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Ethical Dilemmas in the “21” Movie Research Paper

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Updated: Nov 7th, 2020


The story of six MIT students who traveled to Las Vegas and won big by using their mathematical knowledge and exceptional memory has shaken the community. The movie “21” portrayed these students perfectly and posed several questions that can be perceived as ethical dilemmas. The main character of the story is involved in the plotline because he needs money. At the same time, even though one of the MIT teachers was the leader of the team, he did not practice either ethical decision-making or fair play.

He used to manipulate the students with exceptional abilities to pursue his own goals. The Professor’s students (including the main character of the movie) played 21 in one of Las Vegas casinos to win big. It all ended with the Professor landing behind bars because he went too far with his willingness to gain as much money as possible and did not pay attention to the interests and needs of his students.

Within the framework of this movie review, I will show that this kind of story can be accurately translated into an action movie such as “21,” and it should be perceived as a reasonable representation of the real-life academic environment at MIT, because ethical dilemmas arising from the manipulation of other people represented throughout the movie have been observed at MIT, and the movie provides us with an insight into what might happen when you are smart but tend to exploit other people for your benefit.

Ethical Issues

The social issue that will be discussed in this paper is the act of MIT teachers manipulating their students for their benefit. An in-depth analysis of the movie shows that three key ethical dilemmas are directly related to this particular social issue. All these dilemmas relate to the social layer, and each can be evaluated as a complex system that functions based on prearranged rules. The first ethical dilemma emerged from the fact that the Professor was only interested in his gain and did not care about the students whom he was successfully exploiting.

At the beginning of the movie, we mistakenly take his attitude for granted, but the development of the plot discloses the negative consequences of the Professor’s actions. Just like in real life, the university teacher was not interested in preserving the well-being of his students. This ethical dilemma escalated quickly, and it would be reasonable for the students to realize that they had been tricked. This is why the climax of the movie plot involves a situation where the students team up to put an end to the Professor’s schemes.

The first dilemma is also inextricably associated with a specific risk that relates to the pattern that allowed the Professor to pursue his business. In the case where any member of the team puts others in jeopardy, the participants should have left and ceased to commit criminal acts. They did not leave, however, and this provides the perfect rationale for punishing everyone involved in the scheme regardless of the students’ intentions.

The second ethical problem that may be debated within the framework of this discussion is the ability to utilize the resources and services provided by the university successfully. The hypothesis concerning the social background of the Professor’s manipulative abilities can be also supported by the Professor’s willingness to train the students under the guise of a study group. This ethical dilemma could have been facilitated by removing the interests of the wrongdoers from the university (Angle and Slote 15).

Also, none of the non-university approved events should have taken place on campus. This argument is of critical importance for the storyline of the movie as well because the issue of authoritative teachers that are used to get what they want by any means regardless of the consequences is vital just as much for the real MIT as it is for its fictional counterpart portrayed in the movie.

The third (and the most critical) ethical issue portrayed in the movie is how skillful manipulators tend to deal with their surroundings. For example, the Professor – he is shown as an authoritative personality who can influence other people and create opportunities for financial growth out of nowhere. In other words, the situations that may involve a direct connection between profit and illicit activity do not have to be perceived as a type of conquest.

Here, the social hypothesis can be supported by the idea that such a negative attitude towards the team may be seen as a powerful instrument in the hands of a manipulator who wants his “victims” to feel helpless. As for the movie, the Professor should have never turned his back on the team. Another ethical subtopic that can be identified here is the readiness of the members of the team to do what their manipulating leader tells them. This is essentially possible because not everyone can graduate from MIT or any other prestigious university effortlessly and it takes a lot of effort to go down this path and not fail while being involved in other activities.

Nevertheless, virtuous behavior is usually rewarded, and the situation may end on a positive note. In this case, the images of MIT students in the movie may differ significantly from their real-life counterparts. This can be explained by the fact that the students were not obliged to share sensitive information about the Professor outside the university (Keenan 63). Bearing this in mind, we can conclude that the whole team would look much better in the eyes of MIT if they shared the details of the case with the administration of the university and not a law enforcement agency.


Within the framework of this movie analysis, I was able to address both the educational and cinematic setting at MIT and portray the parallels between a real-world story and a fictional plotline. It may be concluded that the ability to intimidate and confuse people may be beneficial to an individual, but is still unethical. This is why the students were required to do the things they did not want to do throughout the initial plot development.

It is safe to say that in an ethically debatable situation, one should never take on the challenge. In the Gambling Capital of the World, you can be whoever you want – this is how the students who go from rags to riches in a split second get used to living, although it may trigger adverse consequences. Nonetheless, we should always remember that manipulating other people does not bear any positive connotations to the relationships with the surroundings and “21” perfectly supports this point of view.

This may also hint at the fact that MIT is exposed to several daily unethical decisions that are affected by the social contexts of manipulation and Machiavellian personalities that are willing to get what they want. Taking this into consideration, I would claim that the academic environment depicted in the movie reflects the real-life state of affairs at MIT reasonably well and provides the viewers with an in-depth insight into the deepest secrets of the smartest people.

Works Cited

Angle, Stephen C., and Michael Slote. Virtue Ethics and Confucianism. Routledge, 2013.

Keenan, James F. University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics. Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Ethical Dilemmas in the "21" Movie." November 7, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/ethical-dilemmas-in-the-21-movie/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Ethical Dilemmas in the "21" Movie'. 7 November.

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