A trolley barrels down train tracks. Near the end, you see that it’s set to hit 2 people tied to the tracks, a young man and his wife. You stand by a switch, which can change the tracks and divert the train eastward. However, on those tracks is a young boy whose shoe laces are stuck under the rails. What do you do? You can do nothing and watch the train kill the couple, or take action and watch the train kill a young boy.
A classic modern philosophy thought experiment, the trolley problem highlights consequentialist reasoning (as well as other types of thought such as Utilitarianism, etc.). Do the ends justify the means? Does saving one life (by a net calculation) allow you to take an action that ends another? In more subtle and nuanced situations, can the ends justify the actions that must be taken to achieve them? While I think they cannot, consequentialism is a problem ever present in modern philosophy and in film.
In this list, I present 15 great films by 15 great filmmakers. What films would you add to the list and, more importantly, do the ends justify the means?
1. Gone Baby Gone (2007)
An absolute masterpiece by Ben Affleck, Gone Baby Gone is a disturbing tale of child abduction that takes place in troubled Boston. The film follows two detectives, Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), as they search for a missing child.
Through a series of dramatic twists, the film takes them places the audience cannot expect and viewers to realize that the abductor is not who one would expect.
Throughout the film, Patrick is faced with a series of tough dilemmas, and he doesn’t always choose the right action. When facing a pedophile, he makes a mistake that cripples him emotionally, causing him existential crises as he weighs his “ends-justify-the-means” action against the teachings of his priest.
Crushed with regret and guilt, he later faces a similar decision with more immediate consequences. Should he focus on those consequences, or should he take the moral highroad?
2. The Sea Inside (2004)
Based on a true story, The Sea Inside is a film that deals with what is a real case of consequentialist reasoning: that of assisted suicide. The film is a gripping struggle that opens as Ramon Sampedro (Javier Bardem) begins a legal process for his right to die. Having lived for 30 years as a quadriplegic, Ramon believes that it is permissible for him to want to die and that the state should be willing to help him end his life.
Juxtaposed against Ramon is his brother Manuela (Mabel Rivera) and a similarly paralyzed Catholic priest Padre Fransisco (Josep Maria Pou). Both believe Ramon ought continue to live his life. Not only do they think it would be immoral to aid in his death for any individual, but they also believe that life is a gift that ought to be used as fully as possible.
The film explores this tension and Ramon’s efforts to use his friends and lovers to help him bring about his end by any means necessary.
3. The Conversation (1974)
A lesser known but equally excellent Francis Ford Coppola film, The Conversation follows Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) as he faces one of the most serious moral dilemmas of his life. Harry is a surveillance expert that runs his own surveillance business in San Francisco.
Perhaps because of the nature of his job, he leads a private but devout life until he is asked to record a conversation of a young couple. The conversation he records includes a number of concerning lines, including “he’d kill us if he got the chance”, and thus Harry believes he is aiding in a murder.
What follows is thus a tricky moral situation. Harry tries to stall and becomes even downright uncooperative, but he also fears losing his reputation as the best guy in surveillance. While the plot may not play out exactly as one might expect, it does include several complicated and just “sticky” situations for Harry dealing with his compliancy and talents.
4. The Ides of March (2011)
What field requires an ends-justify-the-means approach on an almost daily basis? If you guessed politics, you’re as cynical as I am, and you’d enjoy The Ides of March as it critiques the political process and our public figures. Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) and his staffer Stephen Meyer (Ryan Gosling) set out to claim the White House. Of course, things never go as planned in a campaign, and it’s discovered that the Governor has been involved in several activities.
Stephen, a younger idealist, is thus faced with several decisions. Can he continue to support someone he knows is dirty and doesn’t live up to the principles he preaches? Can he support someone willing to bend his platform and goals in order to achieve the ultimate goal of becoming President? Stephen is different than most in Washington, in that he is at least aware of the facts and uncomfortable with them. What follows is a series of dangerous and complicated decisions, as he tries to do what he thinks is right.
5. Pickpocket (1969)
This Bresson film follows Michel (Martin LaSalle) as he wanders around stealing money from unsuspecting citizens. First caught at a racetrack, he is released and ultimately joins a group of professional pickpocketers. At first, he is pickpocketer because it is easy and fun. He enjoys the challenge and fares well, for the most part. Near the end of the film, after some deaths in his family, Michel must resort to pickpocketing to support a friend that he later falls in love with.
Throughout the film, Bresson casts aspersions on pickpocketing, but never offers a very explicit decree. I liken the film to Bicycle Thieves, in which we see that pickpocketing can lead to a sad existence at best, and the film has that sort of feel. Obviously Bresson is not condoning consequentialism, but is rather begging his viewers to decide what they think.
6. Raising Arizona (1987)
A hilarious Coen brother’s classic, Raising Arizona follows H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) and Edwina McDunnough (Holly Hunter) as they seek to fulfill their telos and have a child. Biologically inhibited and legally prevented from adoption, H.I. decides to abduct a child after seeing that quintuplets were born to a wealthy small business owner nearby.
While not a direct commentary on consequentialism, Raising Arizona is a nuanced and subtle philosophical comedy (as many Coen classics are) that deals with some of the same issues Gone Baby Gone struggles with. Not only does life with a hostage prove complicated and difficult, but it also is unethical and H.I. and Edwina must try to decide what is just.
7. Training Day (2001)
A classic tale of a corrupt cop, Training Day follows Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) on his first day on the force. He is to be trained by rogue cop Detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington). Having joined the force expecting to live out the ideals he believes the police department upholds, Jake is a bit shocked by what he sees. Alonzo works for criminals, lies, does drugs and other illegal activities, and is seemingly uninterested in helping those in his community.
Training Day isn’t missing the other classic element of cop films—cops don’t appreciate it when you rat them out or rebel against them, and it proves this. And so, Jake finds himself faced with the toughest decision of all: should he do what he believes to be just, or should he risk his life trying to take down a veteran cop and his network of villainous colleagues?