, and are instruments of change. To stand up against the bigots, as did David, Jennifer, and Betty, takes courage. By the time the TV repairman shows up to yank them back to their normal lives, David isn’t interested in returning to his previous incarnation in the real world. So too with Jennifer, though she can’t understand why she is still in black and white, given that she’s the agent of so much change. She finally realizes that the transformation she so desires is not about sex; it’s about personal growth. More telling are Betty’s changes. After her self‐discovery, she is in Technicolor. She realizes that her husband “can’t handle the truth,” to quote A Few Good Men, and, thus, David helps her pile on grey makeup to fool George. Of course, such deception can’t be sustained for long and Betty eventually casts the pretense aside. She’s at a fork in the road: Either stay with George and have a dull life in black and white, or acknowledge that she’s changed and go for it. Betty only has a few pangs in making up her mind. Meanwhile trouble is brewing with the opponents of change. Leader Big Bob warns them, “If George doesn’t get his dinner, any one of us could be next… Something is happening to our town and I think we can all see where this is coming from.” His crony Roy nods in agreement and shows the imprint on his shirt of a burnt iron. They are scandalized to hear his wife’s explanation—that she was thinking and not paying attention to ironing the shirt. Quelle horreur! Let’s reflect on what Gilligan might say. In her “Letter to Readers” in 1993, she discusses the importance of voice and of being heard. “To have a voice is to be human,” she says and adds, “To have something to say is to be a person. But speaking depends on listening and being heard; it is an intensely relational act” (p. xvi). She’d look at Roy and shake her head at his outrage over her explanation. “Thinking?” His wife was thinking? Roy doesn’t get it. Perhaps Roy’s wife was trying to share her perspective on how the accident happened. But he could no more hear the voice behind her explanation than if she were speaking in tongues. Gilligan wants us to understand how important voice is. “When people ask me what I mean by voice and I think of the question more reflectively,” she notes, “I say that by voice I mean something like what people mean when they speak of the core of the self” (1993, p. xvi). Gilligan is not alone in her view that voice is key to understanding the psychological, social and cultural order. As much as the roads in Pleasantville come right back to where they started, Feminist ethicists would say we’ll keep going in circles

2.7.indd 233

12/9/2011 6:42:32 PM


Seeing the Light

until we fully grasp where we are starting—and that is with different voices. We shouldn’t be guided by abstract principles, rules, and theories without acknowledging the social context and the relational aspects of our ethical decision‐ making. Otherwise, we would just be spinning our wheels. Gilligan points out: The so‐called objective position which Kohlberg and others espoused within the canon of traditional social science research was blind to the particularities of voice and the inevitable constructions that constitute point of view… it was based on an inerrant neutrality which concealed power and falsified knowledge. I have attempted to move the discussion of differences away from relativism to relationship, to see difference as a marker of the human condition rather than as a problem to be solved (1993, p. xviii).

Tensions boil up and a mob rule takes over the town. David heroically defends Betty against bullies and finds the voice he did not have back home, leading him to speak out at the town trial. Thing set in motion could not be stopped, as seen in the exchange between David and George: GEORGE:

What happened? One minute, everything’s fine… What went wrong? Nothing went wrong. People change. GEORGE: People change? DAVID: Yeah, people change. GEORGE: Can they change back? DAVID: I don’t know. I think it’s harder. DAVID:

And so it is that David’s work in Pleasantville is finished, and he can now be transported back home. Jennifer is a different story. She is not yet ready to leave behind this parallel world. She’s gained too much from being in Pleasantville to want to part with it. And anyway, what’s back there for her? “I’ve done the slut thing, David. It’s really kinda old.” She has opportunities in Pleasantville to grow intellectually here, as Mary Sue. To go back to Jennifer’s life is to regress, to something superficial and meaningless. No thanks. David, now home, has a completely different perspective. He sees his life and those around him with new eyes. The movie ends with him reaching out to his distraught mother, who he now understands in ways that were beyond his reach when the movie began. The circle is complete, but his journey outside Pleasantville is about to begin.

SPOTLIGHT: The Island Sure most of us have had a few nightmares, but what if one day you realized that things don’t quite add up with your entire life? That’s the situation in which the two protagonists find themselves in the futuristic thriller, The Island (2005).

2.7.indd 234

12/9/2011 6:42:32 PM

2.7 Feminist Ethics 235 The setting is a well‐run community in the year 2019 with a hierarchy that rivals Nineteen Eighty‐Four. The residents have their every move closely watched: all aspects of their lives, including what they do, what they eat, whom they associate with, and how they spend their time, are under surveillance. Like some sort of Nazi youth movement, the residents (captives) are kept active and busy. They have little time to question their surroundings or their caretakers’ motivations. Deceived in the most thorough going way by their handlers, the residents are told that environmental contaminants make it unsafe to go outside. “Winners” of the frequent so‐called lotteries are thrilled with the promise of going to “the island” for an idyllic time. Instead, they are hauled off to surgery, where they become organ donors. They are clones. Think about it: if you were to pay someone to make a clone of you, how might “it” be put to use? In the comedy Multiplicity (1996), Doug Kinney wanted more leisure time. When the opportunity arose, he cloned himself and put his clone in charge of tasks he simply didn’t want to do. His clone was, effectively, a servant at his beck and call, to humorous effect. In contrast, there’s little funny about The Island. The clones have names like Lincoln Six Echo and Jordan Two Delta based on a classification schema. The human sources of the clones are, for the most part, absent. Our focus is on the clones themselves, the strange lives they lead, and how the best-laid plans can go astray. When those consigned to a lesser moral status rise up and reject their “fate,” the ethical &%# hits the fan. The parameters of their existence leave a lot to be desired. The clock is ticking on all of them because, sooner or later, they’ll be harvested for their organs. Clearly, the clones can’t be told this fact. Would you want to know that was your fate? Not likely. We’d also not be happy with our second‐class moral and legal status. Keeping clones in good health is best accomplished if they are kept ignorant of what lies ahead. Thus, the deception. The alternatives are too risky, given that few people would willingly agree to be members of an organ donor class that could be called into service without warning. It’s a lucrative business, so the clones can’t know of their intended purpose. A suspicious clone could cause utter chaos. Those who learn the truth cannot be free to leave. We watch as clones Lincoln Six Echo and Jordan Two Delta realize what’s going on. Although staff members pursue them all over the facility, they manage to escape. They plan to find their human “twins,” but don’t foresee the difficulties that lie ahead. The chase is on. When Lincoln finally makes it to his human source, he is surprised by the cold reception. Lincoln was not welcomed with open arms by the man who paid handsomely for his clone. How dare Lincoln show up at his front door? The adage, “Assumptions are alligators in the river of desire,” came back to haunt Lincoln, who assumed the injustice he had experienced would be obvious to his “owner.” Let’s stop a second for an ethics assessment. A Deontological ethicist would cringe at the treatment of the clones. They are clearly used as a means to an end

2.7.indd 235

12/9/2011 6:42:32 PM


Seeing the Light

and nothing else. “Born” to be expendable, they have no human dignity. And yet they are human. Any respect and care shown them is to keep them appropriately pliant. Their individual rights are as violated as you can imagine. They’re a living insurance policy with no informed consent. Having been lied to and held in a facility with no right of an independent life, their existence is a form of indefinite detention until harvest time. This bears some similarity to living on Death Row where, with little or no notice, one’s own execution will commence. Utilitarians would not dismiss cloning outright, but would examine its potential benefits. If the only way to prolong the lives of the most valuable or worthwhile members of the society were to create a bank of clones to supply blood, body tissue, and organs as needed, maybe it’s not so bad. We can see why deception and misinformation is used to stop clones from committing suicide or from revolting against the structure that keeps them in a subservient status. Utilitarians would not necessarily condone a commercial form of cloning, as in The Island. It’s one thing to create clones as a source of spare parts for the most valued members of society; it’s another to do so as a capitalist venture. Does that maximize good or happiness for the greatest number of people? Cloning humans to prolong the lives of the rich is not clearly a significant benefit to anyone other than the individuals themselves. The society isn’t obviously better off. Feminist ethicists would raise questions about The Island’s cloning venture. First, there’s the problem of moral status. Warren makes it clear that this two‐ tiered system has to go. Creating and institutionalizing clones for human use violates two of her principles: (1) moral agents have full and equal basic moral rights, including the rights to life and liberty, and (2) within the limits of their own capacities, human beings who are capable of sentience but not of moral agency have the same moral rights as do moral agents. It follows from these principles that either clones are moral agents and, thus, qualify for full and equal moral status of humans, or they are sentient humans who lack moral agency, but, nevertheless, have the same moral rights as moral agents. This means that either clones have moral rights such as the right to life and liberty because of principle #1 or they have moral rights because, even with limitations, they are sentient human beings. Either choice means that Lincoln and Jordon are justified in escaping the facility to avoid being sacrificed to their genetic twin. In addition, Feminist ethicists would say the relational aspects of morality were ignored when the cloning business was established. As Gilligan implied in her “Letter to Readers” in 1993, different voices should be factored into the equation. Merely listening to the wealthy members of society is seriously skewed.  To create clones for no other purpose than a walking, talking, spare parts factory, is as morally suspect as slavery. When a class of people is thought expendable, and have no voice, rights, or self‐determination, it’s time to blow the whistle. No more should we allow a

2.7.indd 236

12/9/2011 6:42:33 PM

2.7 Feminist Ethics 237 slave class to serve the economic needs of others, than there should be a clone class for the medical needs of others. None of the benefits justify these costs. A fundamental problem is thinking that clones could be engineered to have no sense of personal identity or self‐awareness. It is unwarranted to assume that clones could be human, but devoid of higher‐level thinking skills. Furthermore, the idea that clones might want to know who they are or desire a meaningful life slipped under the radar. And, although their keepers saw them as expendable, they were unwilling to have an inferior moral status. Our next movie is Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which we looked at in Chapter 1.4 with respect to courage. It also has value here, with respect to Feminist Ethics, given its focus on relationships and family values.

Short Takes: Terminator 2: Judgment Day In The Terminator, the cyborg that came back in time had but one mission and that was to kill Sarah Connor. She would then not give birth to John Connor, the savior of the human race in the battle against the machines. However clever the Terminator is in mimicking speech patterns and fooling others over the phone, there is one thing it cannot change. Below the surface, the Terminator is as cold as the steel making up its skeletal frame. Unfortunately, Kyle Reese, John’s father, was killed off in the first movie and so couldn’t come back in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Subsequently, the now‐ teen John Connor has a mother in a psych facility and two foster parents he views with disdain. If anyone needs a father figure, it’s John. Fortunately, the sole purpose of the slightly improved version of the Terminator, T‐101, is to protect John from the more advanced liquid metal cyborg, T‐1000. What it lacks in technical skill is made up by the Terminator’s programmed “devotion” to John. Once they break Sarah out of the facility and head south to Mexico to regroup, John and Sarah can assess what’s what. Philosopher Harry Chotiner argues that Gilligan’s ethics of care can help us understand Sarah, John, and his protective Terminator by the ways it plays with gender stereotypes. He is struck by the Terminator trying to save John from the more highly developed T‐1000 cyborg by turning to absorb the bullets and, thereby, shielding John. This seems like a motherly gesture, Chotiner suggests, in contrast to Sarah’s attempts to protect John. What she does is snatch the Terminator’s gun and blast away at the more powerful T‐1000. Chotiner considers this a reversal of stereotypical roles: The Terminator takes on the protective “feminine” role of caregiver and Sarah the “masculine” role of gunslinger. In fairness to Sarah, we should note that if she had turned her back to take bullets, she’d be dead. She had no choice but to seek alternative methods to fight the T‐1000. That does not mean Chotiner isn’t on to something in looking at the “gender‐bending” in T2.

2.7.indd 237

12/9/2011 6:42:33 PM


Seeing the Light

Watching the Terminator with John, we see multiple instances of a caring relationship between them. The Terminator is attentive and “motherly” in showing concern and responding to John’s wish to harm as few people as possible. The difference between the Terminator and a human mother figure, however, is that of strength and power. The Terminator can be as maternal as it wants, but the bottom line is that it has a vast repertoire of possible moves to fight the T‐1000 and has physical strength far beyond that of humans. Sarah is much less able to fight back and decides she can protect her son by discouraging any attachment he has for her. She wants to prevent John from being trapped, since both types of cyborgs can mimic her voice. As we remember from The Terminator, the cyborg imitated Sarah’s own mother to get Sarah to disclose where she and Reese were staying. It showed up moments later. There’s no way that will be forgotten, so Sarah takes great pains to keep John detached and aware. She doesn’t want him to be boondoggled like she was. Philosopher Jennifer Culver sees Sarah as an “Everywoman” who is basically average and minding her own business until the extraordinary blasts her reality to smithereens. For Culver, Sarah underwent an “amazing transformation from ordinary waitress to determined warrior” between the first and second Terminator movies (2009, p. 82). One big change is that, “Sarah’s knowledge of the future made it impossible for her to fit into normal society” (p. 87). It would be a considerable stretch for Sarah to act like an ordinary mother, given all she’s gone through. The very assumption that Judgment Day is on the horizon would keep most of us on edge. And the fact that her son is the future savior means Sarah can never relax. That Sarah is less like a mother and more like a warrior is certainly understandable. She is fixated on keeping John alive at any cost. Time and time again she pushes John away. She fears the normal mother–child attachment would make him more easily manipulated by a devious enemy (which does happen later in the movie). We can see that Sarah wants to prevent “Judgment Day”, when the machines will rise up and start the war against the humans. Chotiner contrasts Sarah with the Terminator: She wants to protect John because he’s her son, and also because he has a mission in the future. She cares about things beyond her family, and her focus never strays from questions of the well‐being of others in the outside world. In stark contrast, the Terminator exists only to preserve and protect the child. He cares little about anything else and will unhesitatingly sacrifice himself for John (p. 75).

Sarah is more focused on the future than the present. Her concern is John’s value to humanity and the necessity to keep him alive. Nothing must jeopardize his role as future savior. In T2, it’s the Terminator who is John’s caregiver: his bodyguard and servant. This new Terminator is focused on “learning” John’s orders (e.g., to avoid killing others). Sarah realizes that, “it would die to protect him.” This

2.7.indd 238

12/9/2011 6:42:33 PM

2.7 Feminist Ethics 239 more‐sensitive and caring cyborg has a one‐track “mind.” Its purpose is to keep John from harm and obey his commands. As such, the Terminator is the perfect mother says Chotiner. Sarah herself calls him the perfect father. Meanwhile, Sarah is hardened by the knowledge of the forces of evil and the likelihood of impending doom. She turns her attention to Miles Dyson. Who can blame her? Dyson has been developing cyborgs for Skynet. Thanks to him, they are highly advanced machines. In time they will organize and turn against their human creators. Sarah decides to single‐handedly kill Dyson, but John and the Terminator stop her in the nick of time. John’s solution is to persuade Dyson to join them in trying to stop Skynet from producing terminator‐cyborgs. The ultimate act of care occurs at the end, when the Terminator realizes that “he” must be sacrificed to destroy his computer chip and the cyborg technology. In a heartfelt parting, it tells John, “I know now why you cry,” and asks Sarah to lower him into the fiery pit of molten metal. Sarah knows that, perfect father or not, the Terminator has to be eliminated. She doesn’t think twice about the assisted suicide.

Short Takes: Secrets and Lies Hortense Cumberbatch is a classy professional woman who wants to find the birth mother who gave her up for adoption as an infant. When she finally meets her, she is fascinated and rather delighted to discover that her mother is a working‐class white woman who is about as unpolished as you can get. The gap between the two couldn’t be more apparent, but this does not deter Hortense in the slightest. They are from entirely different worlds and travel in very different circles. Meanwhile, Cynthia Rose Purley is totally unprepared when the daughter she gave up for adoption wants to meet her. She is shaken to her core—that secret was supposed to stay buried. That is what was going through Cynthia’s mind when she and Hortense are brought together. All signs indicate that this won’t be easy. Relationships can be as tangled as a drawer‐full of threads. Secrets and Lies (1996) shows the difficulties when Cynthia, her daughter (and Hortense’s half‐ sister) Roxanne, and her brother (and Hortense’s uncle) Maurice all meet Hortense. They are confronted with a very different kind of family than they had known. The fact that Hortense is black and they are white doesn’t appear to faze them as much as the class differences, not to mention their different lifestyles and values. The edifice of lies that Cynthia had built is held in place by introducing Hortense as her new “friend” and not the daughter she gave up for adoption as an infant. Hortense is generous of spirit and sees that her mother is shocked, confused, and guilt‐ridden. She respects Cynthia’s attempts to keep the truth from Roxanne and Maurice.

2.7.indd 239

12/9/2011 6:42:33 PM


Seeing the Light

As Cynthia and her family grow increasingly attached to Hortense, they realize that their dysfunctional family is about to change. They have choices as to the direction it can take. In time, Cynthia spills the beans and finds it a big relief. Another surprise is that her family is strong enough to handle the truth. Stop a second and think about this. How often we assume that lies will effectively protect us, or others, from painful truths. They don’t. Worse, the lies themselves tend to take on a life of their own, and require maintenance. When the truth finally comes out, there may be hurt feelings and some gaping wounds, but the weight of deception has been lifted. Deontological ethicists would look at Cynthia and see how an adult life burdened with lies and deception had left its mark. Feminist ethicists would look at Hortense and Cynthia navigating the terrain of family dynamics and see Care Ethics at work. Though meeting her birth mother wasn’t easy, Hortense did not push Cynthia to disclose that Hortense was her child. After a lifetime of secrets and lies, building the relationship will take time. The empathy and tenderness shown to Cynthia allows her to reflect on her life and see what really matters. Being honest with Roxanne and Maurice was liberating. By acknowledging that Hortense was her daughter, Cynthia could own a part of herself that had been buried for years. And in healing that relationship, other ones were healed too. We see how a life that had been torn into fragments could become whole again.

Outtakes: Salt Who would have thought that the year 2010 would bring revelations of Russian spies living “ordinary” lives in places like suburban New Jersey in the USA? When the FBI broke up what they called a “long‐term deep‐cover” operation and arrested ten alleged Russian agents who had spent years adopting American identities and gathering all sorts of information it seemed like a movie. As Chris McGreal (2010) reports: In an indictment that might have been taken from the plot of a cold war thriller, the FBI alleges that the Russian intelligence service, the SVR, sent spies to live in the US under false names with the intent of becoming so Americanised they could build relationships with sources and gather information without raising suspicion. Some of the agents lived as married couples and had children who have grown up as Americans unaware that their parents are Russian.

Does this sound awfully familiar? If not, make sure you watch Salt (2010), which tells the story of a Russian mole, Evelyn Salt. Evelyn was institutionalized in Russia as a child and trained (“programmed”) by Soviet agents so one day she could go under cover in the USA and do disturbing things, such as assassinate

2.7.indd 240

12/9/2011 6:42:33 PM

2.7 Feminist Ethics 241 the president. That she worked for the CIA as a highly skilled agent testifies to the quality of her training. Everything was nicely in place until she fell in love and married a scientist whose specialty was arachnids (spiders). His life was spiders, all sorts of spiders, including those with venom that temporarily paralyzes its victim. This turned out to be useful when Evelyn faked the killing of the Russian president. Evelyn was the crème de la crème of moles, except when she fell in love. After being fingered as a covert operative, Evelyn has to run for her life. It seems like everyone is after her. The CIA and the Russians who seek to kill the Russian president are both hot on her trail. Action films being what they are, she has to shoot, kick, wrestle, and otherwise disable her opponents. At a later point the Russian villains salute her for proving that she could be “trusted” (a lie) and be welcomed back as a “sister.” Their happiness, however, was short‐lived. To make sure she was free of attachments—those intimate relationships that Feminist ethicists pinpoint as morally significant—they kill her husband right in front of her. Of course, she’s too well trained to flinch or break down in tears. Her stoic demeanor leads them to erroneously conclude that she’s one of the “guys” and they can proceed with Plan A. Alas, they seem not to have read Noddings, Gilligan, Held, or Manning. And they didn’t think that Evelyn’s allegiances might have shifted. Having been shaped by tightly held rules, Evelyn came to see that relationships have as important a place on the moral spectrum as the principles crammed into her brain by her trainers. We watch as the part of her that has accommodated a Feminist Ethics model into her moral mindset kicks into gear. As a result, things take quite a different path than any of the Russian agents ever predicted, or wanted.

Works Cited Baumgold, Julie (1991) “Killer Women: Here Come the Hardbodies.” New York Magazine, July 29, 1991. Birsch, Douglas (2002) Ethical Insights, 2nd edition. Boston: McGraw‐Hill. Boylan, Michael (2000) Basic Ethics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall publishing. Chotiner, Harry (2009) “‘I Know Now Why You Cry’: Terminator 2, Moral Philosophy, and Feminism.” In Richard Brown and Kevin S. Decker, eds., Terminator and Philosophy, pp. 69–81. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. Culver, Jennifer (2009) “Sarah Connor’s Stain.” In Richard Brown and Kevin S. Decker, eds., Terminator and Philosophy, pp. 82–92. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. De Beauvoir, Simone (1952) “Introduction.” The Second Sex. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. McGreal, Chris (2010) “FBI breaks up alleged Russian spy ring in deep cover.” The Guardian (UK), June 29, 2010 fbi‐breaks‐up‐alleged‐russian‐spy‐ring‐deep‐cover (accessed September 6, 2011). Gilligan, Carol (1993) “Letter to Readers, 1993.” In a Different Voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

2.7.indd 241

12/9/2011 6:42:33 PM


Seeing the Light

Held, Virginia (2011) “The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global.” In Julie C. Van Camp, Jeffrey Olen, and Vincent Barry, eds., Applying Ethics, pp. 47–51. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Publishing. Jaggar, Alison (1992) “Feminist Ethics.” As quoted by Rosemarie Tong and Nancy Williams (2009) “Feminist Ethics.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy‐ethics/ (accessed September 6, 2011). Manning, Rita C. (1992) Speaking From the Heart. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. Steinbock, Bonnie (1978) “Speciesism and the Idea of Equality.” Philosophy 53, 253, as quoted in Warren (1997). Warren, Mary Anne (1997) Moral Status. New York: Oxford University Press.

Online Resources “Feminist Ethics.” Feminist theory website hosted by the Center for Digital Discourse and Culture. (accessed November 12, 2011). Hypatia, a Journal of Feminist Philosophy (accessed September 6, 2011). Philosophy Talk “Feminism.” Ken Taylor, John Perry and Barrie Thorne (2004) discuss feminist philosophies. The website has related resources. pastShows/Feminism.htm (accessed September 6, 2011). “What is a Wife?” Ken Taylor, John Perry, and Marilyn Yalom (2010) examine the concept of a wife, cultural influences, and a successful marriage. http://www.philosophytalk. org/pastShows/Wife.html (accessed September 6, 2011). “The Postmodern Family.” Ken Taylor and John Perry (2009) talk about how families influence morality. (accessed September 6, 2011). Smith, Mark K. (2004) “Nel Noddings, the Ethics of Care and Education.” An overview of Noddings’ ethical theory, with a comparison to Utilitarianism and Deontological ethics. (accessed September 6, 2011). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Feminist Ethics.” Rosemarie Tong and Nancy Williams (2009) give a historical background on Feminist Ethics and the ethics of care.‐ethics/ (accessed September 6, 2011).

Discussion Questions 1. Do you think Michael Boylan is right to question the view that females are more drawn to a care‐ethic than are males? What should we make of all those movies from Finding Nemo and Fly Away Home to Contagion, where the mother is dead or missing and the father cares for the child/ren?

2.7.indd 242

12/9/2011 6:42:33 PM

2.7 Feminist Ethics 243 2. Is there something less than human about the clones Lincoln and Jordan? Are clones on a moral par with cyborgs, androids, and robots relative to humans? 3. Author Julie Baumgold (1991) isn’t too impressed by the portrayal of women on screen—e.g., Sarah Connor, Thelma and Louise, Nikita, and we presume women‐ warriors Erica Bain and Evelyn Salt. They are no longer molls and helpers, they are combat‐trained outlaws who are “creatively vicious.” (It is Sarah who crushes the Terminator’s skull!) In her view, these women have been created from male fantasies. Do you agree? What about female fantasies? What do these women‐warriors tell us? 4. Discuss how relationships are presented in movies—families, parents and children, married couples, siblings and friends, and lovers. Do these parallel those seen in the real world? How do they inform our expectations about relationships? 5. Share what a Feminist ethicist would say to a Justice‐oriented ethicist about the way movies present ethical dilemmas. 6. Looking over the cast of characters in this chapter, what challenges face our various (female) heroes? Are any gender-specific?

2.7.indd 243

12/9/2011 6:42:33 PM

2.7.indd 244

12/9/2011 6:42:33 PM

Unit 3

Ethical Dilemmas

Part III.indd 245

12/9/2011 6:43:59 PM

Part III.indd 246

12/9/2011 6:43:59 PM


Introduction to Unit 3

SPOTLIGHT: The Bourne trilogy, Made in Dagenham


We don’t have a choice. Yes you do. —The Bourne Identity

Do you remember in The Bourne Ultimatum when CIA agent Pamela Landy realizes that Jason Bourne is not the enemy: that her colleague, Noah Vosen is the one with dirty hands? She has little time to rethink her priorities and decide what to do. We know time is limited. It always is in an action film! We have come to see that she is a decent person trying to do what’s right. We root for both her and Bourne as she faxes the incriminating evidence that Bourne passed on to her. As a result, the slimy CIA superior is brought down. Of course it took a while for her to figure out that Bourne was not the bad guy; that the rats were on her ship, not his! It’s hard to resist stories about good versus evil and heroes versus villains, not to mention love found, lost, or found again. And we certainly can’t resist whodunits, conspiracies and intrigue. After settling into our seats, the next two‐plus hours will be spent in a parallel universe that movies open to us. After the credits roll and we make our way out of the theatre, it’s almost impossible not to ask the Big Question, “Well, what do you think?” Movies can play a vital role in our intellectual and moral development by shining a light on the dilemmas we face. They have the ability to open us up to new ideas and offer insights into familiar territory. They can make us laugh, cry, even jump about in our seats from excitement or fear. They can expand our minds, stretch our imagination, and open up new ways of seeing. They can Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

3.0.indd 247

12/9/2011 6:42:27 PM


Seeing the Light

reinforce our values and beliefs or call us to reexamine what we thought was firmly in place. The result may be a complete overhaul of our ethical codes and processes of moral reasoning. These benefits are not to be taken lightly. As we begin our journey it helps to have some tools at our command. We’re no slackers! Contrary to popular opinion, not all reactions are of equal value. For example, when someone tosses out opinions like infallible proclamations, the conversation tends to be short‐lived. You may both commiserate: ANGIE: CARLOS:

That movie was a dog! Yeah, what a waste!

Agreement or no agreement, there’s nowhere else to go. Contrast the meatier interchange when reasons are offered: ANGIE:

That movie was a dog. I can’t believe how the story fell apart after those two supposed FBI agents turned out to be the killers! That was just unbelievable. CARLOS: Yeah, what a waste! It made no sense at all. The series of murders defied logic. Plus, that subplot about sleazy cops shooting out the tires of speeding cars just made the movie more confusing than it already was. No foundation was laid for the second half of the movie.

Adding support for a judgment (= thesis/conclusion) makes all the difference. Anyone can have an opinion; backing it up with evidence turns it into an argument. Knowing the “why” behind the claim makes for a much more interesting discussion. Even if we disagree, knowing the reasons for different interpretations can deepen our understanding of the movie’s meaning and significance. Maybe we will be persuaded by a particular argument or maybe not. Nevertheless, if we see the reasoning set out in front of our eyes, it is far easier to reflect on the values presented, the storyline, and the decisions and actions shown on screen. The process of examining the reasoning and assessing the strength of the evidence for one conclusion or another can be interesting—even mentally stimulating. It also gives us a greater appreciation of the power of movies to educate us and add depth to our lives. Here in Unit 3, we see how movies present ethical dilemmas. The repercussions from the choices made can be long lasting and life changing, as shown in Chapter 3.1 with Touching the Void. Ethicist Anthony Weston set out a valuable method for uncovering ethical issues and lessons. His approach is useful in its clarity and simplicity. He sorts moral values into three main groups: Grouping Moral Values 1. Goods → Benefits 2. Rights → Principles 3. Virtues → Strengths of Character

3.0.indd 248

12/9/2011 6:42:28 PM

3.0 Introduction to Unit 3 249 These help us frame ethical decision‐making and, in his words, “map moral debates” (pp. 75–77). Although his focus is not on movies, Weston’s grouping can easily be applied to this medium. Let’s look at Weston’s groups and apply them to the Bourne trilogy. ●

Goods are the positive results of an ethical decision. These can be personal benefits (like happiness, pleasure, and relief from suffering) or societal benefits (like helping people, economic relief, and improving social services). Rights are the principles, the moral imperatives or obligations we seek to uphold. Among these are the respect for dignity, justice, civil liberties, and human rights. Virtues are the strengths of character. These are the qualities that we attribute to someone who is morally upstanding, such as honesty, humility, loyalty, courage, compassion, and taking commitments seriously. For any film with ethical themes, we can ask ourselves:


What are the benefits that follow from the ethical‐decisions that are made? What good will come out of them? On the flip side, were there any ethical pitfalls or booby traps, such as moral baggage the characters will have to confront? → For example, Jason Bourne gave the files to Pamela Landy that implicated Noah Vosen in dirty dealing, after she shared with him the important secret that his real name was David Webb. 2. What sorts of ethical principles, what rights, are used in the ethical decision‐ making? How do these provide a foundation for dealing with the various issues throughout the film? → For example, Bourne realized that an assassin had been sent to take him out when he and Marie were hiding in the French countryside. His first concern was to make sure the family he was staying with was safe. They  had a right to be shielded from the danger Bourne faced. The principle “do no harm” to innocent third parties was imprinted on his skull. After handing Marie a pile of money, he told her to go far away from him. 3. What virtues or vices do we see in the characters? What sorts of moral traits are exhibited? How many of these were in place at the beginning of the film and how many developed, or eroded, as the plot unfolds? → For example, Bourne was surprised to discover he possessed highly advanced skills, including martial arts, and a facility with languages—and the seemingly endless list of people who wanted him dead. He was honest with Marie, telling her of his amnesia and being a “person of interest.” However confused he was about his identity, his sincerity and lack of pretense was striking.

