by Peggy Kerns
Want another top 10 movie list? Try this one: The Top Ten Best Ethics Films by Carla Miller and Don McClintock at CityEthics.org. Their favorites include familiar ones like A Man for All Seasons, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (this movie makes every list), 1984, Bulworth and one I hadn't heard of—The Ideal Husband.
To this top 10 list, I'm going to add two of my favorites. But first, what makes a movie an "ethics movie?"
Simply put, ethics is about doing the right thing. Doing the right thing can be based on laws or values. At NCSL's Center for Ethics in Government, we discuss both types. We track, research and publish information on the Web about ethics laws in all 50 states. In our training sessions, we present ethics as values—how people behave and the ethical conflicts they have, based on moral duties and values.
Dilemmas in these two categories play out differently. Public officials usually are not conflicted about law-based ethics, called right-versus-wrong dilemmas. They obey their state's ethics laws and, therefore, act in a legal way. Dilemmas based on values may be tougher to solve. Ethical dilemmas occur when the choice is between two ethical values, called right-versus-right dilemmas. Both choices may be ethically "right," but the person can pick only one way.
Movies that deal with the conflicts between competing ethical values are ethics films, and they are rich sources for training programs.Thomas O. Murton who is hired by then-Governor Winthrop Rockefeller to reform the state correctional system. He embarks on a crusade that uncovers awful conditions, corruption, extortion, and horrific prison torture.
Brubaker is pulled in two directions by conflicting values. He uncovers burial plots for hundreds of bodies in a field near the prison, most buried years earlier. This embarrasses the governor. On the one hand, he wants to reveal the truth about what he is discovering. On the other hand, by doing so, he jeopardizes his job, his career and puts prisoners in danger. He is asked to stop digging up bodies and concentrate on penal reforms. He makes a decision.
Lillian (head of parole board): "You don't see any options - no middle ground."
Brubaker: "I don't see playing politics with the truth."
Lillian: "No way to compromise?"
Brubaker: "On strategy maybe, not on principle."
At one point, Lillian admonishes Brubaker, "If you're not in the system, you can't change it." Brubaker responds: "Everyone has his own version (of right and wrong)." Brubaker (Murton) chose not to be in the system. He is fired, loses the battle, the war and his job, and his prison reforms stop. Murton died in 1990, never hired again by any correctional system.
In our training programs, the movie generates a lively discussion on how his values clashed. He chose principles of truth and transparency over the good he was doing for the prisoners. Could this be unethical? Was Lillian acting ethically when she asked Brubaker to compromise his principles? Who else had moral dilemmas? What would you do in a similar situation?
Another movie that contains an emotional right-versus-right dilemma is The Insider, starring Russell Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand, and Al Pacino as Lowell Bergman, producer for the CBS show, 60 Minutes.
Bergman: "You came from the health research industry, where research and creative thinking are core values. Why are you now working for tobacco?"
Wigand: "Mostly, I got paid a lot. I took the money. What's wrong with that?
Bergman: "Nothing's wrong with that. You've provided for your family. What can be wrong with that?"
Wigand: Well, I always thought of myself as a scientist. That's what's wrong with that.
Bergman convinces him to tell his story on 60 Minutes, which delays airing the story because of a potential lawsuit from B&W. Along the way, Wigand loses the support of his wife, and Bergman loses faith in CBS.
Toward the end, Bergman beautifully describes another right-versus-right dilemma when he says to Wigand:
"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."
Wigand's story is sobering. He got into legal trouble because of violating the confidentiality agreement, his wife divorced him and B&W set out to ruin his reputation. After he couldn't get hired in the corporate world, he became a high school science teacher. Today he lectures and runs his non-profit, Smoke-Free Kids. "People were dying. I wasn't a whistleblower," he said. "I was loyal to a higher order of ethical responsibility." In another interview, he said, "I had what I would consider some moral compass issues that I was dealing with in terms of what principle do I need.... And I wanted to get the truth out."
Questions we discuss in training include: Should Wigand have left B&W immediately when he learned their cigarettes doubled the usual amount of nicotine? His daughter was sick and he needed the health insurance: Is it ethical to put your family at risk? What would you have done? Did Bergman always act ethically? And what about CBS? Who else had moral dilemmas?
Two men. Two movies. Both portray people with courage who risked their professional and personal lives to be ethical—do the right thing.
Peggy Kerns, former minority leader of the Colorado House of Representatives, is director of NCSL's Center for Ethics in Government.