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The film Boomerang directed by Elia Kazan illustrates a serious moral dilemma when a person has to choose between ambitions and, career on the one hand, and one’s ethical integrity, on the other.
The main character State’s Attorney Henry Harvey has to make a choice that may alienate him from many of his friends and even ruin his career, but he is adamant in his decision to defend a person who can be unjustly convicted. This dilemma and the main actions of the main character can be discussed from several perspectives, for instance, one can mention, the ethics of David Hume and the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant.
Overall, it is possible to say that the actions of the protagonists could be driven by his willingness to preserve his personal integrity and his sense of justice. These were the most crucial factors that affected his decisions. The following sections will discuss this argument in more detail.
Analysis of the dilemma from a Humean perspective
The ideas of David Hume can be applied to the situation that Henry Harvey faces. The cornerstone of Hume’s ethics is the idea that reason cannot be the main driver of a person’s moral choices (Hume as cited in Brick 11).
In his view, the moral worth of an action is not determined rationally. It is derived primarily from feelings and emotions of a person who takes a decision. Henry Harvey has to make a moral choice in very difficult circumstances. First, he is pressured by the increasing public outrage and discontent with the work of a policy.
Moreover, the protagonist represents the new political administration of the city, and these people urge him to close Waldron’s case as quickly as possible. Yet, at the same time, he is strongly affected by his inner sense of justice and the feeling that John Waldron deserves justice and proper investigation of his case. He might have agreed with the results of the investigation, but it was very difficult for him to suppress the voice of his conscience.
The main characters actions can be better explained by David Hume’s argument according to which “reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will; and secondly it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will” (Hume as cited in Brick 11). To a large extent, Harvey’s actions support this argument. If he had approached this case in a rational and self-interested way, he might have convicted the suspect without trying to find evidence in his defense.
One should remember that no one prompted him to take initiative and undertake one’s own investigation. One should note that Hume does not deny the importance of reason because it helps people to analyze information, but rationality is not the main criterion of people’s decisions. So, in many ways, Harvey made such a choice because he did not want to suffer from qualms of conscience.
One can argue that David Hume’s ethical theory provides a very likely explanation of Henry Harvey’s actions. However, this theory implies that such a dilemma cannot be resolved objectively. As it has been said the main criterion is the feelings of the main character. On the whole, Humean moral philosophy does not describe the ways and principals of resolving such dilemmas. This is the major limitation of this framework.
Kant’s views on ethics differ dramatically for those one of Hume. From his point of view, reason cannot be reduced to the role of a slave as it is done by Hume. According to Kant’s ethical theory, while evaluating the moral worth of an action, a person should think of what would happen if everyone acted in such a way (Kant and Paton, 24).
Thus, the morality or immorality of an action can be determined it is made universal. It is rather difficult to determine whether the protagonist’s behavior and principles should become universal. On the one hand, such actions can prevent many innocent people from being sentenced unjustly, but at the same time, such actions of State’s Attorneys can give a loophole to many criminals. This is why Kant’s imperatives are not quite applicable to the situation in which Harvey found himself.
The thing is that not every prosecutor tries to discredit the evidence that can convict a suspect, and these people do not always have qualms about the outcomes of their actions. The film does not say if the protagonist assessed his actions in such a way. Most likely, he attached greater importance to his feelings about his actions.
An important component of Kantian moral philosophy is the motive that prompts a person to act in a certain way. According to Immanuel Kant, the action should not be evaluated according to its consequences; more likely a person has to focus on the reasons why he or she acted in a certain way.
In terms of Kantian ethics, Henry Harvey’s decision can be truly moral only if it was motivated by duty toward another person, namely John Waldron or community in general. In part, Harvey’s decision could stem from the idea that the role of a state’s attorney is to bring justice, but not only to punish a criminal. Overall, it was a very courageous and unconventional decision. Thus, his decision could have been motivated by duty.
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Nevertheless, one cannot deny the possibility the main character acted in such a way only to appease his conscience. In other words, he understood that by convicting Waldron unjustly, he would have sentenced himself to qualms of conscience. Hence, to some degree, his actions can be explained by self-interest, but one cannot say that they were unethical. Therefore, one can argue that Kantian moral philosophy cannot fully assess the motives and morality of Harvey’s decisions.
The discussion indicates that Henry Harvey’s moral choice could be driven by his innate sense of justice and duty toward another person. Yet, at the same time, he could defend Waldron because he did not want to suffer from the crisis of conscience. Overall, David Hume’s moral philosophy provides a more convincing explanation of Henry Harvey’s decisions. In turn, Immanuel Kant’s ethics can help a person evaluate the moral worth of an action.
By applying the ideas of this philosopher, one can better understand the motives of a person. However, this theory is not fully applicable to the dilemma of the protagonist. The thing is that it is not quite clear whether Harvey acted out of duty or out of self-interest, but in any case, he took an ethical and courageous decision.
Boomerang. Dir. Elia Kazan Twentieth Century Fox, 1947. Film.
Brick, John. Mind and morality: an examination of Hume’s moral psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.
Kant, Immanuel and Paton, James. The moral law: groundwork of the metaphysic of morals. London: Routledge, 2005. Print.