3.0.indd 249

12/9/2011 6:42:28 PM


Seeing the Light

Let’s apply Weston’s three components to another example, so we can get a fuller sense of their value. Our focus will be on the ethical issues raised by the British movie, Made in Dagenham (2010). The movie sets out the path to political awareness and social action of Rita O’Grady. She worked in England’s Ford Motors plant with a team of women making seat covers. These seamstresses were paid much less than the men whose jobs at Ford were at a similar skill level. Thanks to Rita’s leadership, union members (mostly female, but a few men) rallied for pay equity (→ similar skills = similar salaries). Corporate interests were not receptive and expended considerable effort to squelch the striking women. Rita’s moral dilemma was whether to push forward. Instigating a strike would have severe financial consequences for all the participants—men and women. It’s one thing to fight for the moral high ground. It’s another to see the human cost as the days drag on and consequences wash to shore. As the hardships mounted, she had some serious soul searching. Yes, it was right that employees should get equal pay for equal work. The question is whether that change must occur overnight. Wouldn’t a few concessions suffice for now, so long as there was a plan for gradual change? How far do you push a principle anyway? It’s one thing to stick your neck out, but what do you do when this causes others to suffer, even temporarily? These are hard questions. Answering them calls for moral reflection and the courage to take action. In Rita’s case, many stood behind her even while the strike took its toll on their lives. Others at the plant were initially supportive, but retreated as the strike dragged on. And others still saw no reason to change the status quo. Social pressures came at Rita from all directions. The opposition fell into two main camps. The first was the Money Men who feared that concessions would open the floodgates and cut into corporate profit. Word of any allowances would surely spread to the other plants, resulting in a global punch in Ford’s financial face. Concerns about justice were a distant second. The other camp consisted of the Passive Supporters who offered encouragement so long as it didn’t require personal sacrifice. You know the type: They sympathize and throw a few dollars your way, but stop this side of action. They understand that injustices warrant attention, but involvement has to be a no‐risk type of deal. They’re not about to jeopardize their situation. Rita struggled with the strike’s impact while pushing forward. She showed compassion, but stayed true to her beliefs and values. With the humanity of a leader trying to do the right thing, Rita gathered her moral power. She kept in mind the long‐term goals without losing sight of the short‐term hurdles and the broader social context. When the time came to speak out Rita was ready. Movies like Made in Dagenham remind us that moral problem solving is not done in a vacuum and not in isolation. It occurs in this or that social context and often requires consulting others. Otherwise, we may end up like an Ethical Egoist, with a pointed head and a shrunken heart.

3.0.indd 250

12/9/2011 6:42:28 PM

3.0 Introduction to Unit 3 251 We are empowered by looking at the range of dilemmas found in this Unit’s movies and reflecting on the moral reasoning. There are four chapters here: 3.1


3.3 3.4

Confronting the Dilemma: Here we see how ethical dilemmas are expressed in movies and the obstacles the protagonist faces in deciding what to do. Encountering Evil: In this chapter we examine the biggest ethical dilemma of all and see how heroes must overcome adversity and vanquish the villains for good to triumph. The Impact of Perspective: In this chapter see what happens when we shift points of view and get a fuller sense of the issue at hand. Reflecting on Ethical Decisions: Once ethical decisions are made the protagonist has to face the consequences—including the moral judgments of others.

Working through these four chapters helps us see the moral terrain, examine  the choices we face, and justify our decisions. By opening ourselves to diverse points of view and seeing where are ethicists (Unit Two) can shed some light, we can arrive at justifiable positions. This allows us to recognize how high the stakes may be and yet not flinch when we confront moral conflict. Thanks to the ground we covered so far in Seeing the Light, we have the tools and insights to enhance our own ethical decision‐making. With what we’ve learned, we can make moral sense of the movies that lie ahead.

Works Cited Weston, Anthony (2001) 21st Century Ethical Toolbox. New York: Oxford University Press.

Online Resources Big Questions Online. (accessed September 6, 2011). Ethics Web. “Ethical Decision‐Making.” A list of resources and links, including power point slides.‐making/index.html (accessed September 6, 2011). In Character. “Justice” (Fall 2006). (accessed September 6, 2011). Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. “Ethical Decision‐Making.” An introduction to ethical decision‐making, including a model for analysis. ethics/practicing/decision/framework.html (accessed September 6, 2011).

3.0.indd 251

12/9/2011 6:42:28 PM


Seeing the Light

The Paideia Project Online. Essays on theoretical ethics. MainTEth.htm (accessed September 6, 2011). University of Nebraska‐Lincoln. “Moral Reasoning and Ethical Decision Making.” A list of resources, including dilemmas. moral_reas_ethcl_decs_mkg.shtml (accessed September 6, 2011).

3.0.indd 252

12/9/2011 6:42:28 PM


Confronting the Dilemma

SPOTLIGHT: A Simple Plan, Fargo, and Vitus Short Takes: Fearless and The Sweet Hereafter, The Fabulous Baker Boys and Crazy Heart Outtakes: Juno, and Slumdog Millionaire


They’re gonna know. No, they won’t. Nobody would ever believe that you’d be capable of doing what you’ve done. —A Simple Plan

Nothing is acquired without something being lost. It’s all a zero sum. —Michael Boylan, Extinction of Desire

In the opening scene of A Simple Plan Hank, a small‐town clerk, looks back on what he once had and reveals his father’s key to happiness. The secret is neither fame nor fortune. It is the possession of “three jewels”—a wife he loves, a decent job, and friends and neighbors who like and respect him. You wouldn’t think these relatively simple goals would be hard to achieve. Indeed, Hank realizes that at one point he had all three in his possession but let them slip away. “For a while there, without hardly even realizing it, I had all that. I was a happy man,” he laments. However, a series of bad decisions sent Hank into a downward spiral, causing his happiness to evaporate. The story that unfolds is a tale of greed run amok, of violence and devastation, of betrayal and cruelty. Hank didn’t see it coming and yet the harm that ensued

Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

3.1.indd 253

12/9/2011 6:42:22 PM


Seeing the Light

was entirely avoidable. He was a respected member of the community. He knew right from wrong. He was neither destitute nor feeble‐minded, but Hank showed little awareness of the moral territory he was about to enter. We watch as his moral fiber unravels. Hank’s wealth came to him without warning, unforeseen and undeserved. Any doubt or good sense surfacing in Hank was extinguished by the winds of desire roaring around and inside him. Hank failed, but the movie succeeds as a moral tale. It gives us insight into the forces of temptation and the ethical dilemmas that can pop up when we least expect them. The various options can lead us down quite different paths, each with a set of consequences and moral repercussions. “It is certainly true that most lost souls never turn themselves around,” observes ethicist Michael Boylan in A Just Society. That insight reverberates throughout A Simple Plan. Greed took hold of Hank in ways that obliterated the boundary between good and evil. Decisions made at each fork in the road took him farther away from the decent, law‐abiding family man we meet as the movie opens. Hank erroneously thought money was the panacea for all he lacked, and he wasn’t about to let anyone stand in his way. Hank is not the only one suffering such an illusion. We know that from our own lives. And other movies, such as Fargo, echo the lessons set out in A Simple Plan.

Setting Up the Dilemma It all started quite serendipitously. Hank, his brother Jacob, and Jacob’s drinking buddy Lou were driving along in Hank’s pickup out in the country. It was New Years’ Eve and they were surrounded by an expanse of freshly fallen snow. A fox dashed across the highway in front of them and they slammed to a stop near a nature preserve. As their dog gave chase, the three men followed in pursuit. Crows circling overhead caught their attention and they soon realized the source of the birds’ interest was a downed airplane. Inside was a dead pilot and, in the luggage compartment, a bag containing stacks of money amounting to $4 million. We learn later that it was dirty money from a botched kidnapping, but they declared this a case of “finders keepers.” The men formed an ironic allegiance. The opportunity to dramatically change their lives electrified them; manna had literally fallen from heaven. After the initial shock, however, rational deliberations kicked into place. Here’s when they considered their predicament and weighed the pros and cons. They first contemplated how the money came to be there and if they were free to take it. Surely they could justify that they were the rightful heirs. Their attempts to convince themselves stretched their analytical skills to the max. The evidence was thought to be persuasive—the single pilot, small plane, and all that money. Obviously this was no freight delivery for Citibank. Although

3.1.indd 254

12/9/2011 6:42:23 PM

3.1 Confronting the Dilemma 255 Jacob and Lou viewed Hank as prim, prissy, and a bit mean‐spirited, he held all the power. At first Hank was reluctant to take any of the money. “Whatever it is, it’s a police matter now,” he said. That view, however, was short‐lived, as they debated what to do. The line of reasoning unfolded: Surely this fantastic sum of cash must be dirty money. The question was whether taking dirty money was stealing. And what’s wrong with stealing anyway? Their answer was found in Consequentialist Ethics, where the consequences or end goals, rather than the means, drive the decision‐making. Hank pointed out that, “We’d go to prison… Because it’s stealing.” On the other hand, how can it be stealing if it’s taken from a dead  man? No problem there. This pilot is dead as a doorknob. Jacob and Lou  argued that, “From him? Hell, He won’t mind.” Yes, “He’s dead. He won’t mind.” At this juncture, Hank seemed the most morally upright of the three. Initially he questioned Lou’s eagerness to claim the loot. He worried that, even if he was left out of it, he could still be charged as an accomplice. And while they thought no one would notice the missing money, Hank insisted, “Somebody’s bound to be looking for it.” Little did he know that this prediction would be borne out when the dead pilot’s buddy came looking for him, and for the missing money. Meanwhile, Hank’s walls of resistance came tumbling down. All the moral reasoning put in place over the years slipped out of his grasp. Greed has a powerful flame that is not easily extinguished. Not in theory and not in reality. Most reluctance can be brushed aside by self‐interest. Desire fills in the gaps and crevasses created by a life short on fulfillment and long on yearning. A Simple Plan shows how that can happen. Hank’s companions were part of the problem. Take Lou: He could taste the desire and longed for all that the money can buy. “It’s the American dream in a goddamn gym bag,” he said. Hank didn’t buy it, at least not yet. “You work for the American dream. You don’t steal it.” It looked like Hank was going to take the high road; until things began to shift. It was just a little shift, barely perceptible at first. But there it was. “Wouldn’t you love to have a piece of this?” Lou asked. “Hell, yes, I would, but we can’t just take it,” Hank responded. But then he wavered. After all no one was watching, so maybe he could let down his ethical guardrails. Hank was ready to make a deal with the devil. The moment is instructive: We see how easy it is to fool ourselves into thinking that vice can be transformed to look tolerable. We see how the quick‐witted can rationalize misdeeds. We see how misdeeds can seem acceptable. At this point, Hank was like a sheep dog that has tasted blood. He found a way to justify what he and his two companions were about to do. Hank built an edifice based on hypotheticals. Maybe if they hold on to the money and no one mentions it when the plane crash is discovered, then maybe it could be theirs after all. With such reasoning the moral tap‐dancing looked

3.1.indd 255

12/9/2011 6:42:23 PM


Seeing the Light

legitimate. His second step was to assume a leadership role so he’d then be in charge of the money, “Just ‘til spring, ‘til they find the plane.” The next step was justification. With greed clouding their moral reasoning skills, they turned to “rights” and privileges. Surely they have a right to the cash, so long as no one claims or mentions the money. However, rights entail duties and obligations. That ethical reality escaped them, so they spent little  time analyzing their decision‐making. Nevertheless, exercising their “right” to the money would put them more at risk than they foresaw. They had no idea what consequences were about to be unleashed from their moral turpitude. Meanwhile, they focused on what to do when spring arrived and no one came looking for the money. Hank’s view was that, “if you’re right and nobody mentions the money, we split it up, and we all leave town.” This proposal rested upon four conditions: (1) that they would actually wait until spring before touching the money; (2) that no one was looking for (or “mentions”) the money; (3) that they will then split up the money; and (4) that they will all leave town. Neither Jacob nor Lou grasped how difficult it would be to meet these requirements. Each condition became impossible to keep. They had accepted the contingency plan Hank laid out, but didn’t like the rules. And remember, Hank insisted that he be the overseer of the money until spring arrives. Given his buddies’ lack of self‐control, this plan was about to backfire. Hank’s moral superiority began to erode. He took control of the money by threatening to hand it in if Jacob and Lou didn’t agree. He then claimed he’d burn the money if anyone came searching for it. At that point, Hank’s “simple” plan was hatched. Once the pact was made, Hank didn’t ask himself whether they should put on the brakes. Hank’s desire transformed him. From an ordinary guy working at the Delano Food Mill, he entered a high‐stakes realm in which moral inhibitions were obstacles to success. Once he got a taste of all that money, his greed became a voracious beast. It had to be fed at any cost. Unfortunately, his wife Sarah became a willing accomplice, adamant that he’d be above suspicion. She tried to squelch whatever doubts surfaced in Hank’s mind. Ultimately, greed ate up whatever decency Hank had. He went from a thief to a murderer. He wallowed in deception. Although he had opportunities to come clean, to end the violence and hand over the money, Hank was unwilling to call a halt. He lost all moral clarity. The movie helps us see how a relatively minor ethical slip lays the groundwork for a larger one. This may be especially the case when things do not go as planned. We see this in the movie when a local farmer arrives at a most inauspicious time. After his murder and cover‐up, the problems began to grow. In addition, the town sheriff’s suspicions add further interference and more layers of deception have to be erected. This is not going as planned.

3.1.indd 256

12/9/2011 6:42:23 PM

3.1 Confronting the Dilemma 257 Waiting until spring turned out to be a pipe dream: Lou and his wife wanted to dip into that money now. More violence and more attempts to keep the sheriff and the pilot’s partner at bay add to the headaches. One of the reasons the movie is so compelling is that, as Hank’s greed eats up what’s left of his moral core, his brother Jacob begins to recoil from the whole sordid situation. In time, he becomes the moral voice of the movie. Jacob comes to realize that the price to participate in the windfall is far too great. It finally comes to a head. Jacob asks, “Hank do you ever feel evil?” Hank is trapped in a thicket of lies. He has invested time and energy to cover his tracks, conceal the crimes, and pressure his brother to memorize the same version of the story that he would tell. But Jacob is now overwhelmed with regret. Hank tries to brush it off with, “Well, God damn it, this is what it costs—Right here, right now. Come on. Come on. Let’s go over this again, make sure we haven’t overlooked anything.” Jacob responds, “I wish somebody else had found that money.” Jacob has seen the light. “I wish somebody else had found that money.” Only later does Hank come to the same view, but by then it is too late. He can’t undo the wrongs he has committed. He can’t bring back Jacob, who refused to continue with the deceit and gave up in despair. He can’t restore life to the marriage sucked dry by duplicitous behavior. He is up to his neck in moral muck and sinking fast. As with many cases of hindsight, we wouldn’t repeat an action that we now consider disastrous. Regrets do not undo a decision. Of course, some choices look downright appealing, even if risky. It’s easy to persuade ourselves that good fortune is in the cards, either because we’ve had some good luck and it is surely bound to continue or because we’ve not been doing so well and surely the tides are going to turn. It looks like a win–win situation, but it isn’t. After the seemingly no‐strings‐ attached robbery, getting involved in murder is a weight Jacob can’t bear. He sees that we aren’t able to step out of our own skin. Our choices and actions come with us, and no amount of denial can negate that moral reality. Hank was behind Jacob on the learning curve. Yet he finally understood Jacob’s reservations and decided to call it to a halt. With his distraught wife Sarah trying to stop him, Hank begins to burn the money; that is, what was left of it. With all those bills up in smoke, perhaps he could rid himself of what it represented and restore a sense of completeness to his life. Those three jewels he once had. The ones his father spoke so highly of. But that was clearly a fantasy on his part. The harm had been done and there was no way to erase it. According to Michael Boylan (2004), we need four virtues to kick‐start our personal worldview. These are wisdom, courage, justice, and self‐control. They function like moral pillars. Without wisdom, we are morally blind and, therefore, cannot hope to apply the lessons from the past to the present or the future. Hank failed big time on this score. Seeing the result of his evil deeds, he began

3.1.indd 257

12/9/2011 6:42:23 PM


Seeing the Light

to frantically toss bills into the fire. It dawned on him what a monumentally large price he had paid and how much had been lost by what he had done. However, the damage was so great that any chance for wisdom would remain beyond his reach. Without courage, we are either weak or reckless. Hank was too weak to pay heed to his initial reluctance to take the money. And, later, his recklessness led him to an extreme, including murder, to hold on to that which was never his to begin with. Without justice, desire gains power and we lose sight of fairness and moderation. Hank lost sight of justice as soon as he tossed aside his doubts and forged a bond with his companions. They locked themselves together in vice. And without self‐control, we are either at the mercy of others or, like Hank, unable to pull back and take stock when things veer off course. It takes wisdom and a sense of justice to know one’s own direction and to have everything else fall into place. It takes courage and self control to find our way, being guided by a sense of where we are headed, and why. In the course of his journey, Hank revealed his own depravity and the viciousness that he was capable of. We see how far Hank would go and the deeds he would commit to get what wanted, but did not deserve. Hank came to see that he once possessed the only kind of wealth that really matters. But his awareness came too late to make a difference. As a result, he was left to go through the motions of life, a living ghost, empty and alone in his misery. Hank ended up a lost soul, with nowhere to turn. “There are days when Sarah and I try to pretend we’re like everyone else… those days are few and far between.”

SPOTLIGHT: Fargo Like A Simple Plan, Fargo (1996) shows us what happens when moral reasoning falls under the wheel of desire. In both movies, characters driven by greed sink under the weight of their own poor moral decision‐making. Gordon Gecko, in Wall Street, proclaimed “greed is good,” but the short‐term pleasures of greed are offset by the long‐term consequences. Greed has an insatiable appetite. We saw that in A Simple Plan with Hank, Jacob, and Lou. And we see it in Fargo with sleazy car salesman Jerry Lundegaard and the two low‐lifes he hires. As with Hank, it’s just a matter of time until Jerry’s greed gets the better of him. As with A Simple Plan, the police chief in Fargo is the moral counterpoint to the criminals. And, as with A Simple Plan, Fargo begins in winter. The story is set in Brainerd, Minnesota. A gigantic and rather ghoulish statue of Paul Bunyan with a raised ax stands at the top of a “Welcome to Brainerd” sign. This is where Jerry lives with his wife Jean and son Scotty. His father‐in‐law Wade Gustafson, who owns the car dealership where Jerry works, is a regular fixture in the Lundegaard household. Jerry wants to tap into Wade’s deep

3.1.indd 258

12/9/2011 6:42:23 PM

3.1 Confronting the Dilemma 259 pockets, so concocts a scheme to have his wife kidnapped. He hopes for a large percentage of the ransom money that Wade will presumably pay. To accomplish this he hires two seedy characters with the help of Shep Proudfoot, an ex‐con who works at the car dealership. Fargo never strays far from the moral framework behind the movie. The hero, police chief Marge Gunderson, doesn’t show up on screen until crimes have been committed. Nevertheless, from the moment she arrives, we know it’s just a matter of time until she wraps things up and peace and quiet return to Brainerd. In contrast to Hank, Jerry is already a small time crook when constructing his plan. We watch as things go from bad to worse. We saw it in A Simple Plan and we see it here in Fargo: a man of faulty morality thinks he can acquire a sum of money without anyone getting hurt. All too quickly, suspicious authorities send the plan into a nosedive, taking the extortionists down in the bargain. The movie opens with Jerry towing a car in a snowstorm to Fargo, North Dakota. It is intended as partial payment for Carl Showalter and Gaear Grumsrud, the two thugs hired to kidnap Jean. Jerry expects this to be a clean crime—no one will be harmed and he’ll get a cut of the ransom money. He doesn’t anticipate any problems and is unprepared when things go south. From the time the plan is put in place, difficulties surface and Jerry soon discovers that he’s in too deep to extricate himself. As David Sterritt notes, “Whiffs of brimstone from Dante’s indelible Inferno undergird this film’s dark carnivalism” (2004, p. 28). Jean is very close to her father, a hard‐nosed capitalist with no reluctance about speaking his mind. His influence in the Lundegaard household is unshakable. Wade makes no secret of being unimpressed by his son‐in‐law, who is under his thumb and not liking it one bit. Jerry is too weak to take on his father‐ in‐law or to grapple with the fact that his son Scotty is caught in the middle. When Jerry dreamed up his kidnapping scheme, he assumed that Jean could be used as a pawn without any ill effects. With his self‐interest blinding him to complications, Jerry proceeds to put his plan in action. Although visibility is close to zero, Jerry makes his way to the King of Clubs bar to meet with Carl and Gaear. The first complication he overlooked was that Shep said he will “vouch” for Gaear, but didn’t vouch for “the other one” (Carl). Jerry is unperturbed by this information, thinking there’s nothing to worry about. It’s obvious that his financial desperation adds nothing to his poor reasoning skills or moral deficiencies. With few, if any, second thoughts, he pushes forward, ignoring the warning signs along with way. We watch transfixed as the two hoodlums break into the Lundegaard home. Terrified at the sight of the men in ski masks, Jean fights back when Gaear grabs her. She bites his hand and races upstairs. Seeking “unguent” for his wound, Gaear makes it to the bathroom where Jean is hiding. She frantically tries to escape only to end up falling down the stairs, tangled in the shower curtain. Gaear gathers up Jean like a rolled carpet and puts her in the back seat of the getaway car.

3.1.indd 259

12/9/2011 6:42:23 PM


Seeing the Light

The idea that the plan could be executed without a hitch proves untenable. They’re barely down the road when Carl is pulled over for out‐of‐date license plates. Hoping to avoid a ticket, he tries to bribe the police officer. Once that fails, Gaear shoots and kills him. Gaear then murders the two teenagers who saw Carl dragging the officer’s body off the road. Clearly this was not the clean kidnapping of Jerry’s dreams. The body count is up to three and they still have Jean stuck in the trunk of the car. This kidnapping is not up to snuff. At this point the hero is about to arrive on the scene. This is solid‐as‐a‐rock Police Chief, Marge Gunderson. Marge is very pregnant, happily married to Norm, who is devoted to her. Marge has the intelligence to match her moral strengths. She works systematically, employing highly developed skills of observation. She does not stop until she has deduced the chain of events leading to the homicides. Step by step, she figures out that Jerry has gotten himself into a mess at work and then used Shep Proudfoot to link up with Carl and Gaear. Marge is unfazed by the time and effort required to solve the crime. She is patient with a fellow officer, whose reasoning skills are not up to the task. “I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Lou,” she gently tells him. Marge is also kindly to an old high school classmate who fabricates a sob story about his life. Marge takes everything in stride. She has an appetite like a horse and an ability to wolf down a hamburger while admiring her husband’s bag of fishing worms. Her wholesomeness reflects the solidity of her sense of purpose. The setting adds a nice touch. Both Brainerd and Fargo are stark, desolate places, particularly in the winter. The harsh environment mirrors the blinding effects of greed. It is quite the contrast to the other Fargo—Wells Fargo, a symbol of financial stability, notes Christopher Sharrett (2004). He observes that Wells Fargo has also played a part in the American frontier by using Wyatt Earp as a hired gun. Sharrett adds, But if Wells Fargo and Wyatt Earp are part of the narrative or regeneration through violence that forged the national myth, Fargo is about the dead end and essential silliness of this myth. The family turns in on itself…[and] the town [of Fargo] is important only as a jumping‐off point for a tale of banal evil (p. 58).

Both stability and wealth were beyond Jerry’s reach, no matter what he did to try to close the gap. Jerry is no match for the methodical and clear‐thinking Marge—he is fundamentally inept. He has over‐extended himself financially and is at his wits’ end trying to dig out of his problems. Jerry hopes to exploit his father‐in‐law’s attachment to Jean with his kidnapping scheme. Jerry’s greed blinds him to the fact that Wade and his colleague Stan Grossman think nothing of using an investment idea of Jerry’s and then cutting him out of the profits. Although both do nothing to hide their low assessment of Jerry, they get dragged into the ransom demands. Worse yet, Wade’s disdain for Jerry

3.1.indd 260

12/9/2011 6:42:23 PM

3.1 Confronting the Dilemma 261 clouds his own judgment. This is demonstrated when he gets out his gun and goes in person to face down Carl when he is supposed to hand over the ransom money. Their encounter is like a scene out of a Western absurdist play. Remarking on the moral similarities between the two pairs (Carl/Gaear and Wade/Stan), David Sterritt (2004) argues that Carl and Gaear are “low‐grade parodies of businessmen Wade Gustafson and Stan Grossman, themselves a twinned pair of narcissists” (pp. 20–21). Perhaps so, given that all four are so self‐involved that their reasoning skills are impeded, making it all too easy to slide into the moral abyss. When setting the plan in motion, Jerry didn’t foresee how far off course it would go. In this respect, his mental acuity is about as advanced as Hank’s in A Simple Plan. As he said, “this was supposed to be a no‐risk type deal.” He foolishly thought the Carl and Gaear would play by the rules. “We had a deal here,” Jerry observed. “A deal’s a deal.” His weak moral reasoning skills combined with unwarranted assumptions about promise‐keeping set things spinning out of control. That he met so soon with resistance is apparent: CARL:

Is it, Jerry? Why don’t you ask those three poor souls in Brainerd if a deal’s a deal. Go ahead, ask them! JERRY: The heck do ya mean?

Even though his own dishonesty fails to give him pause, Jerry cannot fathom that Carl and Gaear would botch the do‐no‐harm kidnapping scheme. For Jerry, “This was supposed to be a no‐rough‐stuff type deal!” His expectations were blown to smithereens. Carl’s remark, “Blood has been shed, Jerry” leaves him reeling. This scene is instructive. Jerry’s not the only one who thinks he can cross a moral line, putting others at risk, without things escalating. That’s the element of wishful thinking at play. Jerry is so driven by his financial stress that he doesn’t stop to think, even though he’s using others as pawns in his game. Hiring total strangers to abduct his wife presumes either that the kidnappers are awfully trustworthy or that the gamble over Jean’s life is no big deal. It looks like the former is the case. However, when things go wrong, and they do go very wrong, Jerry is more focused on his own problems than grieving over Jean or worrying about Scotty. Jerry shows anger, not remorse, when all hell breaks loose. In a 1996 interview (Ciment and Niogret, 2004) Joel Coen observed that, “All the men in the movie are preoccupied by money.” Ethan called Jerry, “a poor lost soul who can’t stop improvising solutions to get out of the situations he’s already gotten himself into” (p. 114). He added that, “He’s one of those people who construct a pyramid without thinking for a moment that it could collapse” (p. 114).

3.1.indd 261

12/9/2011 6:42:23 PM


Seeing the Light

The Coens are noted for their absurdist sense of humor. We need only look at movies such as Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, to know that Fargo isn’t the only one that mixes drama with comedy. They also are into busting stereotypes. Ethan, for instance, said of Fargo, One of the reasons for making [the crooks] simple‐minded was our desire to go against the Hollywood cliché of the bad guy as a super‐professional who controls everything he does: In fact, in most cases criminals belong to the strata of society least equipped to face life, and that’s the reason they’re caught so often. In this sense too, our movie is closer to life than the conventions of cinema and genre movies (p. 118).

Joel expanded on Ethan’s comment. He said that they inject comedy so often in their movies because “it’s present in life.” He observed, “Look at those people who recently blew up the World Trade Center. They’d rented a van to prepare the explosion, and, once the job was finished, they returned to the rental agency to reclaim their deposit. The absurdity of that is, in itself, terribly funny” (p. 118). The movie brings in that absurdity as well. This we see with Carl and Gaear, Wade and Stan, and with Jerry. None of them show many smarts in covering their tracks. Marge figures out that Jerry is in up to his eyeballs. With help from two hookers, she gets enough information to be on the trail of Carl and Gaear. Neither of them have more brains than Jerry, so it’s just a matter of time until Marge finds their car and the hideaway where they took Jean. Unfortunately, Carl was off to get the ransom money when Gaear killed Jean for interrupting his watching TV with her screams. Carl’s luck wasn’t much better: after a shoot out that leaves Wade dead, Carl returns to the hideaway. It’s downhill from there. Carl’s words to Jerry, “blood has been shed” are like echoes in a cave. Marge arrives to see Carl being stuffed into a wood chipper—a bit of mordant humor. However pregnant Marge may be, she has no trouble stopping Gaear with a carefully aimed shot as he tries to escape. She singlehandedly makes the arrest. Riding back to the station with Gaear in the back seat of the police car, Marge shakes her head at the moral pathos. It is unfathomable that she would ever find herself in Gaear’s shoes. Her basic goodness permeates everything she does. She is aghast at the mess Gaear has made. So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there? And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.

The next step is to locate Jerry. That was a piece of cake, given his general ineptitude. The movie ends with Marge and Norm tucked in bed, celebrating his winning design for the three‐cent stamp and sharing their pleasure at the coming birth of their child. Marge’s success with the murders is not part of the conversation. However long the trail of blood, it doesn’t go home with her.

3.1.indd 262

12/9/2011 6:42:23 PM

3.1 Confronting the Dilemma 263

SPOTLIGHT: Vitus Vitus (2006) was Switzerland’s official Academy Award entry for Best Foreign Film of that year. It is an inspiring movie about a child prodigy who is gifted in both music and mathematics. We first meet Vitus when he’s six years old and the apple of his parents’ eyes. Not only is he impressive in his musical talents, Vitus has an IQ of 180 and the math skills to match. He’s considered extraordinary by most who meet him and, if he stays on track, is likely to make it big in the music world. There’s only one problem: Vitus doesn’t want the life his parents, Leo and Helen von Holzen, have planned for him. He wants to be a normal child, which is the last thing they want. They are perfectly happy to live vicariously through him. His potential for fame and fortune are seductive goals for his parents. The movie reminds us that using others to add meaning to our lives is a recipe for disaster. However well‐intended the parents may be, children forced to achieve at much higher levels than the norm can suffer. They risk becoming isolated to the point of freakishness, and whatever childhood they were enjoying being cut short. This is the issue Vitus faced when his folks discovered that he was a “wunderkind.” The movie is presented from the perspective of Vitus, who initially seems happy to have multiple talents and doesn’t mind being in a class by himself. He reads the dictionary and questions his father about concepts like “paradoxical,” and asks about his father’s work perfecting hearing aids. Vitus’ innate curiosity and joy in learning does not pose difficulties for him until his parents, particularly his mother, get into the act. By the time he’s twelve years old, he’s more advanced creatively, but no longer as happy a child as when we first meet him. The stress weighs upon him and he shows the strain. Although he can handle the intellectual challenges of being advanced in school and surrounded by much older students, Vitus is the class oddball. His quick retorts and sarcasm drive others away. We watch as his world caves in about him. Vitus needs more love and less pressure. What his parents have lost sight of is that, however talented, he is just a child. You don’t have to be a genius to sympathize with Vitus. All too many children are pressured to follow their parents’ dreams. All too many parents use their children as surrogates for their own fantasy life. No good can come of either situation, as the movie shows. There can be no doubt that Vitus is unhappy about his parents manipulating the details of his life. He does not welcome the changes being forced upon him. If there is to be a winner here, it won’t be Vitus. As far as he’s concerned, he’d like to have the same teachers, the same babysitter (who he adores and dreams of marrying when he grows up), and the same elements in his life he had before he

3.1.indd 263

12/9/2011 6:42:23 PM


Seeing the Light

got labeled a genius. With the loss of all those things that were familiar to him, his world dramatically changed. Too much too fast is often too much to take. At least it was for Vitus. The rewards were too nebulous to compensate for the losses. The ethical dilemma the movie presents is twofold: It’s about the morality of using others to reach some perceived benefit. It’s also about others who think they know what’s best for someone else. First, it is about parents or all those others who have derivative lives, like barnacles on the side of a whale. In the second case, it is about those who are used by others and not allowed into the decision‐making. Vitus is a child who we see at six years old and then again at twelve. He is fed up with being used. The brightest light in his life is his grandfather, who loves Vitus for himself and wants nothing to do with pretense. Rather, he pursues his own interest in flight and welcomes Vitus’ enthusiasm for his various projects. One scene stands out: Vitus comes to his grandfather, upset about his parents pressuring him and confused as to what direction he should take in his life. His grandfather reels off one job after another, trying to hit upon something Vitus might find interesting. “I’d like to be someone else,” Vitus says, adding, “Whoever. Just normal.” The question is, “But how?” Vitus’ grandfather takes off his hat and tosses it into the air as far as he can throw it. He turns to his grandson and says, “You can figure out what you love when you think you’ll lose it.” He continues, “If you can’t decide you’ll have to part with things you like.” Vitus takes this advice to heart, as we see when his mother takes him to meet a famous music teacher. Smiling, she asks him to play the piano for her. That’s not about to happen; Vitus says, “I’d rather listen to you.” He refuses to play. His teacher doesn’t blink an eye. She’s been around long enough to know that there is no reason to rush the piano lessons; his heart must be in it for the lessons to have any lasting value. She tells Helen, “Don’t worry, madam. It’s more important for a pianist to have good parents than good teachers” and advises Vitus, “You should play neither for your mother nor for me. Just take your time until you feel like playing.” She tells him that playing the piano is for the sake of music and adds, “Cold rationality and a warm heart—That’s what makes a great pianist.” He answers, “That’s why I want to be a vet,” at which she bursts into laughter, unperturbed. Cut to Helen and Vitus in the car. She is spitting nails. “I’ll never forgive you for this. Never.” The air is full of the tension between them. Vitus retreats into himself, imagining himself as a child running across the field. Picturing his grandfather’s hat in the air, he decides it’s time to act. Thus he begins the big lie. Vitus fakes a fall in the middle of the night. He pretends to have suffered neurological problems so that he’s no longer a wunderkind, but is as ordinary as the next boy. Finally he could go to school with children his own age and be “normal.” Only his grandfather knows the truth and he’s not telling. He saw what Vitus had been put through and couldn’t blame him from opting out.

