Ethics is not simply a set of politically correct views on specific issues, or a particular moralistic stand, or a bully flag planted in the sand. It’s a process that helps us come to terms with our toughest dilemmas. It’s not a compromise; it’s a lens.

  — Rushworth M. Kidder

  How Good People Make Tough Choices

Ethics and film combine in so many delicious ways to achieve multiple student learning outcomes. The combination can, among other things: introduce ethical theory through film; introduce ethical analysis as a stream of film criticism; ground students in the social responsibilities of the filmmaker and artist; demonstrate how ethical conflict and resolution enhance character development in screenwriting and define the moral center of a script.

A wealth of theoretical and applied ethical knowledge can be learned "in the dark" through film viewings, analysis, discussion, and writing (and, of course, rewriting).

Millennial students tend to come to the classroom with underdeveloped social value systems. Combined with limited life experiences, their film preferences and film imagination are equally limited and underdeveloped. Immersive exposure to character-driven narratives that struggle with ethical dilemmas not only widens their knowledge of film forms, but also allows them to vicariously participate in life experiences that can lead to greater self-analysis, awareness, and growth. They subsequently increase their abilities to create more nuanced, complex, and textured characters and stories of their own.

Through a greater practice and appreciation of ethical analysis of the films they experience, students also become sharper observers, critics, and writers about film. Like film, applied ethics lies at the nexus of theory, practice, writing/recording, and professional skills.

This paper discusses multiple approaches used in a “Ethics and Film” capstone course, highly rated by students taking it, that challenges, builds, and polishes students’ analytical, writing, and creative skills. The usefulness of specific films, ethical theories, sample assignments for both study and application, and a rubric for measuring student learning outcomes are included or referenced.

The approach is particularly valuable when employing the currently trendy "flipped classroom" or "upside down" system in student learning where the classroom becomes the locus of application through active learning, rather than passive attention to the traditional lecture.


Freshman Fifteen: Encountering Weighty Issues

Contemporary students often come to the university “ethics ambivalent” on a number of levels. As documented in numerous “millennial” studies, the bulk of decisions have been made for them throughout their childhood and youth, often including the choice of university. Unlike previous generations who may have arrived on college doorsteps searching for a “philosophy of life,” contemporary students tend to be more “careerists out of the starting gate” with a focus decidedly absent of traditional arts and humanities where the richer veins of philosophy and ethics are mined.

This is not to say contemporary students are beyond reach of a grounding in a traditional liberal arts education or in philosophic/ethical inquiry. They actually are quite ready and ripe for it. They have been shaped to this point by peer identification and media influences. Although they have a preference for more simplistic and relativist answers to contemporary ethical issues (which generally amount to no answer at all), they also express a sense of inadequacy and incompleteness in their stunted reflective approach. In informal “entering the classroom” surveys, ethics is usually defined as individual conscience, following the mores of the social group (mostly identified as peers), and whatever one can get away with. It takes only a touch of Socratic dialogue (or simple role-playing exercises) for the realization to emerge that this trio of thought is mutually unsupportable. Many can draw from their own lives examples of when their individual conscience led them in one direction, but peer mores reversed it. They admit a frustration at the thwarting of conscience-driven action by pressure to conform to group norms, or by the simple “rewards” of being able to get away with behavior they wouldn’t necessarily subscribe to as a way of life. 

Film and film study courses are prime resources when addressing this ambivalence, ambiguity, and generally amoral outlook. We see it often enough when we direct students with the standard: “Write what you know.” We—and they—discover they really don’t know much at all. Much of what they know is via media sources and their film (including online video, gaming, etc.) diet is lacking in essential nutrients of what constitutes the “human dimension” as opposed to the superhuman, paranormal, car chase, explosion, slasher, and revenge-driven dimension. They have certainly faced and can construct dilemmas, but come up short with resolutions that are not clichéd media-standards that privilege power over humanism. Here is where we can capitalize—as film professors and mentors in life-long learning—on the amount of their familiarity, and discomfort, with confronting real ethical dilemmas in their lives.


