Different people behave in many different ways. Whether making a decision to cut someone off in traffic or give a dollar to someone begging for money, people are constantly weighing their decision to perform an action based on whether that action is the right or wrong thing to do. But what makes a particular action right or wrong, and who is the ultimate judge of that action? Ethics dictate the moral principles or philosophies of how we behave. While one philosophy may seem, at times, to be more right than another, all philosophies can be correct depending on the point of view used. The Insider is a good example of a movie illustrating all four ethics philosophies: relativism, egoism, utilitarianism, and deontologism in uncovering some of the hidden secrets of big tobacco.
Relativism is an ethical concept with no absolute truth or validity. It only has relative or subjective value according to differences in perception of consideration. According to relativism, people behave the way they do because of their historical or cultural context. If they act a certain way, it is because the society that surrounds them has made them the way they are. Any and all actions are justified under a relativistic point of view. When one relativistic person finds agreement with another, as in groupthink, it sometimes makes relativism seem more justified. When faced with a decision, people acting under a relativistic philosophy will do practically anything they want as long as they can somehow rationalize it. One problem with relativism might be the justification of something like the Nazi Holocaust in the killing of Jews, homosexuals, and disabled people.
According to The Insider, the “seven dwarfs” seemed to convince themselves that what they were doing was ethically right. They had been programmed to believe that cigarettes were not harmful or addictive. The entire culture of tobacco business believed this way for many years and often emphatically denied anything to the contrary.
Egoism is an ethical philosophy where people look out for their own welfare above all others. People acting under an egoistic philosophy will find justification in anything that maximizes their self-interest, and they will believe that everyone else is also acting in their own self-interest as well. When faced with a decision, people acting under the egoistic philosophy will always do what benefits them the most. One problem with egoism might be that many people could potentially suffer at the expense of bringing happiness to oneself.
According to the movie, Liane Wigand repeatedly exhibits behavior of someone operating in an egoistic way. For example, when confronting Jeffrey Wigand after he was fired, she was only concerned in her own comfort and how the things that she had grown accustomed to would be taken away. Instead of supporting Jeffrey through the testimony and interviews that would eventually protect the safety of so many people, she decided to leave him.
Mike Wallace also acted egoistically when he refused to support Lowell in his efforts to get Wigand’s interview televised. He was basing his decision primarily on his own self-interest in he was more concerned about how he would be remembered once he retired. Later on, however, he changed his philosophy and started working with Lowell in a utilitarian way.
Utilitarianism is an ethical philosophy that posits the proper course of action should be that which maximizes overall “happiness”. It differs from egoism in that the goal is to benefit as many people as possible without self-interest in mind. Sometimes, even seemingly wrong acts can be viewed as right when they will result in benefiting a greater number of people. When faced with complex decisions, people acting under the utilitarian philosophy will always choose to do what produces the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people or the least amount of bad to the least amount of people. One problem with holding a utilitarian point of view might be that an occasional theft from a rich man or an occasional lie to avoid embarrassment could both be considered justifiable actions.
In putting the safety of the public ahead of those needs of his family, Jeffrey Wigand was definitely practicing utilitarian ethics. Even though he knew he was risking the health of his daughter and he could have gone to jail upon returning home, he decided to put his statement on record. This selfless act was done undoubtedly for the greater good of the public.
As the thought of CBS being sued was weighed against the airing of the interview, one might infer that Don Hewitt was acting in a utilitarian way. He was definitely looking out for the good of many over the good of one individual. In this case, Wigand’s reputation and family was destroyed, but that didn’t convince Hewitt to allow the interview to be shown.
Deontologism maintains that the moral rightness or wrongness of an action depends on its intrinsic qualities, and not on the nature of its consequences. Deontological ethics holds that at least some acts are morally wrong in themselves (e.g., lying, breaking a promise, punishing the innocent, and murder). When someone is acting under deontological ethics, they make decisions based solely on their actions with no regard to the consequences. One problem with deontologism might be that, according to deontologists, it makes no sense to give up one’s place in the next world to save another life if it means having to lie.
When Lowell Bergman decided to give his story to the New York Times, he was acting according to deontologism. In doing so, he did what he thought was the right thing to do. He had previously given his word to Wigand that he would follow through and would help him until the end. Not concerned with the consequences of whether one or more people would be affected, he based his decision solely on the fact that the action was the right thing to do.
Ethically speaking, The Insider was packed full of examples of different philosophies at work. Relativism, egoism, utilitarianism, and deontologism were all shown. In fact, most disagreements or conflicts we face every day arise due to fundamental disagreements in the way people ethically perceive situations. When people practicing different ethic philosophies don’t agree on what is considered the right thing to do, it’s sometimes impossible to come to a resolution. This was definitely the case in the movie. Eventually, however, things worked out for Wigand and his story was told.