When we last saw George Bailey, he was defending his father’s dubious loan practices. In this, Part 2 of the three installments of “It’s A Wonderful Life” Ethics, we take the saga up the fateful Christmas Eve when George Bailey meets his guardian angel.
6. George’s Fork in the Road
George Bailey’s decision to give up his plans to go to college to save the Savings and Loan is clearly not motivated by his personal dedication to the institution; he doesn’t like the place. He says so over and over again. He admires his father’s motivations for starting it. Had Potter not sparked his resentment with his nasty comments about George’s late father, George would have been out the door. But his passionate speech in rebuttal of Potter’s words put him on the spot: after those sentiments, turning down the Board’s appointment of him to be the new operating manager of the S&L would have made George a hypocrite in his own eyes, and rendered his passion laughable. If George had integrity, then he had to accept the appointment.
It is one of the most interesting ethical moments in the film, because it represents a realistically complex ethical decision. George does what he does for selfish reasons as well as altruistic ones, and irrational reasons as well as considered ones. He wants to respect himself; he fears what might happen to his family and the community if Potter becomes the only financial power in town, and knows he will feel guilty if the consequences are bad. He feels like not staying will be taking Potter’s side over his father’s—completely irrational, since his father had given his blessing to George’s college plans, and wasn’t alive to be harmed by whatever he chose to do anyway. A large proportion of George’s decision seems to be motivated by non-ethical considerations, for he doesn’t like Potter—even hates him, perhaps—and wants to stick it to the old tycoon by foiling his victory. There are few ethical decisions in real life that are made purely on the basis of ethics, and Capra makes George’s decision wonderfully impure.
Still, this may be the single most important decision in George Bailey’s life. It changes everything, for him and for the town. Most important of all, perhaps, it probably is the tipping point in the formation of George’s character. Many of us, in our lives, face ethical decisions that require us to embrace or reject core values. Once a value has been rejected, down-graded in our priorities, we may be permanently changed as human beings. Choosing non-ethical considerations —self-interest—over honesty, integrity, loyalty or fairness one time will make that choice easier the next time, then a habit, then character trait, then a personal philosophy. George faces that fork in the road and chooses integrity, respect, fairness and caring…because of the man he was at that moment, a caring and ethical one. Had he chosen to leave, thus opting for new experiences and ambition over the values he had once thought paramount, George Bailey might have become less like his father and more like Mr. Potter. Luckily for him, he recognized this pivotal moment in his life and character when it occurred. Too often, we make life and character-altering decisions in the heat of the moment, without playing ethics chess and thinking about the possible consequences.
7. Harry’s Betrayal
Harry gives his college money to younger brother Harry, an ethical act if there ever was one. All he asks in return is that Harry return after college and take over the Savings and Loan, so George can get on with his life. Harry, however, returns to Bedford Falls with a new wife, who has other plans. Harry plays George like a violin, and lets George be a martyr and waive Harry’s obligation. I regard this as a double-cross by Harry Bailey, aided by the new Mrs. Bailey. He had made a deal, and benefitted greatly from it. By the time he got back home, his wife should have already been told in no uncertain terms that he was taking the weight of the S&L off of George’s weary shoulders, and that he was turning down her father’s offer to employ him. Harry knew George, and his brother’s penchant for sacrificing his own needs for others. The script shows Harry putting up a perfunctory fight when George lets him off the hook, but he simply should have refused to accept George’s arguments. Harry had an obligation, and a big one. He took an easy route to avoid it, and closed his eyes to the Golden Rule answer staring him in the face. He knew what was fair, knew what George wanted, needed and deserved, and still accepted George’s waiver.
Yes, George is accountable and responsible for his own actions. At this point, he is a candidate for a diagnosis of toxic altruism; he’s a probable altruism addict, a professional martyr.
8. Sam and Mary
8. George’s next ethical dilemma occurs when his mother urges him to try to steal away Mary, the lovely local college girl (played by radiant Donna Reed) who is supposedly the main squeeze of George’s obnoxious friend, Sam (“Hee-haw!”) Wainwright. The movie’s view is that since Sam is a jerk, there’s nothing wrong with George stealing his girl and Mary slyly encouraging him to do it. Capra even shows Sam with a floozy in his office when he’s calling Mary, so we know he’s a louse. Sam obviously considers George a friend, however, so George’s motivations and conduct in this episode are still less than ideal. He and Mary do apparently foil Sam’s well-intentioned efforts to turn them into inside-traders, something that was not illegal at the time.
9. The Run on the Bank
9. The second great ethical turning point in “It’s A Wonderful Life” and the fictional life of George Bailey comes when there is a run on the Savings and Loan just as George and Mary are leaving on their honeymoon. Yet again, George makes a huge personal sacrifice and uses the money he saved for the trip to keep the bank from closing and out of Potter’s clutches yet again. A few things to keep in mind:
- He had no obligation to use personal resources for this purpose.
- When Potter offers to pay off the S&L’s obligations at 50 cents on the dollar, George has no right to reject the offer unilaterally—it’s not his offer to reject. He needs to consult his board, or at least try to, and if they vote to accept Potter’s gun-to-the-head deal, George can’t over-ride them. If he can’t reach the board, then his ethical obligation is to act as he thinks they would, and he knows they almost certainly would accept Potter’s offer. George’s conduct in this situation is personally courageous and generous, but a blatant fiduciary breach of trust and abuse of his authority.
- Mary is the one who offers up the couple’s money, and she does it without consulting George. She has no right to do this. She may presume, from watching George go through life offering himself up as a human sacrifice, that he would approve, but it is irresponsible and disrespectful for her to risk the couple’s resources on a bad bet like the Bailey Savings and Loan, during a financial crisis, without discussing it with her husband first. (How does the Savings and Loan weather the Great Depression, by the way?)
10. Potter’s Offer
Mr. Potter’s next tactic is to try to hire George away from the Savings and Loan with a large salary. George views the offer as an invitation to corruption, and nobly turns it down. There is no wrong solution to George’s dilemma. He could justify taking Potter’s offer as ethical because it allows him to better the lives and future of his family and children, and perhaps he should. Surely whatever obligation he feels to his father’s project and the community has been more than fulfilled by this time. George, however, is blocked by cognitive dissonance. He detests Potter and all he stands for; if he agrees to work for the man, he cannot avoid embracing Potter’s values, or at least becoming connected to them. He will have to be loyal; he will be dependent on a man whose ethics he reviles. This is how people become corrupted.
Does George have an ethical obligation to risk corruption of his core values—remember, none of us are as immune to corruption as we think we are—for the benefit of his children? Wouldn’t this be the greatest sacrifice of all for the altruism addict, selling his integrity so his children have a better future? Or would he be corrupting them, too?
I think George is right to uphold his integrity and avoid allying himself and his family’s welfare to someone with deplorable values and who is, after all, untrustworthy, perhaps because I would (I hope) make the same decision in his shoes. Nevertheless, it is not the ethical slam-dunk that Capra would have us believe.
(The third and final installment can be read here.)