3.1.indd 264

12/9/2011 6:42:23 PM

3.1 Confronting the Dilemma 265 Eventually the walls of deception come down, but not until he finds ways to put his talents to work and pursue his music on his own terms. It’s hard not to cheer for Vitus. That he resorted to dishonesty to get his parents off his back raises an interesting ethical issue: Children are not usually seen as moral agents, because they are not viewed as competent. They are thought to be too young and impressionable to be entirely rational and able to distinguish good from evil. Of course, in many societies children as young as 12 have been tried as adults for committing heinous crimes. That said, they are still minors, and holding them accountable for their actions can be quite problematic. Furthermore, most children do not have the autonomy to make decisions and act on them. They are at the mercy of parents who, presumably, act in their best interests. This is what Vitus faced: He didn’t want the life they planned for him, but had few options. Faking brain injuries causing a lower IQ made him a liar, but a liar trapped in a nightmare. Can we blame him? We could ask where his mother and father were in all this. How about his grandfather taking a stronger role as an ally? Perhaps they should have done more for Vitus, but they didn’t. So there we are. Vitus felt he had to do something; thus the lie.

Short Takes: Fearless and The Sweet Hereafter One of the more interesting ethical dilemmas and one that occurs on a fairly regular basis is when a lie appears to be the better response. As we saw with Vitus, even those following an “Always be honest” line of moral reasoning may find themselves in a situation where deception or an outright lie seems preferable to the truth. Two movies that bring up this issue in compelling ways are Fearless (1993) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997). The first follows Max Klein, who walks away from the crash of an airplane that killed scores of passengers. Although he suffered virtually no physical injuries, he has many emotional ones. As a result, he finds it hard to communicate with others, even those closest to him. An air of unreality envelops him and leaves him feeling more invulnerable than lucky. He distances himself from his wife and son so much that they find him cold and uncaring and are jealous of his attentions to some of the survivors. In addition, Max resents requests by his ex‐partner’s widow to fudge the facts so she can benefit. One thing is clear to him, or so he thinks, and that is he is not going to lie about what happened. The second movie raises parallel concerns. It looks at a school bus accident that killed 22 children and its impact on the life of one of the few survivors. This is Nicole Burnell, who is left paralyzed and wheelchair‐bound. She also finds communication with her family to be strained and, as with Max in Fearless, she is pressured to help others maximize the payoff from the accident. Like Max, she is clear in her mind that she is not going to lie.

3.1.indd 265

12/9/2011 6:42:23 PM


Seeing the Light

Each movie powerfully traces the emotional impact and recovery of the two victims, Max and Nicole. Not surprisingly, given the catastrophic nature of what they have just been through, they are bombarded with a range of emotions. They simply have to pull back from those around them to sort it all out. Survivor’s guilt is but one wave that washes over those who make it when others don’t. It’s hard to argue for God’s will when the victims are innocent and their lives were cut short. However, making sense of the incomprehensible is an understandable urge and religion, or just sheer “luck of the draw,” is a way to find comfort. Neither seeks such comforts—they pull inward. Their strong ethical foundation helps carry them through the initial phase right after the accident. That’s when both vowed not to lie, no matter what. Only later does that resolve change. Here’s where we come to their moral quandary. They want to stick to the truth, the facts as they know them, and be as honest as they can. Let the chips fall where they may. So why lie? Each has a slightly different reason. Max has drawn the line in the sand that he is not going to lie. However admirable is the high road (assuming this is the high road), the consequences of doing so hit him. His partner and best friend, Jeff, was right there next to him on the plane. A boy traveling as an unaccompanied minor was frantic, so Max changed seats to calm him. It turned out to be most fortuitous. Because of the seat change, Max survived and Jeff did not. Insurance forms and related issues make it clear that telling the truth would result in Jeff’s widow suffering financially. She makes a direct appeal to Max to help her (= tell a “white” lie). And so he leaves the truth behind, choosing to give priority to a different value. In Nicole’s case, deception is something she finds abhorrent and so resents the pressures of an “ambulance‐chaser” lawyer and those seeking financial gains from the accident. The idea that the insurance money is coming from institutions and not individual pocketbooks is supposed to make the lies more palatable. But they are still lies, and Nicole and Max struggle with that. Nicole also sees that the accident is tearing‐apart the small town she lives in. What were once strong connections between neighbors are now gaping holes. Bad feelings abound. Telling the truth will deepen the rifts, not heal them. But one thing is certain: If she lies (= pins the accident on the bus driver, who has already settled and is untouchable legally), then the lawsuit will be dead in the water. The desire to put it to rest takes precedence over veracity. Subsequently, she leaves the truth behind so the chasm between the townspeople might heal. That’s the way it is at times: One ethical value, like honesty, that we normally consider of utmost significance may seem of lesser importance because of the contingencies. Competing values then take precedence. Part of our task in examining moral reasoning is to see when one set of values should be adhered to or set aside in lieu of others. Wisdom goes beyond knowledge. We may know telling the truth is very important and yet the wisest path may be to suspend the truth because of the circumstances.

3.1.indd 266

12/9/2011 6:42:23 PM

3.1 Confronting the Dilemma 267

Short Takes: The Fabulous Baker Boys and Crazy Heart Movies about alcoholics tap into our sympathies—or antipathies—for those who have ended up with obstacles that they and others around them can’t ignore. Alcoholism is but one of many ways we get tangled up and, thus, are forced to sort out priorities and adjust our behavior. Movies about has‐beens and down‐ and‐out singers/artists have an allure. They remind us that we might be more successful reaching our goals if we showed more self‐control and determination. The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) focuses on two musician‐brothers who realize that their luck might be better if they had a female singer to add more zest to their act. The rise and fall from has‐beens to lounge singers in this earlier movie sets the stage for Crazy Heart, where an alcoholic country singer teeters on the edge of his musical career. He has just enough musical juice and good will from past accomplishments to get gigs at down‐and‐out bars. A few fans are still out there rooting for him, and occasionally he is “blessed” with an aging groupie to use sexually. Jack Baker of The Fabulous Baker Boys has been reincarnated in Crazy Heart as Bad Blake. Bad reached higher peaks than Jack, but now has fallen as low, or lower. Alcoholism pretty much consumes him; he’s chronically late to performances, unprofessional with other musicians, and barely cognizant of the audience. His laissez faire attitude is tolerated only because of his earlier fame and achievements. And yet he is still a creative force, however tarnished. There are plenty of ethical dilemmas that jump out at us, but let’s focus on two. One that caused a stir after the movie came out was Bad’s sexual involvement with a journalist. A number of other young female journalists resented the implication that they, too, might have lax professional ethics and jump in the sack with an interviewee. This we saw with the various blogs commenting on the matter. Sarah Libby (2010) and Peter Martin (2010) are but a few of those who look at the female journalist who is “lame” and “tamed” in the movie and blast the journalistic ethics shown on screen. Another ethical dilemma arises when Bad puts his drinking habit ahead of the people he cares for. We see this most dramatically when he babysits his girlfriend‐ journalist’s child. Jane leaves Buddy with Bad for a short period of time, trusting (why we have no idea) that the two will have fun together and Bad will stay on his best behavior. Not so—the boy wanders off while Bad guzzles beer at the bar. Buddy is eventually found safe and sound, but it was a defining moment in the relationship. Jane dumps him and he ends up in rehab. Let’s reflect on this scene. We watched in consternation as the drinks multiply and the boy recedes from Bad’s mind. It’s hard not to put the blame fully on his shoulders. After all, he did agree to watch Buddy, so he shouldn’t have strayed from that purpose. True enough. But why did Jane trust her son with a man who had a drinking problem? She was hardly ignorant of his proclivities.

3.1.indd 267

12/9/2011 6:42:23 PM


Seeing the Light

When we tally up the moral score, shouldn’t she merit a deduction or two? If I ask a known thief to take care of my diamonds, and a few are missing when I return hours later, don’t I deserve a kick in the pants? Is this at all analogous to Jane trusting alcoholic Bad with her son? Fortunately, it’s “just a movie” and the boy wasn’t really in danger, so we can look at such ethical matters without anyone getting hurt. That’s one of the many values in using movies to examine ethical decision‐making.

Outtakes: Juno Juno is a pregnant teenager in Juno (2007). To the chagrin of her liberal parents, she decides to have the baby and give the child up for adoption. She expends her time and energy finding the right parents. Mark and Vanessa Loring look ideal, on the surface at least. Mark connects with Juno, sharing her interest in music and hanging out together. After a while it’s clear that Mark is awfully self‐involved and suffering from arrested development. Even before the fissures in the marriage expand to an abyss, it is apparent that Mark isn’t ready for parenting. Juno’s adoption plans are flipped upside‐down when this “ideal” couple turns out not to be so ideal after all. What should she do? Okay, okay, it is true that the woman—Vanessa—seems awfully nice and wants a baby more than anything in the world. Juno must then decide if that’s enough. Part of the appeal of Juno is the fact Juno doesn’t want others to foist their opinions on her. She comes to see that shopping for parents of her baby is unlike anything else. She may not have wanted to raise a child, but, in spite of all her sarcastic humor, she wanted to do the right thing. We follow along as she comes to a conclusion.

Outtakes: Slumdog Millionaire When we first meet Jamal Malik in Slumdog Millionaire (2008) he is about five years old and playing with his brother in Mumbai, India. Life in a slum amidst staggering amounts of trash can’t be easy and yet he seems able to keep a positive state of mind. But things get harder—utter poverty, the loss of his mother, a constant struggle to keep from being enslaved by men who maim children so they might become more profitable beggars. But life has a way of taking strange, unexpected turns, and Jamal literally hits the jackpot: he gets to go on a TV quiz show with the chance of making piles of money. As he continues to get one answer after the other correct, things are looking very positive indeed—until the police get suspicious. What eats at them is how in the world can this “slumdog” do so well on the show. The answer forms the core of the movie.

3.1.indd 268

12/9/2011 6:42:23 PM

3.1 Confronting the Dilemma 269 His interrogators resort to abusive techniques to force the “truth” out of him. They feel certain that he doesn’t really know those answers, that he is a cheater. Of course, he isn’t. In one scene, the show’s host plants a “right” answer by writing (a wrong answer) on the steamy mirror in the studio bathroom. Jamal follows him and sees what was written—and realizes that perhaps he has been given the right answer and he’s home free. The ethical dilemma he has is whether to go this route; namely, to assume it is the right answer and thank his lucky stars and he’s on his way to fame and fortune. Jamal has little time to decide. He ends up ignoring the (false) hint and takes his chances with his own reasoning skills.

Works Cited Boylan, Michael (2004) A Just Society. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. Ciment, Michel and Niogret, Hubert (2004) “Closer to the Life Than the Conventions of Cinema; Interview with the Coen Brothers (Conducted in Cannes on May 16, 1996).” In William Luhr, ed., The Coen Brothers’ Fargo, pp. 109–118. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Libby, Sarah (2010) “Why Are Girl Journalists in Movies So Lame? Crazy Heart Continues the Tradition.”, January 27, 2010. http://www.doublex. com/section/arts/why‐are‐girl‐journalists‐movies‐so‐lame (accessed September 7, 2011). Martin, Peter (2010) “Does ‘Crazy Heart’ Make Girl Reporters Look Lame?” Cinematical, January 29, 2010.‐ crazy‐heart‐make‐girl‐reporters‐look‐lame/ Sharrett, Christopher (2004) “Fargo, or the Blank Frontier.” In William Luhr, ed., The Coen Brothers’ Fargo, pp. 55–76. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Sterritt, David (2004) “Fargo in Context: The Middle of Nowhere.” In William Luhr,  ed., The Coen Brothers’ Fargo, pp. 10–32. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Online Resources Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. “Ethical Decision‐Making.” An introduction to ethical decision‐making, including a model for analysis. ethics/practicing/decision/framework.html (accessed September 6, 2011). In Character. “Honesty” (Spring 2007). (accessed September 7, 2011). Ethics Updates. (accessed August 23, 2011). BBC. “BBC Ethics Guide” (accessed September 7, 2011). US Department of State: Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. http:// (accessed September 7, 2011).

3.1.indd 269

12/9/2011 6:42:23 PM


Seeing the Light

Child Trafficking Digital Library. (accessed September 7, 2011). Philosophy Talk “Prostitution.” Ken Taylor and John Perry, and Debra Satz (2005) talk about the morality of prostitution. htm (accessed September 7, 2011). “The Environment and Global Justice.” Ken Taylor, John Perry, and Lawrence Goulder (2004) discuss the environmental and economic impact of environmental policies both in the USA and internationally. The website includes related resources. http:// (accessed September 7, 2011). “Global Poverty and International Aid.” Ken Taylor, John Perry, and Peter Singer (2005) discuss the nature of our responsibility to others. The website includes related resources. htm (accessed September 7, 2011). “Global Justice and Human Rights.” Ken Taylor, John Perry, and Helen Stacy (2008) discuss the nature of our responsibility to others. The website includes related resources. (accessed September 7, 2011). Public Broadcasting System (PBS) “Adoption Ethics.” September 8, 2011).


Discussion Questions 1. What does it mean to be a virtuous person? Do any of our characters here deserve the label “virtuous”? Note what traits are present or absent. 2. Max (Fearless) and Nicole (The Sweet Hereafter) don’t want to lie or stretch the truth, even if the consequences would be more positive for others. Did they end up doing the right thing? How much should others count in the moral equation? 3. You’re having lunch with a Utilitarian and a Kantian. Which of our characters’ dilemmas would you want to talk to them about? Share what issues arise and what would be the two ethicists’ likely response. 4. How do people like Marge (in Fargo) and Vitus’ grandfather keep an even keel and stay morally balanced, when others, like Hank (in A Simple Plan) succumb to greed? 5. Joel Coen (Fargo’s co‐director) spoke of Jerry’s “absolute incapacity” to project himself into the future and evaluate the consequences of his decisions and how it indicates a total absence of perspective. Kantians show no concern for consequences. Does that mean they have no sense of perspective?

3.1.indd 270

12/9/2011 6:42:24 PM


Encountering Evil

SPOTLIGHT: Silence of the Lambs, The Dark Knight and The Empire Strikes Back, and The Wizard of Oz Short Takes: Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) Outtakes: The Matrix, Fanny and Alexander, Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog)

We never knew what he was or why it happened. Evil came to us like Death. It just happened and we had to live with it. —Atanarjuat THE JOKER: BATMAN: THE JOKER:

You have all these rules, and you think they’ll save you. I have one rule. Oh. Then that’s the rule you’ll have to break to know the truth. … The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules. And tonight you’re going to break your one rule. —The Dark Knight

We never seem to tire of watching attractive, preferably young, innocent victims‐ to‐be as the clock ticks down to an encounter with evil. You know: the cute secretary works late and heads toward her car in the nearly‐empty parking lot, the teenagers en route to Camp Zero are stranded in the middle of nowhere and a red pickup just happens to pull over to “help” them, or the sorority girls are swimming on a secluded beach when a hand washes ashore. We only need a visual or musical trigger to set in motion the mental countdown to the perps

Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

3.2.indd 271

12/9/2011 6:42:17 PM


Seeing the Light

making their move. We anticipate the crime and prepare ourselves—over and over again. Think of movie portrayals of those who find themselves face to face with evil: Clarice Starling was a mere student at the FBI Academy when she questioned Hannibal (“The Cannibal”) Lecter. Dorothy Gale was but a child when she took on the Wicked Witch of the West, her flying monkeys and Prussian soldiers. Atanarjuat was a fast runner but a skinny, wimpy fellow when the murderous Oki gave chase across the frozen ice. These ordinary but virtuous people are thrust into a world where evil is at center stage—and must move quickly for any hope of success. Then there are those who are larger than life: superheroes like Batman, Superman, and Spider Man, who fight evil all over town. They hide behind their ordinary—timid, milquetoast—identities (Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Peter Parker), so only a small cadre of helpers know who they “really” are. Movie heroes range from the law‐abiding and methodical (Atticus Finch, Marge Gunderson) to the rogue, cross‐the‐line cops (Harry Callahan, John McClane). There are heroes‐done‐wrong (“Cool Hand” Luke Jackson, Jason Bourne), those fighting prejudice (Virgil Tibbs, Jaime Escalante, Malcolm X), and out for equal rights (Josey Aimes, Norma Rae). There are those working for the environment (Karen Silkwood, Buddy Red Bow, Erin Brokovich) and for social change (Oskar Schindler, Paul Rusesabagina, Gandhi). They are as diverse as we could imagine, yet all share certain traits, such as integrity, inner strength, and tenacity. They don’t give up, they don’t back down, and they don’t sell out when the heat’s on. Each of these heroes has the presence of mind, emotional wherewithal, and physical stamina to encounter evil, try to minimize its harm, and mount a counter‐offensive. They face villains who work solo (Nurse Ratched, Dr. Octavius, Buffalo Bill), villains with sidekicks to do their bidding (Captain Vidal, Frank Coutelle, Hans Gruber), or villains sequestered within an institution (Warden Norton, Paul Schaefer, Ward Abbott). The settings vary, but all these villains can be defined by what they lack, for they are a negation of what is good and true. They show heartlessness, brutality, inhumanity—and a coldness that Dante saw fit to locate in the tenth circle of hell. In his article, “Evil, Monsters, and Dualism,” Luke Russell (2009) notes that, “It is common for extreme wrongdoers to be described as evil, as monsters and as demons” (p. 46). He isn’t convinced that calling a person an “evil monster” implies that the person is inhuman, so truly “evil” people would be the stuff of fiction and film and not real life. Russell says we should guard against the misuse of “extreme moral concepts such as evil” (p. 49), because we risk seeing the person as beyond redemption or rehabilitation. This reluctance to speak of evil is at a price. Just as freedom can only be understood in contrast to determinism, what is good only makes sense if evil is a possibility. For example, in the Danish movie Brödre (Brothers, 2004), the

3.2.indd 272

12/9/2011 6:42:17 PM

3.2 Encountering Evil 273 elder brother Michael is called to military service in Afghanistan, leaving his wife, children, and younger brother Jannik back home. Shot down, held captive, and deprived of food and water, Michael was offered a choice that no one should have to face. He was handed a metal pipe and told to kill a fellow prisoner, seemingly under threat of death. He hesitated but a few seconds before making up his mind. Once he turned to his victim, he hesitated no longer. At that moment Michael saved his life but lost his soul. His encounter with evil meant he survived to see his family again, but he was hollow inside and had to erect a wall of lies to cover up what he had done. Things could only get worse. It’s an issue that merits further thought. Looking at the way we use the term “evil” is useful too. Do we use it to mean fundamentally evil, suggesting that the person could never cease his or her evil ways? Some think those who are evil have no good side, that they are always vicious. Russell contends that, “The vicious person is she who cannot be counted on to do what is right, not she who can be counted on always to do what is wrong” (p. 49). In other words, an evil (= vicious) person doesn’t have to do wrong all the time, but they never do what is right. They are morally unreliable. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur thought it inevitable that there would be moral tangles around evil. He believes people are fundamentally fallible, so we ought to abandon the ideal of total certainty (Reagan, 2002, p. 9). There’s a messiness to life that all the abstract reasoning in the world can’t erase. And because we can’t eliminate fallibility, the door is always open for evil to come through. “Evils are foreseeable intolerable harms produced by culpable wrongdoing,” says Philosopher Claudia Card (2002, p. 3). What distinguishes evils from ordinary wrongs, she asserts, is the nature and severity of the harms, rather than the perpetrator’s psychological states. That view makes assessment easier, given the difficulty of analyzing anyone’s psychological states. Card sees two components to evils: (1) intolerable harm and (2) culpable wrongdoing. The perpetrator is not necessarily malicious. He or she could just be reckless, indifferent, or unscrupulous. As a result, evildoers are not necessarily evil people, she contends, but may become so over time (pp. 3–4). This view allows for evildoers to change their ways, redeem themselves and get back on the straight and narrow. In short, once an evildoer does not mean always an evildoer. For example, in the movie The Warrior (2001), the local tyrants’ head warrior, Lafcadia, is sent on a killing spree to make sure the Himalayan villagers are appropriately terrified. As he was about to kill a young girl, his eyes fixed upon an amulet she was wearing. He then looked at her beatific, smiling face. In one revelatory moment, his life was transformed. From a murderous, loyal henchman he became a changed man. We follow along as he leaves his tainted past behind. Similarly, those who commit evil actions may not merit the label “monster” or be thought “beyond all hope.” Looking at the specific deeds, the nature of

3.2.indd 273

12/9/2011 6:42:17 PM


Seeing the Light

the harms, and the general context would be crucial for such moral assessment. Card recommends a middle path between Kant’s concept of evil and that of Utilitarians. Here’s why: Kant focuses on culpability and moral agency, while Utilitarians focus on the consequences of the evil act, the harms themselves. They contend that, “Right conduct by definition produces good consequences and wrong conduct harmful ones, on the whole and in the long run…Wrong conduct is, by definition, simply productive of too much evil” (p. 51). Kant distinguishes three stages of the individual’s “natural propensity to do evil” Card summarizes these as follows (in increasing degrees of moral culpability): 1.

Weakness (= weak will), where we seek to universalize moral decision‐making for the most part, but occasionally give in to a conflicting desire or inclination. 2. Morally impure (mixed) motives, where we are not just guided by duty, but interests and inclinations regularly factor in. Kant sees this as more dangerous than mere weakness because it begins a process of the corruption in the will (a slippery slope). 3. The bottom of the pit, where self‐interest rules. Moral duty is forced into a subordinate position and “Only at this point is it quite clear that a radically evil will has emerged” (pp. 76–77). Card recommends we give credence to Kant’s views as well as those of the Utilitarians, integrating both aspects of doing evil. There is the one that holds the wrongdoer accountable and the other that weighs the harms caused. This is a useful guide for examining the portrayal of villains and the presentation of evil in movies. Before looking at different sorts of heroes and villains, let’s consider what terms are thought synonymous with “evil.” Many have a moral dimension to them (wicked, bad, wrong, immoral, depraved, dishonorable, vicious, malevolent). Some have religious connotations (sinful, demonic, devilish, diabolical). Others have a visceral aspect (foul, vile, monstrous, shocking, heinous, odious, dirty). Looking at our spotlight films helps us grasp these different expressions of evil. Let’s start with Silence of the Lambs.

SPOTLIGHT: Silence of the Lambs Silence of the Lambs (1991) opens with protagonist and hero Clarice Starling running along, in training for the FBI. We see her determination as she makes her way, coming to a halt after being interrupted and told to go see Jack Crawford, the director. He offers Clarice an assignment: a serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” has been killing and skinning women, and has eluded all attempts by law enforcement to find him.

3.2.indd 274

12/9/2011 6:42:17 PM

3.2 Encountering Evil 275 An incarcerated criminal “mastermind” ex‐psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter, knows enough about Buffalo Bill to provide some leads, if he could be persuaded to do so. Clarice is asked to go one‐on‐one, interviewing Lecter—or “Dr. Lecter” as she calls him, showing respect for the position he once held. She quite willingly accepted the task, though it turns out to be perilous. The first set of perils is found in the regular meetings with Lecter himself. He was astonishingly adept at killing people in horrendous ways, often eating some of them in the process. In addition, he is extraordinarily manipulative and takes every opportunity to use that skill with the young student sent to pry information out of him. From their first encounter, Lecter shows he can be cutting, cruel, and dismissive. For example, You’re so ambitious, aren’t you? Do you know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. You’re a well‐scrubbed, hustling rube, with a little taste. Good nutrition’s given you length of bone, but you’re not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you? And that accent you’ve tried so desperately to shed: pure West Virginia. What is your father, dear? ls he a coal miner? … You could only dream of getting out, getting anywhere, getting all the way to the FBl.

Clarice flinches, but keeps her dignity as she prepares to exit. She tells him, “You see a lot, Doctor. But are you strong enough to point that high‐powered perception at yourself?” Her second perilous encounter is with an inmate in a nearby cell who threw semen into her face as she tried to leave the mental hospital. Lecter’s sympathies rally and their relationship begins to develop. That he causes the offender to swallow his own tongue demonstrates his powers of persuasion. The price of helping Clarice, however, is that she must open herself up to him in exchange (“quid pro quo”). She agrees, in hopes of finding Buffalo Bill’s current victim, a senator’s daughter thought to still be alive. Thus began an unusual relationship—requiring Clarice to divulge information about herself, thereby, making herself more vulnerable to Lecter. Caroline Picart and David A. Frank (2006) write about Lecter’s “monstrous power,” with his piercing gaze and vampiric ability to “drink in” the pain of others. His “genteel, cultured dignity” and the glass cage (= secure cell) are further indicators (pp. 89–91). The fish‐bowl conditions make it easier to see in and easier for Lecter to see out. The cage itself is like something from the Holocaust, thus linking Lecter’s monstrosity with that on a much larger scale (p. 89). One of the more vivid encounters is when Clarice tells him about the lambs being slaughtered when she was 10 years old. The sound of the screaming lambs so upset her that she grabbed one and ran away, only to be picked up by the police and the lamb taken to slaughter. Lecter pounced on that story and ran

3.2.indd 275

12/9/2011 6:42:17 PM


Seeing the Light

with it. He asked if she still had nightmares about the lambs and saw Clarice trying to rescue Buffalo Bill’s victim as analogous to her trying save the lamb’s life. Clarice is subjected to both physical and psychological dangers. Clearly she delves into painful territory, and Lecter sees this. Her willingness to do so speaks to an underlying strength and courage. She reveals parts of herself and is subjected to derision (about her shoes, for instance) and taunting (about the screaming lambs, for instance). Few in her position would take such risks, for it involves a degree of trust that she could find her way out of the places that Lecter wanted to explore. Lecter has no reluctance in moving in for the kill, showing how little he cares for others—until he meets Clarice. She may be a neophyte, an amateur sleuth thrown in with the sharks, but she always shows him respect. She treats him with dignity, as if he could turn his life around at any moment, leaving his murderous past behind. This endears her to him, leading Lecter to drop hints, enabling her to solve the crime. With or without Lecter’s help, there is no way Buffalo Bill would have been captured had Clarice not put herself at risk. Once she was ready to make her move, she proceeded without any back up. Meanwhile, the other FBI agents head off in another direction, on a wild goose chase. Clarice is left on her own to face the serial killer—who had already shown his finesse in overpowering and killing women. After entering his house, Clarice realizes that the killer is there in front of her. She could make a run for it (who would have blamed her?). But she pushes on, hoping to nab him and rescue his victim in the bargain. Film commentator Ruby Rich (1994) argues that Silence of the Lambs upped the ante in the violence against women category. Her reason is that, for the villain: Women were sought not for their sexuality but simply—literally—for their bodies, … Buffalo Bill was just collecting skins. …The movie offered a new kind of female hero, one whose vulnerability and emotions were seen as aid rather than impediment, one who could avenge an entire decade’s genre sins in a single act (p. 56).

In a frightening scene, we watch as Buffalo Bill dons a pair of night vision (infared) goggles while Clarice stumbles around in the dark, waving her hands in a feeble attempt to stop him. The odds of her surviving that encounter seem very long. And yet she does and goes on to save the day. The presence of mind she shows with Lecter is evident as she navigates Buffalo Bill’s house, with the killer close by. Her last encounter—over the phone—is again with Lecter. Having escaped from prison, he’s safely outside of the country, looking dapper in an off‐white suit. Their phone call is revealing:

3.2.indd 276

12/9/2011 6:42:17 PM

3.2 Encountering Evil 277 “Where are you, Dr. Lecter?” → The fact he can’t easily be found is not surprising—this man is a master at what he does. “I have no plans to call on you, Clarice. The world’s more interesting with you in it. So you take care now to extend me the same courtesy.” → There are three parts to this: One, Clarice is safe from him, he has come to respect and care for her. Two, he affirms her in a way that recognizes her qualities. Three, “quid pro quo” should apply here too. He won’t harm her, so surely she should extend the same protection to him. “You know I can’t make that promise.” → Clarice has no qualms, no fear, in letting him know that the rules under which they operated when meeting in prison simply do not apply in the outside world. She knows it—and so does he. And so they part ways, with Lecter much the same when it comes to his modus operandi. That he has grown fond of Clarice doesn’t mean he won’t carve up others. As we will see in the next movie, neither does the Joker desire to harm Batman.

SPOTLIGHT: The Dark Knight and The Empire Strikes Back Remember in The Dark Knight (2008), when the Joker is being held at the police station and Batman gets time alone with him? The Joker confesses, “I don’t wanna kill you. What would I do without you? …No, no. No. No, you… You complete me.” He speaks as if they are two sides of the same coin. This comment is probably the most significant of the entire movie, for it throws down a moral gauntlet. Is evil the flipside of the good? Do the two constitute a moral whole? Perhaps so, if evil is the absence of good, and good is devoid of evil. For that reason, someone who is good in most respects would be seen as a moral exemplar. We model ourselves after such figures, knowing that we’ll always fall short to some extent, given our fallibility and all. We more easily understand moral virtues against the background of vices and by contrasting virtuous people with those who are vicious. The extremes stand out more vividly in counterpoint. When the Joker reveals his need of Batman to be complete, he sheds light on moral polarities. This suggests the chain: The Joker → villain → vicious → evil. Batman → hero → virtuous → good. It has mythic power and significance. Through both hero and villain we can study the different ways good and evil are expressed. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity opens with a quote from Montaigne: “Life in itself is neither good nor evil. It is the place of good and evil, according to what you make it” (p. 6). She would look at the Joker and

3.2.indd 277

12/9/2011 6:42:17 PM


Seeing the Light

Batman and see their diametrically different paths as the result of choice. The blows they suffered, however severe, did not determine that one should become a maniacal murderer and the other an agent of good. Existentialism, with its emphasis on individual choice, is seen by de Beauvoir as the key to clarifying the relationship between evil and good. Existentialism alone gives—like religions—a real role to evil, and it is this, perhaps, which makes its judgments so gloomy. Men do not like to feel themselves in danger. Yet, it is because there are real dangers, real failures and real earthly damnation that words like victory, wisdom, or joy have meaning. Nothing is decided in advance, and it is because man has something to lose and because he can lose that he can also win (p. 34).

