I’m trying to take a breather from the Syrian refugees, President Obama, Presidential candidates and rampaging college students, and an ethics issue from a 1960 Doris Day comedy is as far away as I can get.
In “Don’t Eat the Daisies,” a movie loosely (very loosely) based on the humorous mommy anecdote best seller by Jean Kerr, wife of then New York Times theater critic Walter Kerr, newly appointed prime drama critic Larry McKay (David Niven), his lovely wife Kate (Doris), their four rambunctious kids, their sheep dog and their wise-cracking house-keeper (Patsy Kelly)—yes, this was essentially the “Brady Bunch” without the girls—move to the country. Doris gets roped into the annual musical (for charity, natch) of the very amateur Hooten Holler Players. They ask the Larry for a play they could use, and he isn’t very helpful, so Doris calls up Alfred North, an old friend of the couple and a successful novelist played by Richard Haydn, best known as the sneaky Max in “The Sound of Music,” who has just had his first Broadway play skewered by McKay (Integrity! Integrity!). He is secretly seething and seeking revenge. The betrayed playwright siezes his chance: he sends Doris an obscure, terrible Foriegn Legion melodrama by an unknown author, and the Hooten Holler players turn it into a musical spoof.
Days before its ready to open, after all the tickets have been sold, Doris asks David to watch a rehearsal. He immediately recognizes the plot and some particularly awful lines: he wrote the play under a pseudonym! “BWAHAHAHAH!” laughs Max, or rather Alfred. Larry’s onetime friend, now relentless foe, has set the critic up for humiliation and professional doom, for other New York critics have been tipped off that the play getting its world premiere by the Hooten Holler Players is in fact the creation of the hypercritical critic himself. Once this abysmal mess is seen and taken apart by the critic’s rivals, his judgment will never be taken seriously again.
Niven demands that the production be cancelled, and forbids the Players to perform his work. Doris, who stars in the play, begs him to reconsider: the humble theater group will be ruined, and the charity will lose much needed support. The critic explodes: why does she care more about the amateur theater group than her husband’s career? She tells him that his theatrical power and fame has made him petty and mean. Their marriage seems ready to disintegrate.
Your retro-Hollywood Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is..
What’s going on here, and what do you do about it?
Well, first you take Max/Alfred off your Christmas card list, but somehow resist the temptation to send Luca Brasi after him. Then you compromise.
What’s going on here is an ethics conflict: there is no solution that is not unfair, in some respect, to someone. Neither party at risk here is to blame for the ethical conflict (except perhaps for Doris, who should have seen through Alfred—come to think of it, the movie of “The Sound of Music” hadn’t come out yet, so maybe that’s not fair), so this is one of the situations, common in real life, where somebody, or everyone, is going to be hurt, an ethics zero-sum conflict. There is no reason for Niven to subjugate his career and livelihood to the welfare of the theater group or the charity, nor is it reasonable for the group to feel that preventing one man’s misfortune is worth a community catastrophe and a devastated charity. In such messy situations where any result will be unfair to someone, it is time to consult one of the ethical decision-making models.
The Josephson Institute model is suitable for this one.
Here we go:
1. Determine precisely what must be decided
2. Formulate and devise the full range of alternatives.
3. Eliminate patently impractical, illegal and improper alternatives.
4. Force yourself to develop at least three ethically justifiable options.
5. Examine each option to determine which ethical principles and values are involved.
1. If any of the options requires the sacrifice of any ethical principle, evaluate the facts and assumptions carefully.
2. Distinguish solid facts from beliefs, desires, theories, suppositions, unsupported conclusions, opinions, and rationalizations.
3. Consider the credibility of sources, especially when they are self-interested, ideological or biased.
4. With regard to each alternative, carefully consider the benefits, burdens and risks to each stakeholder.
1. Make a judgment about what is not true and what consequences are most likely to occur.
2. Evaluate the viable alternatives according to personal conscience.
3. Prioritize the values so that you can choose which values to advance and which to subordinate.
4. Determine who will be helped the most and harmed the least.
5. Consider the worst case scenario.
6. Consider whether ethically questionable conduct can be avoided by changing goals or methods, or by getting consent.
7. Apply the three “ethics tests”
—Are you treating others as you would want to be treated?
—Would you be comfortable if your reasoning and decision were to be publicized?
—Would you be comfortable if your children were observing you?
1. Develop a plan of how to implement the decision.
2. Maximize the benefits and minimize the costs and risks.
The screenwriters didn’t use this model, at least not formally, but they could not have arrived at a better solution. The duty here is to fix the problem. Find a solution that minimizes harm to all parties. Recognizing that the interests of everyone involved—the critic, the group, the community and the charity—had to be considered (and one must acknowledge that the prospect of losing Doris Day, who is quite a catch for someone who looks like David Niven, as well as the kids, the dog, and Alice, I mean Patsy, played a part) the following compromise was devised: Larry wrote a review of his own play before it was performed, using it to unmercifully condemn his own work, pronounce himself a lousy playwright, and explain that he knew enough to quit writing garbage, and would continue to enlighten other incompetents to do the same. By doing so he proved his integrity, his objectivity and his dedication, foiling the evil Alfred. True, having your yearly show pronounced as crap in the New York Times before it even opens isn’t terrific, but the tickets had been sold, the charity got its money, the audience is mostly friends, and the damn thing stars Doris Day, for heaven sakes.
I’d pay to see it.