Constructing the Ethical Design

Following a discussion of differences between ethics and law, and externally-driven rule behavior versus inwardly-driven ethical behavior, we discuss what constitutes an ethical dilemma: A conflict in values that presents multiple options in behavior/action. Here are examples, some given by the instructor and some solicited from the students, such as: Truth versus Loyalty; Short-term pleasures versus Long-term consequences; Justice versus Mercy; Self v. Community; Doing what we should versus Doing what we want; Wanting two things (outcomes) that preclude each other.

The first assignment is to write of a personal ethical dilemma the student has faced and what resolution, if any, she/he might have pursued. Two pages, double-spaced. Confidentiality is assured. No one will see this assignment other than the student and professor. An acknowledgement of completion is given, but the assignment is not returned nor is the dilemma commented upon. This is because it will be used again as a summative assignment.

Although individual dilemmas are not identified with the student author or detailed before the class, it is instructive to group them by general description into categories such as relationship dilemmas, workplace dilemmas, academic dilemmas, social dilemmas, etc., and present the categories to the class as a reminder that many of us face similar human dilemmas, and so connect us in ways that all good stories do.  

They can also be brought together as illustrative of the “Ethical Triumvirate”: 

  • Virtue—Who we should be; our ideal selves.
  • Duty—How we should act; our societal and role obligations.
  • Consequences—What (and whose) good will be served.

From these three concepts come ethical tests for assessing the adherence of action to

traditional principles:

  • Universality: Is this the way we would want everyone to act? Is this the way we would handle all similar situations?
  • Reversibility: If we were on the receiving end of the action, would we agree (regardless of whether we “liked it”) that it was justified?
  • Transparency: Are we willing to make our actions and decision-making publicly known? Are we willing to discuss them freely and openly?


Learning Ethics through Film I: The Basics

Films are a handy way to teach traditional ethical philosophy, whether or not an instructor wants to immerse the class in the “naming of the parts” of individual philosophies (deontology, teleology, etc.) or philosophers (Aristotle, Mill, Kant, and Jung). There are several valuable Websites where students can find easily digestible explanations of these basic principles and thinkers:

I also recommend Rosenstand’s excellent (but pricey) textbook (see references) because it recognizes the value and special role that story-telling plays in both our learning of social ethics and the setting of social mores. It utilizes synopses of film stories to illustrate major points.

A good starting point is a discussion of egoism versus altruism, or selfishness versus selflessness. An excellent film to explore these concepts is Return to Paradise (dir. Joseph Ruben, 1988 and starring the then-emerging Vince Vaughn, Joaquin Phoenix, Anne Heche, and Jada Pinkett-Smith). It is an excellent and complex example of the classic “prisoner’s dilemma” often used in traditional ethics courses (see

The theme of altruistic action (assuming partial responsibility) v. selfish denial of action is felt viscerally by the students. The film can be stopped when desired for discussion of how the characters are responding to the ethical dilemmas they are facing (and have caused). Students are reminded that they are able to vicariously “try on” the multiple reactions via character identification to appreciate, rather than judge, each character’s motives and pressures as they shift through the story. (Occasionally I assign students a particular character and ask them to retell the story in a page or less from that character’s perspective.) Considering the essential dignity of even the most undignified characters can assist students in constructing fewer one- and two-dimensional characters in their own screenplays, as well as evaluating ethical character development as an angle of film criticism. Although the ending has been tarted up some from the original French production (Force Majeure) with the obligatory Hollywood romance and promise of hope, the fundamental issues reap hours of rewarding discussion around such questions as: 

Where do the characters fit on this scale, and how do they shift as the story progresses?

Egoism . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Altruism

1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10


How would you define the characters’ actions in terms of:

  • Virtue
  • Duty
  • Consequenece

Did they change? If so, how?


How do the characters’ actions measure up to the “3 Tests”:

    • Universality
    • Reversibility
    • Transparency


Is “Sheriff’s” [a character] statement:

    • “Just because you do something good doesn’t mean there’ll be a happy ending” a rationale for NOT being altruistic when the outcome is unknown or unpredictable?


