Ethics can be a sensitive subject for any discussion particularly when brought down to a personal level. There was much discussion in class on what are the absolute rules of ethics. As Aristotle might have predicted, the opinions of the class broke down into the three main groups of ethics: utilitarianism, deontology, and ego ethics. Most of the class also focused on what each group believed. However, I think the more interesting issue is when do ethics break down. By focusing on the deontological view of ethics, the breaking point of not only deontological ethics but the other forms of ethics can be seen.
To understand deontology better, a study of its opposite philosophy is in order.
Consequentialism is based on the idea that the morality of a choice or action depends on the situation in which the situation or action was made. The essential difference is deontology follows “if it’s wrong, it’s wrong” while consequentialism follows “what the circumstances dictate.”
There are four common situations from film that test deontological ethics:
1. The ends justify the means
2. Authority contradicts
3. Numbers dictate
4. It’s Personal
Next these themes will be shown in several different movies.
The Blues Brothers is a good example of the ends justifies the means. As stated several times in the movie, the Blues Brothers are “On a mission from God” to help keep the orphanage they grew up in from closing down. The mission is then used throughout the movie as a reason to bend and break laws. Machiavelli originated the idea that the ends justify the means but it has roots in consequentialism
Following what authority says instead of what you believe is another common ethical dilemma. In The Green Mile, the head guard on death row, Tom Hanks, is forced to execute a prisoner he knows is innocent. He struggles with the decision for a while, but finally carries out his duty as the head guard. Once again consequentialism can be seen compromising the deontological view.
Sometimes the numbers of people that may be helped are too great to hold on to the deontological line. In The Dark Knight, Batman is forced to step over numerous deontological lines to catch The Joker and ultimately save Gotham city from destruction. The utilitarianism side of the argument compelled Batman to relax rules of law in order to save innocent people.
The last general circumstance is when a situation becomes too personal. In the movie Lawrence of Arabia, the main character Col. T.E. Lawrence is faced with the decision of whether to order an attack to completely annihilate an enemy or go around them and not cause any more loss of life. In the end he orders the attack for revenge for being tortured earlier in the movie and the death of his friend. Lawrence hated killing and violence and up until this instance tried to keep the amount of causalities as low as he could. However, once his feeling became tied into it, his deontological ethics were pushed aside.
With these situations, various deontological braking points have been examined but as always there are exceptions to these rules.
In the movie Star Trek: Insurrection, captain Picard is faced with the dilemma breaking his ethics by following orders that would help billions of people or face a court-martial and keep three hundred people from being harmed. In the end he sticks with his ethical beliefs despite the orders and numbers that would seem to point to moving consequentialism style ethics.
As another counter example of the four points of break down consider Orlando Bloom’s character, Balian, in Kingdom of Heaven. In the movie Balian is given the opportunity from the current king of Jerusalem to become the next king of Jerusalem and keep a war that would kill thousands from happening. If he accepts his rival, Guy, would be put to death for war crimes, Balian would also be free to marry Guy’s wife whom Balian had fallen in love with. Despite the personal benefits, saving thousands of lives, and even having the king requesting him to take the offer; Balian did not change his deontological views. All of the normal exceptions were present at compelling levels yet his ethics did not break down.
Given these exceptions, it seems when ethics break down it is due to the person and how firmly they believe in their ethics. It is dependent on personal identity. Who the person is and how willing they are to make exceptions is the defining point in when ethics break down.
Alexander, Larry. "Deontological Ethics." 21 November 2007. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Article. 2 May 2012.
B., Phil. Phil for Humanity. 2006. Article. 2 May 2012.