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This essay discusses the ethical themes involved in the 2017 film, Baby Driver. The film narrates the life of the protagonist Baby, who aids his partners in heisting. Baby wishes to leave this life of crime and the film chronicles the events as they unfold around Baby’s seeking to leave his criminal life as a getaway driver behind him after he meets and falls in love with Debora. Ethical themes involved in this film that are a part of the discussion in this essay are related to individual moral transition, impact of personal relationships on decision making, and whether a person can achieve moral redemption for their sins by adopting good deeds. This essay uses ethical perspectives of ethical egoism, utilitarianism, and Ethics of Duty to discuss how the ethical themes develop in this film.
Ethical egoism is a perspective that is an exception to the common sense view of balancing our interests with the interests of others; ethical egoism does this by positing the view that morality does not always require that we place the interests of others before our own while a more common sense approach requires that we balance our own interests with those of others (Rachels 2012). The standard moral principle that we generally observe is not just to put our interests before the interests of the others but to balance them with the interests of the others (Rachels 2012). However, when we are applying an ethical egoistic perspective to a situation, we are not to be faulted for attending to our own basic needs (Rachels 2012). An ethical worldview that is guided by the ethical egoism approach would be therefore concerned with their own interests and would seek to protect their interests when in conflict with the others’ interests. This may seem to be a different choice from a moral worldview that requires that we consider the needs of the others where such needs are important and at times consider the interests of others when such interests may be deemed to be important in the given context. The question is whether the ethical egoism theory can be used to support or criticise Baby’s decision making and actions in the film.
As noted by Rachels (2012), “ethical egoism is the idea that each person ought to pursue his or her own self-interest exclusively” (p. 194). This is based on three arguments: first, that as we are only intimately familiar with our own individual wants and needs and not familiar with the wants and needs of others, we are uniquely placed only to pursue our wants and needs effectively; second, that an altruistic worldview is destructive because it is based on the premise that an individual’s concern is not how to live their life, but how to sacrifice it; and third, it is not against common sense that we pay heed to our self-interest but part of a common sense approach to do so (Rachels 2012).
Considered from the perspective of the ethical egoism approach, Baby’s actions can be justified to a great extent because his criminal acts were only done under duress because he is under a debt to Doc who is actually the mastermind of the heists. It is clear that had Baby not been under pressure to do so, he would not have participated in these heists as a getaway driver. In this situation, Baby is faced with a dilemma, which is, whether to agree to become a getaway driver or to face the negative fallout of not agreeing to Doc’s demands and be harmed because of it. Baby chooses to take what would appear to be an ethical egoistic approach to avoiding harm and catering to his self-interest under these circumstances. It is important that Baby does not continue with this criminal life after his debt is completed and turns to delivering pizza. This means that now that his life is not under threat anymore, he chooses not to harm others and not to commit crimes.
The next dilemma that Baby faces is when Doc threatens to hurt Debora and Joseph unless he joins a post-office heist. Here, Baby chooses to aid in the heist because if he does not do so, there is a possibility for harm to Deborah and Joseph. We can say that Baby applies a utilitarianism approach to make his decision at this point because it may appear to him avoidance of a greater evil (harm to two people’s lives) if he does not do as is asked of him. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist approach and the decision maker applies this approach by considering the good and bad consequences of the available decisions for stakeholders (Gustafson, 2013). Baby applies utilitarianism here because he is making a decision based on the consequences: if he chooses not to do what Doc is asking him to do, the latter may hurt or even kill Deborah and Joseph, and if he chooses to do what is being asked of him, he is aiding in a robbery. Saving the life of two human beings may be considered here to be of greater utilitarian value than the harm done by robbery.
Ethics of Duty approach which is based on Kant’s Duty Ethics, takes a different approach from utilitarianism and is premised on the idea that the right action is one that leads to the fulfilment of duty (Thiroux & Krasemann, 2012). Duty Ethics is based on the Categorical Imperative, and it posits that morality is not experiential but is inherently so. In the film, Baby can be said to be going against duty based ethics on a number of times. For example, duty based ethics will not justify some of the actions of Baby in the film even when other ethical perspectives may justify these actions. This includes the action that is justified by ethical egoism, which is, that Baby is forced to undertake criminal acts to pay of his debt, or an action that is justified by utilitarianism, which is that Baby decides to aid post office heist because the lives of Debora and Joseph are in danger. Duty based ethics would not justify a decision unless the decision is inherently moral. At the same time, there are some actions taken by Baby which can be said to be as per duty based ethics. For example, Baby gives a warning to an employee of the heist he is about to be a part of. In one scene of the film, he gives an old lady her purse back after he steals her car. Similarly, when Baby is trying to escape from police and realises that there is no way out, he chooses to hand himself in to the police and face criminal prosecution rather than expose Debora to any legal repercussions. This indicates once again a use of a duty based perspective on the part of Baby where he chooses to do what he thinks is inherently right, that is, protect an innocent Debora, rather than doing what consequentially be more to his own benefit. Here, Baby is not even choosing an ethical egoism approach because he is choosing Debora’s interests over his own. Thus, duty based ethics at times provides Baby with the justifications for some of his decisions even when these are not in his own interest.
Based on the ways in which different ethical perspectives are a part of this film and can be used to justify Baby’s actions, it cannot be said that any one approach is particularly superior to another. In some cases, a duty based approach may provide Baby with a solution to a dilemma and in other places, an ethical egoism approach and utilitarianism may provide Baby with a solution to a dilemma. It could however be said that in some situations a duty based approach may not be particularly realistic. For example, if Baby were to refuse to do the post office heist even if it means that Debora and Joseph are killed or harmed in some other way, it cannot be realistic to refuse to participate in the heist simply because it is inherently wrong to steal. Indeed, the duty based approach may prove to be unrealistic in many such instances in the film and Baby would be able to find a more realistic solution in utilitarian or even ethical egoism.
Baby Driver does display the value of considering ethical dilemmas through the lens of an ethical theory. By applying different ethical theories to different parts of the film, it becomes demonstrable that ethical dilemmas can be resolved or solution to these dilemmas may be found by applying ethical theories. Using a film as a setting where different dilemmas arise for some of the characters in the film, provides opportunities to consider how ethical theories provide ways to address dilemma. Similar dilemmas can arise in real life, or the application of ethical perspectives to dilemmas in films may provide individuals with the insight on how theories can be applied, and dilemmas resolved in such cases.
Gustafson, Andrew. 2013. "In Defense of a Utilitarian Business Ethic." Business and Society Review 118 (3): 325-360.
Rachels, James. 2012. "Ethical egoism." Ethical theory: an anthology 14 : 193.
Thiroux, J., and K. Krasemann. 2012. Ethics Theory and Practice. 11. New York, NY: Pearson-Prentice Hall.
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