It took me a while to watch the movie Sicario, and I was impressed. It’s suspenseful and such, but it also highlights ways that the characters (and people in general) make decisions about right and wrong, moral conduct, and ethical behavior: what are called moral theories. They are also known as ethical theories. In this blog, I look at various moral theories vis-a-vis characters in movies and literature, as well as politics, religion, and so on. The goal is to shed a little light on how we make moral decisions and what folks do when faced with ethical dilemmas and other challenges to their moral values.
In the movie, three characters demonstrate two categorically different types of moral decision-making (a.k.a. ethical decision-making). That is, they use different moral theories to decide how to act when questions of right and wrong crop up.
Emily Blunt is an FBI agent unwittingly roped into the service of the CIA in a drug interdiction operation. Big time. She is needed because the CIA apparently doesn’t have the right to operate stateside if a domestic law enforcement agency isn’t participating. She is the patsy of guys in suits, represented by leatherneck Josh Brolin. Along for the ride and stealing the show is hard-core Columbian black ops vendetta guy played by the ever-capable Benicio del Toro.
They chose Blunt for a reason that didn’t seem clear to me before seeing the movie, but which became clear when I viewed it. She is a capable enough FBI agent – she can shoot the bad guys and control her breathing in sticky situations. But she really exemplifies the quintessential “good person” in Sicario. She feels, she cries, she gets scared, she tries to do right, she won’t fold under threat of death. She is, as del Toro points out, “not a wolf, and this is a place of wolves now.” She might be more aptly described as a sheep dog in the tripartite metaphor for people: good cops, bad cops, and the public (symbolized by sheep dogs, wolves/bad guys, and sheep, respectively).
She wants the public protected and tries her hardest to do so. Within the bounds of the law. Thus, one of the moral theories Blunt’s character represents are those of virtue ethics, rule utilitarianism, as well as deontology. It’s a bit difficult to tease those apart in a character analysis, but shooting from the hip, I see those moral theories and driving Blunt’s law-abiding and morally good behavior. Kate, her character, utters lines such as “I’m not a solider, this is not what I do!” and when the jig is up, she toes the line and behaves like a good law enforcement officer, admitting to del Toro’s character (Alejandro), “I’m gonna tell everyone what you did.” She is going to be a truth-teller, whistle-blower, and person of upright character. Virtue ethics is one of the moral theories accounting for Kate’s behavior because she wants to be a good person, upholding virtues such as justice, truthfulness, and respect for the law.
According to Luke Mastin of The Basics of Philosophy:
“Ethics (or Moral Philosophy) is concerned with questions of how people ought to act, and the search for a definition of right conduct (identified as the one causing the greatest good)…
The word ethics is derived from the Greek “ethos” (meaning “custom” or “habit”). …Ethics is not limited to specific acts and defined moral codes, but encompasses the whole of moral ideals and behaviours, a person’s philosophy of life.
It asks questions like “How should people act?” (Normative or Prescriptive Ethics), “What do people think is right?” (Descriptive Ethics), “How do we take moral knowledge and put it into practice?” (Applied Ethics), and “What does ‘right’ even mean?” (Meta-Ethics).”
Alternatively, Alejandro is a wolf. Most of the guys he comes into contact with are. He has seen too much, as his eyes and his behavior make clear. However, he looks upon Blunt favorably. She reminds him of his daughter, a sheep who was sacrificed at the altar of drugs and drug trafficking. He isn’t rotten, just extremely focused, murderous, and patient. Like a spider. Having gotten a look at the steely resolve but restrained behavior characterizing Kate, he declines to kill her, perhaps touched by the look in her eyes, and advises her: “You should move to a small town, somewhere the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now.” Kate, in turn, doesn’t kill him; she can’t pull the trigger. She lets him slink away into the shadows.
Different moral theories are demonstrated by the brilliant characters (and script writers, directors, actors, etc). I described Blunt/Kate as trying to do the right thing and prioritizing the rule of law, procedure, not harming the innocent, and making sure the bad guys are caught and properly prosecuted. She wears a white hat because when she uses, say, deontology, she is clear that there are rules that specify right and wrong, and there isn’t really any flexibility. Do the right thing. Follow rules. Stand up and be counted. Hold your head high. She wouldn’t torture a suspect in order to get information, exact revenge, or gain a confession.
del Toro/Alejandro is driven primarily by the desire to do whatever it takes to set things right, in his mind, for the brutal murder by a drug cartel of his wife and daughter. The cartels are the really bad guys, morally speaking. One of the moral theories Alejandro practices can be characterized by the ends justify the means. He would endorse this: “It is acceptable to hurt one person in order to help many, such as torturing a suspect for information that will save many others.” If someone stands in his way of revenge, they get a bullet. The innocent, as he sees them, do not deserve pain or death; this is what separates this wolf from a monster (e.g., a psychopath or serial killer). He doesn’t care about carnage and collateral damage, but he doesn’t get joy out of killing, either.
