Holiday Ethics Assigment: Quick! Watch These 25 Great Old Ethics Movies Again Before You Go Bonkers Too!


I am compiling a new list of great ethics movies to help those troubled by the recently completed Presidential campaign, the election and its aftermath. I haven’t decided whether to reveal it piecemeal, or collectively as I have before, but I do need to begin by presenting the previous list of 25, actually the combination of several previous posts. Ethics films I have covered individually since those lists debuted, like Spotlight and Bridge of Spies, will eventually be added.

For now, here’s the top 25. Don’t pay attention to the order.

1Spartacus (196o)

The raw history is inspiring enough: an escaped gladiator led an army of slaves to multiple victories over the Roman legions in one of the greatest underdog triumphs ever recorded. Stanley Kubrick’s sword-and-sandal classic has many inspiring sequences, none more so than the moment when Spartacus’s defeated army chooses death rather than to allow him to identify himself to their Roman captors (“I am Spartacus!”)

Ethical issues highlighted: Liberty, slavery, sacrifice, trust, politics, courage, determination, the duty to resist abusive power, revolution, love, loyalty.

Favorite quote: “When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.” [Spartacus (Kirk Douglas)]

2.  Hoosiers (1986)

“Hoosiers” is loosely based on true story, but its strength is the way it combines classic sports movie clichés—the win-at-all-costs coach down on his luck, the remote superstar, over-achieving team—into a powerful lesson: it isn’t the final victory that matters most, but the journey to achieving it.

Ethical issues highlighted: Forgiveness, generosity, leadership, kindness, courage, loyalty, diligence, redemption.

Favorite quote: “If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we’re gonna be winners.” [ Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman)]

3. Babe (1995)

A wonderful movie about the virtues of being nice, the greatest civility film of all time. Second place: “Harvey.”

Ethical issues highlighted: Civility, kindness, reciprocity, loyalty, courage, love, friendship, bigotry, bias.

Favorite quote: “Fly decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that sheep were stupid, and there was nothing that could convince her otherwise…The sheep decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that wolves were ignorant, and there was nothing that could convince them otherwise”  The Narrator (Roscoe Lee Browne) Continue reading

The Strange Case Of The Brain Dead Mother-To-Be

In happier times; Mr. and Mrs. Munoz with their first child. And she really wanted her second child to die with her?

In happier times; Mr. and Mrs. Munoz with their first child. Did  she really want her second child to die with her? Is that a respectable request, if she did?

Dead people are causing a lot of anguish in the ethics world lately. First, a family wants to force a hospital to keep their brain-dead, which is to say, dead, daughter on life support just in case a miracle occurs, while the rest of society pays for it. Now, in Texas, we have a true brain death dilemma that once again highlights the problem with U.S. abortion law and ethics.

Texan mother Marlise Munoz was 14 weeks pregnant with her second child when she collapsed and later died from a blood clot in her lungs. Her parents and husband told the intensive care unit at  Fort Worth’s John Peter Smith Hospital to honor her stated wish not to be left on life support, but the hospital has so far refused to comply with their instructions.  Texas is one of 31  states that prohibit medical officials from cutting off life support to a pregnant patient. Now, more than a month after her brain stopped functioning, the late Marlise Munoz is still connected to life-support machines, and her unborn child is now in its 20th week of development. Continue reading

Ten More Hollywood Ethics Cures For A Post-Election Hangover (Part 2)

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:

6. The Insider (1999)

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) Continue reading

Octomom and PETA: a Match Made in Ethics Hell

I didn’t think anything could make me feel sorry for Octomom, a.k.a. Nadya Suleman, the serial baby-machine who is a one-woman bioethics seminar with some child exploitation thrown in for spice. Then along came People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the ethically-challenged animal rights fanatics. PETA believes that no person or thing on earth deserves consideration, fairness or respect if he, she or it can be used to advance its message. A few months ago, it plastered the First Lady on some of the organization’s ads without her permission, because it knew that the publicity over this obvious violation of Michelle Obama’s right to be consulted before being used this way would get PETA in the news. And it did.

When you turn off the ethics alarms that are supposed to sound before you violate a person’s dignity, autonomy and self-respect, it is amazing what schemes you can come up with. So when PETA learned that Suleman was about to lose her home  in a foreclosure, its brain trust thought, “Wow, she must be desperate. And she obviously has no shame. I bet she’ll do anything for money! It probably won’t even have to be much money, either.” Continue reading

Beware of Ethicist Ethics

On Ethics Alarms, as with its progenitor, The Ethics Scoreboard, commenters frequently accuse me of manipulating ethical arguments to endorse or support a political agenda. I often find such comments unfair, intellectually lazy and wrong, but please, keep making them. Avoiding a political or ideological slant is one of the most challenging tasks in rendering ethical analysis, and it is so easy (and tempting) to fall into the trap of letting bias rule reason that it helps to be regularly smacked upside the head.

Even with repeated smacks, true objectivity is nearly impossible in ethics, because of the central role played by ethical conflicts—not the ethical problem of conflicts of interest, but the philosophical problem of designating priorities among competing ethical values. Ethical conflicts require choosing which ethical value yields to another: a doctor knows a patient is dying and that nothing can be done. Is the ethical course to be honest, or to be kind? In public policy, ethical conflicts abound, and often involve deciding between two different versions of the same ethical value. Which version of “fair” is fairer, for example: allowing a talented, hard-working individual to keep the money she earns for her and her family, or for her to have to share some of that money with others, perhaps less talented and hard working, but also perhaps less fortunate, who do not have enough to survive? Ethical problems pit compassion against accountability, responsibility against forgiveness, autonomy against fairness, equity against justice. Continue reading