The Joker and Batman aren’t the only ones with something to lose. We all suffer that fate. For de Beauvoir, it’s the choices we make that can lead us to winning or losing in the lottery of life. An irony with the Joker and Batman is that each had childhood traumas shaping what they became. The Joker suffered a moral evil at the hands of his father, who was devastatingly cruel and abusive. The Batman suffered both a natural evil and a moral evil. First there was the fall into the dry well with all those bats flapping about, and then the murder of his parents by a petty thief. Both children suffered grievous wrongs, but were catapulted in opposite directions. For Bruce Wayne (aka Batman), his route took him through grief, anger, and vengeance and on to a life of public service protecting the citizens of Gotham City. Batman could, but doesn’t, kill the Joker—that would make him no better than a vigilante. “He has no legal authority to impose such a sentence,” argues Philosopher Mark D. White (2008, p. 14). The moral high road is to capture the Joker and see that justice is served. That said, White, who calls himself a “strict deontologist” in placing moral duty above social benefits, does opine, “maybe Batman should have killed the Joker” (p. 14). He compares the issue to that of torturing terrorism suspects: “Even those who are wholeheartedly opposed to the use of torture under any circumstances must have some reservations when thousands or millions of innocent lives are at stake” (p. 15). The widespread elation over the killing of Osama bin Laden supports that view. Though others in the audience may agree, Batman rejects that path. The path he does take leads to his bat‐identity. “His transformation into the Batman occurs when Bruce confronts his guilty conscience over his parents’ death,” says Jason J. Howard (2008, p. 207). He adds that Bruce takes their deaths as a call to rebel against a life of victimization, complacency, and cynicism, rather than turning to rage or vengeance. And so “Batman becomes the authentic conscience of Bruce Wayne …[enabling] Bruce to confront the absurdity of his parents’ death” (p. 208). He can then accept the world in all its ambiguity, and decide how to deal with it. That, says Howard, is his path to personal liberation.

3.2.indd 278

12/9/2011 6:42:17 PM

3.2 Encountering Evil 279 Let’s throw the net wider—to other superheroes. The path to liberation of Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker also leads him to discover who he really is. True, but first let’s get this out into the open: What is the biggest secret, the bombshell of the entire Star Wars universe? We all know the answer; nothing else comes close. That is the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father, as disclosed in Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1990). It is still hard to get our cognitive arms around that. Here’s Luke, a Skywalker and paragon of virtue. And there’s Darth Vader, as vile as anything that ever crawled out of the underworld. We are supposed to accept that the epitome of evil in the Star Wars universe fathered our close‐to‐beatific hero and his twin Leia? Not without a very large glass of water! Let’s try to digest this by picturing alternative scenarios: Hannibal Lecter turns out to be Clarice’s real father, not the kindly officer who was buried when she was a preteen, and Almira Gulch is really Dorothy’s mother and gave her up for adoption, and so on. Can we stretch our minds around any of these? Not likely. Thus, Luke finding out his arch‐enemy is really his father boggles the brain. Too bad Padmé didn’t live to weigh in on this matter! And yet maybe this isn’t as far‐fetched as it seems. We are told that Luke and Darth Vader are now connected and that the Joker needs Batman to “complete” him. The identities of these two villains are intertwined with that of the heroes. Few movies about evil go into this territory so thoroughly. Typically, heroes and villains are at polar extremes. Indeed, that very distance gives the hero strength to fight the good fight. Contrast movies like Manhunter (1986) or Play Misty for Me (1971), that have heroes who must get into the minds of the villains, causing them to lose touch with their own personal reality. For the more traditional hero, the villain is someone to be eliminated, and vice versa. Batman, however, is a source of fascination for the Joker, whose life’s purpose centers on Batman. For the Joker, he and Batman are cut from the same cloth. They both share space at the margins of society. “Don’t talk like one of them,” he tells Batman. “You’re not, even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak… like me. They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out like a leper.” The Joker is right about this much: the two are marginalized. Neither fits into the society nor has an easy time having friends or lovers. Compare Spider‐Man, who tried to walk away from his superhero status to live a normal life and be just another guy. Aunt May wasn’t about to let that go down without a fight. She urged him to do a little values‐clarification, and get his Spidey suit out of the closet. She wanted him to see that being Spider‐Man was his calling and his was to be a life of service to others. Such mundane matters as falling in love, getting married and having a family were not to be. Superman faced a similar destiny. Lois Lane was out of his reach in all the ways that counted. In all of these cases, the hero sacrificed any semblance of a normal life. Their 24‐hour on‐call status as superhero makes close relationships difficult.

3.2.indd 279

12/9/2011 6:42:17 PM


Seeing the Light

Given that evil never sleeps, those in the role of hero‐guardian‐protector carry a heavier load than the rest of us. Like it or not, they are on a more austere path. Our next protagonist is a child who seeks a way home after being transported to a quite different reality. Her encounters with evil focus on the most infamous female villain in movie history, the Wicked Witch of the West.

SPOTLIGHT: Wizard of Oz When we first meet Dorothy Gale in Wizard of Oz (1939), she resides in a grey, grey world with her aunt and uncle who stay busy with their chickens and overseeing their farmhands. For Salman Rushdie (1992), all that greyness as far as the eye can see makes for a “bleak world” from which calamity comes (p. 16). When the spiteful Almira Gulch arrives to take Dorothy’s dog Toto (guilty of canine mischief) Dorothy is beside herself. Toto’s escape from Miss Gulch’s basket sets in motion events leading to Dorothy not being home when a tornado strikes. Aunt Em and the gang take shelter in the cellar, sans Dorothy. Having few options when the storm hits, Dorothy goes into her bedroom, only to be struck on the head after the wind blows open the window. She falls back on the bed and her trip to Oz begins. Carried by the now‐flying house, Dorothy lands with a bang in a parallel universe filled with a rainbow of colors. She is as far from the stark farm as she can get—thus the phrase, “We’re not in Kansas any more!” With a crew of singing Munchkins and a good witch in prom pink, Dorothy couldn’t have asked for a nicer welcome. They are elated that the house landed on one of the two bad witches, that of the East. Once Dorothy magically acquires the dead witch’s ruby slippers, the power invested in the shoes transfers to the wearer. Dorothy goes from a willful child trying to keep her dog, to the nemesis of the Wicked Witch of the West, the dead witch’s green sister. As Rushdie puts it, “Dorothy is the life‐force of Kansas, just as Miss Gulch is the force of death” (p. 17). These two forces are about to go head‐to‐head, as Miss Gulch shape‐shifts into the Wicked Witch of the West, with Dorothy clearly her sole obsession. Dorothy does not reciprocate those ill feelings. She just wants to get back home—a desire that drives her forward. Good witch Glinda advises Dorothy to get help from the Wizard of Oz. This is the catalyst to leave the Munchkins and begin her eastward journey. One by one, Dorothy acquires three companions, each in need of a vital part—the Scarecrow (no brains), the Tin Man (no heart), and the Lion (no courage). Joining forces, they head to the Emerald City to seek a hearing from the Wizard. Unfortunately, the evil Witch keeps showing up, causing grief. Her presence makes it clear that this is no children’s tale. The Wicked Witch is diabolical in her single‐mindedness, her determination to get the shoes at any cost. This includes attempts to set the Scarecrow on fire (one successful), threats to the

3.2.indd 280

12/9/2011 6:42:17 PM

3.2 Encountering Evil 281 Tin Man, and sending down a field of poppies to put Dorothy to sleep (permanently!). Making it to the Emerald City is quite the accomplishment, given the Witch is on their trail. A hearing with the Wizard is not the end of their travails. Contrary to what Dorothy had assumed, the Wizard isn’t going to airlift her out of Oz. Her exit is contingent on bringing him the Witch’s broomstick. Acquiring that, however, almost certainly requires killing the Witch. Meanwhile, the Witch is escalating her attempts to capture Dorothy. “You see that [hour glass],” says the Witch, “That’s how much longer you’ve got to be alive! And it isn’t long, my pretty—it isn’t long! I can’t wait forever to get those shoes!” Dorothy’s encounters with evil increase as she proceeds into Oz. On one hand, the Wicked Witch doesn’t want her flying monkeys or soldiers to harm Dorothy: “Do what you like with the others, but I want her alive and unharmed.” On the other hand, she wants those powerful shoes, but realizes, “Those slippers will never come off, as long as you’re alive.” She knows she can’t force them off Dorothy. That much is apparent when she makes a grab  for the shoes after the Flying Monkeys have ferried Dorothy to the Witch’s castle. When she reaches for the shoes, they send off an electric spark, hurting her hands. We can see that the shoes protect Dorothy and can’t easily be pried off. The idea of the hero with a protective shield like the electrical charge on Dorothy’s shoes is carried forward into more recent movies and TV. For example, Sookie Stackhouse of TV series True Blood has a similar zap‐quotient that sends vampires, witches and werewolves airborne. And she, like Dorothy, is presented as “virginal” in epitomizing the good, the pure, and the beautiful. They can speak the truth because of their integrity, and fearlessness. We see this when Dorothy smacks the nose of the much larger Lion, taking him off guard. This leads to his blustering being replaced by wails. It is no wonder The Wizard of Oz became an American icon and the stuff of refrigerator magnets. One reason it attained this mythic status is that the story so clearly and with such charm shows us how good can conquer evil. Dorothy’s journey from Kansas to and from Oz has universal appeal. We can trace the stages of her transformation: First she runs home and seeks help from Aunt Em, then on down to Zeke. They all dismiss her, caught up in their own concerns and not at all interested in Miss Gulch’s malicious behavior. But when she crashes down in Munchkinland she finds an ally in Glinda, who puts a protective arm around Dorothy. She keeps the Wicked Witch at a distance, reminding her that, “you have no power here.” At this point Dorothy has a choice. She can stay with the Munchkins and sing and play the rest of her days, or forge forth into the unknown and, hopefully, make it back to Kansas. Driven by her desire to get home, she leaves that idyllic space, in spite of the fact that she has no map and no guide—only the advice to follow the road.

3.2.indd 281

12/9/2011 6:42:18 PM


Seeing the Light

That the road has forks was not divulged to her and so she welcomes the Scarecrow’s advice. He decides to join her. But they barely get going when the trees strike back after Dorothy and the Scarecrow help themselves to fruit. This brings home to Dorothy how very much this place is not like Kansas, and the old assumptions have to be set aside. As she proceeds toward the Emerald City, Dorothy acquires more independence of thought and action. Only once does she express despair and call out for help. The rest of the time she becomes stronger, more resilient, and able to respond to the challenges she faces. By the time she is given the task of fetching the witch’s broomstick in trade for a ticket back to Kansas, Dorothy has come a very long way. Destroying the Witch and wiping out her “beautiful wickedness” testifies to Dorothy’s transformation being complete. She doesn’t blink an eye when the Scarecrow needs help. Not for a moment does she hesitate to rescue him from a fiery death. We should note that Dorothy no more wants to kill the Witch than Batman wants to kill the Joker. She doesn’t have any murderous impulses. The fact that the Witch has a serious aversion to water (no wonder she was green!) is as much as a surprise to Dorothy as it is to all those Prussian soldiers that surround her. When looking at the Wicked Witch, we should examine the extent of her power. As adults we may not see her as scary, although she’s no less scary than the Joker in The Dark Knight. He has a clown‐like face; hers is green. He is maniacal and cackles with glee every chance he gets; so does she. Both are agents of chaos and disrupt the status quo whenever they can. Both have few scruples about throwing curve balls and springing surprises on their adversaries. In addition, by knocking others off‐balance they seize control of the situation. For all witch’s evil “talents,” the one that stands out is her ability to manipulate the forces of nature, as seen with the poppy fields. Basically she uses whatever means possible to try to get the shoes off Dorothy. Drugging her with poppies is a phenomenal trick and outside the reach of most villains. That the good witch Glinda can send down snow to mute the effects of the poppies is testimony to her power, as well. Consequently, the two witches, representing the forces of good v. the forces of evil, seem on equal footing. However, for the most part Glinda is not along for the ride: Dorothy and her three companions are pretty much on their own against the Wicked Witch. Thus, when the Scarecrow is set on fire, Glinda doesn’t magically appear to put out the fire. Dorothy is the one to come to the rescue. This is in line with Glinda’s comment that Dorothy always had the power inside of her, that at any time Dorothy could have clicked her heels three times and made it back to Kansas. Of course, Dorothy has to learn how to access that power, use it to help others, and not seek to use it for malevolent ends. Killing the Witch was the consequence of saving the life of another. Dorothy only had the best of intentions (to help, not harm) and, as we saw with Kant’s emphasis on the good will, those intentions testify to her moral character.

3.2.indd 282

12/9/2011 6:42:18 PM

3.2 Encountering Evil 283

Short Takes: Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner, 2001) opens with, “I can only sing this song to someone who understands it.” The “song,” so to speak, is an Inuit legend that is presented in this unique film. It is the only movie with Inuit actors speaking the Inuit language and filmed in their homeland. It takes place in Igloolik and places nearby in the Far North. With such attention to authenticity, it’s hard not to be drawn into the way this legend is brought to life. Early on we are told of the village’s dark past: “We never knew what he was or why it happened. Evil came to us like Death. It just happened and we had to live with it.” The evil that came was a stranger—a bad shaman—who killed the good leader Kumaglak. He walked past Tulimaq, the leader’s favorite, and put Kumaglak’s neckpiece on his son, Sauri. The evil shaman cackled and said, “Be careful what you wish for.” He left, but the evil remained. It’s clear that nothing good would come of this. And so it is that Tulimaq, is cast out, cursed by the evil shaman and destined to live with his family in an impoverished state. Attempts at hunting and fishing generally leave him empty‐handed and they are forced to rely on the good graces of Kumaglak’s widow, Panikpak, Sauri’s mother. After her husband was murdered, she told her brother to flee and to “Take my husband’s rabbit’s foot. You’ll need it some day.” He promises to come if ever she needs him, and escapes, leaving Tulimaq to deal with the evil curse. “Tulimaq is the one they’ll go after now.” With the curse hanging over him, he and his family are consigned to eke out their existence with little help from those around them. At one point Tulimaq sighs, “I’m sick of this bad luck.” Years go by and Tulimaq’s two sons, Amaqjuaq (the strong one) and Atanarjuat (the fast runner), grow up. They are rivals of Sauri’s son, Oki and the evil curse is now a festering wound. Atanarjuat falls in love with Atuat, betrothed as a child to Oki. She, however, is no more interested in marrying Oki than being stuck with Jabba the Hutt. Atanarjuat challenges Oki for her hand and the two prepare for the most startling hand‐to‐head combat ever filmed. Atanarjuat is on the puny side and has reason to fear Oki. Panikpak sees that as well and calls out to the dead husband whose rabbit’s foot her distant brother now possesses. His spirit‐help is channeled to Atanarjuat and he beats Oki. Oki argues that Atuat was intended to be his wife, but Panikpak points out that he, Oki, chose to fight for her and that is that. All the same, tensions are mounting and so the presence of evil cannot yet be dispelled. Time passes and the two brothers and their wives are all closely connected. When Atanarjuat heads out to hunt caribou, it is suggested that he take another woman for help and companionship, given that Atuat is pregnant. Puja, Oki’s sister, is happy to fulfill that role and she ends up the second wife. But Puja is no

3.2.indd 283

12/9/2011 6:42:18 PM


Seeing the Light

less underhanded than her brother and things come to a head one night when she seduces Amaqjuaq and his wife catches them in the act. All hell breaks loose, with Puja being shamed. She is sent packing and ends up back home with Sauri and Oki, telling lies about what happened. This just makes things worse and they hatch a plot to kill Atanarjuat and Amaqjuaq. They nearly succeed, but with Amaqjuaq speared to death Atanarjuat manages to escape. He proves he truly is a fast runner by taking off naked across the ice and snow, with Oki and his two pathetic sidekicks after him. In an unforgettable race, Atanarjuat eventually leaves the others behind in the icy waters. He makes his way to Panikpak’s brother, the good shaman, who hides him and nurses him back to health. Atanarjuat not only recovers, he acquires power, thanks to the shaman’s tutelage. He has no intention of returning to Igloolik until he can take on Oki, lift the curse, and restore harmony to the village. Clearly this will take a lot of work and not a little spiritual potency. The presentation of evil here is not a Westernized, individual‐centered one, although individuals and the choices they make are significant. There’s also a communal aspect to evil. This is where it diverges from the more existential sort and where the curse comes in. This curse affects the entire village and lingers over time, and presumably will do so until it is lifted. In that sense it bears some resemblance to what Jung called “possession,” when speaking of Nazi Germany’s Holocaust years. Anthropologist Shari Huhndorf (2003) argues that setting the film before the advent of European incursions provides, in the terms of [Kenyan writer] Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a means of “moving the center” (p. 824). This allows the representation of Native (here, Inuit) society and culture independently, rather than solely in terms of its relationship to the West (p. 824). This in turn enables the legends, traditions, and values expressed in this movie to be seen and appreciated without recourse to Western concepts. We can then see different approaches and ways of understanding evil, evildoers, and the ways in which the harmony and balance of a community can be disrupted For example, when the evil came “like Death,” it locked them in a curse that could only be removed with a carefully‐prepared ritual. This is shown later when Atanarjuat returns to confront Oki and to restore harmony to his people. Looking at the next film, The Matrix, we see a character that Kant would call radically evil, for he subordinates all sense of moral duty to self‐interest. He starts with a weak will and then slides down the slippery slope. This is Cypher.

Short Takes: The Matrix When we think about evil, it’s hard not to put a face on it in the form of the villain. Villains come in all stripes and colors. There are those who are wild and crazy, maniacal, or cold and calculating. Some are imposing, a formidable presence.

3.2.indd 284

12/9/2011 6:42:18 PM

3.2 Encountering Evil 285 Others are small and petty. Cypher is the latter. He is the villain who sells out. The Matrix (1999) shows us what happens when evil takes the form of betrayal. Cypher’s villainy is born of weakness of will. He succumbs to that part of himself that cannot fight the good fight any more. “I’m tired, Trinity. I’m tired of this war, I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of this ship, of being cold, of eating the same goddamn goop every day. But most of all, I’m tired of this [Morpheus, their leader] and all of his bullshit.” Trinity realizes that Cypher has betrayed them and that Morpheus is now in the hands of the agents of the Matrix. “You gave them Morpheus.” Why, why, why? Trinity wants to know. She understands that betrayal is one of the worst things you can do. Cypher not only betrays their trust, he wallows in his sleaziness, as we see when he “talks” to Morpheus’ silent body: “Surprise, asshole. Bet you never saw this coming, did you? God, I wish I could be there when they break you. I wish I could walk in just as it happens, so right then, you’d know it was me.” What is it about betrayal that makes the perpetrator want to see the impact of the act upon the victim? There’s a kind of rage in that, the desire to “rub it in,” to gloat from a safe distance, free of remorse or any sense of shame. Cypher surrenders to the lure of promises: “They’ve promised to take me back. They’re going to reinsert my body. I’ll go back to sleep and when I wake up, I’ll be fat and rich and I won’t remember a goddamned thing. It’s the American dream.” No good can come of this—for Cypher or anyone else.

Outtakes: Fanny and Alexander One of the many memorable films by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, Fanny and Alexander (1982) centers on two children. Their mother, a young widow, marries a cold‐hearted bishop who rates right up there with Pan’s Labyrinth’s Captain Vidal in the “Stepfather from Hell” stakes. Going from the warm, loving Ekdahl home to the bishop’s sterile quarters, Alexander and Fanny face a living nightmare. Encountering evil in the form of their abusive stepfather puts the children to the test. They must draw on resources they would never have imagined necessary. As Gustav Ekdahl observes, evil runs through the world like a mad dog. From the perspective of the children, the Bishop is one of those mad dogs, and he’s about as rabid as they come. The movie has a timeless quality to it, as it is one for the ages.

Outtakes: Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) The deeply moving French documentary, Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog, 1956) uses both color and black and white to contrast the serenity and beauty

3.2.indd 285

12/9/2011 6:42:18 PM


Seeing the Light

of the country fields with the horrors of the Holocaust. With archival footage and photographs, along with the collaboration of several survivors, director Alain Resnais takes us in to the concentration camps and, piece by powerful piece, gives us a sense of the unimaginable. “Whatever pain achieves,” observes Elaine Scarry, “it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures its unsharabilty through its resistance to language” (Goldberg, 2001, p. 245). For those who think that the worst evils lie beyond words and are simply indescribable (as torture survivors have expressed, for instance), this documentary is well worth seeing. Night and Fog balances the urge to preserve this dark period in history so we don’t forget what humanity is capable of, with the urge to provide a visual record that the viewer can understand. How do we make the incomprehensible comprehensible? The answer (or one answer anyway) is through art. And among the forms of art that can best succeed, film is a powerful medium. We see the buildings. They don’t look any different from factories, farm buildings, or other buildings serving the needs of a civilized society. We see the gates and the wrought iron signs, such as “Arbeit Macht Frei ” (Work Sets You Free) that seem like friendly reminders that our jobs are meaningful. We see the train tracks, looking efficient and useful. But then we see the “beds” (wooden slabs, three to a bed), the latrines (a long row of boards with holes in them), the near‐starving prisoners hunched over their soup bowls, and the piles, the immense piles, of shoes, clothes, human hair, utensils, and skulls. We see contrasts: There are photos of the smiling families of Nazi commanders with their nicely dressed wives gathered around a table. In contrast are photos of men and women who are naked, skeletal, barely alive, dying, or dead. We see the machinery of death—the crematorium, the ovens, the open graves, the rooms for mutilation and experimentation. There’s little that can compare, in terms of documentary film making about the Holocaust. One of the ethical tools used in trying to get our heads around the Holocaust is Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil.” She looks at people like Nazi kingpin Eichmann and sees a man who wasn’t too swift. He wasn’t the crafty, evil monster type. He was not at all quick‐witted or reflective. As Majid Yar puts it, Eichmann came to his involvement in the Holocaust through a failure or absence of the faculties of sound thinking and judgment. He operated unthinkingly, following orders, efficiently carrying them out, with no consideration of their effects upon those he targeted. …It was not the presence of hatred that enabled Eichmann to perpetrate the genocide, but the absence of the imaginative capacities that would have made the human and moral dimensions of his activities tangible for him (Yar, 2005).

The villains in Night and Fog are all too real; as is the evil it portrays. It behooves us to look deeply into our souls and learn all we can from this

3.2.indd 286

12/9/2011 6:42:18 PM

3.2 Encountering Evil 287 documentary and the other movies covered here. The encounter with evil can stretch us to the limit. In such dark times, finding a glimmer of light—and hope—may seem elusive. Yet we also learn something about ourselves, our moral fiber. It is imperative that we take stock of what we see and change accordingly. Salmon Rushdie couldn’t understand how Dorothy would want to return to the grays of Kansas after experiencing the Technicolor of Oz and all it represents. But she proved herself in Oz; passing each test with aplomb. It’s hard to think that Miss Gulch could bully her any more or that Dorothy would let go of her newfound strengths. That’s where movies help us see the different faces of evil and how satisfying it is when one of our superheroes stops the evildoers in their tracks. And when ordinary people like Clarice, Dorothy, and Atanarjuat find their inner ganas to stand up against serial killers, witches, and evil shamans, we find inspiration. We leave the theatre having gained some insight that will help us when trouble strikes.

Works cited Card, Claudia (2002) The Atrocity Paradigm. Oxford: Oxford University Press. De Beauvoir, Simone (1948) The Ethics of Ambiguity. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing. Eagleton, Terry (2010) On Evil. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. French, Sean (1996) The Terminator. London: BFI Publishing. Goldberg, Elizabeth Swanson (2001) (Quoting Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain) “Splitting Difference.” In J. David Slocum, ed., Violence and American Cinema. New York: Routledge. Howard, Jason J. (2008) “Dark Nights and the Call of Conscience.” In Mark D. White and Robert Arp, eds., Batman and Philosophy. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons. Huhndorf, Shari (2003) “Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner: Culture, History, and Politics in Inuit Media.” American Anthropologist, Vol. 105, No. 4, 822–26. Picart, Caroline Joan (Kay) S. and Frank, David A. (2006) Frames of Evil: The Holocaust as Horror in American Film. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. Reagan, Charles E. (2002) “Personal Identity.” In Richard A. Cohen and James L. Marsh, eds., Ricoeur as Another: The Ethics of Subjectivity, pp. 3–32. Albany: State University of New York Press. (accessed September 7, 2011). Rich, B. Ruby (1994) “Never a Victim: Jodie Foster, A New Kind of Female Hero.” In Pam Cook and Philip Dodd, eds., Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader, pp. 50–61. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Rushdie, Salman (1992) The Wizard of Oz. London: BFI Publishing. Russell, Luke (2009) “Evil, Monsters, and Dualism.” Ethical Theory And Moral Practice, Vol. 13, No. 1, 45–58. (accessed September 7, 2011).

3.2.indd 287

12/9/2011 6:42:18 PM


Seeing the Light

White, Mark D. (2008) “Why Doesn’t Batman Kill the Joker?” In Mark D. White and Robert Arp, eds., Batman and Philosophy. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. Yar, Majid (2005) “Hannah Arendt (1906–1975).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (accessed September 7, 2011).

Online Resources Ataranajuat (The Fast Runner) legend. (accessed October 20, 2011). BBC “In Our Time: Evil.” BBC Radio 4, May 3, 2001. Host Melvyn Bragg, Jones Erwin, Stephen Mulhall, and Margaret Atkins discuss the concept of evil and Nietzsche’s criticism of the Christian view. (accessed September 7, 2011). “In Our Time: Good and Evil.” BBC Radio 4, April 1, 1999. Host Melvyn Bragg, Leszek Kolakowski and Galen Strawson discuss whether religion offers the best approach to good and evil. (accessed September 7, 2011). Philosophy Talk. “Evil.” February 1, 2005. Ken Taylor, John Perry, and Peter van Inwagen discuss how to confront evil. Includes other resources. http://www. (accessed September 7, 2011). The Paideia Project Online. Essays on human rights. MainHuma.htm (accessed September 7, 2011). Tooley, Michael. “The Problem of Evil.” The impact of the problem of evil on the belief in God. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. evil/ (accessed September 7, 2011). Zimbardo, Philip. “On evil.” TED, February 2008. philip_zimbardo_on_the_psychology_of_evil.html (accessed September 7, 2011).

Discussion Questions 1. Can you talk about evil without talking about religion? Can you divorce evil from social contexts? Discuss the forms evil takes. 2. Philosopher Terry Eagleton said, “If evil really is beyond explanation—if it is an unfathomable mystery—how can we even know enough about it to condemn evildoers?” What do you think? Is evil unfathomable? 3. What is it about curses that elicit such fear? The evil shaman’s curse in Atanarjuat took ages before being cast out. And don’t forget the gypsy’s curse in Drag Me To Hell—it grabbed hold like a vice grip. So, why didn’t the Wicked Witch of the West put a curse on Dorothy? 4. James Cameron said, “There’s a little bit of the terminator in everybody…The terminator is the ultimate rude person. He operates completely outside all the built‐ in social constraints. It’s a dark, cathartic fantasy. That’s why people don’t cringe in terror from the terminator but go with him” (French, 1996, p. 39). Do you agree? 5. How far should movies go in showing evil on the screen? Where should lines be drawn?

3.2.indd 288

12/9/2011 6:42:18 PM


Impact of Perspective

SPOTLIGHT: House of Sand and Fog, 21 Grams, and Powwow Highway Short Takes: As it is in Heaven Outtakes: Mississippi Masala, and Paradise Now



She is a bird, a broken one. Your grandfather used to say that a bird which flies into your house is an angel. —House of Sand and Fog You tell everybody fairy stories. The stories of our ancestors. How they solved problems. Often the problems never change. Nor the people. Yeah, well it’s just too bad those stories don’t tell us how to keep our reservations from turning into sewers. But they do. —Powwow Highway

House of Sand and Fog (2003) opens with two bodies being removed from a house and a police officer asking a young woman if she’s Kathy Nicolo (yes) and if this is her house (no). We soon learn that the house is the center of a dispute. We see the battle through a diverse set of eyes. This makes it harder to determine who is in the right, and, thus, gives us a broader understanding. Our view of the world is not value‐free. We carry our values as baggage on our journey through life. Values are a key component of our frame of reference. Beliefs, traditions, culture, religion, class, race, gender, even strong emotions

Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

3.3.indd 289

12/9/2011 6:42:10 PM


Seeing the Light

can impact our point of view. Being a woman or man, Norwegian or Swahili, Episcopalian or Muslim all factor into our frame of reference. This shapes perceptions, assumptions, worldview, and our actions. In Unit 2 (Chapter 2.5) we saw John Rawls’ attempt to minimize unhealthy prejudices and one‐sided thinking. He recommended a “veil of ignorance” to detach ourselves from as many attachments and affiliations as possible. We might then be able to avoid bias in ethical decision‐making on both personal and institutional levels. He recognized the power of our different frames of reference.

Assessing the Impact of Diverse Perspectives Our worldview is shaped by the lives we lead and the experiences we have. As philosopher Martin Heidegger says, our very being is Being‐in‐the‐World. This is a world of activities, involvements, and personal commitments. It is a world of feelings and ideas, and those we adopt become integral to who we are now and the person we become. There is no universal “self” examining issues in the abstract. What we have are individuals—you, me, him, her. Each one of us can only see so much. We can be enriched or limited by our own point of view, but our frame of reference always leaves a trace. For Heidegger, it is impossible to escape our being in the world—our sense of self is inextricably tied to that reality. Philosopher of Language Ludwig Wittgenstein saw the self at the margins, peering in—but always at the edge, like an observer. In Tractatus Logico‐Philosophicus, he said: If I wrote a book called The World as I Found It, I should have to include a report on my body, and should have to say which parts were subordinate to my will, and which were not, etc., this being a method of isolating the subject, or rather of showing that in an important sense there is no subject; for it alone could not be mentioned in that book (5.631).

Like the eye that stares out at the world, “I” am not in my own field of vision. “I” am always at the boundary and can never be center‐stage. The “I” looking out at the world is looking from a particular angle, one that is fundamentally important to our frame of reference. Although he would place the self in the thick of things (rather than at the periphery), Heidegger would agree with Wittgenstein that the perspective(s) we take—how we see the world—shapes our frame of reference. We see this in the movie House of Sand and Fog, where the central ethical dilemma concerns the ownership of a house. Iranian immigrant Massoud Behrani has a strong work ethic and expects it of others. He conveys this to his son Esmail:

3.3.indd 290

12/9/2011 6:42:11 PM

3.3 Impact of Perspective 291 BEHRANI:

The woman’s house was taken from her because she did not pay her taxes. That happens when one is not responsible. … Americans they do not deserve what they have. They have the eyes of small children who are forever looking for the next source of distraction, entertainment, sweet taste in the mouth. We are not like them. We know rich opportunities when we see them and do not throw away God’s blessing.

From Behrani’s perspective, Americans don’t understand what hard work entails, whereas he sets a different standard and holds himself to it. His son’s perspective is not as hard‐edged or judgmental, and their differences widen as events unfold. The battle over the house is presented from different points of view. The combined impact gives us a more nuanced sense of the moral issues. We come to see why the house symbolizes more than mere property and gives rise to such strong feelings. Once we have a broader view, we can more easily assess the arguments and see whose position should prevail. The use of diverse perspectives is a clever device in filmmaking and, when done well, can be most effective. It lets us see the characters in a way that generates more understanding and empathy from the audience. With House of Sand and Fog, this helps us see how they got invested in the house and what it represents to each one of them. Consequently, when things get complicated we can factor in the relevant perspectives.