Brolin/Matt is the quintessential American man’s man whose goals are to look out for #1, to protect America as a nation, do what his superiors direct him to, take out the trash (so to speak), bust heads, kick ass and take names, etc. Matt, engages in this exchange with Kate about Alejandro:
Matt : Medellin refers to a time when one group controlled every aspect of the drug trade, providing a measure of order that we could control. And until somebody finds a way to convince 20% of the population to stop snorting and smoking that shit, order’s the best we can hope for. And what you saw up there, was Alejandro working toward returning that order.
Kate Macer : Alejandro works for the fucking Colombian Cartel!
Matt : He works for the competition. Alejandro works for anyone who will point him toward the people who made him. Us. Them. Anyone who will turn him loose. So, he can get the person that cut off his wife’s head, and threw his daughter into a vat of acid. Yeah. That’s what we’re dealing with.”
Matt is likely to think of moral behavior on a cost-benefit analysis basis, and to consider that sometimes you have to commit morally wrong acts to get to an ultimately-more-important place. “You’ve got to break a few eggs if you want to make an omelet,” for example. It’s not so far as Might makes right, because that would describe someone more self-centered and amoral. Hitler typifies might makes right. He might have said, “I don’t care how many goddamned eggs I have to break, this country deserves an omelet, and by God I am going to make a fucking omelet if I have to kill anyone standing in my way!” Hitler also perfectly exemplified “might makes right,” meaning, “If I have power, whatever I say GOES!” Unfortunately, that kind of narcissistic, unscrupulous, wanton behavior also characterizes the former president of the United States to a large degree.
I thought of the similarities with the movie Traffic, starring Michael Douglas and again, Benicio del Toro. Here are a few that are relevant to morality, character, and righteousness:
“In Mexico, law enforcement is an entrepreneurial activity”;
“What’s Washington like? Well its like Calcutta, surrounded by beggars. The only difference is the beggars in Washington wear 1500 dollar suits and they don’t say please or thank you”;
“If there is a war on drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy. And I don’t know how you wage war on your own family.”
Below is an oft-quoted monologue by the easy-to-peg Colonel Nathan Jessup, played ably by Jack Nicholson in the movie A Few Good Men:
“Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know; that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, *saves lives*. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it! I would rather you just said “thank you” and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a *damn* what you think you are entitled to!”
I like the movie Heat. I have wondered about the head of a gang of thieves, Neil, played by Robert DeNiro. Here are some quotes to elucidate which moral theories he is operating under:
“A guy told me one time, Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner. Now, if you’re on me and you gotta move when I move, how do you expect to keep a… a marriage?
In one of the most interesting bits of dialogue in the movie, between Al Pacino (the cop) and DeNiro, they discuss doing “whatever is necessary” to fulfill their end-goals: bringing in bad guys and escaping capture, respectively:
Vincent Hanna/Al Pacino: “You know, we are sitting here, you and I, like a couple of regular fellas. You do what you do, and I do what I gotta do. And now that we’ve been face to face, if I’m there and I gotta put you away, I won’t like it. But I tell you, if it’s between you and some poor bastard whose wife you’re gonna turn into a widow, brother, you are going down.”
Neil McCauley: “There is a flip side to that coin. What if you do got me boxed in and I gotta put you down? Cause no matter what, you will not get in my way. We’ve been face to face, yeah. But I will not hesitate. Not for a second.”
Here are some one-line descriptions of what Peter Raabe, Ph.D. and I consider to be representative of the major moral theories:
- Ethical Subjectivism: “I go with my gut when making decisions” or “I stick by my guns, go with my gut, and that’s that.”
- Consequentialism: “When I am considering how to make a decision, the outcome is the most important thing” or “What would happen if I were to do this?”
- Cost-Benefit Analysis: “If you want to make an omelet, you’re gonna have to break some eggs” or “I weigh the pros and cons first”
- Ethical Relativism: “My upbringing, my church (for example), and my country account for the decisions I make” or “This is how we do things where I’m from”
- Act Utilitarianism: “I believe in increasing the pleasure and reduce the suffering of as many beings as possible” or “The more pleasure, the better.”
