Research Project Title

“What is the right thing to do?”: Understanding, Applying, and Evaluating Ethical Theories in Western Film

Session Type

Traditional Paper Presentation

Research Project Abstract

Across an expanse of Western films we see different ethical normative systems at play. At its heart, each film is concerned with the question, “What is the right thing to do?” Individual subjectivism simply will not do; it offers no realistic mode of ethical analysis. The nature of the American frontier requires a systematic moral approach for analysis—our characters and towns must adapt to, as Frederick Turner says, “the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life.” In Zinneman’s High Noon deontological ethics is the moral framework from which the Sheriff acts. But in Ray’s Johnny Guitar, we see a different moral framework dominate—society acts in accordance with Utilitarian principles at the expense of individuals. In Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Aristotelian virtue ethics are at play. By examining these films and more contemporary Westerns, this paper argues that virtue ethics offers the best moral framework from which to judge the actions of characters in Western films.

Session Number

RS5

Location

Weyerhaeuser 203

Abstract Number

RS5-c

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Apr 28th, 11:00 AM Apr 28th, 12:30 PM

“What is the right thing to do?”: Understanding, Applying, and Evaluating Ethical Theories in Western Film

Weyerhaeuser 203

Across an expanse of Western films we see different ethical normative systems at play. At its heart, each film is concerned with the question, “What is the right thing to do?” Individual subjectivism simply will not do; it offers no realistic mode of ethical analysis. The nature of the American frontier requires a systematic moral approach for analysis—our characters and towns must adapt to, as Frederick Turner says, “the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life.” In Zinneman’s High Noon deontological ethics is the moral framework from which the Sheriff acts. But in Ray’s Johnny Guitar, we see a different moral framework dominate—society acts in accordance with Utilitarian principles at the expense of individuals. In Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Aristotelian virtue ethics are at play. By examining these films and more contemporary Westerns, this paper argues that virtue ethics offers the best moral framework from which to judge the actions of characters in Western films.