Frames of Reference An inquiry into frame of reference starts by looking at the points of view that are presented. Figure out first whose perspective is dominant. Then weigh in the strengths and limitations of seeing the action through their eyes. Consider alternative points of view. By comparing the different perspectives, we get a fuller sense and appreciation of the issues and the characters. Here is a guide that may be helpful.

Key aspects of frames of reference 1.

POV: Try to determine the point(s) of view being presented. From whose point of view is this story told? Clarify whose perspective(s) dominate. 2. Impact: Try to determine what changes with a shift of perspective—how a different set of eyes or a different voice adds to the movie. What is the impact when the frame of reference shifts from one character to another? 3. Power: Try to determine who has the most or least power among the key players. Who stands to gain or lose? What would change if the tables turned?

3.3.indd 291

12/9/2011 6:42:11 PM

292 4.

Seeing the Light Values: Try to determine the priorities and underlying ethics. What set of values and beliefs prevail, and what is the source of the conflicts? Would a different set of values shift the decision‐making?

Weighing in different frames of references helps guide moral decision‐making and gives us a little distance. Granted it’s almost impossible and generally undesirable to cut off our emotions, experiences, and ways of thinking about the world. However, a degree of detachment and “objectivity” helps keep bias at bay. House of Sand and Fog shows us how the loss of perspective resulted in tragic consequences. The characters came to see each other in ways that were incomprehensible at the movie’s beginning. After bridging the distance between them, they were no longer adversaries—making the resolution that much more poignant. Our three spotlight movies demonstrate how the contrasting perspectives color the issues and how the problems might be resolved. Each movie presents different perspectives by shifting the frames of reference of the major characters. The first, House of Sand and Fog, focuses on the battle over a house. The second, 21 Grams (2003) shifts perspectives on a heart transplant. And the third, Powwow Highway (1989) shifts between Native American spirituality and political activism in confronting corporate greed on the reservation.

SPOTLIGHT: House of Sand and Fog Kathy Nicolo is a heavy drinker and remiss in handling her business affairs. Unopened letters are strewn about her living room floor. This woman may be good‐looking, but her life is a mess. Between the alcohol and the depression, we aren’t surprised that her husband is long gone. Lies to her mother testify to her willingness to deceive rather than reveal her problems. Phone calls to her brother get nowhere. He brushes her off, busy with his successful career. She’s on her own when her world turns upside down. From Kathy’s perspective, she may have a drinking problem, but it is not her fault the house was sold in an auction. Officials claim she failed to pay business taxes. But she has no business, so they erred in levying a tax and evicting her for nonpayment. They have no right to board up her house and change the locks. True, she should have opened the letters weeks ago, but she is the sole owner of the house. Her father worked hard to buy it, and no one should have the right to take it from her because of an administrative error. Officer Lester Burdon helps evict Kathy from the house. He sees the train wreck of her life. But he also sees a distraught, beautiful young woman. She seems fragile, vulnerable, and, oh yeah, beautiful. It would be heartless to walk away from her, knowing she has nowhere to go and no money to go with. She needs a helping hand and he just happens to have the time to spare.

3.3.indd 292

12/9/2011 6:42:11 PM

3.3 Impact of Perspective 293 Then there’s Colonel Massoud Behrani, an Iranian immigrant who works two jobs to give the appearance that his family is wealthier than it is. When he saw the house up for sale, he snatched it up. A little cosmetic makeover and he could turn a pretty penny on the resale. From his perspective, he owes nothing to the previous owner. He hasn’t the least bit of sympathy for this wild‐eyed woman who moves between anger and despair. Besides, it was her fault that she lost the house in the first place. He’s the rightful owner now. Nadi Behrani, Massoud’s wife, misses her home back in Iran. She dreams about the Caspian Sea and running along the beach with her two children. Her life now is quite different. She spends a lot of time keeping their house nice and tidy, with things in their place, and all. Her daughter Soraya just married into a well‐off family. The Behranis put on a big show with a fancy wedding and made it possible for Soraya to marry up in terms of class. Her son, Esmail, lives at home and is a good boy. This new house isn’t quite what she wanted, and Massoud’s hot temper bothers her. If it weren’t for his connection to the Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK, they wouldn’t have had to leave Iran. The more she sees of that young woman who lost her house, the more worried she becomes that things will go badly. Attorney Connie Walsh is busy with all her clients, but is struck by the frantic woman who lost her house. She is not blameless, however. Ignoring the letters from the city was a big mistake. She should have sorted out the misunderstanding long before the city auctioned off the house. Unfortunately, Behrani is not playing fair. Walsh tries to reason with him, explaining that an error has been made, but that goes nowhere. Kathy Nicolo didn’t pay her taxes, the house was put up for sale, and he bought it. All of this was done legally and on the up‐and‐up. He owes Kathy nothing. She is free to buy the house at the price he sets. Walsh looks at the two and sees an irresponsible woman, a man driven by self‐interest, and an enormous gulf in between. Both are royal pains; there’ll be no easy resolution. Carol Burdon is not happy that hubby Lester is involved with Kathy Nicolo. At first he just helped her like a friend, but then something switched—ignited inside him. When the %$#* hits the fan, as it usually does, Carol won’t be standing behind Lester through thick and thin. There’s too much “thin” for her to forgive his dalliances. Esmail Behrani feels protective of his mother, who has trouble adjusting to life in America. When his father bought that woman’s house, the sparks flew between his parents. And when his father strikes his mother, Esmail is beside himself. He is torn between comforting his mother and understanding where his father is coming from. Kathy coming to their house just adds fuel to the flames. He wishes his father would change his mind. Now Officer Burdon is making threats. After Kathy tries to commit suicide, Burdon goes out of control and refuses to listen to the Behranis. He doesn’t see that Esmail’s father is now trying to help Kathy, not harm her. After locking the

3.3.indd 293

12/9/2011 6:42:11 PM


Seeing the Light

Behranis in the bathroom overnight, Burdon points his gun and forces Esmail and his father to go to town to sign over the house. Once there, the tables turn after Esmail grabs Burdon’s gun. Now he is in control! Too bad he doesn’t realize those other officers would shoot him. Things happen awfully fast, so he doesn’t get a chance to say goodbye. Behrani looks at his son lying on the steps. All that blood. He runs to the hospital, arms to the sky. He’d give the woman her house and all the money he had, but please God save his son. Kathy is no longer the enemy. When she tried to kill herself, Behrani carried her inside. He looked at her and saw a fragile, wounded bird. Amazing how things that seem so important at one moment become irrelevant at another. The house that so obsessed Behrani is now an albatross. He has no use for it. Just give him back his son. With that door closed, Behrani has but one piece of unfinished business. He goes home and cleans up. Nadi doesn’t ask about Esmail. She doesn’t need to. Time for tea and dreams of the Caspian Sea: She drinks the tea without questioning her husband. Behrani places her in bed and makes a place for himself next to her. He gets out a plastic bag to do the job. Kathy knew she had screwed up her life. Ending it all seemed a good idea. But after Massoud gently carried her into the house while she sobbed into his shoulder, something shifted inside her. The Behranis made the house into the home she never could. And now they were caring for her, like the parents she never had. When she finds them in bed side‐by‐side and dead as a doorknob, she climbs in next to them and curls up like a fetus, overcome with grief. When the officer asked her, “Is this your house?” Kathy had no trouble answering. “No. It’s not my house.” We end where we began, this time knowing who is in the body bags and why Kathy said what she said. We also understand the significance of the fog settling over the house, thick and opaque. Lines that seemed so clear aren’t clear any more. As we saw, the different frames of reference provide an effective way to tell the story. The key aspects can be summarized as follows: 1.

POV: The two main points of view are those of Kathy Nicolo (owner) and Massoud Behrani (buyer). The movie is fairly balanced in presenting both, but the fact that the opening and closing center on Kathy suggests that her frame of reference ultimately dominates. 2. Impact: This movie involves clear shifts of perspective, each of which provides us with a wider view of the territory and a fuller grasp of the issues. By the end we see Kathy and Behrani (main protagonists) and Nadi and Esmail (secondary characters) in more depth than when we started. We also realize that all is not what it seems with Officer Lester Burdon. 3. Power: The ones with power are Behrani and Burdon. Kathy’s struggle is to regain power and reassert her rights as the owner of the house. Nadi and

3.3.indd 294

12/9/2011 6:42:11 PM

3.3 Impact of Perspective 295 Esmail are more vulnerable, which may explain why Esmail made his move, causing the end section to take its tragic turn. 4. Values: The movie presents a dramatic clash of values. Burdon’s boorish manner and abuse of his position ultimately lead the battling parties (Behrani and Kathy) into a most unlikely alliance. The movie is impressive in moving from one frame to the next and pulling us in without losing the continuity. It is done in a way that does not lessen the empathy for the major characters. Quite the opposite. By getting a closer look at their lives and the emotional weight on their shoulders, we realize how one event can have an effect that ripples out, the circumference becoming wider and wider.

SPOTLIGHT: 21 Grams 21 Grams (2003) shifts between the points of view of three people whose lives intersect after a tragic accident—a recipient of a heart transplant, the donor’s widow, and the ex‐con responsible for the donor’s death. With the three frames of reference, we gain greater insight into the ways tragedy can transform our lives in ways we’d never expect. Mathematician Paul Rivers doesn’t look good. His heart is shot and he’s on a waiting list for a transplant. That doesn’t stop him from sneaking in smokes, much to the consternation of his wife Mary. We quickly discern that their relationship is strained to the breaking point. It isn’t long until she’s past history. Meanwhile, a heart has become available. Christina Peck just lost her husband Michael and her two children in a hit‐ and‐run accident. How could that driver leave them for dead? She is numb with sorrow. When she’s told that a very sick man needs a heart transplant, the question is: Will she allow them use Michael as a donor? Okay. She says, “Yes.” Jack Jordan has been down on his luck for far too long and he’s just lost another job. He gave up alcohol some time back, putting Jesus in its place. But he lacks Jesus’ big heart for the downtrodden—he’s hard on his co‐workers and his son is clearly afraid of him. Jack’s got a chip on his shoulder. He’d like to know where Jesus was when he hit and killed that man and the two girls. His wife Marianne wants to cover it up, saying enough harm has already been done. Why ruin their family too? Jack’s a ball of nerves. Paul hires a private detective to find out whose heart he received. The fact he still smokes indicates that he isn’t afraid to skirmish with death. He shows up at places Christina frequents, drawn to her and undeterred by her attempts to brush him off. He’s glad when she finally lets him into her life. Christina doesn’t know what to think about this guy who keeps popping up. It’s disconcerting, but he did drive her home when she was plastered outside the

3.3.indd 295

12/9/2011 6:42:11 PM


Seeing the Light

nightclub. He seems polite, classy even, and carries himself like a professional, so she isn’t afraid of him. When she finds out that he got Michael’s heart, however, she thinks it’s too weird for words. We watch the shifting frames of reference like viewers of a Wimbledon tennis match. We see that Jack is beside himself for killing those three people and he turns himself in. When his priest comes to see him in prison, they exchange some sharp words. Jack can’t understand how this happened when he tried so hard to be with Jesus. Why wasn’t God watching out for him? He has no one to turn to, certainly not his priest. And his wife Marianne is driving him crazy. Why can’t she leave him alone? He pulls further inside, alienated from everyone around him. Cut back to Paul falling for Christina. So much is going on inside of him. He’d just wanted to know “ who I am.” Forces pull him inward, toward Christina and all her anguish. Maybe she’s right that it’s strange he got the heart of her dead husband. It doesn’t feel creepy, but he knows he won’t do it again. There’s not going to be a repeat transplant. Christina is starting to fall for Paul. He no longer seems so pesky showing up wherever she goes. Plus something about him attracts her. Though they become sexually involved, she is still angry about losing her family. This guy Jack Jordan who killed them deserves to die, that much she knows. How she hates him. She can’t even go into her dead daughters’ bedrooms. Grief envelops her. Jack, on the other hand, is overcome with despair. He can’t stand himself for killing those people. He’d jump out of his own skin if he could. Lost in his own misery, Jack moves out. Marianne begs him to stay, but what for? How can he be worth anything after what he did? He gets a job doing manual labor and stays in a fleabag motel at the outskirts of town. If he could wear a sign it’d be “Keep Away.” Paul becomes the vessel for Christina’s rage. He hires that detective again, this time to find Jack Jordon and buy Paul a gun. Learning where Jordan is staying, he and Christina rent a room there. Paul’s got the weapon, Christina’s got the determination, and they’ve located Jordan. Paul, though, isn’t feeling so good. He keeps vomiting and his doctor advises him to go to the hospital; that this new heart is giving out and he’ll need another. No, Paul is not getting another heart. If he’s going to die, it will be outside, not inside, a hospital. Besides, he has this unfinished business of Christina’s. He gets to Jordan in a field on the outskirts of town and shoots his gun—but not at Jordan. Paul just wants Jordan to disappear, so he tells him to get lost. He then staggers back to the hotel, hoping this is now behind him. Christina is eager to know if he killed Jack. Uh, er, not exactly. Jack shows up, they tangle, and Paul ends up shooting himself. It’s a bloody mess. They get him to the hospital, but it’s not looking good. Christina is told (1) she can’t donate blood because of her previous drug use, and (2) she’s pregnant. As one life ends, another begins.

3.3.indd 296

12/9/2011 6:42:11 PM

3.3 Impact of Perspective 297 Jack also gets another chance at life. After gathering up his stuff he heads home. Marianne is surprised, but welcomes him back, happy to start again. Maybe this time he won’t think Jesus is responsible for everything, nor be so hard on himself. Paul has gone full circle. When we first meet him his heart is failing and now he’s there again. Paul isn’t afraid of death. After living in its shadow for so long, it’s familiar to him. And he got a second chance with Michael’s heart. It was able to beat again and be with Christina for a little while longer. Who is he anyway? Paul with Michael’s heart or Michael with Paul’s body? Yes, he got a reprieve from death and lived some more. Paul felt love like he hadn’t in years. But this is slipping away now. It’s almost mechanical, like a faucet dripping, or an IV. Concerns that once seemed important fade away. As you die you think of the strangest things, not big important things like the meaning of the universe. In Paul’s case, he returned to numbers. There’s comfort in numbers, peace even. He thought about the fact that when you die you lose 21 grams, the weight of the human soul. Or so they say. 21 Grams is one of the fastest‐shifting movies without special effects ever made. It’s like being in a casino with the dealer shuffling cards quickly, smoothly, and effortlessly. We barely register one character’s perspective before jumping to the next. This means we don’t—can’t—easily get attached to any one viewpoint. Jack Jordan initially seems a candidate for the “Cad of the Year” award for killing three people. But he ends up a tragic figure. Sure he’s flawed, that much is obvious, and his reasoning leaves a lot to be desired. Even so, he wants to clean up his life. Maybe rules can help make sense of the world and keep everyone on the straight and narrow. Seeing through his eyes makes us aware of the obstacles in taking religion too literally. We also see how easy it is to assign blame when things fall apart. If God really can count the hairs on your head and watches everything day after day, then why do so many bad things happen? As grieving Becca in Rabbit Hole (2010) asks: If God needs another angel, why doesn’t he just make one? Omnipotence must have some perks, or so you would think. Jack is in the same boat as Becca. He can’t make sense of all this. We see his disappointment as unwarranted assumptions come crashing down. That’s not all. When we first meet Christina, we see the horrors of losing someone you love. She becomes hollow, traumatized, like a ghost moving from one event to the next. Then her feelings come in an avalanche, bringing uncontrollable grief. Rage follows. Watching this at close range, with her perspective before us, we see what comes next. There is cruelty there and no room for forgiveness. The anger boils over and cries out for blood. It’s a short step to wanting Jack Jordan dead. For Christina, the guilty party must be sacrificed to the God of Wrath. An eye for an eye. By getting a closer look at Paul, we see a man of quiet passivity, with others’ desires pushing him this way or that. It’s hard not to sympathize with him.

3.3.indd 297

12/9/2011 6:42:11 PM


Seeing the Light

Although Mary was the force behind his new heart, she sought a future he could not share. With Christina, however, he found a soulmate. He was willing to take on the battle cry for her, just short actually killing Jack Jordan. Paul exhibits both stoicism and acceptance when his life with Michael’s heart comes to a close. Thanks to seeing the other perspectives, we have a better grasp of the context and see why Paul reacts as he does in the face of death. With an acceptance that he was given a bit more time, but it’s now up, he spends his last breath thinking about numbers and weights. His death devastated Christina, but, having had this time with Paul, she could move forward and rebuild her life. Jack’s devastation is also made clear. We watch him face his loss and move on. With 21 Grams as much as House of Sand and Fog, the shifting frames of reference give the movie its force. Briefly, the key aspects can be set out as follows: 1.

POV: 21 Grams is told from three points of view—Paul Rivers (heart transplant recipient), Christina Peck (widow of the deceased “donor”), and Jack Jordan (ex‐con hit‐and‐run driver who kills Michael Peck). The bookends focus on Paul, thus giving his perspective more priority. 2. Impact: The different frames of reference give us a greater understanding of the characters’ lives. They show how Michael’s death bought more time for Paul, devastation for Christina, and blew a hole in the foundation of Jack’s family life. By looking through the three sets of eyes our empathy deepens. 3. Power: Christina emerges as the most powerful, in pushing Paul to take out Jack Jordan. He must be held responsible! She almost succeeds. That the three end up locked in a dance of life, death, and transformation is what makes the end scene so moving. 4. Values: The three frames of reference carry three sets of values that overlap and diverge. All feel the loss of Christina’s family (with varying intensity), yet cannot put it to rest. The “solution” runs the gamut from retribution (Christina) to implosion (Jack). In the middle is Paul, who, in rejecting the role of assassin, opens the door for mercy and forgiveness. There’s been enough misery. And so we see the extent to which all three lives are changed. Our next movie, Powwow Highway, presents us with two Cheyenne Indians whose road trip causes them to rethink the direction their lives have taken.

SPOTLIGHT: Powwow Highway Cult film Powwow Highway (1989) centers on an unlikely pair of friends—a dreamer, Philbert Bono, who seeks a vision and a political fireball, Buddy Red Bow, whose activism leaves everything else in its wake. In between is the woman whose false arrest sets their road trip in motion.

3.3.indd 298

12/9/2011 6:42:11 PM

3.3 Impact of Perspective 299 Buddy is the nemesis of corporate interests seeking control over the Northern Cheyenne’s uranium, coal, and other resources. He packs a wallop when it comes to tribal politics and policies. People listen to him, even when they don’t want to hear what he has to say. He’s a thorn in the side of the profit‐mongers who would exploit the resources of the tribe and the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) that does little to stop them. “This ain’t the American dream we’re living,” he says, “This here is the Third World.” He most definitely wants to put an end to that. With a crucial vote about mining rights in the offing, Buddy’s sister Bonnie is used as a pawn to lure him out of state and out of the picture. He’s her one phone call. Arrested for drugs planted in the trunk of her car, she ends up in a Santa Fe, New Mexico jail. Buddy and Bonnie went their separate ways way back when; he doesn’t even know she now has two children. That reality is about to change. Buddy is determined to help Bonnie. But how? That’s when his childhood schoolmate who just acquired a wreck of car comes into view. Buddy does the math: Philbert’s got the car, Bonnie’s stuck in Santa Fe, and there’s no time to waste. The road trip is about to begin, as they leave Lame Deer, Montana and head south. This is no ordinary journey of like-minded souls; but one goal unites them. They both want to help Bonnie: she is Buddy’s sister after all and she stands out in Philbert’s memory as one who was kind to him when others made him the butt of the joke. So, Philbert doesn’t hesitate when Buddy waves him over. Bonnie? Santa Fe? You got gas money? They are off. Mind you, Buddy and Philbert are about as alike as panthers and buffalo. The one is quick‐witted, fiery, and a take‐no‐prisoners kind of guy. The other is slow, deliberate, receptive, and forgiving. These differences that are so palpable as the journey begins become tempered along the way, as they come to see that each one has something vital to learn from the other. Whereas Buddy looks at the ways the tribe is being manipulated by corporate greed to sell off its resources and is furious, Philbert has a deep‐seated faith in the spiritual forces at work behind the scenes. And whereas Buddy is a wiry ball of energy, Philbert is big and oafish, with an appetite to match. However, appearances can be deceiving and first impressions can mislead. This is the case with Philbert. His hunger is both physical and spiritual. When he sees a car‐dealer’s ad on TV about their nice “ponies,” Philbert trades all his cash and a small stash of marijuana for a car that looks like a reject from the Demolition Derby. For Philbert, however, this is Protector the War Pony. He is now ready for a vision quest. Not so Buddy. “Do me a favor when the heat comes down,” he says, asking Philbert not to start in with the legends and “that mystical horseshit.” “It can only make things worse.” For the political activist, the “tribal historian” with his clever folk tales has little artillery for battle with the Feds, the “cowboys.” And where Philbert says, “Trust the powers;” Buddy says, “Trust my instincts.”

3.3.indd 299

12/9/2011 6:42:11 PM


Seeing the Light

Along their way, they face a variety of injustices. There’s the car stereo salesman who had the gall to say, “No get ‘um special deal on this one, Chief.” Then there are the vicious “goons” driving families away from the Pine Ridge reservation with their mob‐like tactics. When Buddy confronts them at the powwow, the ringleader says, “All you AIM [American Indian Movement] sons‐ of‐bitches are going to rot in prison, just like your friend Peltier.” This injects into the movie a reminder that the movie’s issues are not just fictional: Leonard Peltier was given a life sentence for the deaths of two FBI agents in a shoot‐out at Wounded Knee. His supporters contend that he was framed and used as a political scapegoat. He has yet to be pardoned. Such indignities fuel Buddy’s rage. The movie doesn’t pull back from presenting some very real problems facing Native American tribes. It also shows the positive, in the history, culture, the myths, and traditions. While Buddy sleeps, Philbert tries out his new CB radio. He reaches a trucker who asked, “What’s your handle good buddy?” Philbert pauses and answers softly, so Buddy can’t hear. “It’s Whirlwind Dreamer, but I’m not yet worthy.” By the end of the journey, we come to see just how worthy he is. Protector the War Pony makes one stop after the next, allowing Philbert to understand more about tribal history and his heritage. In going to the sacred sites, “We are gathering power.” This is symbolized by the tokens he acquires along the way. We watch his transformation. Buddy is being called to change as well. We see this in the way their relationship evolves. The more Philbert grows, the less guff he takes from Buddy. “No more,” he tells him. Then his old friend Jimmy sees Buddy’s raw edges and hears the sarcasm in Buddy’s derogatory comments about the powwow. “You got mean,” Jimmy says. Something too important to lose had been shoved aside and Buddy is now paying the price. Jimmy mirrors back how Buddy has hardened and fallen away from something vital. This jolts Buddy into a moment of self‐discovery. He sees his negativity, his skepticism about tribal tradition and culture. Maybe this isn’t a bunch of hokum after all. He then starts to dance, however tentatively. Something inside of him is starting to shift. Meanwhile, Philbert is lost in music, playing alongside the other drummers, at one with the moment. Later he shares stories—mythic tales of the Cheyenne. Buddy’s cynicism resurfaces. These “fairy stories” aren’t going to save the reservation from those who would destroy it and strip away its minerals. White America isn’t going to hold off much longer, he declares. Philbert shakes his head. We can learn from stories of our ancestors. Trickster will help them. You’ll see. Philbert knows that Trickster is a mythic being and a vehicle of transformation. He also knows that Trickster can take many forms, so he doesn’t doubt for a moment that this is all going to work out. Bonnie will be rescued, the Feds and the mining companies will back off, and connections will be strengthened. Trickster will show the way. But, “We must keep our medicine good.”

3.3.indd 300

12/9/2011 6:42:11 PM

3.3 Impact of Perspective 301 On the other hand, Buddy’s political activism and his concern with the Third World conditions at the reservation shouldn’t be dismissed either. As much as Philbert has something to teach Buddy, there are lessons for him as well. By the time they make it to Santa Fe, break Bonnie out of jail, and make their escape, trying to evade the cowboys hot on their trail, Buddy and Philbert are in sync. Buddy slows down the Feds by tapping into his inner warrior and Philbert keeps his cool after the War Pony loses its brakes on the mountain heading back to Lame Deer. The road to Santa Fe may have been long, but each man changed for the better. No longer was Philbert the “Doughboy” he was insultingly called as a child. No longer was Buddy the hard‐edged activist with passion and no heart. It is just a matter of time until things come together—for Buddy, for Philbert, for the tribe. By seeing the journey from the various perspectives, we gain a greater appreciation of the obstacles, and the resolution. As Carol Gerster and Marshall Toman (1991) point out, Disregarding the individual, the individualistic, hero of western literature, Powwow Highway has dual protagonists to represent dual concerns, and to show the need for each man to understand and work with the other. The powwow they both attend, Philbert’s trickster story, and the film’s final dream vision all show that the powwow highway they travel together serves as a metaphor for the necessary continuance of both tribal traditions and the political battle for Native American justice that the two men represent.

As with our first two spotlight movies, the shifting frames of reference in Powwow Highway are instrumental to the movie’s power. Rodney Simard (1991) observes that “it is an organic, effective film and, more importantly, that it attempts to present Indian material from an Indian perspective, something that few of the products of Hollywood (and other points) have ever even attempted.” Here are its key aspects: 1.

POV: Powwow Highway is told from two main points of view (those of Buddy and Philbert) with occasional cuts to Bonnie. The movie opens with the image of ponies running wild and ends with Protector the War Pony having accomplished its task. 2. Impact: The different frames of reference give us insight into the characters’ lives and their role in restoring the tribe’s mythic and political power. Without Buddy’s view, we wouldn’t understand the current challenges facing Native Americans. Without Philbert’s view, we wouldn’t have an appreciation of the power of traditions, culture, and spirituality in restoring a community. 3. Power: Philbert’s power grows as the story evolves. Once the laughing stock, his quest for wisdom leads to important insights that affect all who

3.3.indd 301

12/9/2011 6:42:11 PM


Seeing the Light

cross his path. In so doing, becomes a spiritual force that balances the activism and political urgency that drives Buddy. 4. Values: The two frames of reference first seem a clash of values. The one is focused on the here‐and‐now, the material realities, and economic forces tearing at the tribe’s very existence. The other is born of the myths, ceremonies and rituals that have endured through the centuries and have deep roots. The movie shows how the two sets of values can work together to effect transformation. Our next movies similarly reveal the impact of perspective. The different frames of reference help us get a better understanding of the “big picture,” along with the social and ethical dilemmas the characters must grapple with.

Short Takes: Så som i himmele (As it is in Heaven) The movie opens with a field of grasses gently blowing from side to side. The music is beautiful; its source is a small boy. We are transported. But that moment is shattered, as three boys, school bullies, race over and pummel the boy. It is child prodigy, Daniel Daréus. We next see Daniel lying in bed with his mother promising that that won’t happen again. Cut to an older boy, no longer in his hometown in Northern Sweden. His talent is readily apparent for all to hear. Yet, once again tragedy strikes. Looking out the window as he practices his violin, Daniel sees his mother struck by a car and killed. Cut again. Daniel is a man, a superstar in classical music, and a most dashing figure. Unfortunately, it all crashes down after he has a serious heart attack. What will he do? The touching Swedish movie, As it is in Heaven (2004), tells Daniel’s story. Time to change his life: He moves back to the old hometown. No one knows he once lived there, because of the different name. All the townspeople know is that he’s the famous Daniel Daréus and they are star‐struck. Daniel is a shy, humble man and not one who wants people fawning over him. He buys the old schoolhouse and takes up residence there. Pastor Stig is about as uptight as you can imagine and obsessed with preaching to the faithful about sin, sin, and more sin. He knows the church needs a choir director and, therefore, accepts Daniel’s offer. It was a decision he comes to regret: jealousy eats into him like battery acid. It doesn’t help that Stig’s wife Inger is thrilled with the new choir director and his creative teaching methods. She finds the perspective he brings to his work is impressive and is struck by his love of music, high standards, and desire to help this bunch of novices. Inger can see that this man is going to shake things up and she definitely wants to be along for the ride. Stig, however, does not take well to his wife cutting loose and

3.3.indd 302

12/9/2011 6:42:11 PM

3.3 Impact of Perspective 303 shedding her inhibitions. The fact that Inger thinks her pastor‐husband’s talk of sin is unhealthy and unnatural exacerbates the mounting stress between them. Lena is the town beauty. She may be a woman with a past, yes, but her innocence and warmth is positively angelic. She reaches out to Daniel, delighted that he’s the new choir director. The two are like magnets, barely able to stray far from the other. She is a joyful force that helps him rebuild his life. These two women—Lina and Inger—are the key allies to Daniel’s work with the choir. Both see him as a gift that has come into their lives and into that of the community. Gabriella has one of the finest voices in the choir. She is married to the town bully Conny who beat up Daniel way back when. He grew up to be an even meaner adult. His insecurity and violent nature are a volatile mix. Nothing deters him from abusing his wife and, eventually, trying to kill Daniel. Like Stig, Conny is jealous of this new choir director and doesn’t recognize him as his childhood victim. But where Stig takes out his jealousy in wielding power over Daniel, Conny does it with his fists. Gabriella’s perspective on her life changes as she grows more secure about her musical talents and the importance of doing something meaningful. We watch as she develops her singing voice and finds the strength to repair her broken life. Daniel’s own love of music deepens as he finds joy in leading this choir and in connecting with the individuals who make up this diverse group. Something inside him comes to life and, like a seed planted in rich soil, begins to take off. His mentor from his days as a conductor is aghast that Daniel has lowered his sights to work with this raw, untrained group of ragamuffins that call themselves a choir. He asks why. Daniel doesn’t blink an eye, answering, “Because I love them. I love these people.” He loves these people, so is not about to be forced out by either Stig or Conny. The bully he knew decades ago has grown into a boozer and abuser. Others are either victimized by him or intimidated by him. That has to end. Only when Gabriella and Daniel both suffer the full force of Conny’s wrath do the townspeople throw off their blinders—ones that have been in place for years. They become a community and a force to be reckoned with. They remind us how individuals and groups can be powerful, even formidable, when they stand up against that which is cruel, sadistic, and life denying. The importance of this power should not be underestimated. As It Is In Heaven shows us how things can change and communities can address their shortcomings. Together they can build cohesiveness and reinforce values and a sense of justice. The group of individuals that made up the choir becomes a community of like‐minded souls on a journey together. A journey of exploration and creativity and finding one’s own voice helps them find themselves, and each other too. We watch as Daniel, bullied and beaten as a child, a witness to his mother’s untimely death, and victimized as an adult, channels his energy and insights in

3.3.indd 303

12/9/2011 6:42:11 PM


Seeing the Light

order to heal himself and others. We see the trajectory: He had achieved great heights as a musician and conductor. But he drove himself and others to the breaking point, thus his heart attack. At that point in his life his motto could have been, “We mean business here, and, oh yes, you are all idiots.” Following his heart attack, Daniel was forced to make changes or die. He rose from his own ashes. With the scruffy choir members around him, his life was transformed—he learned to awaken the music within. Daniel could then listen not just to the musical chords but also to the voices and the people singing those chords. He found a way to use his love of music to help others, to open their hearts. Those individual voices came together, like something out of the music of the spheres.