- Rule Utilitarianism: “I’ve got a set of guidelines and well thought-out beliefs that makes decision-making pretty clear-cut and solid” or “Every decision has a clear-cut rule that I choose to follow to the letter”
- Relational Ethics/Care Ethics: “My love for my family and circle of friends are my considerations when I make decisions” or “This is a big world – I concentrate on those close to me when I decide”
- Consensus Theory: “Majority rules!” or “Put it to a vote!”
- Casuistry: “The past helps me determine my present” or “What have others done in similar situations?”
- Contextualism: “It depends on the nature of the situation” or “Ethics is more about grey than black and white”
- Natural Law: “Rights and responsibilities are obvious and solid”
- Pragmatism: “The practical results of my decision is what guides me” or “A decision is only as good as the actual, real-world results that it produces”
- Golden Rule: “Do unto others”
- Moral Intuitionism: ““What I intuitively believe to be right is right” or “I just know what’s right and wrong; it’s not so much a matter of thinking as it is a feeling I get” or “My conscience tells me what is right and wrong”
- Deontology: “Do the right thing, period” or “Whatever I would wish for the whole human race to do in my case, I do” or “There is a beautiful rigor to my decision-making”
- Existential Ethics: “I’m making the right decision when I’m being true to my self” or “I have both the freedom and responsibility to do the right thing”
- Discourse Ethics: “I discuss my decisions with others for their input” or “Two heads are better than one”
- Libertarianism: “I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes – or have mine stepped on” or “If it doesn’t hurt you, I am free to do it”
- Divine Command: “If God says it’s the right thing to do, it is the right thing to do” “I follow God’s laws”
- Virtue Ethics: “A good person makes good decisions” or “I ask myself ‘What would a good person do in my shoes?’”
- Justice as Fairness: “If it is fair, then it is right” or “I try to be impartial and just in my decisions”
- Ethical Egoism: “I look out for Number One” “My duty is to my self”
Wonder which of the moral theories you tend to follow? Take the free morality assessment, The Ethical Decision-Making Guide here on Values of the Wise
Here are two examples of how moral theories operate in everyday life:
John is in a tight race for the city council of a major city. It is tight, and he really wants to win. He believes firmly that his views on environmental, penal, and child-welfare issues are much more beneficial to the people and city he wants to serve than his opponents’ take on those issues. He discovers that the opponent has had an affair for over a year with a woman that is a mutual acquaintance. There is no way for John to know whether his opponent’s wife and children know about the affair. What will John choose to do?
- One thing to consider is this: is having an affair wrong? How do you know – in other words, what theory do you use to arrive at your belief? Each person has to decide for themselves if it is. Does it matter that it is now in the past?
- Has John himself had an affair in the past? What if he did, would that change the nature of his decision?
- Would it be right to bring the affair to the attention of the press? What effect would that have on the race? What if it turned out that he was being lied to or tricked by the woman who is alleging the affair – thus making John incorrect in his accusation?
- If John believes that he really would be better for the environment, would be more humanitarian to the city jail’s prisoners, and children in the city would be better off with John’s policies, does that mean that telling the press about his opponent “worth it?”
- Why is it the right thing or wrong thing to do to tell the press about the affair? Does it matter what John has in mind as an outcome, or does that not matter?
Abortion is a serious moral issue. The four most popular beliefs about the rightness and wrongness of having an abortion are: a) it is wrong to abort a human being and so we as a society must prevent women from doing the wrong thing to the humans inside them, b) aborting a fetus up to a certain age (say, first trimester) is not wrong because the fetus is not yet a “human being,” c) it is wrong, except in certain rare cases, such as rape of the woman, incest producing the child, and a certain level of deformity of the child (from testing done in the first or second trimester, and d) regardless of whether it is “right” or “wrong,” the woman should have a right to have an abortion if she chooses. There are going to be court battles and battles in our hearts about abortion for a long time to come.
Examples of decisions made about why abortion is wrong according to different moral theories:
“God tells man that to kill a child is wrong, so it is wrong” (Divine Command Theory)
“Abortion is wrong because if I were a fetus, I wouldn’t want to be aborted” (Golden Rule)
“I would not abort a fetus because I believe that even the smallest person is still a life, and I respect life – I am a good person” (Virtue Ethics)
Examples of decisions made about why abortion is not wrong according to different moral theories:
“Whether abortion is wrong or not is not up to me to decide for someone else; what IS important is that we keep a woman’s right to choose safe and available” (Contextualism)
“I do not believe that a life that can’t exist on its own without the help of the mother is a life, and so it is not wrong to abort a fetus.” (Libertarianism)
“If I were to have this baby in my circumstances, the child would be a lot worse off than if I just had the abortion” (Cost-Benefit Analysis or Consequentialism)
Click the image below to read a blog entitled “Making Moral Choices on a Daily Basis”