Back to the Movies—Les Miz

In my previous Ethics Unwrapped blog post, I noted that in Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” President Lincoln is portrayed as have taken a utilitarian ends-justify-the-means approach to securing passage of the Thirteen Amendment in order to end slavery.  Rather than follow a deontological, rule-based “thou shalt not lie” approach, Lincoln is willing to tolerate lying and bribery and to extend the war in order to accomplish this supremely important goal.

Contrast that with “Les Miserables,” another recent and similarly (IMHO) wonderful movie.  When Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) apologizes to Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), comfortably ensconced in his new identity as mayor and factory-owner M. Madeleine, for having wrongfully accused him of being the fugitive Valjean, Valjean realizes that an innocent man is about to be thrown in jail for Valjean’s “crimes.”   A deontological approach to resolving the dilemma in which Valjean finds himself seems to argue strongly for Valjean to step forward and inform the authorities that they are about to sentence an innocent man.

In the movie, Valjean quickly runs through a utilitarian analysis, examining the consequences of giving himself up, which would hurt his village, possibly throw scores of people out of work, cause grief to the sympathetic prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway) for whom he is caring, and prevent him from rescuing her daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) from the clutches of wicked guardians.

For a real life person, an additional critical factor would almost inevitably be the impact upon Valjean himself, who would have to return to a life of slavery and abject misery.  There is substantial evidence that the self-serving bias (the tendency to gather information, process information, and even to remember information in such a way as to advance our perceived best interests or preexisting positions) affects which approach to resolving an ethical dilemma—deontological or teleological (utilitarian)–people choose in given situations.  If you are related to the murder defendant facing possible capital punishment, you may find deontology (“Thou Shalt Not Kill”) appealing.  If you are related to the murder victim, you are more likely to be attracted to the potential deterrent effects of capital punishment in a teleological approach.  People will often nearly immediately and unconsciously choose whichever approach serves their own best interests or previously declared position.  A person’s brain’s instinctual System 1 often leaps to a conclusion, leaving the more deliberate System 2 to conjure up rationalizations to support the choice.

One of the reasons that Jean Valjean is one of the most admired and memorable characters in literature is that he is able to overcome the self-serving bias and reject the obvious rationalizations in order to conclude that despite the unfortunate consequences that he and others will face, he must turn himself in.  He then has the courage to act on that conclusion, which many real people have not had.

But to return to the Steven Spielberg movie, how would you feel about President Lincoln had he in a critical scene told one of his advisors: “I’m giving up on ending slavery.  I will not see a bribe paid to get any legislation enacted, no matter how important”???

[Note that the self-serving bias is featured in one of our Concepts Unwrapped video shorts and that rationalizations are features in one of the video shorts that accompanies our “In It to Win” video about Jack Abramoff.]

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