Outtakes: Mississippi Masala When Idi Amin came into power in Uganda, he wanted a “black Africa.” To achieve this, others were kicked out. Among them were East Indians Jay, Kinnu, and daughter Meena. Skip to Mississippi in 1991, with Meena now a young woman. She is beautiful but her dark complexion confuses others as to her race. Mexican? Indian? American Indian? What is she, anyway? Mississippi Masala (1991) follows Meena’s attempts to find her way. We also see the points of view of her father (obsessed with returning to Uganda), her mother (running a liquor store to support the family), and Demetrius, the African‐American carpet‐cleaner she falls in love with. Their perspectives construct a unique study of racism, ethnic identity, and social conflict. It’s an engaging story and one done with insight and humor.

Outtakes: Paradise Now You might wonder if a movie about two Palestinian suicide bombers would be fascinating. Paradise Now (2005) certainly is. It centers on friends Said and Khaled, whose frustrations with politics make them live‐bait for an extremist group. Although initially of a like mind, they diverge on the question of becoming martyr bombers for the cause. We follow along as they get the royal treatment before their fateful journey. The goal is to blow themselves up in Tel Aviv, with the hope of taking many others with them. It’s a sobering mission and one that requires them to pull away from all their attachments. Save one. As we watch the ritual prior to being sent off to complete their task, it’s hard not to conclude they’re being honored for their sacrifice. All that attention seems to be experienced as gratifying by the two friends. As the day proceeds and the momentum toward the bombing grows, it seems impossible to call it to a halt, even if they were overcome with doubts.

3.3.indd 304

12/9/2011 6:42:11 PM

3.3 Impact of Perspective 305 The plot unfolds like a thriller, with the suspense building right up to the end. We get the viewpoints of the two comrades, as well as that of Suha, a friend who voices her concerns. Each offers distinct perspectives on how those who feel disenfranchised or alienated can be tapped by extremist groups—in this case a terrorist cell—to do their bidding. It’s a powerful movie.

Works Cited Gerster, Carol and Toman, Marshall (1991) “Powwow Highway in an Ethnic Film and Literature Course.” Studies in American Indian Literatures, Series 2, Vol. 3, No. 3, 29–38. O’Connell, Sean (2003) “House of Sand and Fog.”, 21 Dec 2003. http://‐of‐sand‐and‐fog/ (accessed September 7, 2011). Simard, Rodney (1991) “Easin’ on Down the Powwow Highway(s).” Studies in American Indian Literatures, Series 2, Vol. 3, No. 3, 19–22. Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1974) Tractatus Logico‐Philosophicus. New Jersey: Humanities Press.

Online Resources Gender, Race and Philosophy (The Blog): A forum for philosophers to discuss current work on race and gender. (accessed September 7, 2011). Just War Theory. (accessed September 7, 2011). Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. “Global Ethics.” Articles and links on global ethics, human rights, just war theory, and global development. ethics/practicing/focusareas/global_ethics/ (accessed September 7, 2011). Philosophical Perspectives in Education. html (accessed September 7, 2011). Philosophy Talk “Feminism.” Ken Taylor, John Perry and Barrie Thorne (2004) discuss feminist philosophies. The website has related resources. pastShows/Feminism.htm (accessed September 6, 2011). “War, Sacrifice and The Media.” Ken Taylor, John Perry, and Judith Butler (2009) discuss media representation of war and violence. pastShows/WarSacrificeMedia.html (accessed September 7, 2011). “Terrorism.” Ken Taylor, John Perry, and Alan Dershowitz (2004) discuss terrorism and state‐sponsored warfare. Included are related resources. http://www.philosophytalk. org/pastShows/Terrorism.htm (accessed September 7, 2011). PhilWeb Resources. “Race.” Bibliography of articles, books, and websites about the philosophy of race and critical race theory. human/xRace.htm (accessed September 7, 2011). The Paideia Project Online. “Philosophy of Culture.” Essays on philosophy and culture. (accessed September 7, 2011).

3.3.indd 305

12/9/2011 6:42:11 PM


Seeing the Light

Discussion Questions 1. Film critic Sean O’Connell (2003) says of Kathy and Behrani ,“Without recognizing it, these two characters share a struggle to maintain their fabricated lifestyles.” Do you think he’s right? Where do we see similarities and where are there differences? 2. Why is it that many people think that the Behranis deserve the house, not Kathy? 3. A dead man’s heart ties together three people in 21 Grams. A tribe’s future links the two buddies in Powwow Highway. The differences jump out at us. Must we concur with moral relativism if we allow for the major points of view to be voiced? 4. Are there gender differences when it comes to moral reflection and problem‐solving? 5. What do we owe one another? How do we see moral obligations portrayed in movies? Does Behrani owe it to Kathy to let go of the house? Does Paul owe it to Christina to get revenge on Jack? Does Phil owe it to Buddy to give up his spiritual quest to fight for the tribe’s mineral rights? How do we assess who owes what to whom? 6. Can you name other movies that set out different frames of reference and give us a fuller sense of the characters? How do the different points of view deepen our understanding?

3.3.indd 306

12/9/2011 6:42:12 PM


Reflecting on Ethical Decisions

SPOTLIGHT: Touching the Void, and Sleep Dealer Short Takes: Thelma & Louise, The Verdict, and North Country Outtakes: Efter brylluppet (After the Wedding)


He knew, I think, pretty sadly, that he was gonna die. Then I remembered that I’ve got a penknife in the top of my rucksack. I took the decision pretty quickly. To me, it just seemed like the right thing to do under the circumstances. —Touching the Void

After mountain climber Joe Simpson broke his leg in 1985 while in Peru with buddy Simon Yates, things quickly deteriorated. “I knew I was fucked,” Joe said in Touching the Void (2003). All the same, Simon didn’t immediately give up on Joe, though he would have to lower Joe down the mountain in terrible weather and with insufficient supplies to hole up for the night. Either fate was looking the other way or was not predisposed to make it easy for the two climbers. The potential for disaster became a reality when Joe, still attached by rope to Simon, sailed over a precipice. There’s not much you can do midair over an abyss, particularly if you drop your glove and your hands are freezing. The howling winds made communication impossible. Simon concluded that Joe “knew, I think, pretty sadly, that he was gonna die.” Simon’s decision to get out his knife and cut the rope changed both of their lives forever. The moral consequences still reverberate in the mountain‐climbing community. Simon was widely faulted for what he did, even though Joe rose to his Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

3.4.indd 307

12/9/2011 6:42:04 PM


Seeing the Light

defense. The movie uses two time frames—one to reenact the tale and a second to allow commentary about what happened. The latter includes extended interviews with the two climbers and with Richard Hawking, who stayed at base camp awaiting their return. Let’s examine the ethical issues the movie presents and how things appear from a later vantage point. Reflecting on personal decisions is a vital part of moral decision‐making, as it helps us reassess the choices we made and learn what we can from our experiences. In addition, it shows how hindsight can serve the philosophical needs of ethical decision‐making. The movies under the spotlight are Touching the Void and Sleep Dealer.

Ethical Reflection One benefit of rationality is being able to have second thoughts, rehash decisions, turn things over, look at the options, and try to understand why we did what we did and not something else. Occasionally when examining what we didn’t do, we realize that was wise. “I didn’t see then how well this was going to work out, but now I do and am glad of it.” Other times we look back and could kick ourselves. “What an idiot I was for doing this instead of that,” we mutter under our breath, regretting a poor decision or a lost opportunity. As we saw in Unit 2 on ethical theory, many of the most highly regarded ethicists consider rationality to be a fundamental trait of moral agency. If we can’t think straight, it’s unlikely that we’ll make good decisions and follow through on them. Keep in mind that normative ethics is different from metaethics. With metaethics, our task is to examine aspects of ethical systems, such as the moral framework, moral language, and moral judgments. With normative ethics, we look at moral conduct, try to arrive at moral duties or principles, and set standards of good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, just vs. unjust. Experience shows that moral reasoning isn’t easily done in the abstract. That’s where a sense of the social and historical context comes in, as with the points of view brought to bear on the decision‐making. Matthew B. Crawford observes that, We take a very partial view of knowledge when we regard it as the sort of thing that can be gotten while suspended aloft in a basket This is to separate knowing from doing, treating students like disembodied brains in jars, the better to become philosophers in baskets—these ridiculous images are merely exaggerations of the conception of knowledge that enjoys the greatest prestige (2009, p. 163).

Fortunately, we don’t have to get trapped in theories of knowledge or ethical frameworks that pluck the agents out of the context of their lives. As Crawford indicates, it’s best not to separate knowledge from doing or morality from being in the world.

3.4.indd 308

12/9/2011 6:42:04 PM

3.4 Reflecting on Ethical Decisions 309 Certainly there are things to learn by taking a disinterested perspective, detached from the specifics of one context or another. Some kinds of knowledge, as in logic and mathematics, can be pursued with little or no reference to the real world. In contrast, much of the knowledge gained over the span of our lives requires us to be in the world. That means we have to stick our feet in the water, flounder about, make mistakes, and become more generous, open-minded, and sensitive to those around us. When it comes to reflection, we can view the territory from above, as with Crawford’s basket, but the most fruitful lessons are found in  the territory at eye‐level. These come out of our choices and their repercussions. “Philosophical inquiry into ethics requires a kind of double vision,” says Jacob Howland (2002) discussing what we can learn from Aristotle. “One must see each virtue in its own terms, and also as a part of the whole of virtue and of our shared, political life.” The second component, the concrete aspect, means that, “there is no moral virtue in the absence of practical wisdom” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 6.13). When Crawford rejects doing philosophy from a distance, he’s in sync with Aristotle’s emphasis on the concrete. This is a wider view, as Howland observes: Aristotle … does not confine himself to speaking strictly of virtue, for to do so would be to refuse to recognize that our common life is sustained, and sometimes saved, by the less than‐extraordinary virtues of our fellow citizens. Because these virtues—courage, public‐spiritedness, generosity, honesty, decency, and politeness, to name a  few—ordinarily exist apart from an understanding of the whole of which they are parts, it is an act of [practical wisdom] to attempt to understand them (2002, p. 30).

Thanks to reflection, we can learn from the past, reexamine our decisions, and factor in aspects previously downplayed or ignored. If we don’t allow reflection to be an inherent part of how we live and interact with others, our learning curve will be much steeper. Film critic David Denby saw this in The Hangover. It showed us “not the long night of vice but the longer day after it, when the men, stone‐cold sober, are forced to realize, with increasing horror, what they have done to the world and to themselves in the preceding twelve hours.” As a result, “The movie is a comedy of rationality struggling for control” (2011, p. 86). Lewis R. Gordon (1997) observes that, “The reflective dimension of situated life always brings in an element of concrete embodiment of relevance” (p. 4). In his view, a theory rests on “that which it offers for and through the lived‐reality of those who are expected to formulate it” (p. 4). We have to keep our feet on the ground and not shield ourselves from the concrete aspects of life when reflecting on its meaning.

3.4.indd 309

12/9/2011 6:42:04 PM


Seeing the Light

Paul Ricoeur thinks the notion of practical wisdom is helpful in setting our course. His reasons are that: First, practical wisdom never denies the principle of respect for persons. It considers how to express this respect in the case at hand. Second, practical reason always searches for an Aristotelianesque “just mean.” It looks for a way to reconcile opposed claims that is, unlike a simple compromise, more fitting than either of them. Third, practical wisdom avoids arbitrariness. A person exercises practical wisdom by engaging in discussion with other qualified persons and by consulting the most competent advisors available. In other terms, practical wisdom’s guiding light is the solicitude we ought to have for each person in his or her uniqueness (Dauenhauer, 2005).

Jay R. Wallace (2009) contrasts practical with theoretical reasoning. He considers practical reason distinctive in that, “When [moral] agents deliberate about action, they think about themselves and their situation in characteristic ways.” Drawing from Wallace, we can set out the stages of practical reflection as follows:

Stages of practical reflection 1. 2. 3. 4.

5. 6.

Start with a normative question (e.g., is it ever okay for an honest person to deceive someone?). Proceed from the point of view of the individual (e.g., the honest person). Keep the focus on matters of value (ethics) and not matters of fact (e.g., weighing the desire to tell the truth against the potential harms). Outline possible courses of action (e.g., be honest but issue a warning that the truth may hurt; tell only some of the truth, but only the minimum necessary; avoid the truth—focus on the least hurtful path). Note pros and cons for each course of action. Decide which course(s) of action would be best.

Going through these stages helps us frame the issues and weigh the choices. The insights into ethics are directly applicable to personal morality and moral reasoning. In contrast, theoretical reflection is more abstract, impersonal, and universal. For this reason, Wallace considers its most prominent and classic expression to be in the natural and social sciences. Generally speaking reflecting on ethical decision‐making is not done abstractly or impersonally. It tends to be practical, personal, and on the level of how we live our lives. We don’t usually have some universal “self” in mind, but focus on the individual. This enables us to look at the practical dimension of the various moral options. Gordon suggests that there’s a reason Albert Camus saw the question of suicide (“Why go on?”) as the fundamental question that determines what we do with our lives (p. 5). We see this played out in fiction: The protagonist of Beckett’s The Unnamable sums it up as, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” And that’s it for us all. We reflect on

3.4.indd 310

12/9/2011 6:42:04 PM

3.4 Reflecting on Ethical Decisions 311 our lives and decide if it has meaning. Can I go on? If the answer is “Yes,” the next question is “How?” It is with the “how” that we decide what direction our lives will take. Touching the Void shows us how powerful is the act of reflection, both at the time decisions are made and years later, when time and distance allow us to assess the wisdom of those choices.

SPOTLIGHT: Touching the Void Touching the Void is a docudrama about two mountain climbers whose lives were transformed by an accident. Actors portray the events, while the real‐life climbers and their campmate offer commentary and occasionally wrenching reflections on what happened. It is a gripping tale. When looking at photos of the imposing mountain Siula Grande in Peru, it’s hard to picture anyone brave enough, or crazy enough, to try to climb it. Between the heights, the snow, the reputation for bad weather, and the angular, jagged features of the mountain, there are lots of good reasons to stay away and admire its austerity from a distance. Simon Yates and hiking partner Joe Simpson took an enormous risk attempting to scale the mountain Alpine‐style. “Alpine style” may make you think of Heidi and her grandfather tending goats up in the Swiss Alps, but don’t fool yourself. This method of climbing pits two people together with no one else— and nothing else—to rely on should things go wrong. And things can go very wrong, as Simon and Joe discovered. Without sufficient fuel or other supplies, Simon and Joe were like over‐ zealous greenhorns. After making it to the summit they realized that, “It was a shock. And it was quite dangerous. It all got a bit out of control, that stage of things. Half an hour to an hour after leaving the summit, we were lost.” Things got better and then got worse. They spent the night in a snow cave, but ran out of fuel, making dehydration a serious concern. Then Joe fell and broke his leg, suffering a nasty break. Some things you can play the denial game with, others not. This was in the “not” category. As Joe later observed (“Return to Siula Grande.”), He [Simon] knew, and I knew, that he was going to have to leave me. He could have said something like, “I’m just going to get some help” and I’d gone “right, yeah.” Cause I knew there wasn’t any help. That’d been an easy way for him to say it.

Meanwhile back at base camp, Richard Hawking was awaiting their return. Looking back, he says the felt that things were amiss: I couldn’t put my finger on it, why I thought something had happened. And I  started to think, “Is one of them dead, or are both of them dead?” Even “If

3.4.indd 311

12/9/2011 6:42:04 PM


Seeing the Light

one of them is dead”, not “which one do I want to be dead”, but “If one comes back, who do I want it to be?” It’s kind of, quite cold to say it, but I guess I would rather have it would have been Simon.

Though this comment was made years later, the time gap had not muted his emotions, as we can see. He admits that it was “quite cold to say it,” but he preferred Simon to Joe. If one of them had to die, his hope was that it would be Joe. The very starkness of that comment should give us pause. Virtually everyone has likes and dislikes, including preferences about the people that inhabit our world. Generally, we keep those preferences to ourselves. Not so Richard. That said, it’s Simon’s state of mind that garners the most interest. Simon was in the unenviable position of holding the rope with Joe and his broken leg at the other end. He had no idea that Joe had ended up in midair, and there was no conceivable way, given the howling winds and poor visibility, for Joe to communicate his condition. After inferring that Joe was dead or dying, Simon pulled out his knife. His next move was the cut “heard” round the world. Simon severed the rope that was the lifeline of his hiking partner Joe, and set the repercussion of his decision in motion. “In a strange way the moment that rope was cut defined the rest of my life,” Simon later acknowledged. This decision was soon followed by a sense of foreboding. “I got myself up, got dressed inside the snow home and packed everything away. Just a horrible feeling of dread. By this stage, I strongly felt that Joe had been killed the previous day. And that now I was going to die, as some form of retribution.” With that, feelings of guilt can’t be far behind. And certainly, it’d be hard not to suffer regrets or anxiety in the face of such a calamity. And so Simon struggles with dread and guilt as he heads back to camp. Meanwhile, Joe is stuck in a crevasse. He has survived the fall—but he’s not home free. Trapped in his ice tomb, Joe has plenty of time to contemplate his life. Discussing what happened up there on the mountain, he reflects: I think that I pretty much was thinking that I wasn’t gonna get out. Fuck. Stupid, stupid… As a climber you should always be in control, you have to be in control. So doing that, you could be seen as half a failure. You lost it. This is childish. I just cried and cried. I thought I’d be tougher than that.

When looking at death in the abstract, we may think that we won’t flinch when it becomes a reality. It’d be nice to have a noble or stoic frame of mind as the inevitable falls into place. Many of us would turn to our religious faith, if we had one. But the unknown is hard to predict. We often assume that strongly held values and beliefs won’t give way at our vulnerable moments. Joe looks at this and remarks, I was brought up as a devout Catholic. I had long since stopped believing in God. I always wondered, if things really hit the fan, whether I would, under pressure, turn around and say a few Hail Mary’s, and say “get me out of here.” It never

3.4.indd 312

12/9/2011 6:42:04 PM

3.4 Reflecting on Ethical Decisions 313 once occurred to me. It meant that I really don’t believe. And I really do think that when you die, you die. That’s it, there’s no afterlife. There’s nothing.

This is not to say that Joe didn’t have a spiritual moment. He did, though not of the religious kind. After getting out of the crevasse he moved forward by fits and starts. He made a phenomenal attempt to make it back to camp while half starved, dehydrated, and with his badly broken leg. As he crawled along over the rocks, I think I just got lost. And I didn’t know what I was doing anymore. I don’t remember thinking of anyone, anybody I loved or any of that. I did have one time, when I got a song going through my head. And it was by a band called Boney M. And I don’t really like Boney M’s music. … I was thinking, “Bloody hell, I’m gonna die to Boney M”.

Dying to Boney M is clearly not something Joe wanted to do, and he couldn’t understand why that’s what popped into his mind. “And it just went on and on and on, for hours. I found it very upsetting, ‘cause I wanted to try and get it out of my head.” One refrain playing over and over in Joe’s mind was, “Show me your motion, show me your motion.” However irritating, it may have been the stimulus he needed. Joe crawled on. Eventually he made it to the outdoor latrine area a stone’s throw away from the camp. It was as far as he could go. All he could do was call for help. As I was shouting it, I thought, “This is it, this is as far as this game goes.” I’m not capable of going any further. I made the mistake of having a little bit of hope that they’d still be there. And when I shouted, and they weren’t there, I sort of knew I was dead then. That moment, when no one answered the call, it was… I lost something. I lost me.

The man who climbed up the mountain was not the man who came down. The significance of that was not lost on Joe. The price he paid for this arduous journey was a massive restructuring of his self. After Simon heard Joe’s cries, he and Richard made their way to their battered comrade. Joe was a ghastly sight, but still alive. Simon was struck by what Joe said to him: “He thanked me for trying to get him down the mountain, for all that I’d done up to the point, where I cut the rope, and he said to me, ‘I’d have done the same’. Those were the first words he uttered to me.” Joe knew it was impossible to communicate when he was at one end of the rope dangling over the crevasse and Simon was at the other end holding on with all his might. He knew that Simon waited for over an hour before concluding that Joe was likely dead. “I’d have done the same,” Joe said of Simon cutting the rope. He thinks it unfair that anyone should criticize Simon for his decision—so much so that Joe “wrote the book to try to set things straight.” He dedicated it to Simon.

3.4.indd 313

12/9/2011 6:42:04 PM


Seeing the Light

In his 2002 return to Peru for the filming, Joe commented on what he had gone through. It was “a nightmarish time and then afterwards I seemed to be blessed with fortune.” “In a way everything came on from that,” he said, adding, “it was a terrible time, but a lot of good came out of it.” Although he suffered in unimaginable ways, Joe was able to look back and see how much positive traced back to that point in time. It takes some magnanimity of spirit to do that. Far too often we hang onto our traumas, those horrors we’d like to purge from our memories, and float between denial and self‐pity. Joe does neither. This “new” Joe differs from the old one in significant ways. Nothing that all the critics, the many critics, have to say about Simon cutting the rope made a dent in Joe’s assessment. For him, “I’d have done the same.” He shows no ill will toward the man whose actions sent him into the depths below. Of course, we now know that Simon gave up too quickly, that he could have spent more time calling out and searching for Joe. He was mistaken in thinking Joe could not have survived the fall. Instead, he moved onward and headed back to the camp. If you don’t fault Simon for the first act (the cutting), you might wonder about the second (assuming Joe dead, he fails to call for him) or the third (once he made it to camp, Simon took no steps to get help). True, all true. Joe does not hold Simon to that standard, but we may want to do so. Perhaps the mere fact that Simon and Richard did not immediately pack up and leave camp indicates some optimism or intuition that Joe would yet materialize. That speculation beside the point, the fact is that Simon did hold off from breaking down the camp. He did not rush to pack up and hit the road. That delay made all the difference. Otherwise, all that hurtling and crawling on Joe’s part would have been for naught—he would have arrived near base camp to find no one within earshot of his cries. In the “Special Features” section of the DVD, we follow Joe, Simon, and Richard, as they go back in 2002 to Siula Grande. This is in connection with the filming of Touching the Void. The return trip appears not to bother Simon one iota. He seems completely unmoved; a fact that director Kevin MacDonald finds incredible. Simon quickly and firmly said, “No,” when asked if he had any unresolved feelings. His view was that, “Well, this is a beautiful place where I came and climbed a mountain with Joe.” Reflecting on Simon’s seemingly blasé attitude, Richard observes that Simon “had to erect a defense mechanism,” that “the cutting the rope thing” has trapped him. It is Joe who seems most affected. Joe remarked that the very idea of returning to Siula Grande caused him consternation. “I felt by going back you’d close this circle of fortune,” he says, “and it’d all go to rat shit.” He adds, “You know, worst‐case scenario I’d be dead by the end of the year,” as if it would set loose some kind of curse. We watch him contend with his emotions during the film shoot. It’s clear that returning to the site of such a terrible hardship took its toll.

3.4.indd 314

12/9/2011 6:42:04 PM

3.4 Reflecting on Ethical Decisions 315 Joe says he had a few regrets in coming back to Peru. It stirred up memories “that I’ll spend the rest of the time trying to bury them again.” He conceded that, “I lost everything that I was or wanted to be, then I got it given back. I don’t want to remember a feeling like that.” That’s the thing about looking back over decisions having life‐changing consequences. Sometimes, as with Simon, you look back with dread and wonder if you’ll face some retribution when you least expect it. Other times, you look back and try to assign blame and work through the repercussions. As we know, difficult decisions made under trying circumstances may or may not have acceptable consequences. All sorts of people fault Simon for what they consider an unquestionable failure. Others, Joe included, arrive at a different moral assessment. What counts as a factor, as well as its relative weight, can affect the outcome. In our next spotlight movie we follow the paths of two men whose lives intersect after a personal crisis spurs them to change their lives. This is Sleep Dealer.

SPOTLIGHT: Sleep Dealer Set in a not‐too‐distant future, Sleep Dealer (2008) centers on a guy who hacks into top secret websites. One day his hobby backfires, leading to a family tragedy. A radical change in his life is soon to come. It is a parallel world—one possible future—with a lot of questions about what personal autonomy means when your choices are few and the consequences are all perilous. It is a future heavy on surveillance and an over‐active military. The war on terror is a permanent fixture of people’s lives—so much so that it has been incorporated into a popular reality TV show. Plato’s call in The Republic for a clear line to be drawn between fantasy and reality is most definitely unheeded. Rather, the masses are glued to their screens watching suspected terrorists being taken out and fantasy and reality have merged. With the majority supporting high‐tech surveillance, there’s no need for a show of force or a police presence on the streets. The dull grey of Nineteen Eighty‐Four and the ever‐present reminders of Big Brother are unnecessary. People are already in compliance with the militarized security system. The audience participation shows the effectiveness of using the media to make draconian measures both acceptable and a source of entertainment. In that future is our protagonist, Memo, who lives with his parents and siblings in Oaxaca, Mexico. He and his father are polar opposites: His father lives off the land and could have stepped out of an earlier time, were it not for his TV set. Not so Memo, who prefers electronic gizmos in a dark shack to plants and animals outside in the hot sun. Farming is clearly not his thing. Memo’s father laments that the river that once freely provided water for farming is now restricted, cut off by a dam. The water is now sold to the farmers,

3.4.indd 315

12/9/2011 6:42:04 PM


Seeing the Light

exacerbating the hardships of their existence. It’s not an easy life and not one Memo wants much to do with. He would rather perfect his computer hacking skills than schlep buckets of water to the fields. Memo shouldn‘t have been so naïve about the reach of the US government, but there you are. Hackers tend not to be welcome at government websites— neither now nor in the future that Memo inhabits. The military responds quickly to intrusions. With their arsenal of drones and missiles, you can run but you can’t hide, at least for long. This is a piece of bad news for Memo. A drone gunship operator, Rudy, caught him in the act of hacking into websites and accessing top‐secret information. It wasn’t long until Rudy sent a drone to knock out Memo’s computer hideaway. TV of the future being as ubiquitous as it is in the present, this was captured on a military drone take‐‘em‐out reality show. It is the sort of live action and special effects that audiences have come to love. Unfortunately, as the drones zero in on the shack containing Memo’s computer equipment, he and his parents are watching it all on TV. Memo’s father realizes the drone is targeting his shed and he races over, just in time to be killed. You know the situation: an innocent person becomes collateral damage when drones are sent to take out an enemy. The TV audience cheers as another “terrorist suspect” is eliminated. Of course we all know that he’s just a poor farmer and is no more a terrorist than your cousin Ralph. Nevertheless, we realize that a certain number of mistakes must be tolerated for global security systems to succeed. C’est la vie, the audience thinks. This not a view echoed by Memo and his mother. In anguish at the loss of his father and overcome with guilt, Memo heads north to Tijuana. His goal is to make some quick money to support his now‐ widowed mother. And so it is that Memo’s life takes a most unusual turn. On the bus to TJ, he meets the good‐looking Luz, who befriends him and offers to help him along. The energy between them is obvious. Electric! But something’s different about Luz. She’s not the girl next door. On her body are “nodes;” tiny little data ports ready for hookup to a computer. She is literally ready for wiring. Unbeknownst to Memo, Luz has a much wider audience. She’s one of those bloggers whose life is literally an open book, with her website selling her memories, visions, and impressions. She doesn’t think twice about sharing online her perceptions and visual images of Memo. It becomes a big seller. No wonder Rudy the drone operator is one of the many in her blog’s audience. Consequently, he is following her narrative about Memo, who hasn’t the foggiest idea he’s now a media star. Memo is too busy trying to make it in this strange new world to realize that he’s the subject of so much attention. And so it is that Luz plugs into a parallel universe, thanks to her data ports. It’s a sort of “Second Life,” only here she is her own avatar. Memo is not in the slightest turned off. After all, he’s the guy who was obsessed with computers

3.4.indd 316

12/9/2011 6:42:05 PM

3.4 Reflecting on Ethical Decisions 317 back home. However, he doesn’t know that Luz’s website is tracking him or that Luz is making money telling the world about the poor farm boy from Oaxaca. Meme is too drawn to Luz to have any suspicions about her. He doesn’t hesitate to get his own nodes and join Luz in this alternative reality. As we remember, this is a guy who didn’t care for farming, so being wired looks a lot more interesting than his life in Oaxaca. It’s not long until Memo joins the “sleep dealer” work force. This is thanks to high‐tech coyotes, known as “coyoteks,” who install nodes through the black market. While attached via their nodes to remote‐controlled robots, sleep dealers are used for construction work in sites around the world. The workers are, effectively, an immigrant labor force exploited to the max. Memo doesn’t think twice about joining them, working long hours, and taking on overtime moving robot arms. He wants to send as much money as he can back to his mother. Meanwhile, he and Luz are becoming closer. The Internet, with its ability to link people from all walks of life, does the trick here as well. Drone operator Rudy sees Memo’s story on Luz’s website when he purchases her posted memories. Ironies being what they are, Rudy discovers that he’s the reason Memo came north in the first place. Rudy realizes that some serious ethical choices lie ahead. He starts by finding Memo to make amends for his father’s death. One ethical aspect of Sleep Dealer is that two of the central characters change their lives because of guilt feelings. Both Memo and Rudy are linked by the death of another. Both feel guilty. Philosophically, guilt has not been given much attention. When it is, however, it’s usually discussed alongside the concept of shame. Shame and guilt are connected and sometimes used interchangeably, sometimes not. Affirming the link, Jeffrie G. Murphy (1999) says, “I think that shame is absolutely central to a full understanding of guilt and the pangs of conscience” (p. 336). At times we connect shame to the feeling and guilt to the action. Shame is then more personal, more closely linked to disgrace. “It is something which one can legitimately demand of another, but is not usually experienced as a choice,” says Richard Paul Hamilton (2010). Murphy says the difference between “I am sorry I did that” and “I am sorry that I was the kind of person who (for those motives) could have done that” is “subtle but important” (p. 341). “I am ashamed” indicates a feeling of remorse. These are “deep pangs of conscience,” as Murphy would say. “Shame on you” indicates that you are disgraceful (and should feel it!). In that sense, shame is a way of isolating or ostracizing a member of the community. Guilt comes out of doing something morally unacceptable and, thus, is linked to culpability. “I am guilty” indicates responsibility for committing a wrong. “You are guilty” is a judgment related to wrongdoing, in crossing a moral boundary. Think of those TV judges banging their gavels and pronouncing their judgment.

3.4.indd 317

12/9/2011 6:42:05 PM


Seeing the Light

Hamilton distinguishes shame and guilt in this way: “One can be guilty without feeling guilty whereas one cannot be ashamed without feeling shame. Thus, to claim that guilt is less social in character than shame seems odd.” He considers guilt closely connected to a sense of personal responsibility: To feel guilty is to believe, rightly or wrongly, that one has a responsibility for some event or situation that one considers blameworthy. … [S]hame is a distressingly common experience among victims of atrocities but this need not imply that the victims feel a sense of responsibility for the plight in which they found themselves. Shame is a common accompaniment to situations in which one is powerless to prevent oneself or someone close to one from becoming a victim.

