Here are the final five ethics movies, making 25 on the Ethics Alarms list so far. Except for the last, they are a sober batch. I think I now understand why they are at the back end of my list of 25; this group is darker than the first 15 and more tinged with defeat than hope. Their ethics lessons, however, remain inspiring, or if not quite that, thought-provoking:
Another true story, one that explores the murky area of whistleblowing and whistleblowers as well as the conflict between the business of journalism and the profession of journalism.
Ethical issues highlighted: confidentiality, whistleblowing, law vs. ethics, sacrifice, courage, media ethics, integrity, honesty, trustworthiness, betrayal
Favorite quote: “You’re in a state of conflict. Here’s how it lays out. If you have vital insider stuff that the American people for their welfare need to know and you feel compelled to disclose it and this violates the agreement – that’s one thing. On the other hand, if you want to honor the agreement, it’s simple. Say nothing. Do nothing. The only guy who can figure this out is you, and that’s you all by yourself.” Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino)
This science fiction film was almost universally panned and misunderstood, in part because its director, Michael Bay, is presumed to be a coarse and trivial film maker. Yet this was a thought-provoking rarity, a Hollywood product that asked tough questions about abortion, if you were not confused, as most critics were, by the use of clones as stand-ins for the unborn.
Ethical issues highlighted: Lots, including,
- Does the life of the mother necessarily take priority over the life of her unborn child? In one upsetting sequence in the film, one of the clones gives birth and is then killed so the female client she was made from can have her baby…a neatly provocative switch in which the mother and the unborn “child’ are one and the same .
- Does the creator of a life have the inherent right to take the life of its unborn offspring? Does it make a difference if the offspring is unambiguously human and alive?
- Do embryos have “souls?”
- Is it ethical to destroy a gestating human being because it is defective or inconvenient? The “defect” in some of the clones that prompts their destruction is unprogrammed curiosity, which makes them inconvenient (difficult to control) to the “parent”, the cloning corporation.
- When does a child become “human”…only when it is born, or when it has certain human characteristics?
- Is it ethical for embryos to be treated as the inhuman property of their mothers, like slaves? Or is the slavery analogy, which the film suggests, unfair?
- Finally, the question that is presented in the film over and over again: does every living thing have a right to survive despite the needs of others or their superior power?
Favorite quote: “When my father was killed, my brothers and I were branded, so everyone would know we were less than human. I’ve said and done things I’m not proud of, but sooner or later you realize, killing’s a business. So… when did killing become a business for you?” Albert Laurent ( Djimon Housou)
8. Quiz Show (1994)
“Quiz Show” is the true story about the quiz show scandals that rocked television in its infancy. Congressional hearings revealed that popular prime time programs like “21”were fixed, and that a young Columbia professor and scholar was one of the champions who had been supplied with the answers in advance. This is an intense and intelligent study in the power of rationalizations.
Ethical issues highlighted: Rationalizations, greed, advertising, lies, utilitarianism, revenge, apologies, corruption, bias
Favorite quote: “…At first they’d ask me questions they already knew I knew the answers to. We ran through those, and I really didn’t want them to give me the answers, so they gave me the questions and I’d look up the answers on my own, as if that were any different. Well, we ran through those in a couple of weeks and I just didn’t have the time, finally, and it just seemed silly, so…” Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes)
Like “Quiz Show” a Robert Redford-directed historical drama, “The Conspirator” tells the inspiring story of Frederick Aitkin, who took the hopeless job of defending Mary Surratt in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy trial. (Surratt, who ran the boarding house where the plot to kill the 16th President was hatched, became the first woman to be executed in the United States.) Few films make a clearer argument for lawyers representing unpopular clients and causes. The movie also shows the ethical dilemmas facing government when a crisis shakes the public’s faith in its own security, like 9/11 or the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Ethical issues highlighted: legal ethics, zealous representation, loyalty, courage, due process of law, wartime ethics, government ethics, the Constitution.
Favorite quote: “Our founding fathers drafted a constitution, precisely for times like this.” Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkerson)
10. Cinderella Man (2005)
“Cinderella Man” offers a hero who seems too good to be true but who was apparently just about as ethical in real life as he is shown to be in the film. He is James Braddock, a nearly forgotten heavyweight boxing champion in the 1930s (he was ultimately dethroned by the immortal Joe Louis). Braddock confronts every challenge in his difficult and improbable life with a natural instinct for choosing right over wrong. It is hymn to an ethical life spent in part in a brutal and unethical sport, and the rare breed of champion whose personal values and character not only matched his degree of success, but were responsible for it.
Ethical issues highlighted: determination, responsibility, courage, sacrifice, honesty, diligence, respect
Favorite quote: “You think you’re telling me something? Like, what, boxing is dangerous, something like that? You don’t think working triple shifts and at night on a scaffold isn’t just as likely to get a man killed? What about all those guys who died last week living in cardboard shacks to save on rent money just to feed their family, ’cause guys like you have not quite figured out a way yet to make money off of watching that guy die? But in my profession – and it is my profession – I’m a little more fortunate.” Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe)
[ Part I, Movies 1-5, is here]