At this point students are getting a feel not only for applying some principle-based ethical reasoning (as opposed to knee-jerk pre-reflective reactions), but also for the value of a rich and textured “moral center” to a film and character development. To help along their thinking about character complexities and to integrate their viewing, thinking, and discussion with their writing, this final question is presented, which lends itself nicely to a small-group discussion/writing/editing session:

Write a sketch for the sequel: It’s 2 years later, the anniversary of Lewis’ hanging. What has happened to the other characters? What are they doing now?

[NOTE: Synopses of this and other pertinent films mentioned in this article, and details of assignments given to the class that are tied to each film, a list of other films to be considered, details of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” a rubric for assessment, and a copy of “A framework for thinking ethically” from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics ( ) are available from the author.]


Learning Ethics through Film II: Digging Deeper 

Students are now prepared to integrate some simple statements of ethical principles into their thinking, analyses, and writing. Whether a stand-alone course or a unit in a broader film studies course, it is the application of the principles rather than their memorization that is key. (I confess to some bursts of pride when a former student tells me there had been a discussion of ethics in her workplace and she exclaimed: “We learned about that in FILM class!”)

      Here are some of these statements:

  • Act in ways you would want all people to act (Immanual Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” and “Principle of Self-Determination”)
  • Don’t act as an exception to your own rule. (Kant)
  • Don’t use other people as a means to your ends. (Kant)
  • Act in ways that will bring the greatest good to the greatest number—and harm to the fewest. (John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism)
  • Any harm your actions bring to individuals must be clearly and overwhelmingly outweighed by good to the general society. (Mill)
  • Treat all equally; put yourself in the place of the person whom your actions will affect. (John Rawles: Justice as Fairness)

Films to illustrate these philosophic approaches might include High Noon (dir. Fred Zinnemann, 1952) as an illustration of Kantian Duty or Obligation; and Million Dollar Baby (dir. Clint Eastwood, 2004) as illustrative of both Obligation and Social Utility, and the tensions that can arise between them. Writing assignments can be completed individually, or in collaborative small groups. At this point students are learning that an ethical analysis can be as valuable and revealing as other approaches to film studies and criticism.  They can also study the films for the ways in which the director used film language and technique to isolate and emphasize the dilemma and its path to resolution; and how the outward acting reflected (or in some cases deflected) the inner tensions and turmoil of the dilemma.

With this basic understanding of ethical principles, how (as human principles) they are reflected as the “moral center” in the better character-driven dramas, students are ready to tackle some higher-order professional issues of social responsibilities as filmmakers such as Representation and Stereotypes.

Smoke Signals (dir. Chris Eyre, 1998) and Better Luck Tomorrow (dir. Justin Lin, 2002) are two films against which they can measure their own stereotypical perspectives against the representation presented when the camera is now in the hands of “the Other.” Both films use familiar genres (the road film, the high school social world) to move the viewers into new perspectives, including indigenous story-telling styles and an existential twist on a “model minority” becoming anything but. 

The non-traditional ending of Better Luck Tomorrow tends to leave students dissatisfied, as it lacks the usual closure they have come to expect in films (and is drilled into them through the teaching of the three-act-character-arc screenwriting template). This presents an opportunity for them—through a writing assignment—to create a treatment for a sequel occurring at the 10th reunion of the former high school classmates that outlines what has become of each of the characters. This affords the students the opportunity for both creativity and the drawing upon their newly acquired ethical knowledge to search out a “principle-based” resolution for the unresolved dilemmas of the original film.

This exercise leads naturally to a final assignment where their original personal ethical dilemmas, written at the beginning of class, are dusted off for their review. They are instructed to re-evaluate their dilemmas and actions in the light of what they have learned over the term, and then to draft a film treatment about a character facing that, or a similar dilemma, and the steps the character takes toward a resolution. If nothing else, they are truly “writing what they know.”



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_____ & Williams, Nancy. "Beyond Diversity: Expanding the Canon in Journalism Ethics,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics. 11:1 (1996), 16-27.

_____ "Exotics, Erotics and Coco-Nuts: Pacific Islanders in the Media," chapter in Paul Lester and Susan Ross (eds.) Images That Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media (2nd ed.).  Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003, 103-111. 

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