In Sleep Dealer, both Memo and Rudy feel guilty for what they did that led to the death of Memo’s father. Contrast Simon from Touching the Void, who said he was overcome with dread and thought he’d face retribution—but insisted he did nothing wrong. Nevertheless, that fear of retribution taps into the realm of guilt. Guilt and shame are rooted in personal autonomy and brought into sharp focus via reflection. If we are free to choose so long as no one else is harmed but someone is harmed, then the decision doesn’t look as good. Part of the problem is that choices are made in the present, but the repercussions occur in the future. Neither the repercussions nor the future are entirely predictable. Even if we are as conscientious as possible, mistakes happen, calculations are made with missing pieces, and good intentions do not always pan out. And that’s when we are at our best. Sometimes, as with Memo, we are so caught up in our own activities that people get hurt or killed. Then there are times, as with Rudy, when we do what we’re told to do, trusting that those giving orders are thinking clearly and not too hastily. We assume safeguards are in place to avoid harming innocent bystanders. Such lapses of attention (Memo) or too great a reliance on others (Rudy) lay the groundwork for guilt and shame to surface. We watch as they find a way to make restitution. Their plan is risky and requires commitment and care, but offers them both a kind of peace. Putting their skills to work, they take out the dam and bring water back to the farmers. And they reassess their values. Our next movie also involves a value‐adjustment— though this goes in quite a different direction from Sleep Dealer.

Short Takes: Thelma & Louise Thelma is married to Darryl, a yahoo of a manager at a carpet franchise with an inflated view of his own importance. It’s obvious that he takes Thelma for granted. That’s about to change. Thelma & Louise (1991) was greeted by many females as the movie that addressed violence against women and the

3.4.indd 318

12/9/2011 6:42:05 PM

3.4 Reflecting on Ethical Decisions 319 consequent inequities crying out for change. If it wasn’t the all‐too inadequate law‐enforcement response, it was the biased legal system that made their blood boil. It still stands as a watershed movie in that regard. Like any number of frustrated, bored housewives, Thelma is like a ripe fruit waiting to be plucked. When her pal Louise gets the use of a mountain cabin for a girls’ weekend, they figure this is just the break they can use. Thelma is thrilled. That said, Thelma lacks the guts to tell Darryl, or ask his permission as the case may be. She leaves him a note and dinner, and then throws enough clothes for a month’s trip into a suitcase. Almost as an afterthought, she tosses in a gun and a box of bullets that Darryl gave her. She hands it to Louise, explaining that there could be a psycho or bear on the loose. After both settle into Louise’s green ’66 Thunderbird convertible, they take off, giggling and squealing. Faster than you can say “Margarita without salt,” they stop at the Silver Bullet bar (“Beer–Dancing–Food”). Giddy with her newfound freedom and too many drinks, Thelma starts dancing with a man who Louise has quickly sized up as a sleazeball. His name is Harlan, but might as well be “Big Trouble.” Thelma is having so much fun that Louise doesn’t have the heart to come down on her. As a result, Louise is in the bathroom when Harlan makes his move. He gets Thelma so dizzy she needs to go outside for air, but has no idea what is in store for her. By the time Louise arrives at the parking lot, Harlan has Thelma over the hood of a car. Ignoring Thelma’s pleas to stop, Harlan starts to rape her. No matter how many times Louise replayed the scene that followed, she knew she would not have changed a thing. She would not have changed aiming the gun at Harlan. She would not have changed demanding that he apologize. And she certainly wouldn’t have changed pulling the trigger when he refused. Film critic Manohla Dargis (1991) considers Thelma & Louise to be distinctly different from the traditional (= male) road movie. She says, What explicitly separates this film from the generic chaff… is the distinctive means by which the road to the self is travelled. In short, Thelma and Louise become outlaws the  moment they seize control of their bodies. Theirs is a crime of self‐defiance, their bandit identities forced on them by a gendered lack of freedom, their journey grounded in the politics of the body. In a culture where the female body is traded, circulated in a perverse exchange, for a woman to seize power over her body is still a radical act (p. 87).

The rape sets in motion a chase scene that extends over the rest of the movie. Why run? The bottom line was that they did not trust the police, given that they had failed far too many women far too many times. Thelma and Louise agreed— there was no going back. Whatever lie ahead couldn’t be worse than what was left behind.

3.4.indd 319

12/9/2011 6:42:05 PM


Seeing the Light

Their outlaw status and different perceptions on the rape offer insights into interpersonal violence and gender, as well as social constructions around crime and punishment. The movie shows societal attitudes and institutional barriers that cry out for resolution, and for justice. Such ethical dilemmas can be as entangled as loose threads knotted together. They may take time to separate out, but doing so is long overdue.

Short Takes: The Verdict Frank Galvin is a down‐and‐almost‐out lawyer who has seen better times. After a bad rap on a case that got him fired as partner in a law firm, he turned to drinking and playing pinball. It was just a matter of time until his reputation hit bottom. His close friend and colleague, Mickey, sends him a slam‐dunk sort of medical malpractice case. Frank is given the chance to turn his life around. We watch his progress—two steps forward and two steps back, then forward again— in The Verdict (1982). Unfortunately, the trial is looking the pits for Frank. His expert witness skips town. This is the nurse who knows something but won’t tell. Plus, his 74‐year old MD “expert” does more harm than good on the stand. On top of it all, the judge’s bias for the defense glares like a neon sign. From all appearances, Frank’s client doesn’t stand a chance. The fact that Frank could have settled and decided against it only adds to his  woes. In addition, he chose to turn down the settlement offer without consulting his client. How bad can it get, Frank? He sees two problems. First, he owed it to his client to put the settlement offer on the table. Secondly, he either had a remarkable hunch or a lot of hubris in opting for a trial. As with many mistakes, there were no second chances here. We’ve all been there a time or two—when you can’t turn back clock and take the other path. That choice was now behind Frank and no amount of alcohol could erase the fact that he’d made a mess of things. Nevertheless, reflection has its merits. Realizing the door to settle was slammed shut, Frank had two choices: Give it up or get with it. He didn’t need a shrink to tell him he’d given up too many times before. If he takes this route now, he might as well climb into a vat of alcohol and pickle himself; there’d be no future left for him. Besides, the consequences don’t just fall on him. They also fall on his clients. What do they deserve? That’s the question he can’t squirm away from. Okay, okay: Frank does the right thing and gets going on his trial prep. Something must be missing, some little piece of the puzzle that was overlooked. He looks again at all of those involved with the patient whose life is now ruined. From the moment she arrived at the hospital to the time she went into a persistent vegetative state, each link in the chain has to be scrutinized. He finds

3.4.indd 320

12/9/2011 6:42:05 PM

3.4 Reflecting on Ethical Decisions 321 the admitting nurse and finally she agrees to testify, delivering a surprise blow. It should be a knock out! Not so, thanks to the biased judge. He told the jury to disregard her testimony, that the defense hadn’t been given sufficient notice. The copy of the form that nailed the case shut was deemed inadmissible. The sloppy work of the two doctors had left a young woman in a persistent vegetative state and her baby dead. It looked like that fact would slip out of Frank’s reach at the trial. Frank’s dilemma was what to do now his case was unraveling and he’d turned down a settlement offer. All that was left to save the case was his closing statement. His powerful presentation still carries force. It shows us how the justice system is sometimes complicit when those with money and power squelch the little guy. In such cases, what is right and good gets buried under a sea of legal formalities. That Frank prevailed in the end makes for gripping viewing. It is an instructive movie about steps and missteps on the way to justice. Our next movie also centers on a legal case and righting an injustice.

Short Takes: North Country Josey Aimes has had enough from her wife‐beater husband. She gathers up her son and daughter and hits the road. They show up at her parents’ home in Northern Minnesota, where they are not greeted with open arms. Her mother and father can’t understand why she left her husband; her father is especially disapproving of the mess he sees of her life. They are of the old school—one where men took care of their wives and children, and wives took care of the children and home, with all the relationships based on love and trust. Of course that’s a fantasy, but it’s an ideal that many still strive for. Working at the local beauty salon doesn’t buy much beyond shampoo and hair conditioner. It certainly does not bring in enough money for Josey and the children to move out. When she learns that working at the mine pays union wages considerably higher than that of a hairdresser, her ears prick up. She has no idea that working at Pearson’s Eveleth mine would subject her to a daily onslaught of sexual harassment. Neither does she foresee that many of the town residents would call her “slut,” or worse. That the time would come when she’d be embroiled in a lawsuit didn’t register for a second. North Country (2005) is based on a real class action sexual harassment lawsuit against Eveleth mines in Minnesota. The movie shows how much the women at the mine endured before things changed. We see a hostile environment where insults, taunting, harassment, and physical abuse are a daily reality. Into that workplace comes Josey Aimes, who can’t fathom why this has been allowed to stand.

3.4.indd 321

12/9/2011 6:42:05 PM


Seeing the Light

Everywhere she turns, the men at work pressure her. These are men who think it’s fun to lock a woman in a port‐a‐potty (= portable toilet) and then push it over. These are men who use excrement to write expletives like “cunt” on the walls. These are men who think rubber penises placed in the women’s lunch boxes are a scream. Pressure also comes from her supervisor, who disapproves of women being “allowed” to work at the mine. He thinks the “girls” should shut up and take what they get. Josey’s female co‐workers who have witnessed and/or been victims of sexual harassment are afraid to do anything for fear of losing their jobs. Then there is her father’s negativity. He has worked at the mine for most of his working life. He deplores her having had a child as a teenager, leaving her husband, and now doing “men’s work” at the mine. That she dares to enter this man’s world as if she belongs there may be the biggest affront of all. Wherever she turns are obstacles to making a decent wage and raising her children without having to live with her parents. Any change would require tearing down the barriers at the mine and in the minds of the townspeople. All around her are men and women who take part in harassment or turn a blind eye to it. One day Josey reaches a plateau of indignities and realizes that this can’t go on. This is it. The ongoing harassment is simply unjust. No one seems to be doing anything to stop it, so she goes to the president of Pearson’s. Don Pearson is a man who initially had seemed supportive. He would surely care to know if something was wrong and would surely put an end to the ghastly conditions at the mine. When she walks in the room, however, she sees she was mistaken. They just want her resignation. They have no inclination to right the wrongs at the mine. Josey is no pushover. She refuses to quit, no matter how much they want her to walk away. Once she realizes that she is on her own, and that management is no more coming to her aid than if she’d asked them to skin live crocodiles, it is clear what she has to do. She will have to sue them. That decision is hard to make, given how much discouragement and how little sympathy she faces. Without support, the chance of success seems unlikely, given that a class action suit needs more than one plaintiff. And yet it’s not right that things are in the state they are at the mine. That her female co‐workers turn on her makes it all the harder, but Josey keeps imploring them to join her in trying to effect change. She has ample opportunities to reflect on the situation. But each time she comes back to the same place, and that is that there’s one thing she has to do— to sue Pearson’s. The forces against her are as powerful as money can buy. As she moves forward, her sense of fairness and justice begins to transform others. The truth is hard to deny and she has truth on her side. Others in the courtroom come to see that sometimes we just have to stand up against what’s wrong. Her lawyer, Bill White, pointedly asks, “What are you supposed to do when the ones with all the power are hurting those with none?” What are we supposed to do?

3.4.indd 322

12/9/2011 6:42:05 PM

3.4 Reflecting on Ethical Decisions 323 White’s answer speaks to all those who have faced injustice. “Well for starters, you stand up. Stand up and tell the truth. You stand up for your friends. You stand up even when you’re all alone. You stand up.” This resonates in the courtroom. It touches many of those present, calling them to stand up and be counted against injustice. We in the movie audience are reminded of our own moral imperatives. This includes sorting right from wrong, looking into our own minds (or hearts, depending upon where you locate your values), and seeing what needs to be done. Do we always have to draw lines in the sand or stick our necks out? Of course not. But the failure to do nothing when something needs to be done cannot stand. One of the goals in ethical reflection is to examine the situation at hand and determine what response is appropriate—and defensible. This movie is not just about individuals making ethical decisions and reflecting about what is the right thing to do. It is about the need to take action when the moral fiber of the community is full of holes. This calls us to examine the morality of groups and those who identify with a group. It wasn’t a “mob mentality” (even if close to it at times), because a mob spins out of control, incapable of rational persuasion. At Pearson’s, there was control, intentionality, and the will to make life miserable for those who would cross the line and challenge the status quo. Should a person feel guilty about a group’s action, even though he or she is personally blameless? For example, Josey’s father disparaged her doing “men’s work,” but had nothing to do with those harassing the women. At the workers’ meeting and again at the trial, we see moral outrage and guilt for what the group had done. His identification as a miner and with these miners pulled him into the vortex of guilt. Philosophers Margaret Gilbert and Ton Van Den Beld think it understandable that otherwise blameless people might feel guilty for an action taken by a group of which they’re members. Van Den Beld (2002) agrees with Gilbert that, Firstly, a person is capable of acting not only as an individual, but also as a member of a group. Such a group … can be guided by a joint commitment to intend, as a body, to act in a particular way without necessarily all the members agreeing with, or even knowing about, the intention and only few being involved in carrying it out. Nevertheless, the particular action is performed by the whole group, no member excluded” (p. 186).

Secondly, groups qua groups can be assessed for an action that is taken on the part of that group. Think of Nazis, al Qaeda, the Taliban, a lynch party, a rival gang out for blood, and so on. “Just as in the individual case it is appropriate that the whole person feels guilt if he has acted badly, in the same way it is appropriate that the whole group is subject to guilt feelings if it has acted badly.” This sort of guilt could be labeled membership guilt, shared guilt, or collective guilt (Van Den Beld, p. 186). It may be that those like Josey’s father might

3.4.indd 323

12/9/2011 6:42:05 PM


Seeing the Light

not deserve membership guilt, but they accrue it just the same. For that reason, his speaking up at the workers’ meeting is a powerful scene. He calls on the community to assume its responsibilities to its own members. Groups, as well as individuals, must be held to a moral standard. North Country is a hard movie to watch, but it is a reminder that injustice is not a relic of the past. Any number of people still face discrimination, prejudice, and varying levels of abuse both inside and outside of the workplace. It is encouraging, even empowering, to watch Josey Aimes and all those others who found it in themselves to stand up and be counted. The movie affirms the power of the individual against injustice. Moreover, it shows how a community can change, even under pressure to adhere to its unhealthy and morally deficient ways.

Outtakes: Efter brylluppe (After the Wedding) Running an orphanage in India requires more money than Jacob Pederson has. An opportunity for money from a Danish corporation sounds like a dream come true—and it is a dream come true. He goes to Denmark to meet the man, Jorgen Hansson, who is in charge. While in Copenhagen, Pederson stays in a fancy hotel and gets treated royally. Hansson asks him to attend daughter Anna’s wedding and Pederson agrees. A Danish movie that garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film of 2006, After the Wedding, pulls us into a moving drama about a man with a heavy weight on his shoulders. Realizing that he’s near death, Jorgen reaches out to Jacob in an attempt to hold his family together. When Pederson goes to the wedding, he discovers that Hansson’s wife Helene was the love of his life—a woman he hadn’t seen in 20 years. And yet there she was. Clearly the wedding wasn’t the time or place to chat about the past. Nevertheless, we can see the sparks are still flying. More revelations that come as the movie unfolds directly impact Pederson’s decision‐making. The offer of money for the orphanage stands, but another choice is on the table. Hansson wants Pederson to stay in Denmark (the orphanage can be fixed up from afar we gather), and take care of Helene, Anna, and his two small children (twins). Hansson’s terminal illness is far advanced, and his death is imminent. We can see why he wanted to find his “replacement” so his family could be cared for in a loving way. Other secrets long buried rise up to the surface and the moral quandaries soon thicken. Just think about it: If you were dying and you had a family who depended on you, what would you do to minimize their suffering? Having a vast fortune gives more options, but all the money in the world can’t keep death at bay. Many people prefer not to meditate on their own mortality. And yet when you love people, it’s good not to leave them in the lurch. Jorgen was much too responsible a husband and father not to want to lessen the impact of his passing.

3.4.indd 324

12/9/2011 6:42:05 PM

3.4 Reflecting on Ethical Decisions 325 Some people think of dying and plan their own funerals. Some, as in Get Low (2010), welcome the chance to participate in their own funerals. But few of us have the money or power to find a replacement to take over where we left off. Of course, there are ethical concerns about Hansson trying to find a surrogate husband and father. Where should we draw the line in exerting control over our lives and the lives of those we care for? And where does personal autonomy end and intrusion on the lives of others begin? The movie is a stirring look at these issues.

Works Cited Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. (accessed August 12, 2011). Crawford, Matthew B. (2009) Shop Class as Soulcraft. New York: Penguin. Dargis, Manohla (1994) “Thelma & Louise and the Tradition of the Male Road Movie.” In Pam Cook and Philip Dodd, eds., Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader, pp. 86–92. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Dauenhauer, Bernard (2005) “Paul Ricoeur.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (accessed September 7, 2011). David Denby (2011) “Where the Boys Are.” The New Yorker, June 6, 2011. Gordon, Lewis R. (ed.) (1997) Existence in Black. New York: Routledge. Hamilton, Richard Paul, (2010) “Shame and Philosophy” (review). Res Publica, Vol. 16, No. 4, 431–9. Howland, Jacob (2002) “Aristotle’s Great‐Souled Man.” The Review of Politics, Vol. 64, No. 1, 27–58. Murphy, Jeffrie G. (1999) “Shame Creeps Through Guilt and Feels Like Retribution.” Law and Philosophy, Vol. 18, No. 4, 327–44. “Return to Siula Grande.” Touching the Void, DVD: Special Features. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. (1990) “Theory in the Margin.” English in Africa, Vol. 7, No. 2, October 1990. (accessed September 7, 2011). Van Den Beld, Ton (2002) “Can Collective Responsibility for Perpetrated Evil Persist over Generations?” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Vol. 5, No. 2, 181–200. Wallace, R. Jay (2009) “Practical Reason.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.‐reason/ (accessed September 7, 2011).

Online Resources Chappell, Richard (2006) “Vigilantism and Civic Respect.” http://www.philosophyetc. net/2006/10/vigilantism‐and‐civic‐respect.html (accessed September 7, 2011). Diversity Database. (accessed September 7, 2011).

3.4.indd 325

12/9/2011 6:42:05 PM


Seeing the Light

Ethics Resource Center. (accessed September 7, 2011). Ethics Resources. (accessed September 7, 2011). Philosophy Talk: “Moral Dilemmas and Moral Ambiguity.” Ken Taylor, John Perry, and Walter Sinnott‐Armstrong (2005) discuss moral ambiguity. http://www. (accessed September 7, 2011). Sandel, Michael. “What’s the right thing to do?” Video of Michael Sandel’s ethics TED Lecture. do.html (accessed September 7, 2011).

Discussion Questions 1. Sometimes we reflect on decisions and—like Simon, Thelma, and Louise—have no regrets. What do the movies here show us about second thoughts and moral reflection? 2. If you knew you were dying—as is patriarch Jorgen in After the Wedding —would finding your “replacement” (e.g., as spouse, parent, or friend) be morally acceptable? 3. Sleep Dealer shows the motivating effects of guilt. Not so in North Country, where no one shows much guilt for the work conditions at the mine. How can movies show us how guilt and regret shape our moral consciousness? Can you think of other movies that explore the concepts of guilt and/or shame? 4. What is the worst thing a person can do, in terms of morality? 5. Literary critic Gayatri Spivak (1990) wrote, “If we want to start something, we must ignore that our starting point is shaky. If we want to get something done, we must ignore that the end will be inconclusive. But this ignoring is not an active forgetfulness. It is an active marginalizing of the marshiness, the swampiness, the lack of form grounding at the margins, at the beginning and the end.” Given the lack of clarity in starting points and destinations, how can we ground our moral decision‐making?

3.4.indd 326

12/9/2011 6:42:05 PM

Unit 4

Conclusion and Sources

Part IV.indd 327

12/9/2011 6:43:55 PM

Part IV.indd 328

12/9/2011 6:43:55 PM


Conclusion to the Text


Ma’am, please… I got kids… a wife… You do? Well, you’re lucky. You be sweet to ‘em. Especially your wife. My husband wasn’t sweet to me and look how I turned out. —Thelma & Louise

A person’s happiness is dependent upon the fact that somewhere there exists for him a truth which is not debatable. —Nietzsche, Philosophy and Truth

As we’ve seen in this book, movies come in all shapes and sizes. They offer a veritable treasure chest of opportunities for moral reasoning. The path to the good life—one of meaning and purpose—is most definitely worth exploring. And, as we have seen throughout these fifteen chapters, all of these movies shed light on that journey. Part of the adventure is that there so many more to be seen. Just looking over the territory, we can see how far we’ve traveled. The journey begins with Groundhog Day, where inauthentic Phil takes a while to realize that he’s a “wretch” whose egotism was his defining characteristic. He must first see that he’s lost and “may be having a problem.” Until then, he’ll no more be able to extricate himself from his moral quicksand than the Wicked Witch can pry the shoes off Dorothy’s feet. Once that’s accomplished, we can move on to issues of personal identity, autonomy and liberty, and courage—key aspects of the human condition. The images on screen and the stories unfolding before us help us see the power of movies to bring these issues to light. We see with more clarity when ethical dilemmas come alive and are contextualized. Whether it’s Jake Sully or Jason Bourne trying to rebuild their lives or mid‐level manager Wikus Van De Merwe turning into a shrimp‐like alien after a

Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

4.0.indd 329

12/9/2011 6:41:59 PM


Seeing the Light

ghastly accident, the way our “heroes” are confronted with one obstacle after the next is more than instructive. It is illuminating. Few of us are drawn to rethinking, much less reconstructing, our lives. And yet it is crucial that we reflect on who we are, where we’ve come from, and what mistakes were made along the way. We can then learn a lesson or two and push on. As Beckett’s character Molloy so aptly put it, “Yes, there were times when I forgot not only who I was, but that I was, forgot to be.” How often we forget to “be,” forget to develop our potential, and settle for something less. One of the virtues of watching movies is that we can benefit from identifying with characters and riding along with them as they stumble and fall, dust themselves off (or not), make a few adjustments, and keep going. And, as movies show us, it doesn’t always work out. Bad things do happen. Maggie did break her neck and a happy ending was outside her reach. Sure Andy did escape Shawshank, but not before a few decades passed. On the other hand, McClane did make meatballs of the “terrorists,” Señor Juan paid the price for his malevolence, and Ray and Walter prevailed over the “goons” wreaking havoc on the reservation. In watching all these attempts at justice, we become privileged observers. We see moral conflicts and watch characters struggle with a variety of predicaments. This enables us to gain valuable insights, and apply them to our own situation, all the while sitting in the dark, drink in one hand and popcorn in the other, eyes glued on the screen. Philosophers Cynthia A. Freeland and Thomas E. Wartenberg insightfully put it this way, “We need always to be returning to the fact of how mysterious these objects called movies are, unlike anything else on earth” (1995, p. 19). They are neither recordings nor performances, but are a unique art form. Movies bring together elements into a magnificent creation and deliver it for us all to see, time and time again. Each seeing offers a chance to go deeper, and take what we’ve learned into our own lives and put it to use. There are enormous pedagogical benefits to watching movies. This is true whether it be in the movie theatre on a night out with friends or at home, curled up alone on the couch. It is also true whether we watch snippets of videos while surfing the net, or study a movie in depth, mining it for treasures as part of a class or a film group. With all this, we are in the fortunate position to gain, gain, and gain some more! Let us also not forget that we generally have the opportunity to go back over the territory, view it again, look more carefully, and consider the implications and applications of what we have seen. Casablanca’s “Play it again, Sam,” could be our refrain here as well. Film theorist Stanley Cavell (2005) celebrates this fact—that doing philosophy is “a matter of stopping and turning and going back over,” with the recurrent demand “to turn and return.” This is in accord with seeing philosophy “as responsiveness, as not speaking first” (p. 182). Rarely can we mine the depths in one viewing of a movie. Foster a willingness to double back and see it again; go into it with renewed vigor. Think of Sherlock

4.0.indd 330

12/9/2011 6:41:59 PM

4.0 Conclusion to the Text 331 Holmes peering at the clues before him. He’s not in any hurry as he pokes through the evidence. He can’t be. Stop and reflect, compare and contrast, zero‐in on the details, and think about the multiple meanings that could be inferred from this scene or that, from this character or the next one. Above all, don’t rush. And remember: He who is satisfied with snap judgments ends up like Phil (as pegged by Gus), “a glass half‐empty kind of guy.” French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1989) agrees with Heidegger’s assertion that, “Man can think in the sense that he possesses the possibility to do so. This possibility alone, however, is no guarantee to us that we are capable of thinking” (p. 156). It is this capacity, this power, says Deleuze, that cinema claims to give us. “It is as if cinema were telling us: with me, with the movement‐image, you can’t escape the shock which arouses the thinker in you” (p. 156). It’s like the awakening of the beast that, once aroused, can’t be stopped. Think of the Zombies (Night of the Living Dead) or the cyborg (The Terminator) that relentlessly pursue their target. Something is set loose by movies that get inside our skulls and set ideas in motion. Griel Marcus talks about going to see The Manchurian Candidate (1962) with a friend. After the movie, his pal declared it the greatest movie he’d ever seen, but then didn’t want to talk about it. He said what he said stunned, with bitterness, as if he shouldn’t have had to see this thing, as if what it told him was both true and false in a manner he would never be able to untangle, as if it was both incomprehensible and all too clear, as if the whole experience had been, somehow, a gift, the gift of art, and also unfair—and that was how I felt too. We saw—as anyone can see today—too many rules [were] broken (pp. 48–49).

That’s the thing about movies: We go in with a kind of innocence, an openness, unsure about what lies ahead, but willing to play the game, to go where it takes us. We don’t always know what this will open up and if that opening will be fair or unfair in the way it’s done. But there’s the attraction too, that which brings us back for more—the shock, as Deleuze calls it. This is when the thinker in us has been zapped, and the wheels of our cognitive machinery start to move. As Roz Kaveney (2005) says, “We watch these films in order to enjoy them, but also to think about them afterwards, and come back to watching them with an enjoyment deepened and made more complex by that thought” (p. 2). The value of film to teach us and call us to our better selves is not limited to one category or genre within the filmic medium. The options range from features to independent films, from foreign films to documentaries, from podcasts of university professors to taped lectures on college e‐learning sites. And let us not forget such online resources as student‐made satires and “mashups” or individual “productions” like “Charlie Bit My Finger” on YouTube. You name it.

4.0.indd 331

12/9/2011 6:41:59 PM


Seeing the Light

Clearly students in a class or participants in a discussion group could even make their own films or short videos to illustrate ethical dilemmas or applications of the concepts, ideas, and theories covered in this book. That’s one of the virtues of this medium. It democratizes learning in a way that was unimaginable (technically speaking) just a short time ago. But the past is past and the opportunities now are many. Hopefully, you’ll find many ways Seeing the Light will help you explore the ethical dimension of movies. And do remember the website for this book will have other resources available to you, so we can move forward as more movies raise ethical concerns for us to contemplate.

Works Cited Cavell, Stanley (1979) The World Viewed, Enlarged Edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Deleuze, Gilles (1989) Cinema 2, The Time‐Image. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Freeland, Cynthia A. and Wartenberg, Thomas E. (1995) Philosophy and Film. New York: Routledge. Kaveney, Roz (2005) From Alien to The Matrix. New York: Palgrave. Klevan Andrew (2005) “What Becomes of Thinking on Film?” In Rupert Read and Jerry Goodenough, eds., Film as Philosophy: Essays on Cinema After Wittgenstein and Cavell. New York: Palgrave. Marcus, Greil (2002) The Manchurian Candidate. London: BFI publishing. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1971) Philosophy and Truth. NewYork: Humanities Press.

4.0.indd 332

12/9/2011 6:41:59 PM


Reading List

Ethical theory and contemporary philosophy Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. (accessed August 5, 2011). Aristotle, Poetics. The Internet Classics Archive, html (accessed August 16, 2011). Birsch, Douglas (2002) Ethical Insights, A Brief Introduction. Boston, MA: McGraw‐Hill. Boylan, Michael (2000) Basic Ethics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. Boylan, Michael (ed.) (2011) The Morality and Global Justice Reader. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Caputi, Jane (2004) Goddesses and Monsters. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Card, Claudia (2002) The Atrocity Paradigm. Oxford: Oxford University Press. de Beauvoir, Simone (1996) The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York: Carol Publishing. Deleuze, Gilles (1989) Cinema 2. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Fieser, James (2001) Moral Philosophy Through the Ages. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing. Gordon, Lewis R. (ed.) (1996) Existence in Black. New York: Routledge. Hanh, Thich Nhat (2008) The Art of Power. New York: Harper One. Heidegger, Martin (1979) Nietzsche, Vol. 1. New York: Harper & Row. Hinman, Lawrence (2008) Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. MacIntyre, Alasdair (ed.) (1979) Hume’s Ethical Writings. New York: Collier Books. Manning, Rita (1992) Speaking From The Heart. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. (accessed September 12, 2011). Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. (accessed September 12, 2011). Morton, Adam (2004) On Evil. New York: Routledge. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1969) Thus Spake Zarathustra. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

4.1.indd 333

12/9/2011 6:41:55 PM


Seeing the Light

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1979) Philosophy and Truth, Daniel Breazeale, ed. New York: Humanity Books. Noddings, Nel (1984) Caring, A Feminine Approach To Ethics & Moral Education. Berkeley: University of California Press. Oaklander, L. Nathan (1996) Existentialist Philosophy, An Introduction. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.Plato. The Republic. Raphael, D.D. (2001) Concepts of Justice. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Rawls, John (1955) “Two Concepts of Rules.” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 64, 3–32. Rawls, John (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Sandel, Michael (2007) Justice: A Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Sartre, Jean‐Paul (1957) Existentialism and Human Emotions. New York: The Wisdom Library. Sartre, Jean‐Paul (1974) Between Existentialism and Marxism. London: Verso Publishing. Scheper‐Hughes, Nancy, and Wacquant, Loic (eds.) (2002) Commodifying Bodies. London: Sage Publications Solomon, Robert C. (1972) From Rationalism to Existentialism. New York: Harper & Row. Solomon, Robert C. (1999) What is Justice?: Classic and Contemporary Readings, 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press. Teays, Wanda (2007) “Torture and Public Health.” In Michael Boylan, ed., International Public Health Ethics and Policy. New York: Blackwell/Stringer. Tuana, Nancy (1994) Feminist Interpretations of Plato. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press. Vaughn, Lewis (2009) Contemporary Moral Arguments. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Warren, Karen J. (ed.) (2009) An Unconventional History of Western Philosophy. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. Warren, Mary Anne (1997) Moral Status. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Zizek, Slavoj (2008) Violence. New York: Picador books.

Biomedical ethics Beauchamp, Tom L. (ed.) (1996) Intending Death: The Ethics of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. Boylan, Michael (ed.) Public Health Policy and Ethics. New York: Kluwer. Mahowald, Mary Briody (2006) Bioethics and Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Miles, Steven H. (2006) Oath Betrayed. New York: Random House. Rachels, James (2006) The Right Thing to Do, 4th edition. Boston: McGraw‐Hill. Teays, Wanda and Purdy, Laura (eds.) (2001) Bioethics, Justice, and Health Care. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.

