“It’s A Wonderful Life” Ethics, Part 2 (of 3)

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. Continue reading

“It’s A Wonderful Life” Ethics, Part I (of 3)

“It’s A Wonderful Life” made its now traditional holiday season appearance on network television, and naturally, I watched it. The movie is one of the great ethics movies of all time, as well as being one of the great American movies of all time, perhaps director Frank Capra’s masterpiece. One of the markers of a classic film is how one can find new things in it upon every viewing, and that is certainly true of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” I was struck this time around by how many ethics issues are raised in the screenplay, some, no doubt, unintentionally.

1. “If It’s About Ethics, God Must Be Involved”

The movie begins in heaven, represented by twinkling stars. There is no way around this, as divine intervention isat the core of the fantasy; heaven and angels were big in Hollywood in the Forties. Nevertheless, the framing of the tale advances the anti-ethical idea, central to many religions, that good behavior on earth will be rewarded in the hereafter, bolstering the theory that without God and eternal rewards, doing good is pointless.

We are introduced to George Bailey, who, we are told, is in trouble and has prayed for help. He’s going to get it, too, or at least the heavenly authorities will make the effort. They are assigning an Angel 2nd Class, Clarence Oddbody, to the job. He is, we learn later, something of a second rate angel as well as a 2nd Class one, so it is interesting that whether or not George is in fact saved will be entrusted to less than heaven’s best. Some lack of commitment, there—then again, George says he’s “not a praying man.” This will teach him—sub-par service! Continue reading