4.1.indd 334

12/9/2011 6:41:55 PM


Contemporary Moral Problems

Topics General Ethics Adoption Alcohol and Substance Abuse Autonomy and Self Determination

Children’s Rights


Honesty, Integrity

Movies discussed in Seeing the Light Juno, The Official Story, Cautiva, Secrets and Lies The Fabulous Baker Boys, Crazy Heart, The Soloist, House of Sand and Fog The Bourne trilogy, All of Me, Prelude to a Kiss, Big, Being John Malkovich, Memento, The Matrix, The Soloist, The Sea Inside, Million Dollar Baby, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Juno, The Island, Avatar, Minority Report Pan’s Labyrinth, The Unmistaken Child, The Sweet Hereafter, Vitus, The Truman Show, Torchwood: Children of Earth, Slumdog Millionaire, Salt, Let the Right One In, Fanny and Alexander Revolutionary Road, Alice, Juno, The Accused, Thelma & Louise, North Country, The Brave One, Salt Groundhog Day, Alice, Midnight in Paris, Alien, Ghost Town, The Proposal, What About Bob?, The Social Network, Shattered Glass, The Truman Show, The Official Story, Cautiva, Jean de Florette, School of Rock, The Manchurian Candidate, Secrets and Lies, A Simple Plan, The Matrix, Solitary Man, School of Rock

Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

4.2.indd 335

12/9/2011 6:41:50 PM


Seeing the Light

Immigration Incarceration/ detention/prisons Interpersonal violence, gangs, domestic violence, gun violence Justice/Injustice

Minority Rights

Poverty, Homelessness Race/Ethnicity, Culture

Revenge Torture War/Terrorism/ Military

Bioethics Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide Genetic Engineering and Cloning Medical Experimentation Organ sales, allocation of medical resources

4.2.indd 336

The Visitor, Sleep Dealer, House of Sand and Fog, Gran Torino, Mississippi Masala, The Namesake The Visitor, The Shawshank Redemption, Minority Report, Night and Fog The Purple Rose of Cairo, Gran Torino, Boyz N the Hood, Bliss, The Godfather, As it is in Heaven, Paradise Now, Silence of the Lambs The Bourne trilogy, Manon of the Spring, John Q , Taxi to the Dark Side, To Kill a Mockingbird, Michael Clayton, The Island, Minority Report, Darwin’s Nightmare, The Star Chamber, House of Sand and Fog, North Country Stand and Deliver, Darwin’s Nightmare, John Q , Powwow Highway, The Visitor, Thunderheart, Cautiva The Soloist, Slumdog Millionaire, Thunderheart, Darwin’s Nightmare The Soloist, District 9, Sleep Dealer, Mississippi Masala, Witness, Thunderheart, Paradise Now, Atanarjuat, The Namesake, Bliss, Powwow Highway, Stand and Deliver Taken, The Accused, Brave One, The Secret in Their Eyes Pan’s Labyrinth, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, Taxi to the Dark Side, Secrecy The Hurt Locker, K‐19: The Widowmaker, Die Hard, The Bourne trilogy, The Manchurian Candidate, Avatar, Paradise Now, The Official Story, Outbreak, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, Taxi to the Dark Side, Secrecy The Sea Inside, Million Dollar Baby District 9, The Island District 9, The Manchurian Candidate Dirty Pretty Things, 21 Grams, The Island, John Q

12/9/2011 6:41:50 PM

4.2 Contemporary Moral Problems 337 PTSD, Trauma

Reproductive Choice, Abortion Business Ethics

Downsizing/ Unemployment Legal Ethics

Secrecy and surveillance Whistleblowers

4.2.indd 337

The Hurt Locker, The Bourne trilogy, The Brave One, The Accused, Fearless, The Sweet Hereafter, 21 Grams 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Juno The Proposal, K‐19: The Widowmaker, North Country, House of Sand and Fog, Shattered Glass, Michael Clayton, Sleep Dealer, The Social Network, Idiocracy, Solitary Man, Made in Dagenham Up in the Air My Cousin Vinny, The Verdict, Thelma & Louise, To Kill a Mockingbird, Cautiva, The Secret in Their Eyes, The Accused, The Brave One, The Insider, The Star Chamber, Minority Report, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, Taxi to the Dark Side, Michael Clayton Secrecy, The Star Chamber, Inception, Torchwood: Children of Earth The Insider, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

Environmental Ethics

Thunderheart, Powwow Highway, K‐19: The Widowmaker, Michael Clayton

Allocation of Resources

Avatar, Food, Inc., Darwin’s Nightmare Powwow Highway, John Q

12/9/2011 6:41:50 PM


Official Websites



Groundhog Day

Up in the Air

Revolutionary Road

Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Paulain http://www.Amélie‐ (Amélie) The Visitor


Midnight in Paris


Personal identity


The Bourne Identity the‐bourne‐identity/ the‐bourne‐supremacy/ bourneultimatum/

The Bourne Supremacy The Bourne Ultimatum All of Me


Prelude to a Kiss

The Unmistaken Child

Seeing the Light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

4.3.indd 338

12/9/2011 6:41:44 PM

4.3 Official Websites 339 Låt den rätte komma in (Let The Right One In)

Being John Malkovich



Autonomy and liberty

Million Dollar Baby intro.html

District 9


4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days index.php

The Soloist

The Shawshank Redemption

K‐19: The Widowmaker

Yogen (Premonition)


Courage and inner strength

The Hurt Locker


The Terminator

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) Die Hard

Dirty Pretty Things




The Sea Inside


4.3.indd 339

Ethical egoism

What About Bob?

The Proposal


12/9/2011 6:41:45 PM


The Social Network


The Purple Rose of Cairo

Solitary Man

Ghost Town


Cultural Relativism


Gran Torino

Mutluluk (Bliss)

Boyz N the Hood

The Godfather

The Namesake



Minority Report‐cruise‐minority‐ report‐movie.html


The Manchurian Candidate

Torchwood: Children of Earth


The Star Chamber



4.3.indd 340

Seeing the Light

Kantian Ethics


The Truman Show

School of Rock

The Official Story


Jean de Florette

Manon of the Spring

Shattered Glass

12/9/2011 6:41:45 PM

4.3 Official Websites 341 2.5


My Cousin Vinny

The Accused

The Brave One

Michael Clayton

John Q

Stand and Deliver

El Secreto de Sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes)

Food, Inc.

Darwin’s Nightmare


Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

The Insider

To Kill a Mockingbird

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib‐of‐abu‐ghraib/ index.html

Taxi to the Dark Side


Lethal Weapon 2


Feminist Ethics


The Island


Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Secrets and Lies



4.3.indd 341

Rawls’ Justice Theory

Confronting the dilemma

A Simple Plan


12/9/2011 6:41:45 PM


Seeing the Light



The Sweet Hereafter

The Fabulous Baker Boys

Crazy Heart


Slumdog Millionaire


Encountering evil

The Silence of the Lambs

The Dark Knight

The Empire Strikes Back

The Wizard of Oz

Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) The Matrix

Fanny and Alexander

Nuit et Broulliard (Night and Fog)


4.3.indd 342

The impact of perspective

House of Sand and Fog

21 Grams

Powwow Highway

As it is in Heaven

Mississippi Masala

Paradise Now

12/9/2011 6:41:45 PM

4.3 Official Websites 343 3.4

4.3.indd 343

Reflecting on ethical decisions

Touching the Void

Sleep Dealer

Thelma & Louise

The Verdict

North Country

Efter brylluppet (After the Wedding)

12/9/2011 6:41:45 PM


4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 64, 73–75 21 Grams, 295–298 127 Hours, 2 abortion, 64, 79, 81, 136 and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 73–75 antiabortion laws, 75 “absolute freedom” (Sartre), 23 absurdity and Batman, 278 and Fargo, 261–262 and Up in the Air, 31 Abu Ghraib and Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, 220–223 and stoicism, 84 Accused, The, 193–194, 197 and Rawls, 193–194, 197 achieving your potential (Aristotle), 217 Act Utilitarianism, see also Utilitarianism and Alien, 174 and The Insider, 209 and Minority Report, 166 and The Sea Inside, 107 and Aristotle, 209 and Rule Utilitarians, 107–108, 152, 209 explained, 107 Adjustment Bureau, The and free will, 4 adoption and Cautiva, 182 and Juno, 268

and The Official Story, 180–182 and Secrets and Lies, 239–240 aesthetic components, 1, 210 Afghanistan, 69 and Taxi to the Dark Side, 220, 222, 273 After the Wedding, 324–325, 326 Aftergood, Steven, 161 “ah-ha effect” and The Brave One, 206 and Groundhog Day, 24 al Qaeda, 323 alcoholism and Boyz N the Hood, 145 and The Fabulous Baker Boys, 19, 267–268 and Crazy Heart, 19, 267–268 and Michael Clayton, 197 Alice, 38–40 Alien, 12, 171–176 alienation and 21 Grams, 296 and Blade Runner, 12 and Paradise Now, 305 and Existentialism, 34 and Marx, 34 aliens and District 9, 68–73 and The Visitor, 38 illegal, 68 Aliens, 227 All of Me, 11, 52–55, 59, 61

Seeing the light: Exploring Ethics through Movies, First Edition. Wanda Teays. © 2012 Wanda Teays. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Teays_bindex.indd 344

12/9/2011 7:17:40 PM

Index Allen, Woody, 39, 132 altruism and Alien, 171 and Clueless, 129–130 contrast with egoism, 121, 129 Amélie, 37–38 American Bar Association, 190 and My Cousin Vinny, 190 American Indian, see Native American American Indian Movement (AIM) and Powwow Highway, 300 and Thunderheart, 98 and Dennis Banks, 98 and John Trudell, 98 Amish and Witness, 135, 136, 138–140 and Cultural Relativism, 135, 136, 138–140 Anderson, Reb and Groundhog Day, 28 android and Alien, 44, 168, 173, 185, 226 and moral agency, 44, 226 and Warren on personhood, 226 angst, existential, 72 apartheid and District 9, 68–73 Arendt, Hannah, 286 argument and Alien, 174 and House of Sand and Fog, 291 and My Cousin Vinny, 192 and Outbreak, 154 and To Kill a Mockingbird, 214 and film analysis, 248, 291 and opinions, 248 Aftergood’s on secrecy, 161–162 Birsch’s on Ethical Egoism, 121 Callahan’s on euthanasia, 67 Callahan’s on healthcare, 200 Rachels’ on euthanasia, 67 Swift’s on presidential power, 162 Aristotle, see also Virtue Ethics and Howland, 309 and components of movies, 15 contrast with Utilitarians and Deontologists, 110–111

Teays_bindex.indd 345


passions, faculties, and states of character, 208, 215 potential of drama to imitate life, 13 student of Plato, 15 moral and intellectual virtues, 111–112, 309 tools for the journey, 14–20 tragedy (drama) to movies analogy, 13 Armstrong, Tom and Groundhog Day, 26 Arras, John D. and Elizabeth M. Fenton and healthcare, 201 and John Q, 201 As it is in Heaven, 302–4 different frames of reference in, 303 Atanarjuat (Fast Runner), 283–284 Inuit legend in, 284 attentiveness, (Hanh), 95 Augustine, Saint and Groundhog Day, 27 authenticity, 31–32, 42 and Alice, 39–40 and Amélie, 37–38 and Batman, 278 and Groundhog Day, 24–30 and Midnight in Paris, 39–40 and Revolutionary Road, 36–37 and Shattered Glass, 184 and Up in the Air, 30–36 and The Visitor, 38–39 and Boylan, 230 and Christman, 63 and Heidegger, 23–24 and inauthenticity, 23–24 autonomy, personal, 62–81, 179, 329, 335, see also liberty and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 75 and After the Wedding, 325 and District 9, 68–73 and Inception, 164 and K-19: The Widowmaker, 77–78 and Million Dollar Baby, 63–67 and Premonition, 78–79 and The Shawshank Redemption, 75–77 and Sleep Dealer, 315, 318 and The Sea Inside, 114 and The Soloist, 77

12/9/2011 7:17:40 PM



authenticity (cont’d) and Touching the Void, 318 and Vitus, 263–265 and Kant, 169 and Tong, 228 children and, 265 free will and self–determination, 64, 79 liberty and self–determination, 63, 64 question of limits, 325 Avatar, 45–48 banality, of evil, see under evil Banks, Dennis and American Indian Movement (AIM), 98 Baudrillard, Jean, 11 and McLuhan, 11 Bauman, Emily and Up in the Air, 35 Baumgold, Julie, 243 Beckett, Samuel and Molloy, 330 and The Unnamable, 53, 310–311 Being and Nothingness (Sartre), 34 Being-in-the-world, 23 and Heidegger, 291 Being John Malkovich, 58–59 Litch’s view of, 58–59 and Memento, 58–59 belief freedom to hold, 156 justified, versus opinion, 177 system in Pan’s Labyrinth, 100 versus conduct, 156 beliefs and codes, 136 and cultural variations, 137 and point of view, 289–290 and values, 4, 100, 247–248, 292, 312 benevolence, 112 Bentham, Jeremy contrast with Mill and Moore, 108, 151 overview of, 108 philosophy of, 151 Utility Principle of, 108, 151 Bergman, Ingmar, 285 Bergman, Lowell

Teays_bindex.indd 346

and The Insider, 210 betrayal and Avatar, 47 and Boyz N the Hood, 146–147 and The Matrix, 285 and A Simple Plan, 253 and The Truman Show, 178 and Conrad’s Nostromo, 168 Big, 55, 56, 61 Birsch, Douglas on Ethical Egoism, 121, 123 on Feminist Ethics, 226 on Virtue Ethics and Feminist Ethics, 229 Blade Runner, 1, 12, 13, 172 Blanton, Thomas and evil, 150 and control and power, 161 Blessing, Kimberly A. Descartes’ demon and The Truman Show, 177 Bliss, 142–144 Blomkamp, Neill, 81 Boal, Mark and The Hurt Locker, 86–87 Bobbitt, Lorena, 104 Bourne Identity, 43, 48–52, 247 Bourne Supremacy, 48–52 Bourne Ultimatum, 14, 17, 18, 48–52, 247 Bouvia, 63, 79 Boylan, Michael, 217 and The Insider, 217–218 and A Simple Plan, 253, 254 and Care Ethics, 242 and gender and moral agency, 230 and virtues, 257 Boyz N the Hood, 137, 144–145 Brave One, The, 187–188, 190, 193–197, 206, 243 Brenner, Samuel, 221 Brödre (Brothers), 272–273 Bronski, Michael and Groundhog Day, 28 Buddhism and Harold Ramis, 28 and Groundhog Day, 24, 25, 28 and Unmistaken Child, 57–58 and Up in the Air, 34

12/9/2011 7:17:40 PM

Index and What About Bob?, 124 Bureau of Indian Affairs and Powwow Highway, 299 burqa France’s ban of, 137–138 Byers, Thomas B., and Alien, 171, 172 Callahan, Daniel and John Q, 200 on euthanasia, 67 on healthcare, 200 Campbell, William I. and The Insider, 213 Cameron, James, 288 Camus, Albert and suicide, 310 Canada Supreme Court, 156 capitalism, 259 and Alien, 172 and Blade Runner, 172 Vaughn on, 120 Caplan, Arthur L. and John Q, 200–201 and healthcare, 200–201 Caputi, Jane and mythic dimension of film, 3 care, ethic of, 230, 242 and Secrets and Lies, 240 and Boylan, 230 Manning’s Two Elements of, 113–114 Carroll, Lewis and Pleasantville, 230 Cartesian philosophy, see Descartes Casablanca, 330 Categorical Imperative (Kant), 108, 109, 168–170 and Alien, 170 and The Insider, 212, 213 and School of Rock, 179 and Truman Show, 177 and Deontological Ethics, 209 and Warren, 227 Rawls’ variation of, 198 catharsis (Aristotle), 20 and Avatar, 20 and The Fighter, 20

Teays_bindex.indd 347


and The Social Network, 131 and The Terminator, 288 Catholics/Catholic church and Groundhog Day, 24 and Million Dollar Baby, 65 and The Sea Inside, 105, 107, 112 and Touching the Void, 312–313 Cautiva, 182, 185 Cavell, Stanley and doing philosophy, 330 center of gravity (Aristotle), 19 character (quality), 83, 111, 224, 231, see also moral character Aristotle’s view of, 16–19, 100, 111–112, 208–210, 215, Weston’s view of, 248–249 states of, 208–209, 210 Chernobyl, 78 Cheyenne Indians and Powwow Highway, 298–302 Chotiner, Harry and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 237, 238, 239 Christman, John and autonomy, 63 Christie, Agatha, 167 Ciesla, Thomas M. and Groundhog Day, 27 clones and The Island, 234–237 and Deontological Ethics, 235–236 and Feminist Ethics, 235 and Utilitarianism, 236–237 and personal identity, 237 Clueless, 121, 128–130 Cobbs v. Grant, 63, 79 Coen, Ethan and Fargo, 262 Coen, Joel and Fargo, 262, 270 Colombiana, 206 “complication” (Aristotle), 17, 18, 19 and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 73 and Bourne Ultimatum, 18 and Fargo, 259 and Inception, 165 and The Proposal, 126

12/9/2011 7:17:40 PM



concentration (Hanh), 95 Conrad, Joseph and Alien, 168, 173 Consequentialism, 106, 119, 193 and Outbreak, 151 and Utilitarianism, 151 Yuen’s view of, 151 Contagion, 154, 242 Conversation, The, 169 courage, 4, 6, 14, 53–54, 82–98 and Die Hard, 96–97 and Dirty Pretty Things, 97–98 and Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, 223 and The Hurt Locker, 17, 18, 82–88 and The Insider, 212 and Pan’s Labyrinth, 82, 85, 91–95 and Pleasantville, 233 and A Simple Plan, 258 and Silence of the Lambs, 276 and Taxi to the Dark Side, 222 and Terminator and T2, 88–91 and Thunderheart, 98–99 and To Kill a Mockingbird, 208, 214–218 and Witness, 140 and Wizard of Oz, 280 and Aristotle, 112, 309 and Boylan, 257 and Sherman, 84 and stoicism, 84 and Weston, 249, 250 cowardice and The Hurt Locker, 83, 84, 88 and Aristotle, 4, 83, 84, 88, and recklessness, 83, 84, 88 “coyoteks,” 317 Crawford, Matthew B. and moral knowledge, 308–309 Crazy Heart, 283–285 creativity and As it is in Heaven, 303 and Idiocracy, 218–219 and Aristotle’s intellectual virtues, 111 and personal identity, 44 and adversity, 72 Creed, Barbara, 167, 172 Cruzan, 67, 79 cultural defense

Teays_bindex.indd 348

and Renteln, 138, 144 Cultural Relativism, 106, 135 and Bliss, 142–144 and Boyz N the Hood, 137, 144–145 and The Godfather, 145–147 and Gran Torino, 136, 137, 140–142, 149 and The Namesake, 147–148, 149 and The Sea Inside, 107 and Witness, 137–140 strengths and weaknesses of, 144 culture, 149 and Atanarjuat, 284 and Powwow Highway, 300, 301 and Thelma & Louise, 319 and gangs, 144 and effecting change of, 144 and identity, 149 and Renteln, 138 and subcultures, 147 and values, 289 Culver, Jennifer and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 238 curse and Atanarjuat, 283–284 and Big, 55 and Drag Me to Hell, 288 and Groundhog Day, 30 and Yogen (Premonition), 78 Dador, Denise on artificial wombs, 81 Daniels, Norman and Rawls and healthcare, 200 Dante, 272 and Fargo, 259 and Up in the Air, 33 Darby, Army Specialist Joseph whistleblower, 223 Dargis, Manohla and Thelma & Louise, 319 Dark Knight, The, 277–290 Darwin’s Nightmare, 204–205 Dasein, 23 and Amélie, 37 and Heidegger, 23 Davis, Ken and Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, 221

12/9/2011 7:17:41 PM

Index death and Heidegger, 27–28 death penalty, 4 and Bliss, 143 and Minority Report, 155 and Secrecy, 161 and The Star Chamber, 163 and Mill, 152 and Utilitarianism, 151–152 de Beauvoir, Simone and Batman, 277–278 and The Ethics of Ambiguity, 277–278 and The Second Sex, 229–230 and Existentialism, 228 and individual choice, 228 and role of evil, 277–278 and woman as “Other,” 54 deception, 185 and Alien, 168 and Avatar, 19 and Cautivo, 180–182 and The Insider, 213–214 and Jean de Florette, 182–183 and Manon of the Spring, 182–183 and Michael Clayton, 198 and The Official Story, 180–182 and Pleasantville, 233 and Proposal, 126–127 and School of Rock, 178–179 and Shattered Glass, 183–184 and The Sweet Hereafter, 266 and To Kill a Mockingbird, 216 and The Truman Show, 177–178 betrayal and disillusionment with, 178 del Toro, Guillermo, 3 and Pan’s Labyrinth, 100 Deleuze, Gilles on Heidegger, 331 on the shock that arouses the thinker, 331 Denby, David and the value of reflection, 309 “denouement” (Aristotle), see resolution Deontological Ethics, 6, 108, 169 and Alien, 169–185 and The Insider, 212 and The Island, 235–136 and Million Dollar Baby, 65

Teays_bindex.indd 349


and Outbreak, 154–155 and Secrets and Lies, 240 and Aristotle (contrast), 208–209, 212 and Kantian Ethics, 167–185 and Rawls’ Justice theory, 186–206 Deontologist, strict Mark D. White and Batman, 278 Desaparecidos, Los, and Cautiva, 181–182 and The Official Story, 181–182 Descartes, Rene, 45, 53 and All of Me, 54–55 and Avatar, 55 and Big, 55 and Pleasantville, 231 and The Truman Show, 177–178 and Plato, 54 despair, existential, 2, 12, 24 and 21 Grams, 296 and Blade Runner, 12 and House of Sand and Fog, 293 and The Insider, 211 and A Simple Plan, 257 and Wizard of Oz, 282 detainees, 157 and Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, 221–222 and Taxi to the Dark Side, 221–222 and Geneva conventions, 162, 220 determinism/fate, 78, 81, 272 and The Island, 235 and Premonition, 78–79 and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 4 and Truman Show, 177 and contrast with freewill, 4, 13, 23 and moral agency, 5 dialogue/diction (Aristotle), 16 Die Hard, 96–97, 219 Difference Principle (Rawls), 110, 189, 204–205 different voice, see Gilligan, Carol Dilawar, 222 Dirty Pretty Things, 97–98 discovery (Aristotle), 20, 144 District 9, 3, 62, 64, 67–73 diversity thesis, 137 “Do no harm” principle, and Bourne trilogy, 249 and Fargo, 261

12/9/2011 7:17:41 PM



doppelgänger, 35 Dr. Who, 160 Dracula, 61 Drag Me To Hell, 288 dread, existential, 5, 12 and Alien, 172 and Groundhog Day, 24, 25, 27 and Sleep Dealer, 318 and Touching the Void, 312, 315 and Up in the Air, 33 dreams, 3, 13 and Alice, 39 and Avatar, 43, 45, 46, 47 and Groundhog Day, 30 and Inception, 163–165 and Manchurian Candidate, 158 and The Matrix, 285 and Midnight in Paris, 40 and Million Dollar Baby, 64 and Pan’s Labyrinth, 92 and Pleasantville, 230–231 and Revolutionary Road, 37 and School of Rock, 179 and Silence of the Lambs, 275 and A Simple Plan, 255 and Up in the Air, 33, 35 and Vitus, 263 and Wizard of Oz, 26 dualist’s, 45 nihilist’s, 33 dualism, see also Descartes, 45, 53–58, 61 Durbin, Sen. Richard J., and Abu Ghraib, 221 Duvall, Robert, and The Hurt Locker, 18 Eagleton, Terry, 288 Eberl, Jason T. and reasoning in T2, 90 Efter Brylluppet, see After the Wedding Egoism, Universal, 120 Eichmann, Adolf, 286 El Laberinto del Fauno, see Pan’s Labyrinth El Secreto de Sus Ojos, see The Secret in their Eyes Empire Strikes Back, The, 277–279

Teays_bindex.indd 350

End of Violence, The, 153 Enemy of the State, 153 Enough, 187, 190 epistemology, 177 eternal recurrence (Nietzsche), 24 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 165 ethical dilemmas, 1, 4, 5, 11, 15, 329, 332 in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 73 in As it is in Heaven, 302–305 in Crazy Heart, 267–268 in District 9, 68 in Fabulous Baker Boys, 267–268 In Fargo, 258–262 in Fearless, 265–266 in House of Sand and Fog, 290 in Juno, 268 in A Simple Plan, 252, 254–258 in Slumdog Millionaire, 268–269 in The Sweet Hereafter, 265–266 in Vitus, 263–265 Ethical Egoism, 31, 106, 117–134, 250 and Clueless, 128–130 and Ghost Town, 133 and The Proposal, 125–128 and Purple Rose of Cairo, 131–132 and The Sea inside, 105 and The Social Network, 130–132 and A Solitary Man, 132–133 and What About Bob?, 121–125 and Birsch, 121 and Hinman, 120 and different types, 120 theory of, 101–116, 266, 357 versus altruism, 121 ethical microcosm, 5 ethical reflection, 308–311 stages of practical, 310 ethics, feminist, see Feminist Ethics Ethics of Ambiguity, The (de Beauvoir), 277–278 eudaimonia (Aristotle), 111 euthanasia, 4, 67, 79 and Million Dollar Baby, 66–67 and The Sea Inside, 107–109 and Callahan, 67

12/9/2011 7:17:41 PM

Index and Rachel, 67 and Singer and, 152 explanation of, 67 passive v. active, 67 voluntary v. involuntary, 67 Evelyth mine and North Country, 321–324 evil, 4, 5, 44, 104–5, 156 and Atanarjuat, 283–284 and Avatar, 20 and Batman, 277–279 and Brödre, 289 and The Dark Knight, 277–290 and District 9, 72 and The Empire Strikes Back, 277–290 and Fanny and Alexander, 285 and The Insider, 208 and Jean de Florette, 183 and The Matrix, 284 and Minority Report, 155 and Night and Fog, 285–286 and Outbreak, 153 in Pan’s Labyrinth, 92 and Secrecy, 150, and Silence of the Lambs, 274–277 and The Warrior, 273 and Wizard of Oz, 280–283 and Aristotle, 84, 112 and Claudia Card, 273–274 and Ethical Egoism, 119 and Existentialism, 278 and Kant’s three stages, 274 and Rawls, 188 and Ricoeur, 273 and St. Augustine, 27 and Utilitarians, 274 banal in Fargo, 260 banal in The Truman Show, 178 banality of (Arendt), 286 and moral agency, 104–105 and moral tangles, 273 Existentialism, 33, 34 and Alice, 39–40 and Amélie, 37–38 and Groundhog Day, 24–30 and Midnight in Paris, 39–40

Teays_bindex.indd 351


and Revolutionary Road, 36–37 and The Visitor, 38 and Up in the Air, 30–35 and Card’s two components, 273 and de Beauvoir, 278 and Gordon, 23, 309 and Heidegger, 23–24 as Existential philosophy, 23–24 synonyms, 274 ethical framework, 23–24 Exorcist, The, 2 Eye, The, 61 “eye for an eye,” 297 Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Paulain, Le, see Amélie Fabulous Baker Boys, 267–268 faculties (Aristotle), 208 fairness doctrine and The Insider, 213 false accusations, and Stand and Deliver, 202 Falzon, Christopher, 61 and All of Me, 53, 54 Fanny and Alexander, 285 Fargo, 2, 258–262, 270 fascism and Pan’s Labyrinth, 92–93 and Pleasantville, 233 fate, 2, 30, 34, 235, 278, 304, 307 and K-19: The Widowmaker, 78 and The Terminator, 4 Fearless, 19, 265–268 Fenton, Elizabeth M. and John D. Arras and healthcare, 201 Few Good Men, A, 233 Fieser, James, on Xenophanes, 136–137 Fighter, The, 20 Finding Nemo, 242 First Cause (Aristotle), 17–18 Fly Away Home, 242 Foley, Michael P. and Groundhog Day, 27 Food, Inc., 204–205 Foote, John on 127 Hours, 2

12/9/2011 7:17:41 PM



Frames of reference, 290, 302 and 21 Grams, 295–296 and House of Sand and Fog, 292, 294–295 and Powwow Highway, 301 key aspects, 291–292 Frank, David A. and Caroline Picart and Silence of the Lambs, 275 Freeland, Cynthia and Thomas E. Wartenberg, On mysterious quality of movies, 330 free will, 4, 5, 13, 104–105, 164, and The Adjustment Bureau, 4 and Alien, 168 and K-19: The Widowmaker, 81 and Million Dollar Baby, 65 and Premonition, 78–79 existential philosophy, 23 Kant’s view of, 168 moral agency, 5, 63, 104, 168 personal autonomy, 79, 164 rationality, 23 Freud, 29, 54, 167 friendliness Aristotle’s virtue of, 112 friendship, and 2 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 74 and The Insider, 212, 214 and Lethal Weapon 2, 219–220 and The Visitor, 38 and What About Bob?, 124 Aristotle’s three kinds, 219–220, 224 limits of, 81 of pleasure, 219–220 of utility, 219–220 of virtue, 219–220 ganas, 83, 287 and Stand and Deliver, 203 facing evil, 287 Garrett, Jan Edward on Rawls’ Difference Principle, 189–190 Gay Science, The (Nietzsche), 24 gender, 289–290, 306 and Pleasantville, 237 and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 237–239

Teays_bindex.indd 352

and Thelma and Louise, 319 different voices of, 114, 234, 236 moral agency, 230 stereotypes, 237 generosity of spirit and Amélie, 37 Aristotle’s virtue of, 112, 309 Geneva Conventions, 237 Gerster, Carole and Marshall Toman, 301 Get Low, 325 Ghost Town, 133 Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, 237–240 and Aristotle, 220–223 Gilbey, Ryan and Groundhog Day, 28 Gibney, Alex and Taxi to the Dark Side, 239–240 Gilbert, Margaret and guilt, 323 Gilligan, Carol, 113, 241 and The Island, 236 and Pleasantville, 233–234 and Salt, 241 and Chotiner, 237 and “Letter to Readers” (1993), 233, 236 different voices, 114, 234, 236, 291 ethic of care, 113, 228, 229, 237 ethic of justice, 113, 228, Kohlberg, 229 relationships, 230 Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The, 188 Giuliani, Fr, John, 136 Godfather, The, 145–147 good versus evil, 92, 247 Gordon, Lewis R., 23, 309, 310 Graner, Charles, 221 Gran Torino, 136, 137, 140–142 greed and Avatar, 46 and Fargo, 258–259, 270 and Powwow Highway, 292, 299 and A Simple Plan, 4, 254–257, 258, 270 and The Social Network, 130–131 and Wall Street, 130 and Greely and John Q, 200–201 Groundhog Day, 17, 22, 24–30, 31, 329

12/9/2011 7:17:41 PM

Index Guantanamo Bay and Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, 220 and Sherman, 84 guardian Plato’s notion of, 54 guilt (state of mind), 326 and Batman, 278 and Bourne Identity, 51 and The Brave One, 194 and Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, 221 and Gran Torino, 142 and North Country, 323–324 and Million Dollar Baby, 64 and The Proposal, 127 and Secrets and Lies, 239 and Sleep Dealer, 317–318 and Touching the Void, 312, 318 and Hamilton, 318 and personal autonomy, 318 and retribution, 318 and shame, 221, 317–318 and survivor’s guilt in Batman, 278 and survivor’s guilt in Fearless and The Sweet Hereafter, 266 guilt (culpability), 317 and 21 Grams, 297 and Wizard of Oz, 280 and Hamilton, 318 criminal, 75–76, 143, 155, 162, 192, 215 and retribution, 193, 196, 297 Hamilton, Richard Paul, 317–318 and Sleep Dealer, 317–318 Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 175–176 Hand, The, 61 Hangover, The, 13, 224, 309 Hanh, Thich Nhat aspects of personal power, 95 happiness and Aristotle, 111, 113 and Eberl, 90 and Mill’s Principle of Utility, 108, 151 and Act Utilitarians, 107 and Utilitarians, 90 and Rule Utilitarians, 108 Harman, Sabrina

Teays_bindex.indd 353


and Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, 221 Harper’s Index on torture, 157 Harris, C.